Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sermon on Forgetting and Remembering, for Advent 3 Midweek, "Fears and Comforts in Forgetting and Remembering"

The readings I selected and preached on for this midweek service are: Psalm 9, spoken responsively; Psalm 25; Luke 12:4-7; and Isaiah 49:15-16. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In the past couple weeks we’ve seen how God’s people have a sinful tendency to forget both God and His Word, and how God remembers His people and forgets our sins. We’ve seen how great the cost is to forget God, or to live with the illusion that God forgets or ignores our sins when we think we’re getting away with it, but how God is patient to call us back to Him, and that when we repent, He does truly forget our sins.
No doubt most of us have unintentionally forgotten countless things. Our human memory is not so good. But on some occasions when we wish we could forget—we find it nearly impossible to forget something on purpose. Perhaps bad memories we wouldn’t wish to keep—physical, mental, and emotional scars in our life. And then there are the good memories we want to keep, remember, and cherish. The prospect of losing those to aging or memory-related problems might also create fear or anxiety. Why can’t we have better control of our mind? What will happen to us if we can’t remember those things that are most important to us?
In the Psalms we see other memory-related anxieties—over whether God will forget the afflicted and the needy, or if He will remember the sins of our youth. But if we have memory trouble, and can’t be in 100% control of our mind, to remember everything most important to us, or even to forget something we want to—God has no such memory issues. Nothing escapes His notice or slips from His mind, but all things are before Him (Ps. 33:13-15). And the only thing that God forgets, is what He wills to forget, as He does with our sins, when we confess them to Him. God forgets and forgives these, according to His promises. And the Psalms remind us that God will not forget the needy or the afflicted.
Tracing through the Old Testament, and who it is that God “remembers”—a pattern emerges. God remembers His faithful, even and especially in their times of discouragement, loneliness, or trial. During the destruction of the Global Flood, God remembered the covenant He made with Noah; He remembered Abraham and Lot after destroying Sodom and Gomorrah; He remembered Rachel when she was barren, and opened her womb; He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when His people were suffering in Egypt; He remembered Hannah who also was barren; and in the Psalms we hear how He does not forget the cry of the afflicted or the needy or the hope of the poor. The patterns is that God remembers His faithful, and that He acts to deliver us from our enemies, from our fears, and our troubles.
So what of your enemies, fears, and troubles? You can have confidence as did the saints of old, that God will not forget you. He remembers you on the day that you are broken and in despair, wondering if God has forgotten you in your trials. He remembers you when all your friends and family seem to have forgotten you. He remembers you on the day when the guilt of some sin washes over you, and you are filled with sorrow for what you’ve done, and wonder if God could ever forgive you. He remembers you on the day you are diagnosed with some memory-related disorder, and you fear the oncoming loss of your memory. He remembers you on the day when you suffer or are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, or for His name’s sake. He will not forget His saints; He will not forget His covenant with us.
Psalm 9 reminds us that “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” The fact that God is a stronghold, a fortress for us, is great security and peace for times of trouble or fear. When we place our trust in God, that trust is well-placed in the One who can save and redeem us. It is the enemies of God who should be afraid, because God comes to judge in justice.
The reading from Luke 12 echoes this, and says that we should not fear mortal enemies, but God who holds all judgment and authority over life and death in His hands. Yet it goes on to add that God doesn’t even forget something so insignificant as the death of five sparrows, worth two pennies. “Not one of them is forgotten before God. Why even the hairs of your heard are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” So we are to fear God’s power for judgment, and yet not be afraid because we are far more valuable to God than many sparrows. In other words, God cares a great deal for us, and if He doesn’t forget the little things, how much more does He remember us, who are very valuable to Him? So it is safe to say, that the fear of God forgetting His precious children, is an unfounded fear.
The prophet Isaiah takes up this theme in a remarkable passage, in chapter 49:15-16, where he expresses the fear of the people that God had forsaken them and forgotten them in their affliction. Then God replies, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands”. God admits the possibility, though highly unlikely, that a mother could forget her own child. But even if these forget…God will never forget you. We are engraved on the palms of His hands. I tell you that in the scars of Jesus’ nail-pierced hands, there stands proof that God will not, and has not forgotten His people. Not even in a time of forsakenness or affliction. Not even when it seems as though heaven is closed to our cry of distress or our prayers. Even when Jesus hung forsaken on the cross, God did not forget. And when He raised His only Son from the grave—those marks still proved His love for His people. God’s love for His people cannot be erased or forgotten. But your sins can be forgotten, and they are forgotten when Jesus died and buried them in His own body.
What then of our lingering bad memories that we wish could be forgotten? What of the pain of a loss, or a grief that will not go away? What of the Psalmist’s prayer, Psalm 25:16–18? “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” Joseph in the Old Testament is one hint of a person who experienced the “forgetting” of his affliction, as he named his son Manasseh, he said he chose this name because “God made me forget all my hardship” (Gen. 41:51). When God pours down His blessings on us, if we experience rescue and relief in this lifetime, that merciful healing can already begin to erase those memories of hardship and grief. Even terrible wounds can begin to heal in this lifetime, by God’s grace. But even if we don’t yet experience it fully in this lifetime, the promise of God in Isaiah 65:17–19, is that our healing will be complete in heaven, where there will no longer be a memory of our former weeping and distress.  For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.”
I began by posing these questions that flow from our fear and anxiety about our memory: “Why can’t we have better control of our mind? What will happen to us if we can’t remember those things that are most important to us?” Even though we may not have the full control of our minds to remember or forget as we wish—we can nevertheless have the comfort of knowing that God is in full control. And, by the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of the new creation, Jesus will fully restore of His creation to its original goodness, free of the guilt and taint of sin. Furthermore, when our memory fails us, God remembers not only the “minor details”—but He also remembers what is most important to Him. That is, He remembers His people, His children. So take heart, child of God, you are not forgotten! Jesus remembers you! See, it is written on the palms of His hands. Amen.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "The Will of God"

