Mark 1:1-8 Be Prepared
‘Be prepared’. That is the motto of the Scouts - ‘Be prepared’. It is the message brought home at this time of year. December! Be prepared. Prepared for guests. Prepared lists ... gift lists, card lists, shopping lists. The preparations seem endless.
If Advent is a time of expectant waiting it is also a time of furious preparation. Think of the end of a pregnancy. The baby is due any day. But the baby's room is not finished. The special wall hanging needs to be put up, the cot needs to be assembled, clothes and blankets and nappies to have ready. It is this eager, excited preparation that adults long for as they await the advent of the mysterious and fleeting ‘Christmas Spirit’ - a Spirit to which the children seem to have such easy access. For them a few strings of coloured lights can signal the arrival of a wondrous time of expectation. For those who string the lights it can mark just one more task in the seemingly endless Christmas ‘to do’ list.
And then along comes the voice of John whose voice fittingly opens Mark’s Gospel and Handel’s Messiah: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. Prepare to meet your Maker. It begins here says Mark. It begins with John who comes to prepare the way. Mark chapter one, verse one: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”. And where does he begin? With Mary and Joseph? With angels choirs and shepherds in the fields abiding? With magi from the orient who follow a star? No. According to Mark the good news does not begin with an infant holy, infant lowly. The good news begins with a voice in the wilderness. It comes in the person of one who dresses in the outrageous and unconventional attire of a prophet.
Mark’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear, preparing to meet the Christ whose arrival is imminent, is unlike any other preparations that we have ever made. It is as if John arrives on the scene and says: “I have good news and bad news - The good news is that God is answering your prayers and coming to pay a visit. The bad news is that it is God who you hear knocking on the door and your life is in a mess.” We can become immune to this message. We hear John’s message:“Repent ... repent. Confess your sins. Seek forgiveness now before its too late.” But we know that he will come and go and that by Christmas Eve he will have been pushed off of centre stage to make way for the cute little angels and shepherds. What strikes me as odd is the response that John gets.
Eugene Peterson's “The Message” translates Mark’s account in these words: “John the Baptiser appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptised by him in the Jordan River into a changed life.” John calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord by being baptised into a changed life. And they believe him - they flock to him - they are ready to change and to be changed. The arrival of the Christ on the scene means that everything has changed - including the living of our lives. If we believe it.
A university Chaplain tells the story of a student who came to him, distressed that he was losing his faith. When he inquired what the faith was that he was losing, the student replied, “I have problems with the virgin birth of Jesus.” To which the chaplain suggested that he stick with the Gospel of Mark for his Bible reading for the rest of the year and see if that helped. The student persisted: “But don’t I have to believe in the miraculous birth of Jesus in order to believe in Jesus?” “In one sense, no” replied the Chaplain. “Yet in another sense, yes. We ask you to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus and, if we can get you to swallow that without choking, then there’s no telling what else we can get you to believe. Come back next week and we’ll try to convince you that the poor are royalty and the rich are in big trouble, that God, not nations, rules the world, and on and on. We start you out with something fairly small, like the virgin birth, then work you up to even more outrageous assertions.”
Karl Barth, once wrote that “the incarnation is inconceivable but it is not absurd”. We cannot conceive how it is possible that God is met in the human being Jesus. Living one’s life believing this to be true looks to all the world a foolhardy thing to do. It is precisely such a life that John would have us prepare ourselves for – now! Yet we hesitate - we find it painful to let go of old familiar ways. Then, somehow, one day everything changes.
When the Communists came to power in China, there was a missionary who had spent many years in that country with his family in ministry. He was placed under house arrest. Some soldiers came one day and said, ‘You can return to your own country.’ The soldiers said, ‘You can take 100 Kilograms with you.’ Well, they’d been there for years. 100 Kilograms? They got the scales and started the family argument - two children, wife, husband. Must have this vase. Well, this is a new typewriter. What about my books? What about this? And they weighed everything and took it off and weighed this and, finally, right on the dot – 100 kilograms. The soldiers asked, ‘Ready to go?.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you weigh everything?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You weighed your children?’ ‘No, we didn’t.’ ‘Weigh the children.’ And in a moment, typewriter and vase and all became rubbish. Trash. It happens.”
John arrives on the scene asking ‘Have you weighed everything?’ ‘Yes’. Weighed the children? Weighed your neighbours? Weighed yourself? Suddenly all the other ‘stuff’ that had been so precious is rubbish. The diploma. The career. The furniture of our living. All trash. This what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. It means to let go of the things that have no value in the Kingdom of God.
Now perhaps you have noticed that this continues to be one of the underlying themes of our culture’s post-Christian Christmas even in the midst of all of its mixed messages. Somewhere this season Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ will be shown, with Scrooge slowly coming to believe that his moneygrubbing life will amount to nothing without a radical change. The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future bearing a striking resemblance to, yes, John the Baptist. Scrooge’s story is a classic tale of repentance.
The continuing popularity of 'A Christmas Carol' – a story about repentance suggests that, when you scratch the surface you find beneath the veneer of our culture a longing to change and to be changed. It is a culture not all that different than the one that flocks to be baptised into a changed life by John the Baptist.
There is one thing, however, that Charles Dickens version of repentance lacks. It lacks a gospel ending. Dickens provides the happy, good news ending that his audience seeks for satisfaction. He makes it clear that repentance leads to a happy and blessed life. Which is why it will be shown again this Christmas.
But the good news of Jesus Christ does not conclude on such an obviously happy note. By the fourteenth verse of the first chapter it is evident that following the course urged first by John and then by Jesus leads to trouble. You don’t recall the fourteenth verse? “Now after John was arrested ...” Whatever John and Jesus are up to in changing the lives of so many people the authorities definitely do not approve. Repentant lives are not just sugary sweet lives. A repentant people are dangerous. They are dangerous because they no longer believe that the ‘way of the world’ is the truth. They consider it all so much rubbish. So John must be arrested and killed. No wonder Jesus sees a cross waiting on the horizon. Do you see why he warns his followers to prepare themselves for the same?
The gospel begins when we stop following the way of the world and choose to walk in the footsteps of Christ. The advent of the good news leads us to prepare the way of the Lord, the way to the cross. Let’s be clear about this: walking the way of the cross means walking the way of compassionate sacrifice - a way that is often out of favour and that surely leads to trouble. Yet, still and all, the way of the Lord that runs straight through the heart of the world that God so loves.