Grace to you and peace, from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
This week, we are back in the wilderness: that edge between civilization and seemingly empty space; a place visited by those who try to run away from God, and at the same time, those searching for God as well as those being challenged by God. What a difference a week can make, because even though we are back, it feels so, so, so much different. For a number of reasons. And that's okay, it is okay, and it will be okay.
Because with being in the wilderness again, we hear John the Baptist's message of repentance. "Prepare!" John tells us. "Prepare and repent!"
In the life of the Church, today has had a history of being known as Gaudate or Rejoice Sunday. This comes from the first words in Latin of Mary's response to news she was to become the mother of Jesus: she rejoiced. Like Lent, Advent was a season of both penitence and repentance: hearts needed prepared before receiving Christ. With a focus of penitence, Rejoice Sunday was a welcome intrusion of joy leading up to Christmas, in part because of Paul's words to the Philippians, 'Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice,' which was used as part of the service in the Roman Catholic tradition.
Every now and then, the thought has occurred as to how and why joy can be found in preparing and repenting. For example, I love having guests over, whether it be family or friends. Yet the prep work of deep cleaning beforehand can cause moments of feeling frazzled. That is, until the results of elbow grease and hard work becomes visible: tufts of cat hair are gone from the furniture and floors, bathrooms are spotless, and everything is in its proper place in the kitchen. Then, there is a sense of satisfaction and joy in the accomplishment and the work that has been done.
In light of preparing and cleaning a house for company, joy in John the Baptist's message of prepare and repent makes sense. It makes sense because those who heard John's message wanted to hear this message. They were the ones who came into the wilderness to hear this message, looking for good news, looking for new life, and more importantly, looking for the long awaited Messiah. Knowing Who else is to come is joyful. When that day comes of being able to gather together with friends and extended family, our joy will be great. BUT -- our joy will be much greater when Jesus comes again. This joy allows people to be free from every hurt and pain in life. This joy brings healing to the world, to broken relationships, and broken spirits. With this healing comes the restoration of creation and humanity in perfect wholeness.
And here's the best part -- John's message isn't about himself, it's about Jesus, One who is coming after him. John knew this even before he was born that One would be coming after him. John knew who he was, and knew also who he was not. He knew he was not the One.
The same is true for us. We humans forget the reality that God is God and we're not. When we forget this, we neglect to point the way to Jesus and pointing Jesus to others. Sometimes, we need others to point Jesus out to us. During the pericope study earlier this week, a colleague shared of their weekly experience at the grocery store. As shoppers leave the store, an employee tells the shoppers to 'have a blessed day.' For this colleague, it is a reminder of the presence of Christ in a way not always thought of.
Now, more than ever, the world needs us collectively and individually to point the way to Jesus. While it has been an unusually strange year, there have been moments of joy. There will be moments of joy. Find them. Claim them. Name them. In naming these moments of joy, share this joy with others. More importantly, be the joy that points to a greater joy yet to come. Today, tomorrow, and always. Amen.
Biblical Text: Mark 1:1-8
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let me begin by saying the way today is going is NOT what had been anticipated. Months ago, we were making plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Zion's first worship service in the present building. In those plans, we began to explore the ways of sharing our joy with Marietta and the greater community through the Marietta Candlelight Tour. And then, like so many other events and plans, Covid-19 changed everything.
While there is disappointment, if anything the past few months have taught us is the need for flexibility, adaptation, and the need to be prepared -- for anything. To prepare is John the Baptist's message this morning: prepare the way of the Lord. It was a message proclaimed, not from the temple or other building, but a location: the wilderness.
The wilderness is often seen as a location that is dry, barren, lifeless, desolate, and empty. It can be a place where one goes to find God.
Throughout the Bible, the wilderness is seen as both a place of desolation, and a place of life.
Consider Sarah's servant Hagar. Jealous because Hagar was able to have a child with Abraham when she could not, Sarah sent Hagar and Ishmael to die in the wilderness. God had other plans: sparing their lives, including them in God's plan of salvation.
Later the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they entered the promised land. During those forty years, the Israelites found their relationship with God, struggled with this relationship, lost it, found it, and experienced God's covenantal care in ways they never expected or anticipated.
At a critical point in his ministry, Elijah sought relief from his critics by also seeking death. Again, God had other plans: providing food for Elijah to continue his journey, encouraging him to stay with a widow with limited means, yet means that did not run out.
Later, as he began his ministry, Jesus was led into the wilderness for forty days. As he neared the end of those forty days, Jesus was tempted by the devil.
Yes, the wilderness: a place both of struggle and of the Holy Spirit; a place both problematic and promising at the same time. And yet, there is something about the wilderness where faith grows, is encouraged, and is even strengthened.
There was something about John the Baptist's location in the wilderness AND the message John preached that led many in Jerusalem to come, to hear John's message, and to repent. Often the wilderness is seen as an edge: an edge of civilization, and edge of unknown, a margin. Here, at this edge of the unknown, John the Baptist encouraged people to repent, to change their ways.
