December 10, 2017 – II Advent B
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
The church year started over again last week, and as always, it started with the season of Advent. Advent is one of the shorter seasons in the Church calendar. It’s the four-week period of time before the twelve days of Christmas. And it’s a season of preparation and anticipation. It follows the longstanding pattern of the church, where a season is designated for preparation in anticipation of a feast. You can see this pattern in Advent and Lent which are both seasons of preparation for the feasts of Christmas and Easter.
And as seasons of preparation Advent and Lent both have a penitential focus. They are both seasons of reflection on sin. They are both seasons that invite us to reflect on the fact that we stand in need of the forgiveness of God.
You can see this penitential focus in each of the collects for the four weeks of Advent. Last week we prayed that God would give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Next week we will pray that God would come among us and help us and deliver us because we are sorely hindered by our sins. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we will pray that God will purify our conscience. And in this morning’s collect for the second Sunday of Advent, we pray that God would give us grace to heed the warnings of the prophets God has sent so that we can forsake our sins.
Advent is a time to reflect on our need for God’s forgiveness for our sins as we prepare for Jesus to come into our lives. And this penitential aspect of Advent can be a little surprising. In the church year, we are in the season of Advent, but in the larger culture, we are already living the feast of the Holiday season. Things feel more festive. Lights are up. Cards are being sent. There are holiday parties and gatherings. It’s time to watch the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and to hear Christmas music playing. We are living in a season of feasting, so the season of Advent with its penitential focus, its invitation for us to reflect on our sins and forsake them, might seem anachronistic and out of touch with the reality of the holiday season. But I think it’s exactly what we need in the times we are living in.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness and preaches that everyone should turn from sin in their life and prepare for the coming of Jesus. Mark connects John with the words from Isaiah: he is the one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
In Isaiah’s day, these words were to comfort Israel. They were suffering under the oppression of Babylon. Babylon had conquered Israel. Their economy was destroyed. Their land was lost. And all of their leaders were taken into Babylonian captivity. God wanted Isaiah to speak comfort and hope to Israel, God’s people whom God loved, who suffered under the rule of a foreign nation.
Mark wants us to see John as the voice crying out in the wilderness, proclaiming a message of hope to all of Israel who felt like they were living in their own exile. They were under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They were ruled by a foreign people who did not follow the covenant they had made with God. John the Baptist, a wild prophet like Elijah cries out that God’s saving power is coming in the person of Jesus. They are to prepare themselves and be ready for his coming, by forsaking their sins.
And they did. People came from everywhere. All the people from the countryside came out. They were folks on the outskirts, people who weren’t close to the center of power in Jerusalem. But they came, too. Mark tells us all the people of Jerusalem went out to see John, too and were baptized by him and confessing their sins. So you had the religious elites, the big city folks who were religious insiders, mixing with the normal everyday people, who were just trying to get by.
Something incredible happened out there in that river. No longer did you have two groups of people who were different. No, as they stumbled and slid down the muddy banks of the Jordan river, they all became one people, all of them coming to a point of honesty in confessing their sins and turning away from them so that they could welcome Jesus more fully into their lives.
And that’s what this season of Advent invites us to do. Advent is a time to see ourselves gathered with everyone else in the muddy banks of the Jordan river, all of us standing in need of God’s forgiveness as we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ into our world.
There is a lot going on in our world right now. And while we enter the festive times of the holiday season, I think we are all acutely aware of sin in our world. All we have to do is read the headlines to see how human relationships have been violated and damaged. There have been harrowing stories of systemic and widespread abuse of women. There are wars and rumors of wars. The hatred within our political discourse is almost palpable. There are all kinds of injustices and oppression that we can encounter on an hourly basis, and it all seems so pronounced right now.
And some of these sins are so egregious and so public, we unconsciously start dividing ourselves as separate from those people. We can see so clearly how they have damaged relations with others, but if we aren’t careful, we can start losing touch with our own lives and all the places we need healing and restoration because of our sins. After a while we are no longer preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ into our world because we have lost touch with our individual need for God’s saving work.
John the Baptist is down in the river calling us to repent, but we’re far away on the bank, focused on who else needs to get in those waters and turn from their sins, rather than stepping into the Jordan ourselves so we can turn away from our sins and prepare for Jesus’ saving work in our lives.
There is a story about Moses the Black. He was a Christian monk in the fourth century. A fellow monk in the community had committed a fault. And a council was called together to decide what to do with him. Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ Moses said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.
Moses the Black understood the truth of John the Baptist’s call to repentance. Sin is real. Injustices need to be addressed. And we can be rightfully angry at the sins of others and seek to make things right. But we can never forget that, like the whole Judean countryside, and all of the people of Jerusalem, we all need to walk down into the muddy banks of the Jordan river and acknowledge our own need for God’s healing forgiveness as we prepare for Jesus to come into our lives at his birth and at the end of all time.
I have a suggestion for a spiritual practice for all of us during this Advent time of preparation for the feast of Christmas. Whatever sin you see in the headlines or in others this holiday season, stop and pause and pray. Ask God where you see that sin in your own life. Each sin can be an opportunity to reflect where that sin lives in our own lives. If we see the abuse of power by leaders, we can stop and reflect on the ways we have abused our own. Where are we not honest? Where have we used other people to get what we want? What about the anger and violence in our hearts? How do we manifest the desire to control others? Where are we greedy?
It’s only when we are honest with how sin is in our own lives that we will be able to welcome the healing presence of Jesus in our lives and in our world.
And as you come to the altar this morning to receive the grace and forgiveness of God in Holy Communion, watch out for standing water because we’re all carrying leaky jugs.