According to Proverbs you should keep an eye on nature, because you can learn important life lessons. So if you can learn from the ants, what about the squirrels that are always running around my backyard?
Our family enjoys watching the ever-fatter squirrels scurrying across our deck and yard carrying nuts and seeds in their mouths. While I’m not thrilled with their attempts to plant trees in the lawn, I understand why they do this, and the show does keep us entertained. As enjoyable as the show is, what lesson might we learn from their behavior? Is it the fact that they seem to know instinctively how to prepare for the winter long before the first snow begins to fall? It’s just built into their systems. They don’t seem to need any training to know that they need to fatten up in the good times and to store up supplies for the winter. After all, they can’t drive to the grocery store if the fridge gets empty.
We humans are different. We’re not nearly as instinctive as the squirrels, and so we need to be trained if we’re going to be prepared for life. And the time of training seems to be getting longer over time! One place we can probably learn how to prepare for life is through the various Scouting programs. Now, I can’t say I was a very good Boy Scout – I was just a Second Class Scout after all – but I do remember the Boy Scout Motto: "Be Prepared." There are those in the room – the Eagle Scouts among us – who understand this principle much better than me, but as I remember it, a good Scout knows that you have to be prepared for whatever life throws at you. So, armed with a Boy Scout knife, sufficient food and water, a first aid kit, and appropriate clothing, you should be okay! And those who don’t learn the lesson – well things may not go well for them!
Of course we could all tell “preparation” stories. For example, if you want to do well on an exam, you might want to study for it. Don’t do as I did on the eve of the SAT’s and stay out late having a good time with friends. You might not get the desired scores you want. And if you’re going to throw a party at your house, you might want to make sure that everything is planned and ready well in advance. Oh, and if you’re going to have an event at the church that requires the involvement of the Fellowship Department, don’t wait till the last minute to inform them! That doesn’t make for happy campers!
This idea of being prepared is a major part of the Advent season. In our text this morning we hear a word about preparing to welcome the one who brings to the world the baptism of the Holy Spirit, through which God brings to an end this broken age and establishes God’s realm, where justice and mercy and divine love are the defining principles of life. Of course, none of this comes naturally. It takes the Spirit, but according to Mark God has sent a messenger into the world to help us prepare for the coming of this new realm of God, which is initiated by Jesus and continued after his death and resurrection through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t begin his story with Jesus’ birth. Instead, he starts with John the Baptist calling on the people of Judea and Jerusalem to change their hearts and lives, so that God might forgive them. This act of repentance is symbolized in the act of baptism, which is understood to wash away the sins of the people. But even as he preaches this message and baptizes all who come to him seeking God’s forgiveness, he also tells the people that there is one who is to come, whose sandals he’s unworthy of tying, who will baptize them not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.
John may be a crazy looking prophet, who looks a lot like one of those street preachers who stand on the corner and yells at us as we walk by, telling us we need to repent or we’ll go to hell, and who eats food that only Andrew Zimmern would enjoy, but his is the voice that calls us to prepare ourselves for the coming of God’s reign on earth.
In telling the story of John’s ministry, Mark reaches back to the words of a prophet who lived and preached to a people living in exile. This prophet, whose words come to us through the book of Isaiah, sought to prepare a people who seem to have lost hope that they’d ever return home, that the day of their salvation was close at hand. This prophet came to them as a voice crying in the wilderness, proclaiming: "Prepare the Way of the Lord." If you read Isaiah 40 you hear the prophet offer words of comfort and forgiveness, even as he calls for repentance. The prophet also speaks of God’s faithfulness. He says:
“The grass dries up; the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever” (vs. 8 CEB).
The prophet says that even if our friends and family, our nation and community, fail us, even as the grass dries up and the flowers wither when the hot dry winds blow, God will not fail us. When God speaks we can take comfort and confidence that God will be true to God’s promises. These words of forgiveness and comfort would have been welcome news to this people living in exile. The word they heard was simple – begin to prepare yourselves to go home. Get packing, because the day of your restoration is at hand!
Now John is a man of the desert, a person from the margins. He’s not the sort of person we would expect to be a successful preacher, but God chooses to speak to us through him. And according to Mark, everyone in Judea and Jerusalem went to the Jordan to be baptized. This was a revival like no other. But it wasn’t the final word, because John’s ministry is one of preparation. In time he gives way to another – Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. But, interestingly enough, before Jesus takes up this ministry, he submits himself to John to be baptized. And as he does this, Jesus receives confirmation of his calling to bring into existence the new realm of God. As you hear this story of John’s ministry, what do you hear it saying to you? In what ways will you prepare yourself for the transforming nature of God’s realm? And if you’re going to put Christ into Christmas, what will be required of you?
As Fred Craddock puts it:
Advent Pilgrims on the way to the Manger must pass through the desert where John is preaching. [Preaching Through the Christian Year, B p. 13]
In the biblical story the desert is often a place of transformation. It was true for John, for Moses, for Israel, for Elijah, for Jesus, and even for Paul. What is the desert for you? And as you enter this desert what message do you hear God speaking to you through John? What is it that needs to be laid aside so that God might be encountered in the journey we’re taking toward Christmas?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 4, 2011
2nd Sunday of Advent