Grace to you and peace. Amen. As our preparation for Jesus’ coming is marked by repentance—symbolized by the color purple in Advent—it is also marked by joy. On this third Sunday of Advent, it’s traditional to light the pink candle, which reminds us of joy—just as today’s epistle reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with “Rejoice always!” Joy at the celebration of Christ’s birth; joy at Christ’s continual gifts and presence among us; and joy at the anticipation of Jesus’ return in glory. A major theme of the letter to the Thessalonians, and especially the last two chapters, is how we prepare for the second coming of Jesus. The reading ends with a blessing that we be kept blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. So let’s reflect more deeply on how Paul calls us to prepare for Jesus’ coming.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Had you ever reflected on the thought that God’s will for you in Christ Jesus was for your life to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful to God? Had you thought of God’s will in those terms? More often we tend to think of God’s will for our lives as being a certain mysterious checklist of who to marry, where to live, what job or career to pursue, and maybe even a much more specific set of details about our life. And we fret over trying to figure out which decision is supposedly God’s will for our life, and making sure not to mess it up. Of course it’s a very good practice to pray over and seek God’s guidance when making big decisions in life—but we should recognize that God gives us a great deal of freedom in our pursuits in life. Living within God’s will is much more about obeying His commands and trusting in Jesus, the Son of God, with joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, than it is about discerning a special step-by-step pattern of instructions, as if our life were some invisible maze.
A couple of other key Scriptures speak about God’s will for us: just a chapter earlier, in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, it says that “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles, who do not know God”. Here we learn that God’s will is our sanctification—for God to bring about His holiness in our lives for His purposes. And specifically this sanctification includes leading lives of sexual purity and self-control, so as not to sin against ourselves or others. In John 6:40, Jesus also speaks of God’s will, saying, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” God’s will is that we would believe in Jesus and have eternal life in Him. From just these three passages, we find the will of God for us is surprisingly simple, and even somewhat generic. God desires us to believe in Jesus, to lead a sanctified and self-controlled life according to His commandments, and that our life be joyful, prayerful, and thankful to God.
Provided that we’re trusting in Jesus and living inside the boundaries of God’s Law, there’s a remarkable freedom to use and discover your God given talents for innumerable God-pleasing endeavors. There are broad possibilities to explore for your life, within God’s will. Consider why God has given some people artistic talents, others skills in math or science, or music, or communication and writing, or inventiveness and design, or any number of other talents. They may be natural talents or simply need to be developed, learned, practiced, and perfected like any other ability. He has given us great freedom to use our lives to glorify Him, as we live according to His commandments, and God has a purpose for all that He has given you.
But how does our life take on this shape of constant rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving? After all, our joy may often seem in short supply—perhaps for some, this is even especially true around the holidays. Loneliness, busy-ness, or stress might all conspire to steal our joy. And our attention to prayer at any given time may hardly seem to be described as “without ceasing.” Even when we put our minds to prayer, we often find ourselves interrupted or distracted. And thanksgiving in all circumstances? There are undoubtedly many times when we’ve wrongly felt as though we had nothing to be thankful for. If these things describe you—do you feel like God’s will is hopelessly out of your reach? If these are commands for you to achieve—powered under your own steam—it might seem so.
But skip ahead for a moment to the end of the reading, and read the closing verses. 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Who is it that performs this sanctifying work in you? Is it your own spiritual “do-it-yourself” project, like I mentioned last week? A frustrating do-it-yourself project where you always have the wrong tools or don’t have the supplies you need, are never making your deadlines or are constantly disappointed by the quality of your work? If you hear these verses that way, no wonder it would sound hopelessly out of reach. But no, this is not your self-improvement project—it is God’s work. The God of peace. And the God of peace has the “tools” the “supplies” and His own timeline to finish your sanctification completely. His peace that surpasses all understanding pours down on us constantly, through the forgiveness of our sins, assuring all who repent and turn to Jesus Christ, that He has made us right with God through His death on the cross.
