Pastor Michael Frye:
If you have ever been on jury duty or attended a courtroom session, you will know that the session begins the same way.
Either the clerk of court or the bailiff will say something to the effect: “Hear ye, hear ye, the District Court of Mecklenburg County is now in session, the honorable Mary Clark presiding.”
The proclamation of that messenger signals the beginning of the court session, as the judge enters the courtroom.
Of course, the atmosphere in a courtroom is mixed and can be quite tense, depending upon the cases that are before the judge.
Some are quite apprehensive, others fearful, others hopeful that their grievances or complaints will be heard.
The Gospel of Mark begins with the proclamation that a messenger has been sent to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah for whom the people have been waiting for centuries.
They had a preconceived notion that the Prophet Elijah had been set apart by God to be the one to deliver this message.
The cup of wine in the center of the Passover table even to this day is called Elijah’s cup in anticipation of his arrival.
But the prophet who showed up wasn’t Elijah, and he made no such pretense.
John the Baptist was on a mission that had been set into motion by God even before John’s birth.
We know very little about John other than he was miraculously born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their advanced age.
But Gabriel, the angel announcing this news, made it clear that John would do great things on the Lord’s behalf.
“He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.”
Mark begins his gospel by quoting from the words from Isaiah that we have in our first lesson today:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ”
John’s appearance in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was the first time in 300 years that Israel had heard the voice of a prophet from God.
They had been longing for such a person to point the way.
William Barclay points out characteristics which made John and his message so appealing:
He was a man who lived his message.
His whole life was a protest against contemporary life – from his living in the isolation of the desert so he could better hear the voice of God, to the camels hair that he wore (the same that was worn by Elijah), to the food that he ate (a simple diet of locusts and wild honey).
John was genuine; he lived his message, unlike many who would preach one way of living but live quite a different one themselves.
Of course, when a person who commands such attention and respect arrives on the scene, people can confuse the messenger with the message; and that is what John encountered as people saw him to be the one they were expecting.
I believe in some ways John was reluctant to be so bold in his preaching, because he didn’t want the people to whom he was preaching to become so connected with him that they would fail to connect with the one who was to come.
That is why, right from the beginning of his preaching, John was quick to point out: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals” (which was slaves’ work in those days; so John was humbly saying that he was not worthy enough even to be Jesus’ slave).
John went on to say, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (which is to say that while water could cleanse the body, the Holy Spirit could cleanse one’s life and one’s heart).
One of John’s goals as the messenger was to keep himself out of the center of things and connect his hearers with the one who was greater than himself – the one whom God sent to save souls, and to save the world.
But if John’s message made some people uncomfortable, then so be it.
I am sure that you have heard the phrase, “the purpose of the gospel is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
These two things seem diametrically opposed to each other; yet, the Holy Spirit works to bring people from where they happen to be in their faith journey to where God wants them to be.
Among the functions of the church in the world today are:
To proclaim that Christ is alive and active in our world fighting against injustice, poverty, discrimination, physical and verbal abuse, and false doctrine that puts church polity and practice before people’s lives and spiritual welfare.
And, to proclaim the love of Christ that surrounds each of us and beckons us to share that same love through thought, word, and deed.
John the Baptist called the world to repentance so that it would be drawn to Christ and to the God of our salvation in ways that transformed the world into being at one with the Father as it was from the beginning of creation.
Just as John touched people at various stages of comfort in their journey toward salvation in Christ, Christians today find ourselves in much the same place.
Where are you in your journey of faith this Advent season?
Are you comfortable with who you are and where you are in your life?
If so, does your comfort include your personal relationship with God?
And does it include how you relate with others, especially those who are different from yourself?
Does it include your own proclamation of the gospel to others who may not yet feel the love of Christ in their own hearts?
And if you aren’t comfortable, what would it take on your faith journey to make you so?
Are you so hard on yourself that it is hard to see that you are loved for who you are by your Lord and by the sisters and brothers around you?
Do you believe the words spoken to you after you have confessed your sins:
“I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins?
And do you truly believe the words you pray:
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us?”
As we await Christ’s coming again, and as we anticipate celebrating another anniversary of Chris’s birth into this world on our behalf, let us be mindful of our need to always be vigilant, to be active in service to our Lord while we wait, and to share the love of God without hesitation or reservation.
Saints and sinners all are we.
Our Lord died on Calvary from condemnation to set us free.
This message is meant to be for all, including you and me.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.