Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent – December 10, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Preparing for Christmas gets more and more sentimental for me every year. We pull out the bins with all the Christmas stuff the day after Thanksgiving and begin to unpack the special things we’ve been storing all year. There is the ornament I made for Amy our first Christmas together, crafted from driftwood from the beach where we got engaged. There are the holiday recipes in my mother’s handwriting. There are the Santa pictures from back when our three boys were little and sweet instead of tall and sarcastic. With every passing year, these things become more and more precious to me. As the bins are unpacked and each item finds its place in preparation for Christmas, our house is transformed into a den of warmth and peace and comfort.
In our gospel reading for today we are invited to prepare for Christmas, but in a radically different way. Instead of bringing out what is precious to us, we are called to bring out the things that trouble us, the things we are ashamed of, the sins we’d rather leave packed away. Instead of warm sentimentality, we are splashed with the cold waters of John’s call to repentance. We will get to comfort, so stay with me, but to get there we must first be made uncomfortable.
We will be spending much of the liturgical year ahead in the gospel of Mark. Today we find ourselves at the very beginning of his gospel: chapter one, verse one. St. Mark begins his account the life of Jesus not with angels and shepherds and a baby in a manger, like St. Luke. He doesn’t begin with wise men visiting the Christ child, like St. Matthew. He doesn’t begin with profound theological statements about the Word becoming flesh, like St. John. Mark begins his gospel at the Jordan river. He begins with a call to repent, a call to confess our sins, bringing them out into the open, putting them on full display.
Mark begins with John the Baptist – or as he is more accurately described in Mark’s gospel, John the baptizer. After all, this is not about denominational affiliation. John the Baptist isn’t like Jeff the Lutheran or Doug the Presbyterian. John was a baptizer. John’s job was, in part, to prepare the way of the Lord with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was not yet Christan baptism, as John himself says. It was, rather, a ritual of repentance. It was a ritual signifying a confession of sin and a return to God, a return to faithfulness. It was a ritual that was also used for Gentile converts who came to faith in the God of Israel. And now, at this moment, it was a ritual of preparation for the coming of the Lord.
People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem were going out to the river Jordan to confess their sins. They went out to the river not with their precious treasures; they went with their dirty laundry. They went to the river with the things that troubled them, the things they were ashamed of, the sins that they would rather have kept packed away. They brought their sins to John the baptizer.
John was dressed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. In both his diet and his dress he was conjuring up the prophet Elijah. He was like one of those people who go to Comicon conventions dressed as their favorite character. Only John wasn’t engaging in cosplay. He wasn’t just playing dress-up. John was indeed an actual prophet. He was the last and the greatest of the prophets, because he had one foot in the old covenant and one foot in the new kingdom. He straddled the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. He embodied the prophets of the past while being the herald of the age that was now dawning. John announced the coming of everything the prophets before him had promised. He dressed in the clothing of a prophet to announce the arrival the One the prophets said would come – the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord.
John prepared the way of the Lord by calling people to repent, to receive his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, and the people prepared the way of the Lord by confessing their sin. They confessed their idolatry, all the ways they put their trust in something other than God. They confessed the ways they had lived as though they were their own gods, making themselves their highest authority and their highest good. They confessed their need for control and their lack of faith. They confessed their negligence in honoring God with lives that were holy, lives that were set apart for his service and lived in obedience to his will. They confessed the ways they had failed to love God with their whole heart and mind and strength, and their neighbors as themselves. The people prepared the way of the Lord by bringing this all out into the open, confessing their sin.
As we hear this gospel reading, this is what we’re invited to do too. This is what we’re invited to do every Sunday of course, but we are especially invited to repent, to confess, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of our Lord. This is uncomfortable, perhaps. It pushes us to look at the ways we have sinned. It pushes us to confess the ways we have turned to other gods, especially the god of the self. It pushes us to confess the ways we have grasped for control rather than living by faith, the ways we have been negligent in holiness, the ways we have failed to love God and one another. This isn’t warm, fun stuff. It makes us vulnerable. But it is how we prepare.
I went to see a dermatologist this week. We have a history of skin cancer in my family, with my sister having battled melanoma twice now, so I try to stay on top of it. It had been a couple years since I’ve had a full screening, but recently my barber noticed some things she thought I should have looked at, so it was time to go in. And when you go in for a skin cancer exam, you have to show them everything. I had to strip down to my skivvies and put on a hospital gown, which he then pulled back as needed in order to examine pretty much every square inch of my body, pointing out spots to his assistant along the way so she could get a look and make notes. It was not warm. It was not pleasant. It was uncomfortable.
Now imagine that I had refused. Imagine that I said, “No, I’m going to keep covered up,” or “No, I’m not showing you that.” How in the world would he then be able to help me? It was uncomfortable, but it was only by showing him everything that he can do his job of diagnosing me and making me well.
Confessing our sin puts us in a similarly vulnerable position. It isn’t comfortable. But we can do so because we know that this Lord of whom John speaks is coming to help us. He is coming to be our savior! We prepare for his coming by confessing our sin, especially by showing him our trouble spots, so that he can do the job he has come to do in making us well. This Lord is bringing a forgiveness even greater than John’s. This Lord is bringing a baptism not of water alone, but of water and Word and Spirit. This Lord comes to make us well by restoring us to God forever.
Soon we will celebrate this Lord’s birth. We prepare ourselves spiritually by repenting, by turning away from everything in our lives that is not godly. We prepare ourselves by confessing our sin, bringing it out so that he can cure it with his grace, which is what he is coming to do. This is precisely why he was born. He was born for you. He was born to be your savior. He was born so that all would be well for you in your relationship with God.
Listen to how Isaiah describes the coming of the Lord:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, tell her that her penalty has been paid….Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low…then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up and do not fear…See, the Lord comes…he will feed his flock like a shepherd….he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
St. Mark, sacrificing prose for brevity, puts it far more simply when he writes: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says our God. There is a comfort that is far deeper than anything we pull out of Christmas bins, as precious as those things can be to us. There is a warmth that is warmer than sentimentality and nostalgia. Even with the splash of cold water we get from John the baptizer this morning, this comfort and warmth is ours as we see that the coming of the Lord is good news. You see, God in Christ has made a pathway straight to you, so that you would know his forgiveness, his mercy, his love. The Lord comes to feed his flock like a shepherd, to gather us in his arms and carry us in his bosom. He comes with a forgiveness and a baptism far greater than John’s, as John himself was quick to note.
And so today we are empowered to confess our sin. Today we are empowered to repent. Today we are empowered to show our trouble spots to this Lord of ours, who comes to us even now to heal us with his forgiveness, to comfort us with his grace, to wrap us in the warmth of his great love. Today we are empowered to show him everything, trusting that through his saving work, he will make us well.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church