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.

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