Had we used it this morning, our first lesson would have come from the Prophet Isaiah, the 40th Chapter. In this chapter, Isaiah uses beautiful imagery of mountains lowered, valleys raised and filled in, rough places smoothed out, curves straightened. Being intentional in righting wrongs, mending hurts, repairing or restoring relationships -- that's the preparation we are called to do this Advent season. The other aspects of this season, while important in their own way of helping us celebrate, can often run us ragged, taking from us the joy of the season, prompting us to miss the true meaning and original point of preparing and repenting.
In many ways, this past year has felt like a wilderness: a season of unknowns, change, and constantly shifting sands. Yet in this wilderness and these constant changes, God continues to reveals God's self to us. We've learned, as much as we have memories of activities, ministry, events, and people from the past fifty years, that we are church, and continue to be church outside of Zion's walls. You, as a community of faith, as people of God, have continued to care for one another, and for our neighbors in need: with donations of food and blankets for the food bank, gift cards for the needy families, bringing in toys for the Toys for Tots campaign. It was noticed yesterday as community members dropped off toys to help with the Toys for Tots drive. It has been noticed as you have contacted one another while we are apart. The past few months have encouraged us to be creative as we think about God's calling on our lives outside the proverbial box, and how it is we understand God's work in our lives and the world.
Fifty years ago, when members of Zion planned to move outside of Marietta, they could not have known we would be worshipping online, or event that a pandemic would take place. What they did know, was a change in location, one the edge, was needed to continue the work, the ministry, the mission, the witness, and the sharing of the good news of the Gospel. In the same way, we don't know what life will look like fifty years from now. What we do know, is even in the wilderness of 2020, God continues to remain faithful. In this faithfulness, we are called to repent, to prepare, to watch. Above all, we are called to have hope. A hope that sees the pain of the world; a hope that sees the need of the world; and a hope that also sees the presence of God in the midst of this pain. There is hope. There is always hope -- a hope that invites us to prepare, to repent, to come to the wilderness, and experience new life -- today, tomorrow, and always.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Biblical Text: Mark 13:24-37
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Whether or not it was intentional, Mark's Gospel was taken to heart last night in not being able to sleep. The what, the why, and the how of not being able to sleep is a mystery. What is known is the frustration of looking at the clock repeatedly throughout the night, thinking it time to get up, only to see not much time had passed since the last time of looking at the clock.
Somehow, the ability of not sleeping at night is not what Jesus is referring to when he tells the disciples, 'Keep awake.'
Before this passage, the disciples are amazed and impressed with the grandeur of the temple, marveling at the craftmanship, the skill, and the detail that went into building it. In their marveling, Jesus warns them of the day to come when the temple will be destroyed. Peter, James, and John approach Jesus later, privately asking him when this event will take place, and how will they know when it will happen. They want to know so they can be ready and prepared.
The answer Jesus gives is one they do not expect: Be watchful, be ready, be alert for those who would bring deception instead of good news about the Son of Man returning. Be ready for moments of being under attack by those who fail to understand the good news of Jesus' coming. Be ready because no one knows when that day will come.
Jesus continues with what TO expect: the sun will become dark, and a full moon (like last night's) will not shine. Stars will fall from heaven. In short, Jesus warns it will not be pretty. Yet, in that warning, Jesus offers words of hope, words of encouragement: keep awake.
Keep awake for those moments the reign of God breaks into our lives without realizing it.
Keep awake for those times we encounter God in our neighbor or in creation or in the beauty of song.
Keep awake to notice the way our hearts, our souls are touched by a gesture of kindness, a memory, a random experience with God.
Throughout Mark's Gospel, there is a sense of urgency, and a sense of immediacy. This immediacy is because Jesus knows his purpose and why he is here. Jesus knows too, there is a task ahead of him bigger than him: to go to Jerusalem as part of God's plan of salvation for the entire world. There is work to be done on the way to Jerusalem: the message of repentance to be proclaimed, sick to be healed, disciples to be called and made. For Mark's Jesus, there is no time to waste.
Knowing what is ahead of him, Jesus does his best to prepare the disciples for the time when he will leave AND return. He knows the human spirit far better than we often know ourselves; waiting for anything can be a challenge. In our waiting, we may grow tired. We may lose interest, or become discouraged, or become distracted.
Jesus' words to the disciples are words to us as well: Keep awake. Not a twenty four hour remain awake and vigilant at all times matter of being awake. Rather, an awake that is alert to the presence of God working in our lives.
When Zion entered the Lower Susquehanna Synod's Renewal Journey a few years ago, one of the questions frequently asked was "how did you see God at work in your life this week?" It was a question to encourage reflection, to pay attention to the ways of experiencing God working in our lives. At times, there were questions back of "Pastor, why do you keep asking this question?" The question is asked to remind us of the need to stay awake, to pay attention to the ways God works in the world and in the everyday 'stuff' of life. The question encourages us as disciples to notice the ways we too are part of God's work already begun.
To fall asleep noticing God's work among us, in us, through us, with us, and all of creation, means missing opportunities to continue God's mission and God's ongoing work in the world. In the work of renewal, it is often said, "The church doesn't have am ission, but rather God has a mission for the church." When we remain awake, we open ourselves to the ways we can be of help to God in the world. When we fall asleep, we miss options and possibilities.
Jesus reminds us, "Keep awake." Keep awake, dear friends, this Advent season. We know not what is to come, especially in these next few weeks of coronavirus. But we do know Who is to come, and Who will come again. Thanks be to God. Amen.