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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent - 12/10/2017

On the front page of the Mining Journal a couple of weeks ago was a picture of Sheriff Zyburt apprehending the Grinch and removing him from the premises of the Westwood Mall in Marquette, so that the lighting of the Christmas tree could continue. The Grinch of course is another Christmas villain; Charles Dickens had Ebenezer Scrooge, Dr. Suess had the Grinch.

Then there’s the Bible. In the Bible King Herod can certainly be seen as a Christmas villain with his plot to kill all the babies two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem after he’d heard about the birth of another king. In addition to Herod though, every year during the middle two weeks of Advent we get John the Baptist. John the Baptist isn’t a villain but he is a character who seems out of step with pre-Christmas festivities. You don’t find him in your nativity set up on the mantle.

Today we get Mark’s mention of John the Baptist. Mark begins though with an opening verse that says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” One of my seminary professors said that that one verse announcing Jesus as the Son of God is Mark’s gospel, the rest is details. It’s a verse that has the effect of God drawing a line in time, announcing as it does, gospel or good news that will shape the future. What came on the past side of the line was important in anticipating what was to come, but on the future side there’s the arrival of the Messiah, the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Mark’s next verse references what came before with a prophetic quote from the Old Testament, but then, very quickly, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness and that location is significant. None of the other gospels begin there. In Matthew, following a genealogy of Jesus, Bethlehem is where the story continues. Following a short prologue, Luke’s gospel starts in the temple in Jerusalem with the priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. John’s gospel, very different from the others, begins before time, in the beginning with God before creation.

Mark though, starts with the quote from Isaiah with the voice crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and that followed by the appearance of John in the wilderness. Again, this is more than just “who, what, when and where” reporting. The wilderness was a significant symbolic location in the history of Israel being understood as a place of testing. Most notably, in the Exodus story which is the defining story for Jewish people, Moses led the people of Israel in the wilderness for forty years before they entered the Promised Land. During that time the people were often tested and often found disobedient, lacking in faith, as they failed to trust in the Lord.

But…while the wilderness was a place of disobedience and testing, it was also where God performed mighty acts of deliverance, bringing the people safely across the Red Sea, providing manna and quail and water when the people complained. Despite their disobedience, despite their complaining, the Lord responded to help them.

Because of this history, the wilderness became somewhat romanticized as the place where the people would await God’s final act of deliverance. By beginning in the wilderness, Mark’s gospel story can be seen as a second Exodus, a story of deliverance from sin and death through the life, death of resurrection of Jesus. So it’s no accident that the wilderness is where Mark begins.

Here in the UP we know wilderness. You don’t have to go very far before you’re out there in a place where, if you’re not careful, your survival skills might be tested. It’s easy to become disoriented. That’s the literal wilderness but it can take other forms too. In our time, the deepest, darkest wilderness might be the spiritual wilderness of despair and cynicism that denies hope. We can become so overwhelmed and consumed by the bad news of terrorism and gun violence and sexual misconduct and the general nasty and negative tone of our national discourse that all we can see is a world going down the tubes. It’s another kind of disorientation, one that doesn’t leave much room for good news, for gospel.

The people at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus were also experiencing a spiritual wilderness, having pretty much lost hope that they would ever be anything other than the subjects of Roman soldiers and rulers who occupied their land. They didn’t see their world going down the tubes; as far as they were concerned, it was already there. The prophets of old had talked about a messiah who would change things and free them from any foreign powers, but that was a long time ago so no one thought too much about it anymore. Until…John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, baptizing with water, preaching about repentance and forgiveness and…promising someone else, someone greater who would baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. Desperate for good news, daring to hope, the people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to hear him.

I always find John the Baptist to be an intriguing character. As I said, he is something of a misfit as he crashes the pre-Christmas celebration but clearly he is an important part of the Jesus story as all the gospels include him as the one who announces and prepares the way for Jesus. In that regard, John is an important figure with an important message, but he’s not the messiah.

John the Baptist preached repentance. It’s not exactly clear what he meant by repentance, but as is the case in our time, it had to include turning from despair and cynicism that said there was no hope, despair and cynicism that kept them trapped in a reality they didn’t want to be in. Only if they would turn from that, would they be able to see the hope that Jesus represented.

Jesus preached repentance too, but with it he brought a vision of new life and new possibilities that inspired hope. In his life and death and resurrection he embodied new life and possibilities. John’s message was important, in Lutheran terms we might call it law. What we need though is gospel, good news that enables us to imagine that things can be different. If we can’t imagine it, it will never happen. Jesus had that good news, he was that good news, and that’s what makes him the Messiah. Too often Christianity is thought of as being about rules, things we’re supposed to do or not supposed to do, but it’s more about a vision of who God is and who we are and then living into that vision. That’s what Jesus brings us.

I just finished a book called Friends Divided, something of a parallel biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson were both key figures in moving the American colonies to independence, both served as ambassadors in Europe during the revolution, both served in George Washington’s administration. Following Washington, Adams was the second president with Jefferson serving as his vice president, Jefferson was the third president. They both died on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, so there is much that links the two.

Jefferson however, despite some rather egregious faults has wound up being the more honored and revered of the two. There is a Jefferson Memorial in Washington but no Adams Memorial. Jefferson’s Monticello is a must see destination if you visit Virginia, Adams home in Massachusetts is hard to find and much less visited. In presidential rankings, Jefferson is always above Adams.

Gordon Wood, the author of the book suggests that Jefferson is honored more highly because he provided an optimistic vision of what this country could be, particularly regarding equality. He had faith in the people and his words and vision inspired people not just of his generation but of future generations; they continue to inspire.

Adams, on the other hand, became very cynical about the American experiment and the democratic process. In particular, he didn’t have much faith in the ability of the people to choose the leaders they would need. He said and wrote and did much that was important, but he didn’t inspire. It could certainly be argued that history has proved that Adams was correct in his assessment of the American people. But still, as a nation, we cling to the vision of Jefferson. We don’t always live it out very well, but we hang on to it as the vision of who we would like to think we are as a country.

During Advent we again anticipate the story of Jesus as the Messiah. He is the Messiah as he becomes part of humanity, restoring our relationship with God and providing a vision not just of what a nation can be but of what humanity can be, what humanity was intended to be. He brings us the gospel, the good news that tells us that we are children of God and we can’t let our cynicism ever cause us to lose sight of that.

John the Baptist came cracking the whip of repentance, repentance that he knew was necessary for cynical and sinful humanity. Jesus though, announces Advent hope, taking us beyond repentance and into new life.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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