(Preached at Alger First UMC on 12/7/2014)
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-5; Mark 1:1-8
Well today is the second week of Advent. Who remembers what we talked about last week? We talked about the restoration that God is bringing about through the birth of Jesus Christ and how we all desperately need it. This restoration is really what this season of Advent is all about, and throughout these weeks leading up to Christmas, we will be preparing for this absolute restoration.
This week, we’re going to talk about how we are called to prepare for this restoration. Next week, I’ll be taking the day off and won’t be here, but Mike Vollmar will be preaching, and you’ll be discussing how we all long for the coming Kingdom of God and the restoration it will bring. The Sunday after that will be a week of rejoicing as it will be the Sunday before Christmas. Then we have a Christmas Eve service here at 2pm that I hope to see everyone at to celebrate the imminent birth of Jesus Christ as a worshiping community. Keep in mind that this is a great time of year to invite people to church and provide them another chance to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Well you just heard the reading from Isaiah 40. Who knows who Isaiah was preaching to? We talked about it last week, right? Isaiah was preaching to the Israelites who were in exile in Babylon. Babylon, the center of all evil in the ancient world, had come and taken over Jerusalem and all of Israel, destroyed the temple, and taken thousands of Jews into exile. And last week, we talked about how we are all really in exile in our own lives, separated from God without a chance of getting back on our own. These are the people who Isaiah is preaching to.
In the whole book of Isaiah leading up to this chapter, Isaiah had been pronouncing judgment on the Jewish people for their sins, full of the righteous anger of God against their sins and disobediences. But now, in this chapter, the tone switches to a tone of comfort. And we hear that from the very first verse, right? “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” What God is saying here is that there will be life after this exile. Life will go on, do not give up hope. The elderly ones among you, even some of the younger ones won’t see it in your lifetime, but there will be life for God’s chosen people after this exile. Your hard service has been completed, your sin has been paid for, restoration is coming.
But in the second part of the text, it’s made very clear that this restoration requires preparation. There’s the famous verse “A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” Kind of sounds like Northwest Ohio, right? No valleys, no hills, all flat for miles, right? Flatten out the landscape so that the Lord can come barreling through. Remove any obstacle that might get in the way of us letting God work through us. Remove any barrier between you and God. Make a highway so that the Kingdom of God can come faster.
But what does this preparation really look like? The poetic language is beautiful, but how do we put skin on this idea? Well if we turn to Mark 1, we’ll see this passage fulfilled.
Read Mark 1:1-8
This is what it looks like to bring down mountains and bring up valleys. This is what it looks like to make all the rough places plain and to stretch out a highway for our God. Here’s John, the dude from the desert. His very birth was a miracle, born to a woman who everyone thought was barren and would never be able to have kids. His own dad didn’t believe it when God told him that his wife was going to have a son, so God silenced him until John was born. From the beginning, John’s life was characterized as different, special, set apart. And now he emerges as this crazy guy in the desert, calling the people out from the city into the wilderness to be baptized into the message he preached.
Why the wilderness? Because in civilized society, the roads are already straight. The mountains are already level, the valleys are already raised up. But in the wilderness, we are forced to face the mountains and valleys, the trees and the rocks, and everything else that gets in the way of a straight path. So John calls us up, out of the comfort of our lives, out of the false security of our homes, out of the false coziness of our beds and into the wilderness of our lives, into the sin and pain and disobedience that we would rather ignore, and says “Repent!”
That’s the key word in John’s preaching. The Greek word is “metanoia” and it means to turn, change, reverse yourself. Now in the original Greek language outside of the New Testament, it didn’t have a particularly religious meaning. It just meant that you changed your mind. But in the New Testament, it means a complete reorientation of yourself. If you’re driving south down 235 and you see God driving north, repentance means that you turn your car around and follow God north.
Now why did he start with baptism? Why did he start this work of preparing the world for the restoration found in Christ by baptizing? Because true restoration starts with us admitting that we have a problem. And it’s not only that we have a problem in ourselves, we are all complicit in the brokenness of the world. We are all responsible for the broken state of the world. We see the broken world around us and true restoration starts with us saying “That’s my fault.” And if we don’t see ourselves in our true states, as broken people who are responsible for the brokenness around us, then we have no need of Jesus. We have no need of this restoration that Jesus is bringing because if we aren’t broken, we don’t need to be restored. True restoration starts with us admitting that we need to be restored, that we can’t do it ourselves. And that is what happens in baptism.
So Isaiah and John call us to the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord on this, the second Sunday of Advent. They call us there to confront our sins, to confront all the ways that we have lost our way, all the times we have not loved our neighbor as ourself, all the ways that we have driven south when God was driving north. Because only then can we see our need for Jesus our Savior. Only then can we see our need for the restoration that God begins to bring about through the life of Jesus Christ.
So what I want to do now is to lead us in active preparation for this restoration. What I want to do now is lead us all into the metaphorical wilderness in our lives. If you noticed, earlier in the service, I left out the confession part of our prayer. That’s because we’re going to do it now. If we are going to prepare the way for the Lord, then we need put it all on the table, lay our sins out on the table. Let’s stop pretending. Let’s stop the pretending. Let’s stop the faking. Let’s stop the lying and covering up. If we really want Jesus to come, if we really look forward to the birth of Christ our savior, God in the flesh, then we must prepare ourselves by going into the wilderness and facing our wrongness. Otherwise, this restoration is going to come, but it will pass you by.
Right now, we’re going to take a few seconds to just close our eyes and clear our minds. So everyone close your eyes and center yourself here, in the space. Get rid of the distractions in your mind, and be present here. (10 sec)
Lord God, we confess that we are not worthy of the love that you have shown us. We have done nothing to deserve the gift of grace that you have given us in Jesus Christ. We realize that when you sent your son into the world as the baby in that manger, you sent him into a very broken place. So Father, we bring our confessions to you in the silence of these moments. (5 sec.)
We have sinned against ourselves and have brought damage upon ourselves. We confess those sins against ourselves in the silence of these moments. (10 sec)
We have sinned against our families and friends and have brought pain upon those whom we love the most. We confess those sins against them in the silence of these moments. (10 sec.)
We have sinned against our neighbors, our communities, and our world. With every mistake and with every intentional act of wrongness, we have contributed to the broken state of the world. We confess our responsibility for the brokenness in these moments of silence. (10 sec.)
But Lord God, we know that in the birth of your Son, you bring restoration into this world, you revive us, you restore us, you breathe life into these dead bones. Our lives of sin and death will be restored to lives of beauty and perfection through trusting in your Son and following the life that he led. We ask that you prepare us for this restoration. Amen.