God is preparing your whole spirit, soul, and body to be kept blameless for Jesus’ Christ’s coming. His goal is your total sanctification, and the deadline, the day of completion, is Jesus’ Christ coming, when you will be raised with a glorious, perfected body, free from sin, by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though your experience of sanctification may often seem like forward and then backward progress; like the ups and downs of life; or even like repeatedly starting over on square one—God has His timeline for completion, God is able to correct the mistakes you’ve made, and God is going to bring it to perfect completion, according to His standards. That means with nothing half-finished or left undone, but a life remade entirely in the image of Jesus Christ. The restoration of the goodness and wholeness of His original creation. He is the One who is going to deliver you to that day in Jesus Christ—hear those blessed words again: He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.
Along the way God certainly doesn’t want to encounter our willful resistance. Though it’s a given that our sinful nature is warring against the new spiritual nature in us (Rom. 7), God doesn’t want us to grieve the Holy Spirit within us. We heard in the reading, this admonition: “Do not quench the Spirit, Do not despise prophecies,  but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” This short list of admonitions could be a whole other sermon by itself. To “quench” means to “put out”, extinguish, or eliminate. How would we “quench the Holy Spirit?” By constantly ignoring His work within us, by willfully identifying with the “old self”, living contrary to God’s will, rather than identifying with the new self that you have put on in Christ Jesus. God gives us His Holy Spirit so that we can do the very opposite, to put off the old self and put on the new. When He calls us to His will—it is to a life of purity—a life of sanctification, where He sets about the repair work, the forgiving, and the shaping of our will, so that it seeks His holy desires, and lives joyfully, prayerfully, and thankfully in His grace.
Do not despise prophecies. We often get hung up on the idea of prophecies only referring to some sort of prediction of the future. And while the Biblical term certain includes this, it has a much wider meaning. In 1 Corinthians 14:3, Paul says “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Now this can certainly happen in a sermon, where God’s Word is spoken for our building up, encouragement, and comfort. Here we might remember Luther’s explanation of the 3rd commandment—that we ought not “despise preaching and God’s Word.” But prophecy is not merely the sermon; it can happen when any Christian applies the Word of God to our present time or circumstances. When a Christian speaks a word of God that builds up, encourages, or comforts their fellow brothers and sisters, they are prophesying. They’re speaking God’s Truth to our life. Men and women in the Bible, Old and New Testament, were given the gift of prophecy, and used it to build up God’s people. But always, as we receive these prophecies, we’re reminded also to test them against God’s Word. If something is contrary to, or goes beyond God’s Word, we should avoid it—but hold fast to what is good. God’s Word—spoken to us by a brother or sister in Christ—tested and genuine, should not be despised, but recognized as the work of the Holy Spirit in that person.
Abstain from every form of evil. We should never think that some forms of evil are harmless to “dabble in.” Any sin can become a wedge for the devil to try to pry us apart from the new nature in us. Any sin can become his foothold or toehold to climb into our life and wreak some havoc. So avoid any kind of evil. Be watchful and resist the devil and temptation.
It’s fitting again to return to the closing thought of our reading. That “the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus shed His blood on the cross so that we could be at peace with God, and He is coming again one day to see through to completion this process of sanctification that He has begun in you. The Holy Spirit is the deposit, the down payment, or the guarantee that the work has begun in earnest. Have confidence in God that He is going to bring it to full completion. Repent of your sins and joyfully follow His calling. And with constant joy, prayer, and thanksgiving to God, meditate on God’s promise for your life: “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving are themes that run all through the letter of 1 Thessalonians. In what kind of circumstances did Paul commend them to these things? 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:1, 9; 3:3-10. When is it hardest to give thanks? Job 1:21. Who is the source of true joy? How do we pray without ceasing? What are you thankful for?
  2. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul says that this rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving are God’s will for us in Christ Jesus. What else does Scripture teach is God’s will for us? 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Matthew 18:14; John 6:38-40.
  3. Paul urges us not to quench the Spirit. What does this mean? Ephesians 4:30; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. What is the Holy Spirit’s work within us?
  4. “Prophecy” is a broader term than just speaking about the future. How does Paul describe the gift of prophecy? 1 Corinthians 14:3-5. How do everyday Christians “prophesy?” All prophecy or teaching of God’s Word must always be _____? 1 Thessalonians 5:21a; 1 John 4:1-6.
  5. We are to “abstain” or keep away from every form of evil. What are the small or great temptations to evil that you face personally? To whom do we turn to resist them? Ephesians 6:10-11; 1 Peter 5:8-9.
  6. To be sanctified or made holy is whose work? 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; Philippians 2:12-13. What great comfort is there in knowing that God is the One who completes our salvation and sanctification? What does His great power accomplish in our lives?
  7. How do all these instructions make us ready for Jesus’ coming?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sermon on Hosea 2:6-23, for Advent 2 Midweek, "The Cost of what is forgotten and remembered"

