Sunday, December 10, 2023

Second Sunday in Advent

Peace — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Isaiah 40:1-11, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 1:1-8, NRSVUE)

Preaching certainly isn’t the only thing that pastors do, but it is one of the things that pastors do, so we have to take classes on it. I think it helped, but I suppose you’ll have to be the judges of that.

During the winter of my first year of divnity school, I signed up for a course called “Preaching Boot Camp.” It seemed like a good idea at the time but, in retrospect, with a name like that, I probably should have had some inkling as to what I might be in for. I mean, it wasn’t called “Preaching through Gentle Encouragement” for a reason.

The class was offered during the intensive term between the first and second semesters, which meant that we were there for three hours every  day for two weeks straight. And because we were there to learn how to preach, it would only stand to reason that we had to do a whole lot of preaching in that very short amount of time.

At the end of each session, the professor would give us a general theme for the following day’s sermon. We’d all run home to write it and then come back the next morning to deliver it in front of everyone.

When we’d each finished preaching, we’d stand there as the professor and our peers told us exactly what they thought of our work, which was very humbling. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes I still have nightmares about it.

One day I showed up with a sermon that I thought wasn’t half bad. When my turn came around I headed up to the pulpit with my manuscript in-hand and preached it as best I could at the time (I say this becuase I’d never really preached before).

When I was done, I was met with complete silence. The professor generally kicked-off the commentary, but this time he just sat there staring at me for what seemed like an eternity. Not knowing what else to do, I began to walk back towards my seat. And it was at that point that he finally spoke up:

“Where are you going?”

“To sit down,” I replied.

“Get back up there and do it again,” he said.

“The whole thing?” I inquired.

“Yeah, the whole thing, right from the beginning. Only this time, I want you to give me all of your papers.”

Let’s just say, my sermon didn’t go so well the second time.

The professor, of course, was trying to teach me something — namely, when you’re preaching, you shouldn’t focus exclusively on your manuscript and ignore everyone in the room. Believe me, his message was received loud and clear. I still think about it every time I set foot up here to do this.

I learned some other things that day too — one of them being that my face and ears turn bright red when I get embarrassed (one of my fellow students told me that after class), and another being that a pulpit can be a really helpful support when you feel like you’re going to faint.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned that day at Preaching Boot Camp was this: going all the way back to the beginning is complicated. I mean, as much as we might want to clear the decks and start afresh, that can be a really tough thing to do.

I say this because, like it or not, we always return to the starting block with our experiences in tow, the things we’ve been through always color the things we’re going though and the things we’re about to go through; to put it in TV terms, we’re always joining a program that’s already in progress.

Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel takes us back to beginning of Jesus’s story, and we know this because Mark says so. The very first words of our text (which are also the very first words of the Second Gospel) are, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The beginning of Mark’s version of Jesus’s story is a lot different than those of Matthew and Luke. We don’t get a long genealogy of Jesus here, and we don’t get an account of Jesus’s birth either. No, with Mark we get camel hair clothes-wearing, locust-eating fellow called John the Baptist.

For Mark, the beginning of Jesus’s story necessarily involves the one whom God sent to prepare the people’s hearts and minds for Jesus – namely, John.

Jesus doesn’t suddenly appear out of thin air (though, being Jesus, he could probably pull that off); no, the world is prepared for his coming, and John is an integral part of that preparation process.

But John doesn’t show up completely unannounced either. In the second verse of today’s passage, Mark reminds us that the prophet Isaiah told us long ago that John was coming to prepare the way of the Lord. John heralds the arrival of Jesus, and Isaiah heralds the arrivals of both John and Jesus.

Mark wants us to know that the good news he’s about to share with us represents the beginning of a new era, but at the same time he wants us to understand that Jesus’s story only makes sense when we see it as part of a far bigger and much longer story.

You see, in the Bible, stuff doesn’t just happen without context — even at the beginning — and by that I mean the very beginning. 

The opening lines of Genesis tell us that, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” which, if you stop and think about it for a second, presupposes the existence of the deep waters. 

The point is that, even way back then, there really wasn’t nothing. In other words, God’s creation of the heavens and the earth seems to have been a step — albeit a very important step — of a process that was somehow already underway. At least that’s what Genesis implies, anyway.

As today’s story gets underway, John suddenly appears in the wilderness, but it’s important for us to understand that he’s got a few miles under his leather belt at this point — remember, John and Jesus are probably in their thirties at the “beginning” of Mark’s Gospel. In other words, Jesus is about to arrive but, in some sense, he’s already there.

The wilderness would have been really familiar to Mark’s early audience. As Jews, they would have understood what it signified from all that they had already seen and experienced as a people:

from the wanderings of Exodus in which they were nourished, sustained and saved by God;

to the Babylonian exile of Isaiah’s time and their eventual homecoming;

to the desire for deliverance from the bleak desert of Roman occupation during and after Jesus’s time here on earth.

Mark’s readers would have seen this reference to the wilderness and known that John was going to a place that had always been challenging, but one where great, exciting, and new things could and did happen; where things really could be different.

And it is in this spirit that John comes to the wilderness preaching the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And the true meaning of repentance here cannot be underestimated. It is not simply about the washing away of sins or declaring Jesus as your personal savior; it’s a far bigger deal than that. 

In this context, repentance means reorienting one’s entire heart and mind about absolutely everything;

it means believing that the world can be different and then working to make it that way;

it means learning from the past in order to create a better future.

Repentance is the kind of holistic awareness that compels change.

Repentance is an invitation into complete transformation.

This is how we are called to prepare for the kingdom of God.

Seen this way, repentance is not a discrete, one-time event but rather a perpetual, ongoing process.

These introductory lines from Mark’s Gospel are not only about John preparing the way for the Lord way back then, but also about us continuing to prepare the way for the Lord right here and right now.

And Advent is not only about preparing once again for the birth of the Christ child, but also about getting yet another fresh start on doing the work of God’s kingdom here on Earth;

applying the cumulative lessons learned from all of our previous beginnings as we strive to do better this time,

knowing that God will hold us responsible for the way we treat one another, and that God has always been generous with second chances.

These are lessons we’d do well to remember all the time, but they seem especially relevant right now.

In this season of Advent, in this time of new beginnings, it kind of feels like we’ve headed right back to the beginning — and not necessarily in a positive way. As we gather here today, wars are raging in Ukraine and in the Holy Land; God’s children — our siblings — in this country and throughout the world continue to be the victims of discrimination and senseless violence; people are still living on the streets here in Salt Lake City as another cold, dark winter is just getting started. It’s hard not to despair as history just seems to be repeating itself.

But each beginning is always at least a little different, each subsequent bite at the apple we get is never exactly the same.

They say the very definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different outcome. 

But, if the Bible is to be believed, this is not the way that new beginnings are supposed to work.

They are not merely chances to repeat the mistakes of the past,

nor are they chances to behave as though the past never happened.

They are opportunities to learn from our mistakes and to do better.

They are occasions when we are called to think differently and to act differently.

They are times to repent.

So, here we are, at the start of Advent, presented once again with a new beginning. What might we choose to do differently this time?