Key player

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

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At home we have a set of those matryoshka dolls that make up a nativity scene, and our 20-month-old has discovered they nest almost as perfectly in his hands as they do within each other. He can twist the smaller dolls open and fit them back together, one-by-one. That’s the genius of matryoshka dolls. They’re like a puzzle and a figurine at the same time. It’s really cute because he’ll walk around the house and show you who Joseph is, who he calls “Doh,” and which one is Mary, and which one is the baby.

Unfortunately sometime this week the bottom of Mary went missing, and it has thrown our house into upheaval. We have turned the place up and down and I know it sounds funny and maybe borderline sacrilegious, but we can’t find Mary’s bottom. No matter how we say it when we’re looking for it, it sounds weird: the bottom of Mary. Mary’s lower half. The rest of Mary.

Whatever the case, we’ve discovered that’s the downfall of the matryoshka system. Each figurine has two different components to keep up with and when even one of those is missing, the whole set doesn’t fit together like it’s designed to. Mary is kind of a key player in the Christmas story, if you know what I mean. You have to have Mary for it to fit together and make sense. Thus the upheaval. We’re still searching.

You could say the same for John the Baptist, even though I’ve never actually seen a nativity set containing a little John the Baptist. But here he is, every Advent, on about the second week, right when we’re ready to sing Christmas carols, shouting at us with his camel hair and locusts. If you glance through our hymnal, John is referenced or directly mentioned in about half of the hymns in the Advent section. John the Baptist is and has always been a key player of our celebrations and devotions at this time of year because John is the precursor to Jesus. John is crucial not just because, as Jesus’ cousin, his own birth was miraculous and timed just before Jesus’, but because in every story of Jesus that we have, John comes along announcing Jesus.

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All of the early Christians and people of faith and even Jesus himself saw John the Baptist—or John the baptizer, as Mark calls him this morning— as the bridge between the prophets of Israel’s past and the present ways God’s kingdom was breaking into their midst through Jesus. He is Jesus’ same age, but his preaching is taken from Isaiah and some of the other ancient prophets. John’s role seems to be primarily to get the world ready to receive Jesus, to wake us up, to prepare the way for the Lord. He shakes things up, gets people talking and coming out into the wilderness at the River Jordan to begin again. Since preparing to receive Jesus does not just mean replaying his birth story over and over, perhaps playing with the little dolls and marveling at how they fit snugly together, John the baptizer becomes the perfect person to help us do what is necessary to make room for Christ in our lives now.

There are many ways that process of preparation takes shape, and as I spent a while at church yesterday morning, I realized that many of you are excellent models of this. It was fascinating to walk among you as you were all involved in essentially some form of preparation. Before I even parked my car, for example, I noticed that a couple of men were trying to remove several rather large tree branches that had fallen under the weight of snow into the driveway. They had already loaded one branch into the back of a pickup truck and were hitching another larger branch to the back so they could haul it out of the way.

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John the baptizer might tell us that an essential part of preparing the way of the Lord in your life and in the world is removing things that are in the way. Now, I know sometimes it’s hard to decide what’s actually in the way, but sometimes it’s obvious, and it’s surprising how long we’re just content to let it stay there. Often it remains until something out of the ordinary happens to us and it comes crashing down.  Preparing for Jesus involves cutting back and hauling away things that weigh us down in our walk of faith, places in our lives that aren’t productive anymore. Perhaps it’s the unnecessary dependency on a relationship or a habit we’ve developed. Maybe it’s moving overgrown routines around so we can experience life a little differently.

Isaiah, whom the Baptizer quotes, says that every valley will be lifted up and the mountains made low, the rough places made plain. This is serious earth-moving here that God calls us to do: dismantling the obstacles to faith active in love that prevent the world from perceiving Christ’s presence among us. It’s work out in the world. It gets us sweaty and dirty sometimes, causes discomfort. But in the end it is rewarding.