The readings I selected for this Midweek service are Hosea 2:6-23; Ephesians 5:25-27; and Psalm 78:32-42 spoken responsively.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we talked about the theme of forgetting and remembering, and the tendency of God’s people to constantly forget both Him and His commands, and how God restores our memory, and how He never forgets. Today, we consider what the cost is, both of what is forgotten, and also what is remembered. We look to the prophet Hosea, who lived through a “Silver Age” of sorts in ancient Israel, during a time of great prosperity, which was quickly sliding into idolatry, wickedness, and decline. God’s people had become full and satisfied, and began to forget who was the source of all their blessings. They became complacent and forgot God, and in the words of Hosea 2, they chased after other lovers, not knowing that their blessings came from God. Hosea saw firsthand the cost of what the people forgot, and what God remembered.
God sent the prophet Hosea to call His forgetful people out of their daze, but they would not respond. Hosea compares their unfaithfulness to God to adultery, or marital unfaithfulness. This was because God had made a covenant with them; He had betrothed them as His own. But they foolishly went after other gods. God responded by hedging up their way with thorns, and building a wall against them so they couldn’t find their paths. Basically God closed up all doors and false paths that they were attempting to go down, that led away from God. Instead of finding in them love, prosperity, fulfillment, or anything else—they would find thorns, devastation, and judgment. Throughout the book, the themes move back and forth again from judgment to mercy, and God explains the purpose for His judgment is to make them “acknowledge their guilt and seek [His] face, and in their distress earnestly seek [Him]” (Hosea 5:15). If they do this, they will find mercy and healing, instead of judgment.
When we forget God, when we become full and satisfied and complacent, and turn away from Him, thinking that there is nothing we need from God—our way will be filled with thorns also. In 1 Timothy 6:9-10, we’re warned that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” This shows that our own desires plunge us into ruin, and cravings for money and turning from the faith causes us to pierce ourselves with sorrows. God has ordered His creation in such a way, that just like physical laws have cause and effect—drop a vase and the consequence of gravity is that it will be broken—so also God’s commandments or laws have a cause and effect as well. There are consequences of breaking God’s law—and we will serve ourselves those consequences if we ignore the commands, and pursue evil.
In Hosea’s message, he warned that some of the people thought that God had forgotten what they had done—they thought they were getting away with evil. Bandits, thieves, and adulterers are a few among those who “do not consider that I remember all their evil” (Hos. 7:2). He describes them like bread overheating in a burning oven—as they cook in the consequences of their sin. Here we see the cost, not only of what we have forgotten—but also the cost of what God remembers. God warns that because they have not turned away from their sin, He will remember their guilt and punish their sins (Hos. 8:13; 9:9). And God lays this guilt heaviest against the priests and leaders of the people, addressing them with this charge: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hos. 4:6). In forgetting God’s law and failing to teach it to God’s people, the people were now suffering with the consequences of their lack of knowledge. They were stumbling blindly in sin because they didn’t know any better.
Are we any different today? Don’t we live in a time of prosperity that has led to complacency and forgetfulness? Don’t we suffer the destructive consequences of our sin, because of our lack of knowledge? The charge to the priests particularly strikes home as a pastor, because it calls me to fulfill the duty of teaching God’s law, and reminding God’s people of His Word. Particularly startling is that God says He will forget their children. Earlier in Hosea, God instructs the prophet to name two of his children, “No Mercy” and “Not my People”—because “you are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hos. 1:8-9). This is a shocking judgment, because it amounts to God declaring that the covenant He had with them is broken. And it was obviously their sin and unfaithfulness that had broken the covenant.
But apparently this judgment was even too shocking for God—because in the very next verses, He declares that “in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God”…and “Say to your brothers, ‘You are my people,’ and to your sisters, ‘You have received mercy’ (Hos. 1:10; 2:1). Even though His people had broken the covenant, even though they had become like an unfaithful wife to Him, He was going to pursue them and bring them back. He was going to make the forsaken children His own people again. Throughout the book God describes His anger and wrath building up and punishments that will have to befall His people, but then His “heart recoils within [Him], [His] compassion grows warm and tender”  and He restrains His anger and wrath, for the sake of His mercy and compassion (Hos. 11:8-9).
So also God does not delight in leaving us in the consequences of our sins, of seeing how we suffer when we choose the path of thorns and briars instead of the level, open path of God’s Word and commandments. But even when we do it to ourselves, and “sow the wind and…reap the whirlwind” (8:7), God still calls us back to Him, to turn back (14:1-2) and find healing and God’s love (14:4). God calls us to remember that He truly is the source of all that is good, and that to find Him is to find the blessed path.
So God’s extraordinary compassion drives Him even to take back the unfaithful bride, to lovingly and tenderly pursue her and bring her back, as we heard in our reading in Hosea 2. God makes a new covenant of faithfulness with her and restores her through forgiveness. And this remarkable image of God’s love foreshadows Jesus Christ, who the New Testament tells us is the husband who gave up Himself for the Church, to make her as His own bride, spotless, and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27). He came to bear all the guilt and punishment for our sins that mounted up against us, so that He could wash us clean by the water with the word—just like God recommitted Israel to Himself.
This Advent season, we remember the cost of our forgetfulness, of forgetting God and His commandments, and how devastating a lack of knowledge of God is. We remember our waywardness from God, and complacency, that forgets that He is the source of all our goodness and life. And we remember that He also remembers our sins, if we think that God is not watching. But will we be content to leave things that way? We don’t really want God to remember our sins—that would be bad news for us. Instead, we must hear God’s call to repentance, and turn back to Him, so that He might strike those sins from His memory, and forget them by forgiveness, as the Scripture tells us He will.
And God would have us remember, and write anew on our hearts and minds, the knowledge of Him and His Word. As the Psalmist echoes throughout Psalm 119, God’s promise, His Word, and His steadfast love give us life. If lack of knowledge was destruction for us, knowledge of God is life. God reminds us that Jesus came to find us in our waywardness, to speak tenderly and lovingly to us, and make us His again. To join the church faithfully to Himself, so that we would never again run down those false and thorny paths, but rather walk uprightly in His paths (Hos. 14:9). Jesus has fully paid the cost for our forgetfulness, and made it possible for God to forget or erase our sin and guilt, through His death on the cross. And He turns again to you, and says, “You are my people…You have received mercy.” Once again, God remembers His covenant, He remembers His people—in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Sermon on Mark 1:1-8, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "Receive the Gospel"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Do you know why the Christian Church observes the seasons of Advent and Lent? They come before the two biggest festivals of the Church Year—Christmas and Good Friday/Easter. Advent and Lent are kept by the church as a time of preparation for those high and holy days—preparing our hearts by repentance and renewal in our faith. They also serve to escalate or build up our anticipation that breaks out into full joy at the arrival of Christmas and Easter. The most joyous singing, celebration, and festivity surround Jesus’ birth and resurrection from the dead. So John the Baptist figures prominently into Advent each year as a prophet of preparation, readying the Lord’s way into our hearts.

