Since I missed preaching this sermon twice in a row, I thought I would share a few important excerpts with you. It is my prayer that God will somehow use these thoughts on paper to prepare us for our spiritual journey during Lent. Blessings, Pastor Beth
Today’s story is about John the Baptist whois also preparing the way for the new thing that God wants to do through his Son Jesus Christ. Even though we typically look at this passage during Advent, I think it is fitting that we prepare for our Lenten journey by looking at this text in Mark. It is interesting that the gospel of Mark begins here and skips over all of the traditional birth stories by “cutting to the chase” with John the Baptist. If we look more closely at this text, we can get some clues on how we can ready ourselves for the new things that God desires to do through Jesus Christ in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
The story opens in Mark chapter 1 with this crazy guy john crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It is important to remember that Israel had been waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah for well over 500 years. In fact, those 500 years are known as the time of silence. It was a time when people weren’t hearing anything from God through the prophets. Nothing seemed to be happening at all. I am pretty sure that most people had become disinterested, disenchanted and even skeptical about the Messiah’s coming. But now, imagine with me. 500 years later this guy appears all dressed up in some really strange clothes and eating even more strange food. His message? Take heart! The time has finally come! This promised Messiah is about to break into our world and accomplish all of the things we have been waiting for.
I find a real affinity with this story because that is what I sense is going on here at our Church. I believe that the Spirit of God is saying the same thing to us: Take heart! You have been waiting for so long and now I am going to break in and do something among you greater than anything you can think or imagine!
Have you ever wondered why John was in the wilderness to proclaim such an important message? Why not in the temple, or in the town square or at the very least, the top of a mountain? Instead, Jon leads them into the wilderness: a place of solitude, a place where no one would really be able to hear. And yet the scripture tells us that the people came out in droves, multitudes, to hear the message.
John prepared the way for Jesus’s ministry by leading the Israelites into a place where they were familiar with the way God speaks and where God had made himself known in the past. They stayed there until Jesus appeared on the scene. The Israelites recognized the wilderness was a historic place where God met them, spoke to them, and revealed himself to them just as he did in the Exodus. It was also a spiritual place where they were open to guidance from God. By leading them away from the chaos and confusion of the city, John brought them into the place where they were truly receptive to God’s activity; a place where they could listen.
Many of us have special places in our lives where we know that God can get through to us as well as unique ways in which God speaks to us. Perhaps we have dreams, hear his voice, read scripture or journal. Maybe we find God in nature, riding a bike or on a long commute to work. Maybe we find God through worship or through the times of listening in prayer. These are all similar to the wilderness for the Israelites.
During Lent, Christians have a tradition or spiritual practice of giving something up. In a way, that’s like making space for God. So if you are thinking about giving something up for Lent, I want to challenge you to give up something that makes a space for you to meet God. Maybe it is skipping a meal or coffee so that you can listen to God. Maybe it is skipping your favorite TV show so that you can read your Bible. Be creative, but make space. Prepare the way for him. Frequent that place often. Give God the space to speak and move in your life.
Another interesting way we can prepare the way that we see from John the Baptist are these really strange clothes he is wearing and the bugs that he seems to be eating. Don’t worry; I am not encouraging you to eat bugs! And by the way, these are not carob pods or fruit from a special tree. These were actual bugs, or locusts, that were ritually clean for poor persons who could not afford to buy the more expensive meats that were acceptable for the Jewish diet. By eating the same food and dressing in this way, John is actively aligning himself with barrenness of his time. He identified the place of the deepest spiritual and physical need… the very place where Jesus will come and bless and heal. His clothing and diet are a symbol of his rejection of the religious and socially elite and an embracing of the spiritually and physically impoverished.
We can also prepare the way of the Lord, not by eating bugs, but by opening our eyes to the barren places of our times; to the homeless, the spiritually impoverished, the troubled teen whose life can only be redeemed by the shedding of innocent blood in a shopping mall, the latch- key kids in our own community, even some of our friends and family. Jesus’s ministry was characterized by eating and drinking with sinners and ministering to the poor. Of all the places Christ could have chosen to live, of all the people he could have eaten with and fellowshipped with, he was always with the down and out, the outcast, the poor in Spirit and the sinner. If you were living in the time of Jesus, that was where you could find him.
I believe that is still true today. If we want to see where God is active and moving, if we want to be in the place and setting that Jesus may very well show up, we need to find the place of the greatest spiritual and physical need and linger there.
One thing that blesses me so much about our church is that we have a lot of that going on!! We feed people at the Salvation Army meals every Tuesday night, we open our doors to the community every Wednesday evening, children and youth are coming to our church and not only hearing about Jesus but some of them are having the only hot cooked meal they will have that week. If you haven’t experienced the ministry that is going on here at this church on a Wednesday night, let me tell you that Jesus is present! Just walk into the Jr. High youth meeting and talk with some of the wonderful youth that Abe is hauling over in his car each week. Or poke your head into one of Heidi’s class room and see all of the children. Let me tell you, you will find Jesus working there!
Sharon Helbert was visiting with me in my office this week and shared with me how each year, rather than giving something up for Lent, she actually adds a spiritual practice for Lent. So here’s my challenge to you this Lenten season. Do you want to prepare the way for what God has for us at First Church? Do you want to meet Jesus? Try adding the spiritual practice of serving on a Wednesday Night! Casey made an announcement last Sunday in church that Heidi needs more volunteers. Why not make that your spiritual practice for Lent? Or maybe the fellowship committee needs help with food prep, clean up or service. Why not talk to Julie Kramer about serving as your Lenten practice?
Friends, that is preparing the way for Jesus to show up in your life! And as we look together at the book of Mark and what it means to follow Jesus and be his disciples, we will see the places he invites them and us to come and see, and experience the kingdom of God.
We all know that living together as the body of Christ is important, but if we are so inwardly focused that we miss the barren places where God desires to dwell, we may miss the appearance of Jesus because according to the Gospel of Mark, that is where Jesus showed up… in the desert place… in the barren place… in the place of need. We need to take heart, align ourselves with the need around us, and join God in the new life that he desires to bring. How will we align our resources and vision with the needs of our community and world? Do you still have your puzzle piece from several weeks ago? Maybe that’s the piece of the puzzle that we’re missing and need here at First Church.
Finally, we need to begin this journey by examining our own barrenness. John calls the people to repent and be baptized as a symbol of their consecration to God and their belief in the Messiah’s coming. Jesus came into this world first and foremost to save us from our own selves, the spiritual bondage that keeps us and the rest of the world from being all that God intended us to be. It is difficult to dare to look into the deepest, darkest parts of our own souls.
Have you ever noticed when we have had a good snow or ice storm, where the last places to melt are? (You should have had plenty of opportunities to do that this week) They are always in the shade. Hard ice always forms in the dark places and they are the last places where the warmth of the sun can penetrate. So it is with our souls. It is not until we bring our sins into the light of the son, that we experience the melting of our hardness and the washing away of the things that bind us.
Where are the places in our own lives that need the breath of God blown into them? What are the dark areas where God desires to shine the healing light of his presence? Are we allowing God to see those places? Are we allowing ourselves to acknowledge those places? Do we really believe that God can turn those barren places into something fruitful? That is the true beginning of our spiritual journey this Lenten season; Opening those places to God’s coming. In doing so, we are opening ourselves to the power of Jesus.