Sunday, December 4, 2011

preparation

Here's my sermon for 2 Advent! The reading was Mark 1:1-8.



The seasons of Advent and Christmas are my absolute favorite of the year. The Advent traditions at my house include fun things like counting down the days to Christmas with Advent calendars, baking lots of traditional German cookies, lighting candles on the Advent wreath, and singing beloved Advent songs. One not-so-fun tradition in Advent is the process of cleaning the house in preparation for Christmas: picking up, throwing away, rearranging, scrubbing, vacuuming, mopping, and everyone’s least favorite—dusting. Cleaning is hard work, it’s stressful, and it often leads to at least one argument. Every year we go through this same struggle, but it’s worth it; a few days before Christmas, my dad’s side of the family descends upon the mountains of North Carolina, so that there are 13 or more people staying in the Shine household. The best way to describe it is joyful chaos. This happy time with family is well worth the headache of preparation.

In Mark’s Gospel today we hear about another kind of preparation from John the Baptist. John is a man with horrible fashion sense that is on a weird diet and makes speeches from his home…in the middle of the wilderness. He’s not exactly what we would call “normal.” But instead of staying away from this bizarre man, people are drawn to him—he’s even popular! Maybe people initially start going to him out of curiosity, but once they’re there, they get hooked, and more and more start going until virtually everyone in the nearby towns and countryside is gathering to see him. We don’t know exactly what he says, but it has something to do with preparation. You see, the people are hungry for some good news. Israel is under Roman occupation and her people are forced to pay heavy taxes to the Emperor. They are tired, poor, angry, and resentful; they want their freedom and want to be left alone. Well, John is telling the people that there’s someone stronger coming, someone who is going to change everything. But before he comes, they need to get ready; they need to prepare. And the way they are to prepare is by reflecting on their lives, repenting of what they’ve done wrong, and celebrating being forgiven by participating in a symbol of purification—baptism. So they line up to get baptized by him, awaiting Jesus’ coming with hope.

The first hearers of Mark’s Gospel are waiting for Jesus’ coming as well—his second coming. They are in a time of war and political division, of persecution and poverty; they are also hungry for Good News. In listening to this story they recognize that John the Baptist is actually dressed like one of the ancient prophets—persons with messages from God. The first words of the Gospel, “the beginning of the good news,” trigger in the listeners the memory of the loving God who created the world “in the beginning.” The setting of John’s ministry in the wilderness remind them that God brings their ancestors out of Egypt through the wilderness, and it is in the wilderness that God gives them instructions on how to love God and love their neighbors; the 10 Commandments. The mention of Jerusalem foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection, a demonstration of God’s love, reconciliation, and mercy. And in the last verse of the Gospel the mention of the Holy Spirit calls to mind Jesus’ promise of leaving behind an Advocate so that God will remain with them always. To the first listeners, this passage from Mark’s Gospel is very good news.     

In Advent we are still waiting for Jesus and are called to prepare for his coming. To tell the truth, we live in a world that could use some cleaning up. Like Mark’s first audience, we live in a time of war and political division, persecution and poverty. Our economy remains shaky and thousands of people have been taking to the streets and risking violence in order to protest the rising disparity between the rich and the poor. In this time of economic uncertainty it’s easy to get caught up with just taking care of our own, but we can’t deny the fact that there are millions of people around the world who are suffering, some of them in our own neighborhoods. We know that this is not how the world should be. 

“But it’s too big of a problem!” we protest. “How can we possibly make a difference when it’s hard enough to provide for our own families?” 

We can start by taking small steps, like reevaluating how we're spending our income. Maybe we don't need the latest iPhone, or that second coat, or a third pair of skinny jeans. To put things into perspective, according to research done by the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $52 billion on Black Friday this year. $52 billion. Compare that to the cost of providing clean water to the world, which is estimated to be between 9 and 30 billion dollars per year. That means we spent $22-43 billion more in one day than it would cost to provide clean water for the whole world for one year.

The numbers from the study are sobering, but maybe we can reframe it to see that there is also potential here. In this season we are bombarded with advertisements for gifts, pressured to put up decorations, and forced to attend way too many Christmas parties. Just imagine what would happen if everyone in this room decided next year to buy local gifts instead. Or made homemade ones. Or made donations to charities in people’s honor. It could make a big difference! Now imagine if most of the people in Alexandria did this. And then the country. And then the world. This idea may be somewhat na├»ve, but as we wait for Christ’s return we continuously work and hope and strive for a better world, so why not dream big? I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some amazing things happen when the people of St. Mark’s work together.  

Every day we await Jesus’ return. In this season of Advent we are invited to prepare for his coming by reflecting on our own lives, repenting of what we’ve done wrong, and sharing weekly in a meal that renews us and reminds us of the one who died to forgive our sins. Our Lord Jesus is coming; prepare the way of the Lord! 

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