John doesn’t just arrive out of the blue, 2,000 years ago—Isaiah and Malachi in the Old Testament, prophets some 7 and 4 centuries before him, had predicted his coming, as quoted in the readings. But John’s coming is inseparable from the Lord’s coming. So while he is important in fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, and announcing the arrival of the Lord—he remains only a “supporting actor.” And not one who tries to steal the limelight or win an Oscar or Academy award for his role, but one who is intent on keeping the spotlight focused on the coming Lord Jesus. John’s posture before Jesus is one of humility—I’m not even worthy to untie the straps of His sandals; he says. Less than a lowly servant, he is not worthy to be compared to Jesus. Or as he says in the Gospel of John, “He must increase, I must decrease.” Once Jesus came onto the scene, John faded from the picture. But still, year by year, each Advent, his voice echoes through the wilderness, calling to repentance, to prepare our hearts, and calling crowds to baptism.

The first verse of our reading—the first verse of the Gospel of Mark—says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” With no other introduction to Jesus’ birth or early life, Mark jumps right to John the Baptist and Jesus as a 30 year old man, ready to begin His public ministry. Driving straight to the point, he introduces the “gospel of Jesus Christ,” and states from the outset who we will discover in this book—the Son of God. Gospel simply means “Good News.” But this good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is extraordinary Good News, precisely because it’s about what God’s Son has done in coming to redeem His people. God Himself comes down on a mission to humanity and all creation. But are we ready or not, for when He comes? John’s job is to get us ready.

