Sermon December 7, 2014
Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11
I have been thinking about road construction and transportation this week. We were planning a family trip and made a chart to compare traveling by car, by train, or plane. We looked at the pros and cons of each one. Then I heard that the Paseo del Norte and I-25 project is nearly finished and discovered there is a whole website dedicated to this. The website says that it is supposed to be finished this month. That is good news for many people. Road construction tends to bring out the worst in us. We don’t like the inconvenience of having to wait.
Another place of waiting is the airport. In my previous job, I flew a good bit and often found myself on the last flight home. Often I would discover the flight was delayed. I was usually tired and just wanted to come home. I am grateful for the times I managed to find an opportunity in the waiting – they were rare, but they did happen. One time, I finished leading a year-long program that I had created and spent a few years training leaders, recruiting participants, and planning. When my flight was delayed, I had a leisurely dinner in the airport and reflected on the many gifts of the program. It was good for me to savor the fruit of this program and the impact on all who participated. I might not have taken the time to do that otherwise. Last summer, we went to a family reunion in Lake Tahoe. I struggle to see any wisdom in doing road construction in the summer near Lake Tahoe, but when we were stuck in the car for a long time waiting for the flagger to wave us through, I saw the incredible scenery in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I’m guessing that most of us don’t choose to wait, but I know there can be gifts in it if we allow them to happen. I am married to an extraordinarily patient person. She was telling me about waiting to buy some groceries for Thanksgiving and the women in front of her were having a delightful conversation with the checker. She was enjoying this whole conversation, when a woman came up behind her and sighed loudly and asked if she could get in front of Anne Marie because she just had a few things. Anne Marie moved back to let her in and was aware of the woman’s anger at the two women in front of her as if they were holding her up somehow. It wasn’t as if they could go any faster. They simply chose to enjoy the wait while their groceries were totaled.
That is where we are in this season. We can’t make it happen any more quickly. We can however, determine how we will wait. Will we take advantage of this time and allow it to offer us unexpected gifts? When we cannot control the timing, can we look up and notice the scenery around us? Perhaps we will see something beautiful that we would never have noticed before. Perhaps we will see a new path.
Both texts call us to prepare and both talk about making a road for God. Isaiah tells us that God will come in the desert. That is good news for us today. It was good news for the people who had lived in exile for 150 years. For those in exile, the only real hope was in God. Isaiah portrays a God who comes in strength and gentleness. This God will endure and triumph over all the idols that threaten to consume. In the meantime, we are in the business of road construction.
Each of the four gospels is different. With this New Year, we will be focusing on Mark. This gospel short and ends rather abruptly. There is no birth narrative in Mark. This gospel begins with John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of Christ and calling us to prepare the way. John was a wild guy who ate strange foods and wore unusual clothing. He was a prophet who spoke out in the wilderness rather than from inside a church. When I hear of John, I am reminded of another form of transportation. When I lived in Atlanta, I would take the public mass transit to one of the main stations downtown. We would emerge at ground level to an angry man on a platform yelling that we should repent or we were all going to hell. I often think of this man when I hear John the Baptist and want to run the other way. I don’t think I’m the only one. Have you ever noticed that John is never on Christmas cards? You don’t see lit up John the Baptists on front lawns wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts. We don’t hang pictures of him in our churches.
Mark tells us that everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem were baptized by John and confessed their sins. John talks about repenting – not a topic we want to give much attention to especially in this season when we have cards to send, gifts to buy, parties to attend, and food to make. We are busy and repenting is not something that we want to hear. But John tapped into some deep longing in people. They traveled to him to hear his message, and then they changed their ways and began again.
Don’t we live with longing? Perhaps we want to forgive someone and release a grudge we have carried. Maybe we want to get rid of an unhealthy habit we have continued for many years. It could be that we want to change the way we react to others. Maybe we want to learn patience. Perhaps we want to really be present in the moment. It could be that we want to worry less. I’m guessing we want to be part of the solution to the systemic racism and oppression we are witnessing. Whatever it is, we long to repent of something. To repent is to turn around, to respond differently and to move forward in a new direction. John tells us that repenting is a way of clearing a path for God to come among us.
Part of what dulls us to this message is we think we know what we are preparing for – we are waiting for Christ to come among us and we tend to sterilize it into a sweet story with no surprises. But there is little that is sweet about Christ’s coming. He was born into questionable circumstances and the situation was messy, both politically and physically. Just as he came into the messiness of life then, he appears in the messier parts of our lives now. We hear messiness on the news every day – stories of murder, police brutality, and war. These are complicated days as we acknowledge the power of racism in our country. What is the answer? Michael Brown and Eric Garner have died. Our scripture talks about building roads. We are called to build roads of justice and mercy. We are called to advocate and care for those who are vulnerable.
Our task is to prepare for his coming. It is a bit like road construction. It is messy and inconvenient. As we ask, “How long must we wait for freedom for all God’s people?” may we continue respond with love and compassion to all who are hurting. May we advocate for those who are oppressed and forgotten. May we create roads of freedom and justice for all people.
This morning you are invited to another form of repentance. You are invited to come to the table. This table is not fast food. There is no need to hurry. You simply take the path in front of you and bring your longing with you. When you arrive at the table you will be fed with something that appears inconsequential, but it has the power to set you free. It is the food of repentance and wholeness.
John’s call is for us to make a path for God to come to us again in the midst of this season. We don’t know when or how. It is likely that it will happen in our vulnerability and longing. We may not know exactly what we are looking for, but we can hold onto the promise that the holy will break into the darkness bringing hope to a hurting world.