(Preached at Alger Assembly of God for a Community Advent Service)
Scripture: Mark 1:1-3
Well today, I wanted to start by talking a little bit about what the season of Advent really is. My folks from Alger First UMC have been hearing this for the last couple of weeks, so bear with me here.
In case you don’t know, Advent is the season that goes through the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s also a season that gets glossed over a lot of the time. And it kind of makes sense why it does.
This is a pretty stressful time for a lot of people. Extended family is coming in and your house is a mess and you have no time to clean it. Or maybe you’ll be the ones traveling, taking the family on a 6- or 7-hour road trip to visit the family for a few days and the prospect of that trip and keeping your children under control for that long is making you pull your hair out. And let’s not forget about buying all of the presents. You have to figure out what to get everyone so that everyone will be happy and like their gift and hopefully they won’t have to return it because you wouldn’t want to be the reason that someone is waiting in the Customer Service line to return your gift that they didn’t like. I’ve always found that my grandpa has been the absolute hardest person to get a gift for. I never have any idea what to get him. Does anyone else have that experience with anyone in your family?
So the stress of the holidays makes us kind of gloss over this season of Advent so that we can just get to Christmas and get it over with. But this season of Advent has a different message for us. This season of Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of Christ our King and Lord and Savior. This season that has been celebrated by the church for hundreds and hundreds of years calls us to stop and pause in the busy-ness of life and do the work of preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ.
Because there was something huge happening in the birth of Christ, wasn’t there? Right? This isn’t just a cute little Nativity scene, this is a huge thing. God, our creator, our redeemer our restorer, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of time, the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God, the God who is so great and awesome and powerful and mighty and beautiful and gracious and just and merciful that our words can’t even begin to describe this God; that God came down into the world. That God sent himself down into the world; that God became human, became one of us, put on human flesh and was born as a baby in a manger. One of the titles given to Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us. God is with us, in the truest sense of the phrase. That’s what happened on Christmas.
So something of that magnitude would require preparation, right?
Well that’s what we read about in the first chapter of Mark in the passage that Dave Mosler just read for us. So what I want to do here is really dissect these three verses, because there’s a lot of stuff that we can find here that can really affect how we see the Christmas event. Sound good?
So let’s start in the very first verse. It’s kind of a strange verse. Most scholars think that this is really just the title of the book. So because of that, I think it’s pretty easy to just skim over it and say it’s not really that important. But even looking into this title, we can see how there’s something really huge happening here.
We can see it in the second word. “Beginning.” The original Greek word that’s translated here as beginning is Arche (Ar-khay’) and means the beginning or origin-obviously, that’s why it’s translated that way. But when the Old Testament was translated into Greek back in those days, this was the same word that was used in Genesis 1:1, Arche. “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” So the implication here is that this is truly a brand new beginning. It’s not just the beginning of a book, it’s talking about the absolute beginning of a completely new thing, on the same level as the creation of the heavens and the earth. That’s a pretty big deal, right?
Now let’s go a few words forward. The beginning of the Gospel. In some translations it says the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ. And while that’s true, this is truly good news for all, there’s some more nuance here. The original word for Gospel, again, in the original Greek, was “euaggelion.” Now this is really significant because this word had never, ever before been used in this way in any ancient Jewish religious writing. Not in any of the Old Testament books, not by any of the ancient rabbis or scholars. But it was used outside of the Jewish world.
Does anyone know what was going on in the world at the time that Jesus lived? The Roman Empire had taken over most of the ancient world, including Jerusalem. And the Jews really hated this. They were God’s chosen people, but they were under the rule of what they saw as a godless nation. They weren’t independent, they kind of felt like they were being held captive in their own land.
So in the Roman world around Jerusalem, the word “euaggelion” had been used in the way Mark used it, kind of. The birth of Caesar Augustus was called “euaggelion,” good news for the world. The Romans worshiped Caesar as a god, so his birthday really was euaggelion, good news for everyone in the world. But Mark uses this word, that had originally just been used to refer to Caesar in a really idolatrous way by worshiping Caesar as god, and refers to Jesus with that word.
Now why do these intricacies matter? Because in this title, we are woken up from our proverbial slumber by this announcement of something huge that’s happening. It’s the beginning of something, something huge, something on the same level with God creating the heavens and the earth, it’s that big. And it is euaggelion, good news for everyone, but about Jesus and not Caesar. So Mark kind of throws it in the face of the Romans and says “Take that, you Roman overlords. This Jesus is greater than your Caesar.” And that would’ve been huge for the Roman government, for emperor’s secret police, because this is really subversive and really revolutionary. Saying Jesus is greater than the emperor was almost rebellion against the Roman Empire. That’s a HUGE deal.
So that’s verse 1. Let’s read verse 2. This isn’t really from Isaiah. Verse 3 is from Isaiah 40, but verse 2 is kind of a combination of 2 verses, Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. When I first figured that out, I thought Mark had made a mistake, like is this a typo? Did they have typos back then? But I think this was really intentional. Can we look into those two verses? Again, I’m doing this to try to help us widen our picture of what’s really going on in these verses, and to really widen your vision of what is happening during this season of preparation from Jesus’ birth.
Exodus 23:20- “I’m about to send a messenger in front of you to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place that I’ve made ready.”