His prophetic message is “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight”, and his action to get people ready was “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance is such a common word in our preaching—but we need a simple definition. It means to “turn around” or to have a change of heart or mind. And specifically, it means turning away from our sins or rebellion, and turning back to God. This is why the people who came to John to be baptized, came confessing their sins. The leveling of paths, the straightening of what is crooked, to make a “highway for our God”, the smoothing of rough places, are all metaphors for preparing our hearts by repentance. Sin is an orientation away from God, that needs a turn-around. Sin sends us on crooked paths, it fills our road with potholes and ditches and diversions. So John’s job was to set up the sign “roadwork ahead” and get our hearts ready for Jesus’ coming.

Sin is a hindrance or obstacle to our relationship with Jesus, which is why we need to repent and confess our sins. But that little three-letter word “sin” is so generic that it includes a whole variety of ways that we rebel against God. Some sins, like idolatry, may have us looking completely the wrong direction, and we miss God entirely. Or idolatry tries to set up a companion “god” next to Jesus—not remembering that God tolerates no rivals for our worship and shares His glory with no other. All idols are vain and empty hopes. So repentance from sin first of all involves turning back to God, and worshipping Him alone. Putting aside our trust in anything false.

Other types of sins, like murder, theft, or fraud, might land us in jail, and require paying up for earthly consequences. Repentance in such cases involves owning up to what has been done, and facing the earthly punishments—but turning to Jesus we can still find forgiveness, and that God will not hold our guilt against us eternally, but has taken it away on His cross. Still other sins, sins of the heart or mind, may be so personal and close to us, that we’re not even aware of them, until God’s law opens our eyes to it. We might even try to carry sins of lust or greed, of dishonesty or lying, before God, without even realizing it. These sins too, have to go. Repentance for these sins involves a total humility before God to recognize that our sin runs much deeper than just cleaning up the outside of our life, but recognizing that it’s a matter of our heart.

Our prayer for the day says, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds.” To have a pure mind, God has to work repentance inside and out. He has to deal with the obvious, external, ugly sins, as much as the hidden, internal, persistent sins. He has to deal with our mind, our mouth, and our actions—which is why we confess each week, that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. And here it should become obvious that we’re not capable of repairing ourselves, or creating the thorough renovation of our heart, mouth, and actions that God calls for. Rather than a “do-it-yourself” effort of cleaning up our own lives and reformatting our heart and mind—repentance is caused by the “professional”—the Holy Spirit, whom God sends to work in our hearts. You can think of Jesus’ baptism as like a contract—or rather God’s covenant with you, to bring the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39). Repentance is the Holy Spirit’s constant work in our hearts, to turn away from sin, and we receive that work of the Holy Spirit by faith, that is trusting in Jesus.

