Sunday, December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
2 Peter 3:8-14
Mark 1:1-8

The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.

The beginning of the Good News... This is how Mark begins his record of the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. The verse sounds more like a title than the first sentence of the book. It is. When Mark says, “The beginning,” he is not referring to the beginning of his story; he is simply telling us that his story tells the beginning of something much bigger. The story of Jesus is not something that can be limited to a few pages in a book, it is a story that began two thousand years ago and continues today. The story as we hear it in Mark and in the rest of the New Testament did not end with the last word written. It continues today and will continue into the future, as long as it is God’s will. It will only end on that great Day of the Lord for which we wait, preparing as we’ve been encouraged over the past few weeks.

Mark does not begin his story with the birth of Jesus. The Nativity was not important when Mark wrote. Mark put down the vital facts. Many have suggested that Mark records Peter’s story. See, the disciples spent many hours together in the home of Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12) after Jesus ascended to heaven. This place may have even been the same room where they ate the Last Supper with Jesus. Mark was younger than the disciples; he was a boy overhearing their conversations.

What do you do when you gather with family after the loss of someone you love? You tell stories. So did they. They shared memories. They wondered about the meaning of the signs and the miracles. They remembered everything Jesus taught them. They probably told the same stories over and over again. And Mark listened. He put them together so that they would not be forgotten. He ordered them in a way that made sense. Most of all, he laid down the facts as they were remembered by the disciples, particularly through the eyes of Peter. It began as an oral tale and was eventually written onto paper so that it would not be lost to time or to death.

Unfortunately, people were dying. Most of the Apostles and many others were martyred for their faith, but there were also many who were dying of old age. They were looking and waiting for the second coming of Christ and believed they would see it happen, but then they began to die. What would happen to the believers who did not make it to that great Day? They were worried, but they were also faithful, realizing the importance of passing the story on to the next generation. They knew God would keep His promises, even if it didn’t happen in their time. They put the stories to paper so that the next generation, and every generation following, would know it and would believe.

In today’s epistle lesson, Peter was writing to a people who were hopeful for Christ’s return. They were expecting Him back at any moment. They were even beginning to doubt the words of Jesus because it seemed to be taking so long. They wondered where He might be and why He was late. There were, I’m sure, even some who were trying to find a way to hasten His coming. It has certainly been done throughout the past two thousand years. Prophets have tried to foretell the time and day when the Lord would come, and cults have built up around ideas and practices meant to spur God on to fulfilling His promises. Every generation since Peter’s day has waited for and tried to hasten the coming of the Lord.

Are you tired of hearing about the end times? After all, we’ve had so many texts dealing with eschatological issues over the past month or so and it is not a subject we like to dwell upon. We live for today, we look forward to that day but we do not want to make it the entire focus of our faith. Yet, this message is not really about what is to come, but about what we are to do while we wait. Some are so anxious for the coming of the Lord that they will do whatever is necessary to make it happen in this time and place. After all, it has already been two thousand years. Isn't it time?

But we learn from Peter that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day for God. What has taken forever for us has only been a moment for God. The time has not yet come because everything is not yet ready. God is patient because not everyone for whom the promise has been given has yet heard it. There is great hope in this message: God does not want any to perish. He is patient and longsuffering. Christ will not come until all is ready. This is why Mark and the others wrote the stories on paper. They wanted them to last for every generation to come until the Day of the Lord.

In this passage, written for the believers, Peter says that God is, “patient with us.” There is work for us to do, and God is giving us the time. Those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ are out there in the world, walking in darkness. We are the light, sent to give hope and peace to all whom God has chosen. God is patient, not for those who haven’t heard, but for us. He is waiting until we do what we have been called to do. God’s patience is our salvation. He is waiting until we have accomplished all He has commanded. It might happen in this generation, but it might not happen for another thousand years. After all, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day to God. He will fulfill His promises in His time according to His word.

