Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (December 7, 2008)
“Prepare” (Mark 1:1-8)

The last two weeks have seen many preparations around town. Christmas decorations have been going up in stores, on street lamps, and sidewalks. Lights and greens are hung. Trees are getting bought or cut and carefully adorned with ornaments and garland.

John the Baptist came to make some preparations. Not to put up pretty decorations. His job was to “prepare the way for the Lord,” to “make his paths straight.” His call as a prophet was to clear away any obstacles which were in the way of meeting the Savior.

Do you have anything getting in your way, taking you off of the “straight path” of faith in the Savior? If there is, it might block your joy of celebrating His first Advent this Christmas. It will certainly keep you from being prepared for His second Advent on the Last Day. Either way, each one of has a sinful heart that keeps us off the “straight path.” You and I need to hear John the Baptist’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John was a strange sight to behold, with his camel-hair suit and leather belt. We also know from Scripture that John was a “Nazirite,” one who had taken a vow of dedication to the Lord. Part of that vow was never cutting your hair. John must have been a pretty wooly fellow.

John dressed humbly, lived humbly, and ate humbly. But his appearance was much more than a lesson in humility. It was a fulfillment of prophecy. Malachi foretold that the prophet Elijah would come and be the forerunner of the Messiah (Mal. 4:5). John dressed the same way that Elijah did (2 Kings 1:8). Jesus later said that John was “Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14) John is the prophet who came to bridge the gap between the Old and New Testaments. His odd clothing was one way of showing that he was the one Malachi was talking about.

John preached out in the desert, out in the wilderness. This, too, was a fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah said, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” The barren wilderness was a reminder of the wilderness in which Israel journeyed for 40 years after they left Egypt. There were obstacles and hindrances along the way before they reached the Promised Land. And their primary obstacle was their stubborn hearts that disobeyed God. Still, in his grace, God prepared a way for them through the wilderness. He gave them bread from heaven and water from a rock. He gave them His gracious presence in the tabernacle. He provided the sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. And He Himself led them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

When John came on the scene, God once again took the people out to the wilderness. There, they were away from their ordinary occupations and concerns of life. It gave them the opportunity to focus more on their spiritual condition and to hear the saving message of John.

John’s message was “Prepare the way of the Lord! Get rid of the obstacles and hindrances in your life and heart that will keep you from welcoming the Savior who is to come.” He called the people to repentance. Repentance literally means “to change your mind.” In repentance, we recognize our sinful condition and the actions that proceed from our sinful hearts, and we turn away from that sin and turn toward the Lord. The people who came out to the wilderness confessed their sins, were baptized, and they received the forgiveness of sins.

John’s message also stressed his utter unworthiness in comparison to Jesus. He declared that he was not even worthy to stoop down and untie Jesus’ sandals. That would have been a slave’s job, and John said that he wasn’t even worthy do that. That was because the One to come is God’s One and Only Son. Even the lowest of tasks is not low enough for a lowly sinner to give to God.

You and I can prepare today in our Advent worship and devotion by hearing the message of the Baptist. Advent is a good time for us to “go out into the wilderness,” so to speak. It’s a good time for us to take some time out from our occupations and interests so that we, too, might fix our minds and hearts on our spiritual condition and the salvation that Jesus came to bring.

The truth is, we are already walking in a wilderness. There are obstacles, hindrances, and temptations all around us. Some come from outside of us. Some come from inside, from our sinful nature. And by nature we are unrepentant and unfaithful.

What obstacles and hindrances are you dealing with? Family problems, a heavy burden, the discouraging rat race? Or maybe it’s something else ... something hidden -- sinful desires, a covetous heart, cheating on the job or at school, bitterness or hatred toward someone, a secret shame.

The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh plague us and block our way to a repentant, faithful, joyful celebration of Christmas and a repentant, faithful, and hopeful expectation of Christ’s Second Coming.

And so, the Baptist’s message is for us today, too. Although he first preached to and baptized the Jews who came to him from all the region of Jerusalem and Judea, he is also still preaching to us baptized Gentiles who come from all the region of Marysville, Everett, Arlington, Stanwood, Granite Falls, Lake Stevens, and through us to those who have not yet come to know Christ as their Savior.

You and I are God’s baptized children, baptized with water and the Spirit, and forgiven in Christ. The Jews who came out to John and were baptized looked forward to the coming of the Savior ... we look back to the Savior who has come and who completed His work of redemption at the cross. There, at the cross, Jesus died and paid the price for our sins. Having risen from the dead, Jesus gave his Spirit without measure to the Church on the day of Pentecost. And our Lord Jesus still gives the Spirit without measure to all baptized believers. There is no need to go looking for any additional so-called “baptism in the Spirit.” It all happens right there ... at the font, where the Holy Spirit comes through water and the Word.

Now we can live daily lives of confession and repentance. We can recognize our sinful condition. We can repent. We can turn from our sinful ways, turn back to the Lord, and in faith receive His full and free forgiveness, won by our Lord Jesus at the cross. We can daily acknowledge our utter unworthiness, admitting that “I am not even worthy to stoop down and untie” His sandals, yet at the same time receiving God’s immense grace. Jesus is the one who “prepare[d] the way” for us. Jesus, God’s only-begotten Son, made a straight path into this world when he was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary. Jesus came to be present with us. Jesus is “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Jesus came to be the sacrifice that bridged the gap between our unworthiness and God’s holiness. In Christ, God made a straight path to us, rescuing us and restoring His relationship with fallen humanity.

One verse from our text we still haven’t mentioned. It’s the very first verse of the Gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark’s Gospel does not include an account of the birth of Jesus. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t know about it. Under inspiration of the Spirit, He saw fit not to include it. And if you really want to argue the point, the Gospel didn’t really begin with the birth of Jesus. It began all the way back in Genesis, when God first promised a Savior to Adam and Eve after they had fallen into sin and brought sin and death to all of us.

Instead of starting with the birth of Jesus, Mark starts with John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for the public ministry of Jesus Christ. It’s the beginning of the public pronouncement of the Good News of salvation through Jesus, the beginning of His march towards the cross where He saved us.

But it’s only the beginning, because the Gospel continued in the book of Acts. Jesus continued His ministry among the Apostles and the Church through the Holy Spirit. And the Gospel continues in us today, too, as God works in us through His Word of Law and Gospel, bringing us to repentance. God does this out of His never-failing love. “The Lord … is patient toward you,” St. Peter declares, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9) Then, through Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit works in us so that we can live “lives of holiness and godliness” (2 Pet. 3:11) while look forward to the day when Jesus returns in glory. (2 Pet. 3:14 NIV)

So hear the message of John the Baptist today and “Prepare!” Prepare by confessing whatever you are allowing to be an obstacle in your relationship with God. Prepare by hearing His Word, so that it might break through the barriers to faith that are in your heart. Prepare by humbly turning to the cross of Jesus for forgiveness. Live daily in the humbling yet joy-giving waters of your baptism. That’s how our Lord puts us back on the “straight path” of faith in the Savior. That’s how we prepare for his return.


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