Prepare the Way

Mark 1:1-8
December 9, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Imagine that day on the banks of the Jordan River where the crowd shuffles nervously as they gather on the shore, talking in low tones.  There is a hushed respect in their voices because this is no ordinary river; this is the mighty Jordan.  This is the river that has figured so prominently in the hearts of the Jewish people for over a thousand years.  Here at the Jordan River, the weary Hebrew slaves stepped out of the wilderness into the land of promise.  Here in the waters of the Jordan, the prophet Elisha had cured Naaman of his leprosy, and just a stone’s throw from its banks, the prophet Elijah had been taken up into heaven.  It was no surprise then, that Isaiah had promised that it would be by the banks of the Jordan that new glory would come from Galilee and the crowd has come hoping to be a witness to yet another miracle on the banks of the Jordan.

Of course, the mighty Jordan River is more mighty in metaphor than reality; some northern sections of the river are only a few few deep and less than 100 feet wide, 1 and have more of an aura of mud about them than glory.  And to the crowd waiting for John the Baptist this day, the river certainly looks inauspicious.  Rushes along the shore lie trampled to a slimy pulp by the feet of pilgrims waiting to be baptized, and the hot sun releases a slight odor of fish.

‘No matter,’ thinks the crowd. ‘John himself will make up for any lack of novelty in the river for doesn’t rumor say that John dresses in leopard skins?  That he lives among the lions of the wilderness and shakes off angry bees to plunder their hives for honey?   Haven’t people said that his words roar like the desert wind?’

They shuffle and wait nervously and then suddenly, John himself appears.  He pushes through the crowd, leaps upon a high boulder, and shouts:  “Repent your sins!  Turn your lives around, now!  Prepare, because the Lord’s chosen one is coming!”

An uneasy shiver goes through the crowd.  They have come to hear John’s words of salvation, and he will preach salvation to them — he will eventually baptize scores of men and women who stand trembling before him on the river bank — but first he intends to shake them awake.

“Take a good hard look at yourselves,” he warns.  “You say you want the mercy that God offers but your hearts are so stubborn that there’s no room in them for forgiveness.  Confess your sins.  Admit your wrong headed ways, and clear a path in your heart so that God can get in there!”  

The crowd shudders as they watch this wild man.  His words are strident but they are not new:  similar words were spoken by the prophets —  Elijah, Isaiah, Amos and Malachi.  Those prophets also spoke of a Messiah who would save them, and those prophets too, warned that the salvation offered by God’s chosen one would not be easy or painless.  The Messiah would come as a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ soap, stripping their hearts of all that stood between them and the peace they so desire.  

“Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi had wondered, and the crowd at the banks of the river listening to the fiery words of John wonder too, “Will we be ready?  Will we be able to stand when he appears?”

This is how the gospel of Mark chooses to begin his story of Jesus’ coming.  There are no rustic stables in the gospel of Mark, and no shepherds, or magi from the east.  The gospel of Mark instead begins at the Jordan River, a symbol of the dividing line between slavery and freedom, between wandering and coming home, between the old and the new.  The Christ who is coming, the gospel says, is the one who will lead you across the restless waters to the place you have always longed to be.  And certainly, we too, need the promise of this gospel message for we too, stand on the banks of the Jordan.  We too, long for a word of hope that this broken world can be made whole again.  We too, seek freedom from the powers that enslave us, and we too, need to hear that there is a way for our weary hearts to be renewed in strength and that our restless spirits can finally find a place to call home.  It is easy to imagine ourselves with that crowd at the Jordan River shivering with excitement over all the river has promised and hoping that we can know that promise in our lives today.  

But then things get a little wild here at the beginning of the gospel of Mark.  Instead of angels delivering this good news with gentle words of “Fear not,” a wild-eyed John the Baptist comes on stage thundering words of warning:  “Be prepared, people, because the good news of this promise may hurt a little!”  The road to freedom and salvation, this gospel warns, will require an excruciating cleansing of our hearts.  

“Get out your scouring pads,” it says.  “Put on your rubber gloves or maybe even your asbestos gloves, because if you are serious about seeking renewal, the cleansing of your heart is going to require a lot of elbow grease and maybe a little fire.  There is crud in there that has been clogging up the works for a long time and it’s going to take some effort to set things right again.”  

Last week at Book group, Jan Porter stopped by to hand out crock pot liners to anyone making soup for the Bazaar.  She said, “I’m handing out as many of these as I can because it really makes cleaning the crock pots so much easier for the kitchen workers.”  

Someone replied with a laugh, “Jan, what you don’t understand is that for some of us, the Bazaar is the only time of year that we know our crock pots will get thoroughly scrubbed clean!”

John the Baptist tells us that Advent is the time of year for us to make sure our hearts are thoroughly scrubbed clean.  There’s gunk in there that’s been building up for some time, and needs our attention if we are to have room to receive the promise of peace that Christ offers.  

