Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Prepare the King a Road

A sermon on Mark 1:1-8




Formation is about discipleship; it’s about the renovation of our heart and the transformation of our character. And so my job’s is to help every single person in the Diocese of Texas move from a life lived in service to self to a live lived in service to God: not very hard. And yet – this transition is what Christianity is about. As C.S. Lewis put it, “the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men to Christ, to make them little Christ’s. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simple a waste of time.” And I would agree. The sole purpose of the church is to form disciples – to draw people closer to Jesus so that Jesus can make them more like Himself.

Which is actually what today’s reading from Mark is all about – the way we become disciples of Jesus. Now, I bet that’s not what you thought. You thought today you had to sit through the prologue so that next week you could hear the good stuff. No, today’s the good stuff; it’s Mark’s thesis statement where everything that’s important is introduced.

And here’s how I’d summarize Mark’s thesis: Our God and our King is coming. Let our hearts prepare him a road.

You see the first thing Mark wants us to know is what following Jesus will entail – and that’s a trip to the wilderness. Where did Moses meet God in the burning bush? The wilderness. Where did Jacob wrestle with God? The wilderness. Where did the people of Israel encounter God? Not Egypt, but at Mount Sinai, in the wilderness. And in today’s Gospel Mark tells us where we must go to encounter our God and our King: the wilderness.

Now we hear the word wilderness and we think “state park.” When we go to the wilderness we bring water and a tent and shelter and beer and firewood and food and an I-pod and you know, we really “rough it!” Or maybe we hear wilderness and we think Bear Grylls – about learning to survive ourselves.

But in the Bible, the wilderness is opposite; it’s a place where life can’t be sustained naturally. There’s no bread, no water; absolutely nothing natural you can draw on to survive. You see in the Bible’s wilderness, our achievements don’t matter; our money doesn’t matter; our skills don’t matter. Even MacGyver’s out of luck in the wilderness. And yet this is precisely the place our heart must go, Mark says, to meet Jesus.

And so if we are serious about our faith, there’s a question we need to ask. Have we met Jesus in the wilderness? Because it’s tempting, and it’s easy, to just pack Jesus up next to the beer and the I-pod and to have him join us at the state park; or think that we can make it just fine ourselves in life but that Jesus is on standby to help. It’s tempting to think Jesus is like a really good vitamin – something we need to get on with our day. And what Mark is saying in today’s Gospel is “no.” “If we want to meet Jesus, we’ve got to go to the wilderness; where if we want water, it’s going to come from the rock; where if we want bread, it has to come like manna from heaven.” In other words, the point of today’s is to remind us of something important: that we cannot provide for ourselves, that apart from God we are grass, and that the very things we’ve built our lives on – our looks, our spouse, our achievements, our status, our money, our intellect, whatever – they’re fine and wonderful things, but if they’re our foundation, it’s sand.

You see Jesus doesn’t invite us into the wilderness to polish the foundation we’ve spent our live building. He invites us to the wilderness to give us a new one.

And that’s why John begins his ministry by baptizing people, and says it’s a precursor to Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now you may have heard that baptism was already a common practice in Jesus’ day. I did some homework. It wasn’t. The tradition before John had to do with self-washings, ablutions and immersions, and most scholars are too lazy to point out the difference. And so as a symbol for their need to be cleansed, Jews would wash their hands before entering the temple. And if a Gentile wanted in, the rule said they had to pour water over their entire bodies, you know because they were really unclean. But here’s the difference. Before John you always washed yourself. The tradition was self-washing and self-immersion and self-cleansing and what Mark is telling us today is that with Jesus the self-washing done!; that to be a disciple of Jesus we have to let him baptize us, not just with water, but with the very Spirit of God.

The Christian Gospel is not just another self-washing technique. It’s a trip to the wilderness to be washed by Someone greater; and that our job is to prepare for that. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he writes, “make his paths straight.”

Now, a better translation of that word “way” is actually road. “Prepare a road for the Lord,” or for the King – that’s a bit more true to the Greek, which is important to note because a king – back in the day – would send his messenger ahead of him, like Jesus did John, to announce to a city that the King was planning to visit. And the custom of the day was to prepare a new road for that King; you know to support the full entourage that would no doubt be traveling with him. Well, here’s the thing. Making a straight path, building a new road, this was a burden. I mean, people had to stop what they were doing to clear rocks, uproot weeds and level the ground. It was a burden, and frankly meant to be; it was the king’s way of lording his power over others. And so by beginning his Gospel by announcing a King’s arrival and by saying that it’s time to build him a road, Mark’s audience would have started to question – is this King also going to enslave us? Is preparing to meet him just another burden?

Now, I don’t know about you but I’ve asked that question before. If I really try and obey God’s will, won’t I be missing out? I mean, if God says don’t eat fruit from that tree, the only way to really be free is to take it, right? To be our own King? And of course from the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel we’re told that this King is different – that his arrival is “good news.”

I mean, you know that’s what the word Gospel means, right? It doesn’t mean good advice or good life strategy, the word Gospel means good news, which is why when Mark uses the word road or way from here on out – and he uses it a lot – it’s always a reference to Jesus’ road through the wilderness all the way to the cross. This King’s not coming to enslave. The King comes to set us free.

And so that’s Mark’s thesis statement: prepare the way of the Lord, a new kind of King has arrived, and so clear Him a path in the depth of your heart so the King can set you free.

You see, that heart preparation is what Advent’s about, what formation is about, what this Church is about, and what our life should be about. Because if Jesus is the King Mark’s talking about, it is a silly thing to invite Him into our life as a self-help coach or an encourager or as anything other than a liberating King worthy of our devotion in every aspect of our life. And in some sense that’s the question Mark’s putting before us. We can baptize ourselves, or Jesus can baptize us. We can build our own foundation, or we can come to Jesus for a new one. We can go to the state park or we can go to the wilderness but what we cannot do, once having heard the news, is fail to decide.

And while it is a decision that we all have to make, if we’ve only made it once, I doubt we ever made it at all. Because our King has come and is coming; and although we weren’t worthy to stoop down and touch his sandals, the good news of Christianity is that He’s made us worthy. Because our worthiness is not found at the end of some road that we must walk for ourselves; but at the end of a road that the King’s already walked on our behalf.

And so when it comes to our hearts, let us clear the rocks, uproot the weeds and level the ground. Let’s Pray. Read Scripture. Serve. Love. Bless. Share. Give. Fast. Celebrate. Be silent. Rejoice. Decide. Transition – from a life lived in service to self to a live lived in service to God; because the only reason the church exists is to make us into little Christ’s.

Our God and our King is coming. Let our hearts prepare him a road.

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