Preparing in the Wilderness

Sunday 10th of December 2017

Mark 1:1-8

On this Sunday morning we find ourselves only a couple of weeks out from Christmas and in the middle of the season of Advent. And of course Advent is the time of the year when we focus on what it means to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return. With this in mind we come to today’s Gospel reading from Mark chapter 1 where we find John the Baptist coming in from the wilderness preaching to the Jewish people. And quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

As I was thinking about this I thought, ‘What exactly does it mean to prepare a way for the Lord?’ It implies that in order for the Lord to do his work, some preparation must happen. Perhaps the crooked paths need work to make them straight so the Lord can come.

And given in Mark’s Gospel John appears straight up before Jesus is even mentioned in this Gospel, I believe that it is significant to us, because we are indeed preparing ourselves for Jesus’ coming. Not his first, as in today’s reading, but his return. John the Baptist’s answer to the question is to call people to repentance and, through his baptism, to show them how desperately in need of a thorough cleansing they are. In other words, he is telling them the truth.  This is how the obstacles and obstructions and hindrances are to be cleared away. This is how the very crooked ways of relating to each other, but also to our Lord will be straightened. Repentance and the confession of sins are like bulldozers and road graders, of this road to Jesus’ coming.

John the Baptist’s preaching would have been shocking to those who heard him. Because he was direct and confronting, like most of the prophets are. And in the current climate that we as Christians are living in, we need to hear what he says. We as Christians should no more take for granted our status before the Lord than John’s hearers could take for granted their status as Israel. Jesus was coming to them. Were they prepared for him? Are we ready to meet our Lord? This is an important time to prepare. Every day brings you and me closer to Jesus’ sudden appearance among us. Are we listening to John the Baptist today and preparing our hearts?

As I have looked back over my sermons of recent times, I have noticed that I have frequently been encouraging us to look at the state of our society and the world around us, to help us see what is happening and how God’s word speaks to us in our world today. And there is a great sense here again that the Advent readings, including today’s Gospel reading, call us as a church not to be silent, but to be announcers of Jesus coming again. You see, the world around us has no idea of how late in the game, so to speak, it really is.

The world needs to hear that Jesus’ return is not necessarily “Game over!” Though the truth is, it will be for some.  John the Baptist came pronouncing judgment upon the unfaithful people of Israel and he did it so clearly that few could misunderstand or ignore; in other words, the warning was clear, but in this also came the call to repentance, and the call to repentance is always a message of hope. John was helping people get rid of the obstacles and obstructions in the road, to make the path straight so they could receive our Lord Jesus.

You and I, as Christians, have the joy of knowing that the road that was being built by John the Baptist now stands paved, and the way that God’s own Son cleared still stands as the Way between us and God. Jesus has taken the obstacles and made the path straight. This is not something we can do on our own; it has been done for us by him. And he will come back and complete it in his second coming. This is the good news that needs to be told.

Another thing that stood out in this reading was the theme of being in the wilderness. John the Baptist comes to prepare the people and he comes from the wilderness. I don’t think that this is insignificant. If you think about the Bible, the theme of being in the wilderness comes up again and again right throughout scripture. But wilderness in the Bible is the place you want to journey through—it’s not the place you want to live. It’s the place that God’s people pass through on their way from slavery to freedom. In other words, it’s the place where He speaks and works with his people. Where everything is taken away and all is laid bare and God can speak. When the gospel writers speak of wilderness it is important to see that they have this in mind.

Wildernesses are dangerous places. They are often places of temptation and testing. They are places where it is easy to lose your way and spend the rest of your life wandering. They are places where you could easily die, and your dreams and hopes could die with you. They are places where things are beyond your control.

As next week is my final service in this parish, it is not lost on me that this parish and also my family are going into a time of wilderness. There are many uncertainties ahead, much anxiety about what is going to happen. Much of what is ahead is unknown. The temptation for us all is to despair and lose hope. But this is why this reading for today is so important, as it is in times of wilderness that a new voice calls out. In the midst of all the mess that surrounds us, one cries out: “Prepare a highway! A highway in the wilderness! The Lord Jesus is coming to you! He’s not waiting in town. He’s not waiting until you can find the way out, until you can make your way to him. No!  He is forging his way through the wilderness in which you live. And his road in will be your road out!” That’s why the road needs to be smooth and level. Your Lord Jesus will walk this road; that is true. But on this road, he will lead you and all his lost ones out of the wilderness to his Promised Land. He is the way, the truth and the life. This is true of all of life, and it is true of where you and I are now. Our Lord has us in his hands and he is working in this parish among his children, even though tough times are coming. In these times he will speak to us and he will prepare us for what he has in store for us.  The question is: are we prepared to hear him speaking?

As much as today’s reading is about John the Baptist and about repentance and confession and wilderness times, the most important verses of this Gospel reading are verses 7-8: “And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent is about preparation for Jesus’ return, his coming. But we don’t do this on our own; we have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us through this life. The focus of Advent is on Jesus and what he is doing and what he is going to do. This is the heart of our Christian faith. This is the hope that we have and that we hold on to, as we wait for him.

I encourage you all as children of our Lord Jesus to remind yourselves and others of who you are and who you belong to. I encourage you to listen when the Lord speaks, even if it means that confession and repentance need to follow. I also encourage you to hold onto the hope that we have that our Lord Jesus is the way, that he is the one who has made and is making the paths straight for us in this life. Finally, I encourage you to know that even when times are hard that our Lord Jesus has us in his hands, as we prepare ourselves for his coming.