While it’s not a point particularly stressed in our reading from Mark, the reality appears in Isaiah, and other key Scriptures. The reality that the kingdom of God—the arrival of Jesus, is something to be received. The Gospel, or good news, is not something we are to do, but a message and God’s action to be received and believed. Jesus says later in Mark’s gospel, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). When the crowd at Pentecost repented at the preaching of the Apostle Peter, and asked what they must do to be saved, they were told to receive.Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It’s interesting to note that when John and Jesus came, there were already various “washings” or “baptisms” that the Jews practiced—but these were usually self-administered, and often considered only for the “righteous.” John’s baptism, the precursor to Jesus’ baptism, was a baptism he administered to others, not one they did to themselves. And it was a baptism for sinners. A washing you received in repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Which brings us full circle to the “beginning of the gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This good news about Jesus is not something that you do—it’s something that you receive. Even this preparation of repentance is something you receive—the working of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word of Law, to produce the change in heart and life that is repentance. And once we have received God’s preparing, Jesus enters the path prepared in our heart, and brings the Good News of the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus’ Advent, or coming is the best news for us. When we trust in Him, He comes to gather us like lambs into His arms, to carry us and gently lead us. When the prophet spoke “Comfort, comfort, my people”—it is Jesus who brings us this divine comfort. Where sin has left it’s damage, Jesus comes to restore us and make us new. He leads us into paths of righteousness for His name’s sake, and guides us by still waters. Though our life will not be free of suffering, He travels with us and carries us through all our troubles and sorrows.

The arrival of Jesus’ kingdom is an upheaval of the world. It’s met with resistance, as we don’t want to let go of our sins, we don’t want to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. But it’s a powerfully positive upheaval. It’s change for our good. When Jesus travels the level path into our repentant heart, made new by the Holy Spirit, there Jesus finds an open avenue for the working of His kingdom in you. Jesus makes hearts and lives that are willing and dedicated to love and serve God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He creates devotion and love toward God where before there were idols and unbelief. He creates compassion and love for our neighbor, and a desire to protect their life, property, and reputation, where before there was hatred, violence, greed, or lying. And He creates humility, repentance, and a forgiving heart, where before we were filled with pride, stubbornness, and unforgiveness. And though our sinful nature may continue to put up resistance to Jesus’ renewal for our lives, and need constant “roadwork”, we constantly return to Him through repentance and the forgiveness of sins. And by the new nature that is created in Christ Jesus, we arise day by day to live before God in righteousness and purity of heart forever.

How can we measure the impact of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on the world? The Christian historian Philip Schaff put it this way:

Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander the Great, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; without science and learning, he shed more light on things human and divine than all philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of school, he spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since, and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, he set more pens in motion, and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, works of art, and songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.


All of this is true: the number of Jesus’ devoted followers, His influence on thinking and learning in matters human and divine, speech and literature, sermons, art, and music. But as amazing as all of that is, these are only a few of the outward expressions of the influence of Jesus on the human heart itself. However much the followers of Jesus have failed through time to perfectly reflect Jesus’ own love, the effect of Jesus on transforming the human heart the world over is simply remarkable. And it all traces back to the very mission that God first intended, to redeem the world, when He sent His only Jesus to be born in a humble manger, of the Virgin Mary. As you prepare for Christmas this season, pray, “Come Lord Jesus!” Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Mark is the briefest Gospel, and summarizes much more than the others. For example, he tells everything up to Jesus’ temptation in just 13 verses, where Luke takes 3 chapters to tell all this. However, his opening verse tells us that this concentrated message is all about the “Gospel of Jesus Christ.” What is the two-word synonym or definition for “gospel”? What divine title does Mark call Jesus in v. 1, that shapes your understanding of the story he is about to unfold?
  2. Mark 1:2-3 quotes from Isaiah 40:3-4, and Malachi 3:1. How should we understand the identity of John the Baptist? What was his role, and what prophet is he like? Malachi 4:5; Mark 9:11-13; 2 Kings 1:8
  3. How do we prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming? What must be leveled, cleaned, and straightened? Repentance means to “turn around” or “change our heart or mind.” Confession means to admit our sins to God. What do these actions prepare us to receive? Mark 1:4-5, 15.
  4. Why is John the Baptist so emphatic in diminishing his own supporting role or importance? Mark 1:7-8; John 3:27-30. Who then receives the prominence and the spotlight?
  5. When Jesus enters the prepared path to our hearts, what blessings does He bring? What is the “good news” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God? How is the upheaval of sin in our lives followed by a reordering of our lives by God’s righteousness? What shape or pattern does God set forth for our lives to take in Christ Jesus? Philippians 1:6, 27ff.