As I actually came into the church building, I happened upon the HHOPE pantry volunteers who were setting up their tables and bags of food for their distribution day. Our HHOPE ministry has a very well-rehearsed and well-run system for greeting guests, getting them registered, and giving them their food. Their system actually begins the night before when a group of volunteers meets to divide food into bags and set them out for easy access. Then on Saturday morning more tables are set up with additional items and people stand ready to receive whoever comes. There are youth here, adults, sometimes even younger children: they all have a role to play and a job to do.

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HHOPE Pantry volunteers, ready to serve

John the baptizer might tell us that part of preparing to receive the good news of Jesus involves serving. It involves putting ourselves at the foot of our neighbor in need. When we do that, when we make ourselves available to the brokenness of the world, we see more clearly the brokenness that Jesus comes to address. Serving helps us place our self-centeredness to the side, which is an important and life-giving thing to do in this individualistic and narcissistic era.

We realize we can be an important part of the comfort that God announces to his people through the prophet Isaiah. At one point Isaiah even says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” Literally feeding those in our community and receiving them in our church building is a reminder of the kind of Savior John the baptizer announces and prepares the world to receive. How can you make feeding other people—serving them, carrying them in your bosom—a part of your journey of faith, not just at Advent time but throughout the year?

I left the HHOPE volunteers and came upon Ms. Cheryl, our Faith Formation Director. She was in the hall, going through our old costumes closet and trying to get props and clothing ready for the children’s Christmas program today. She had the behind-the-scenes task of matching what we had to what was needed There are types of preparing like that which are more hidden, less glamourous, but just as important. They involve taking stock of what’s in one’s life, reflecting on its usefulness and bringing it to the front.

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This is an essential part of repentance, which is the core of John’s preaching. To repent doesn’t just mean saying sorry. It is more like a change of mind, or a turning around, seeing things for what they really are, going in a new direction. The new life that Jesus brings will take deeper root and wash over us more fully when we’ve taken the time to turn around and face it, to stand ready to receive it. Just like Cheryl had to stand there and go through the costumes and props and creatively think about how they could be used, part of preparing for Jesus means consciously thinking about which parts of my life can be pressed into service for Christ’s kingdom. Are there gifts or talents, certain stories you’ve pushed to the back of the storage closet that can actually be brought out to let God’s light shine on it? This can prepare the way for Christ to enter your life and someone else’s.

The final place I came to yesterday was the sanctuary where Kevin, Alice, Donna, and Scott were all helping the children prepare for their Christmas program today. I didn’t want to stay too long and distract them from what they were doing, but as you can imagine, they were running through their lines, singing the songs, and learning the moves and stage directions. They were working hard because they want to get things right for the final show. They want to tell the story well. The prophet Isaiah says that part of preparing is announcing good tidings. “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem…do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” What the kids taught me yesterday is that a vital part of preparing for Jesus is knowing the story. Part of making things ready for Christ means refreshing ourselves with Scripture, God’s story…learning how it goes, that it is good news that Jesus comes to us.

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rehearsing for “The King and Me”

That, in fact, is how Mark begins his whole account of Jesus. “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is good news that he comes to remove the sin that gets in the way. It is good news that he comes to feed us and serve us like a shepherd cares for the sheep. It is good news that our God comes and gives us chances to turn around, to repent, and have a new direction.

And so we prepare by telling and re-telling the story, rehearsing our lines of witness, to remember that we are heralds of good tidings. We remember that in a world that often likes to imagine God as vengeful and angry we know one who speaks “Comfort, comfort O my people.” We tell of this more powerful one who comes after John so we can remind ourselves of just what this power looks like. When this God carries us in his bosom, he carries us on the cross,  in his very body. Our Savior comes not to bear arms, but to bear all our burdens, all our fears, all the ways we don’t feel we fit together inside by handing over his life.

That’s the reason why John the baptizer is so central, such a key player, why the matryoshka doll of the whole Jesus story isn’t complete without him. He helps us bridge an important understanding: that is, the way we prepare is for the Lord. It is his road and he comes on it, not us. But the preparing does something for us, too. From the top of the high mountains to the bottom of the low valleys, it does something for us, all in God’s grace. Or, you might say: right from the top all the way to the bottom…even if you can’t find it.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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