Now, we all know what’s happening in Exodus, right? God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, Moses leads them out of Egypt, they cross the Red Sea, and come to Mount Sinai, right? And at Mount Sinai, God really lays out what it’s going to look like for the Israelites to be God’s nation. In the chapters leading up to this verse, God is telling God’s people, the Israelites, how they are to live in covenant with God and each other. This is the start of the Israelite nation, and God had to just lay out a few rules for them, right? And now this verse starts a section telling the Israelite people about how they are going to conquer the land that God is bringing them into. God has brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, brought them across the Red Sea, and now they’re in the desert, waiting to find out where God’s going to lead them next, and God is telling them that he will be with them as they conquer the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. God is sending a messenger in front of them to guard them on their way as they conquer, in battles and war and fighting, all of the nations who inhabited the land that God promised to the Israelites. This is no light message of comfort, this is God saying that God will guide them to and through war and battle and real military conflict. That’s important, keep that in mind, I’ll come back to it later.
The other verse that Mark is referring to is the first part of Malachi 3:1-“Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me”
Malachi is one of the Minor Prophets and is actually the last book in the Old Testament. So this is one of the last prophets the Jewish people have heard until Jesus. The Jewish people had been in exile to Babylon, taken away from their land by the nation of Babylon. But then Babylon was defeated by Persia, and the Israelites were allowed to return to their land, the Promised Land. In Malachi, the people have returned from their exile, and they have rebuilt the temple, but they are not living as God’s people, God’s presence is not felt in the sanctuary. In Malachi, there is a yearning for God to enter, for God to be here, to be among his people. The temple is built, but things aren’t as they should be. The people wonder where God is. And Malachi tells them that God is going to send a messenger to clear the way before the Lord. And God will suddenly come into the temple. That’s the promise that is in Malachi, that God will enter the temple, that the messenger of God IS coming.
So in verse 2, we really have a double edged sword. There are the political and military ramifications from Exodus-God bringing his people out of slavery and submission to powerful overlords and God giving the Israelites military victory over the countries who are currently in the Promised Land. Those would be words of fear to the Romans, who are currently ruling over the Jewish people like Egypt had been in Exodus. But there are also words for the Jewish people in verse 2-You are not keeping the covenant with God, and you wonder why God is not with you, why God’s presence is not felt or seen in the land. You are not living as God’s people, you’re not living in the way God created you to live, that’s why you don’t feel God’s presence. But God is sending a messenger to prepare the way to God, and the message isn’t going to be easy. A message of hope and warning.
And finally, we get to verse 3 back in Mark 1. This is from the prophet Isaiah, and we have the call to prepare the way for the Lord. Like I said at the beginning, that’s what we’re really doing during this season, isn’t it? We are preparing the way for the Lord.
And we have that call to prepare in verse 3. What are we supposed to prepare? Well, we’re told in the first 2 verses. We’re supposed to prepare for something huge. This is just as big a deal as God creating the heavens and the earth, it’s that important, that wide of a scope. And this will be over and above all the powers of the world. In fact, the thing that we are preparing for will bring an end to all of the evil powers of the world. It is euaggelion, but not about Caesar, the god of the Romans. It will be just as big a deal as the Exodus, and just as big a deal as the Jewish people conquering all of the nations in the Promised Land. This is something huge! This is revolutionary! In these three verses, governments and empires and rulers are thrown down from their thrones, armies are defeated, evil is silenced, the powers of this world are destroyed and the Kingdom of God is ushered in. This is what we are supposed to prepare for.
That’s a big deal, right? This is what we are called to prepare for, this is what we are called to do during this season. So what I would urge you to do is to not domesticate Christmas. Don’t silence these prophetic voices. Christmas time makes all of us feel good, but the message from this book, the Bible, which is what we really should be living our lives from, is that we cannot just sit back in comfort and peace with our families. We cannot just wish for Christmas and New Year’s to come so that the stress can be off. There is preparing to do so that the work of God can be done.
The saying that pops up a lot around this time of year is “Keep Christ in Christmas.” We’ve all heard that, right? And while I agree with it, completely, I have a problem with the way it is said. We, who spit this phrase out into the world, are we doing that? Are we keeping Christ central? Are we truly ready for the radical, revolutionary change that begins with the birth of Christ? Do we really see this season as what it really is, nothing less than the complete inbreaking of God’s kingdom? This is no cute nativity scene. At the birth of Jesus, the days of the evil in the world are numbered. The end is coming for all earthly governments and powers, all armies and nations. The end is coming and it’s an end that we all need and it’s an end that we must prepare for.
So I’ve said a lot of stuff here, so what can we get from all of this? One-Jesus is coming. God’s son is coming into this world, into our midst, walking among us. God sent Godself into this world, and that fact alone is enough to make the gates of hell shudder. Two-This requires preparation, which is what we are doing during this season of Advent. How do we prepare? By living as God’s people. By feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind, strength to the weak, and life to the dead. By living as Jesus did, by loving our neighbor as ourselves. By getting rid of selfishness, vanity, hatred, evil, spite, lust, everything like that. By reading our Bibles. By coming to church and worshiping with the family of God. By doing all of the stuff your pastors tell you to do the rest of the year.
So this Christmas, don’t let yourself get caught up in the gift wrap and frantic Christmas shopping and Christmas tree decorating and preparing for family get-togethers. Allow yourself to prepare for the radical and revolutionary change that comes with the birth of Jesus Christ.