So prepare the way of the Lord!  It may take a little elbow grease.

As I thought about this message this week, I realized that telling you all that you should take time to consider the state of your hearts would just be adding one more thing to your already crowded list of things to do.  Though traditionally in days long past, Advent was a time of quiet spiritual reflection in preparation for the coming of Christ, today Advent has become anything but quiet.  We fill it with parties and music and frenzied preparations.  We have dozens of cookies to bake, presents to buy and wrap, Christmas lights to put up, trees to decorate, and that leaky faucet to fix before Aunt Sarah and her brood of ten kids descend on the house.  And for some of you, the weeks of Advent are doubly difficult because while “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” is being pumped into every mall and restaurant, you are coping with grief over loved ones who will never be home again, and instead of feeling comfort and joy, you are feeling only anguish.  To say to you, “Try to take five minutes a day for prayer,” would just add to the guilt that here is one more place you are falling short in the holidays. 

So instead, I thought, instead of sending you all off with a command to find time for repentance and prayerful renewal, let’s do it right here.  Here is a place where you can rest for a moment and do the work of cleansing your heart because right here in the next few minutes, there are no chores that need to be done.  In this place, there are no griefs that are too great for the Lord to bear.  And in this sanctuary, in this hour of worship, the accumulated prayers of all who have gone before us surround us with grace to assure us that no matter how painful it is to confront our own sin and admit the wounds that have kept us from the peace of Christ, the love of Christ’s community is strong enough to bear us up as we do this work of prayerful preparation.

For the rest of my sermon time, then, I am going to lead you in prayers of confession so that you can prepare your hearts for the coming of Christ.  I will give you three prayer prompts and then we will sit silently for a few minutes after each to give us time to pray.  I’ll warn you that three minutes will seem like an extraordinarily long time when “nothing is happening,” but in my experience, it takes at least a minute for your brain to stop worrying about the clock and actually start praying, so settle into the quiet and use the space to dig deep down into the work you need to do to cleanse your hearts.  I have included sheets of paper in your bulletin but these papers are for you alone — they will not be collected.  I just know that some of us find it easier to pray through writing or even drawing.  If you wish, however, just pray silently.  If your prayers go off on a different tangent from the prompt I have suggested, notice it, and if it is something that you realize requires prayer, stay with it, but if not, gently bring your mind back to the prompt.

Let us first then take a minute to prepare ourselves for prayer.  Close your eyes, quiet your bodies, and breath in the breath of God’s spirit in this place.

And now, begin by asking yourself:  Is there confession that I need to make?  Is there anger against my brother or sister that I need to resolve before being ready to greet Christ?  Is there someone I have hurt or refused to reconcile with?  How have I failed my commitment to follow in the way of Christ by what I have done, or by what I have left undone?   Let us confess our sins in silent prayer.

Lord, hear these prayers of confession and cleanse our hearts.

And now, from our willful stubbornness, let us turn our prayers to the places in our hearts where we struggle with old wounds and our own weakness; where we try to be strong on our own because we don’t want to admit our need for help.  Ask yourself, “Is there a place where I am weak and need the strength of God?  Are there wounds I have tried to hide, grief I have tried to bear alone?  Have I pushed away friends or family afraid to admit that I may need help in managing the demands of my life?  Is my pride, my embarrassment, or my hesitance preventing me from confessing my weakness?”  Let us confess our weakness and pray for God’s strength and help. 

Lord, hear these prayers of confession and strengthen our hearts.

And finally, in our preparations for the gift giving of Christmas, have we taken the time to consider the gift of our own lives, both as a blessing we have received and as a blessing we can offer?  In invite you to ask yourself, “How have I failed to make my life into a gift for others?  Where have I held too tightly to what I have been given afraid to share with others?  Where have I denied the preciousness of my days, taken my life for granted, refused to believe that I have anything to offer the world?  And how will I embrace the gift of my life and offer it to Christ and others in the coming weeks and year?”   Let us confess our sparing ways and pray that we may be people of generosity and blessing. 

Lord, hear these prayers of confession and open our hearts.

Prepare the way of the Lord, the gospel declares.  May these moments of confession prepare our hearts for the coming promise of peace, mercy, and new life that we have been given in Christ.  May your hearts be cleansed, strengthened, and opened to the grace of God which has the power to set us all free.  

Amen. 

Footnotes:

  1. The Jordan River is quite small in the north coming out of the Sea of Galilee but widens, deepens, and quickens as it flows south, fed by a number of large tributaries before it empties into the Dead Sea.  It’s not known exactly where John the Baptist did his baptizing though any place he chose was probably new a large population center and must have been accessible enough to allow baptisms, which would also mean the banks would likely be muddy from use.