A Voice Crying Mark 1:1-8
December 6, 2020 Veterans Memorial Chapel
This is an odd season of the year for Christians. On one hand, the secular celebration of Christmas is moving right along. Last week I learned that there are two business seasons of Christmas. There's the woman's season that begins the day after Thanksgiving and there's the men's season that begins and ends on December 24th.
However, the Christian season of Christmas begins on December 25th and ends on January 4th. Of all the countries in the world, the USA goes whole hog for Christmas. Even in the Philippines and Brazil—majority Christian countries—Christmas is no big deal. Years ago US News and World Report had an insightful article dealing with the history of Christmas in the USA. They reported that Christmas is a business season, not a religious season. Merchants were responsible and continue to be responsible for the promotion of Christmas as a time of spending and buying presents. Many merchants do the majority of their business during this season. Recently, they had Black Friday specials followed by Cyber Monday. Black Friday means that stores' bottom lines move from Red to Black at this time. I'm not certain if this is true today due to the China virus. Sadly, by the time December 25th comes many people are saturated with the festivities and thank God it's over. The celebration of Christmas is another of those phenomena which reveals the conflict between the world and the kingdom of God.
This is not the season of Christmas. This is the season of Advent. Traditionally, Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. It is a time of anticipation where we actively wait for the feast of Christmas. Rather than jumping into Christmas, the Church advises believers to prepare for the celebration of Jesus' birth and look forward to his return in glory. There are several biblical figures which we highlight as we prepare for Christmas. The first is the prophet we call John the Baptist. John cries out in the wilderness, l am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23). In his Gospel, Mark ties together the words of the prophet Isaiah with the words of John the Baptist. He sees the Baptist as a prophet like unto Isaiah. Not only that, he sees him as the forerunner, or what we might call the "advance man" for the Lord Jesus. The Gospels reveal an amazing continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. We Christians are in the stream of God's revelation as are the Jewish people. One of the best ways to understand the New Testament is to understand and appreciate God's revelation in the Old Testament. Isaiah proclaims, A voice of one calling: "In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3). The early Christians read the writings of Isaiah and saw in them God's promise to send us his very self. Today we meet the prophetic figure we call John the Baptist.
First century people saw John the Baptist as the return of another holy man, the prophet Elijah. For three hundred years the voice of God was silent. God had been quiet for a longtime, and he sent no prophets to proclaim his message. People were hungry for a genuine message from the Lord God. They wanted to know what to do so they could live in holy ways. They wanted to honor the Lord with their lives. Early on, God chose John to do his prophetic work. He was born to aged parents who had given up on having children. Luke tells us he was Jesus' cousin. John's mother, Elizabeth, was Jesus' mother's aunt. God told John's father to specially dedicate him to God. When the time was right, he appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming God's message. He preached a message of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. People came from the cities and villages to hear and respond to his preaching. Many were baptized and cried out for forgiveness of their sins. John also proclaimed a special message which revealed that he was not the Messiah but was preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. He said, 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7-8). John prepared the way for the coming of the Lord's Messiah into history. He helped people prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.
The people had a great hunger for God. John preached to people who genuinely sought the Lord, and they responded to his preaching. Their lives were changed by the power of God. For over three hundred years, no prophet came to tell them what God was up to. They were hungry for a word from God. God-hungry people will travel many miles to hear the Word proclaimed, and they will respond to his word. In our country, the word "God" is used all the time. It's used as a curse word. Sometimes it is tied to nationalism, as "God and Country." Many believe the USA is a Christian nation. However, we are not a God-hungry nation. We have our slogans, "In God we trust" and "God bless America." However, I suspect most Americans want to keep God at arm's length. God wants us to be God-hungry. He wants us to seek more of him and be obedient to him. He wants people to seek him more than anything in their lives. Jesus likes God-hungry people. He said, "But seek first his (God's) kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33)." Of course, there were people in the first century who were not seeking God's kingdom and his righteousness but many were hungry for a word from the Lord God.
God will not impose himself on us unless we invite his power and presence. Those who are disinterested in God will not see much of him in their lives. God honors our free will even when it comes to our desire to ignore him. However, when we ignore God there is always a price to pay. God will continue to seek people but will not impose himself on them. On the other hand, when a God-hungry people come seeking the Bread of Life, even Christ Jesus, God will honor their hunger and give them more of his presence and power. When I was on a mission trip in the Philippines, I saw God-hungry people. We had several days of prayer and preaching in the interior of the island of Luzon in Abra Provence. Many walked for days to come to the event. God came with power upon people who were so hungry for him that they walked for days and slept on the side of the trails. I had heard of church services where the church was full and people were standing in the windows and I was a bit skeptical. Perhaps they were exaggerating. However, I saw a church filled with people and others filled the windows and stood five deep at the doors for the three days of services. They came hungry for God and God came with power. God will fill us when we are genuinely hungry for him.
John the Baptist hung out at the Jordan River and a God-hungry people came down for more of the Lord. The Bible tells us they responded to his message, confessed their sins and submitted to baptism for the remission of sins. The baptism of John was different from Christian baptism. We share some of the same symbolism like the washing away of sin. However, the baptism of John was the same kind of baptism that Gentiles submitted to who wanted to become Jews. They had to go through a ritual purification to become Jews. John was baptizing Jews, not Gentiles. He was not bringing proselytes into the faith. He was calling the righteous Jews to repentance. It must have been a big step for people who thought they had their religious life together to respond to God by repenting of their sin. These people wanted to be right with God and be ready for the one who would come after John and baptize them with fire and the Holy Spirit.
How can we prepare for the coming of the Lord? We can prepare by doing the same things the first century Jews did when they responded to John's preaching. We can get serious about sin and confess our sins to the Lord. Many are out of integrity with God. Many hold onto things which they must let go of. Many have parts of their lives that are out of kilter with God. A holy preparation for the Nativity of the Lord involves confession of sin and repentance. It means being sorry for our sins and crying out to the Lord for forgiveness. It means wanting to live holy lives. It means asking God to transform our hearts so that we live as holy people.
The early Christians on this continent had a clear goal of holiness of heart and life. Early Methodists sought to preach scriptural holiness and reform the nation. God today calls his church to holiness. Sadly, the American church has lived too long with one foot in the kingdom and the other in the world. This season is rich with opportunities to honor the Lord and to grow in one's faith in Christ Jesus. It's also a dangerous season where people are enticed to spend money they do not have by excessive use of credit cards. It's easy to use the cards but come January or February it will catch up with you. It's a season of parties where chemicals tempt one. It's a season where we might get unnecessarily stressed out Don't let the world dictate your Christmas. It's not a time of material excess but a time to honor the Lord.
God wants us to be a God-hungry people. He wants us to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Jesus gives God-hungry people a promise. He said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." This season is a time to be filled with the things of God, not the world. And the season of Advent is a time when many ought to prepare for the Lord's coming by turning from evil, confessing their sin, and seeking God's power and presence so that they can live as he wants them to live. We can prepare for the Lord as we get connected and stay connected with him. We can prepare for the Lord as we completely surrender our lives to him this season and throughout the rest of the year.
Rev. Michael W. Malone