Mark did his job: he told the story, a story he believed would go on long after he was gone, so that we can hear and believe. For Mark, one thing was especially important, and we find it in that title verse, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark wants to make it clear who this Jesus really is: He is the Son of God. The later Gospel writers included the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, establishing also Jesus’ humanity, but Mark insists on His divinity. Jesus isn’t just a prophet. He isn’t just a rabbi. He isn’t just a friend or savior. Jesus is God.

Mark begins his story with John the Baptist. Isaiah wrote that there would be a prophet preparing the way of the Lord, pointing the people toward the One for whom they were waiting. That prophet was John. He came from the wilderness to preach repentance and to call the people to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. That story continues into today. We still call people to baptism, but we have been given a greater gift than John, because Jesus Christ baptizes with more than just water. What John started, Jesus completed and made even more real because now the Holy Spirit brings a lasting, eternal forgiveness. John was cleansing the people to make them ready for the Lord. The Lord now makes the people His forever and ever.

The image in today’s Gospel lesson is harsh and almost frightening. John is a bizarre character. He lives in the wilderness, wears camel hair and eats locusts. This is not a man that we would necessarily follow. He does not portray a picture of peace. His message was rough; he told people they were sinners. He called them to repentance. He baptized but admitted that his baptism was nothing compared to the baptism that would come from God. This is not comforting. It is not pleasant. It is frightening and disconcerting.

Yet people flocked to this madman in the wilderness, longing to see the one who fulfilled the promise we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson. In that text, the message is not so frightening. It is not so unpleasant. God speaks comfort to His people and promises that they will be restored. Isaiah says, “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins.” The “warfare” in this text is referring to the exile, the consequences of their sin against God. They served their sentence and were about to be set free to return home. This promise of restoration was especially significant to a people who were living under the oppressive hand of the Romans; they were looking forward to the day when the throne of David would be restored, when they could live again as a sovereign nation. They didn’t realize that God promised an even greater freedom and a peace that is beyond human understanding.

Isaiah writes, “The grass withers, the flower fades, because Yahweh’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.” Peace, true peace, will come when our flesh is destroyed by the breath of God, consumed by His fire and Spirit, and we are made new. This might seem frightening, but it is the hope of Christmas: that we will be transformed and restored to God. When God comes, when He rules, He will take care of us as a shepherd takes care of His flock. John’s message might seem rough and disconcerting, but it reflects the promise of Isaiah. God is coming, prepare the way. He is coming to do something spectacular, make your hearts ready.

Mark knew that the Old Testament promises could not be fulfilled by just anyone; only the Son of God could provide the salvation that would restore God’s people. Jesus was that Son, and through Him we have been saved; the promise has been fulfilled. Christ was born, Christ died, and Christ rose again. Christ lives. But we still await the coming of our King, the return that will complete the will and purpose of God. We live in a time that is between the fulfillment of the promise and the completion of the promise.

The psalmist presents a message of God’s grace. The early church community understood this psalm to be the prayers of a people who have been saved but are waiting for salvation to be complete. We still live in this time of waiting today. That’s what Advent is all about. We know Christ has come. We know that Jesus was born in the manger, died on the Cross and rose again. It is finished. But we still wait for God’s plan to be complete. We are wandering in this world, waiting for the second coming of Christ when God’s promises will finally be fulfilled.

It might seem like it has been too long, surely God would have completed His work by now! We worry like those in the early Church, especially when we see the world around us falling apart. “Come, Lord Jesus,” we cry. We wait, we watch, we hope, trusting that God's Word is true. The grass will wither and people will die, but God’s patience means that there is still time for all those whom God calls to believe.

We can’t stand still while we wait; we have a job to do. Mark started the story that we are charged with continuing. There are people who need to see the light that shatters darkness and experience the life that has overcome death. It is up to us to share the Good News like John, but our message is even greater than his. God’s grace has won; the baptism we share is one of forgiveness and power. We live in the time between the fulfillment of God’s promises and the completion of them; this is a time of hope and expectation. So, let’s shine the light that is Christ in the world so that those for whom God is waiting might be saved.

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