Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 10 2017
I like the way Mark begins his gospel. Mark 1:1 ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ It raises the question as we read his words, “Well, how do we get started?" If we want to follow Jesus Christ, where can we begin?” And immediately Mark launches into a statement from one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the prophet Isaiah, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'
In other words, “If you really want to pursue this path, if you really want to take on board and experience some gospel good news, than you are going to have to be serious about straightening your life out.” And to hammer that point home Mark introduces us to one of the most seriously radical characters of the New Testament, the no compromise, get your life straight before it's too late, locust and wild honey eating, leather belted, camel hair clothed, John the Baptist.
When John the Baptist preaches, he isn’t about to invite you to consider joining a discussion group or ask you throw a few dollars in the plate following a minute for mission, he wants to throw you in the river. He is going to put his hand on your neck, push you down under the water and pull you up again looking undignified and possibly gasping for breath if you weren’t ready for the dunking.
Whilst John is doing all this he is proclaiming and preaching; "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Now John was a person who had a powerful a charisma that enabled him to be taken seriously. For him to say “One is coming after me is more powerful than I,” surely that should make folk sit up and take notice! Again, the one who is to come won’t baptize in water but will baptize in Holy Spirit. This is taking things to a whole new level.
I guess because we know the rest of the story, the impact of this first chapter is a little lost on us. We know how Jesus came to be baptized by John and that whole account of the dove and the voice from heaven declaring “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.”
We know from Matthew and Luke about the strange circumstances surrounding the birth of both John and Jesus. We know how another John in a great theological gospel tells us “The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.” All of that is to come. All of that is what in this season of Advent we are preparing ourselves to celebrate. The coming of Christ. The ‘Christ-Mass.’ The Christ event. The Incarnation.
But today I invite us to draw back, to back up to Marks' first chapter. To try and see what there is in these first few verses that can help us truly prepare for what we know by hindsight is to come. What can help us to be embraced by the good news as we travel together through the Advent season? And we need look no further than Isaiah’s words. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'
The advantage of a straight path is that it gets you where you want to go in the shortest possible time. If you grew up as a schoolchild in the British Isles one of the things you learned about very early in geography class, was the historic network of Roman Roads that spanned out like a spiders web from London. As far as gradients and mountains allowed the ancient Romans built their roads in perfectly straight lines. It was upon these roads that the Roman Centurions marched, the chariots were hauled and communications kept flowing.
That network of roads, the ability to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, was nothing short of a revolution that reshaped the way a whole nation moved and traveled. Previously ancient paths would follow rivers and valleys and weave from dwelling to dwelling. The whole idea of connecting a place some 250 miles away with another place by a straight as possible line hadn’t been considered.
The Romans not only had the ingenuity to come up with the plan, but among the conquered masses found the work force to make it happen. Slavery proved to provide an extremely efficient means of achieving otherwise insurmountable tasks. So a network of roads was built in Roman times across the British Isles that have proved to be the pattern of communications ever since. What is remarkable about some of the roads the Romans built is that 2250 plus years later some are still in existence. Obsolescence was not a word they had in their vocabulary.
How where they built? Construction began by digging a ditch with plough and spades as far down as the firmest ground they could find. Into this ditch was placed layers of rock and stone. On top and around this were dumped further layers of rubble, gravel and small stones, the actual materials depending upon what was available in the area. The most important architectural feature was the use of layers.
When it came to within an inch or two of the surface these layers were covered with gravel and trampled down, a process called ‘pavimentare’ from where we get the English word ‘pavement’. Finally concrete was poured and paving stones laid, some of which would be shaped for drainage, so the elements would not destroy what had been so carefully laid down.
At the beginning of Marks gospel John the Baptist challenges the would be follower of Jesus Christ to get ready, to be prepared and make the paths straight. To do so we need to attempt a number of things. We need a plan to get straight. John would call that repentance. We need to dig down deep and build on something solid. Having found something solid we then need to build layers upon that strong foundation.
Repentance isn’t just saying sorry. Repentance is showing genuine remorse for a failure that we have been responsible for and then making plans to see that it doesn’t happen again. Repentance was a turn around moment, that John symbolized by putting people down in the waters as a public sign they wanted to wash away the old and begin again.
To get our lives straight with God, we have to make plans. We have to make choices. We have to decide how the process of repentance is going to work for us. What do we need to cut out? What do we need to avoid? What changes in direction do we need to take? Like the architect planning a Roman Road the terrain of our lives has to be surveyed. Like the repentant soul going down to the river to pray, this evaluation has to be intensely personal and a response to a call of God we feel on our life.
Let’s say we’ve reached that point. We want to change, but we don’t know how. Then we need to start digging. Digging through the false ideology, the consumerism, the hedonism, the feel-good-ism, the shallow messages and quick fixes that our culture constantly bombards us with, dig deep, dig down, until we hit the solid rock foundation of the love of Jesus Christ. Until we build our lives on the rock of His love we are the foolish person who builds on the sand. Until we find our security in His grace, we remain insecure. We need a solid foundation and God in Christ is offering us that foundation upon which to build.
Then come the layers. How do we build on the foundation? We are fortunate. We have a whole collection of 66 instructional manuals collected together in a manual we call the Bible. Among its pages we will find many suggested layers. The layer of prayer. The layer of worship. The layer of service. The layer of study. The layer of stewardship. The layer of thanksgiving. Layers of hope, joy, perseverance, peace, and truth.
Be aware this is not a process we can do alone. God has provided a personal instructor and enabler known as the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s strength, not our own that will get us straightened out. God has provided a whole construction crew He calls the Church to stand alongside us and work with us. We can’t do it alone.
Keep building these layers. Keep trampling them down. You can even set in place some permanent stones… think of those as moments of commitment. That milestone you reached. That habit that was broken. That relationship that was formed. That new realization you had of just how much your life mattered to God. The moment of baptism or confirmation. That open door of opportunity. That sacred moment of deeper commitment that has stayed with you.
And of course there has to be concrete. To make it smooth. To fill in the gaps. To hold it all together. The concrete that is made of the exact same material as the foundation, namely the binding, unifying, concrete reality of Jesus love.
Making a straight path isn’t easy. But because Christ came and died and God raised Him from the dead, it is possible. It will be a lifelong journey and therefore it is important that we take time out along the way for nurture and fellowship.
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.' counsels the incomparable John the Baptizer. Today let us recommit ourselves to building our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ that His Holy Spirit may change us and renew us, that in our lives we may witness a new ‘Beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ AMEN.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.