Make the Proper Preparations
A sermon based on Mark 1:1-8
Sunday, December 4, 2011 – Advent 2B
How are your Christmas preparations coming? You getting everything done? You have presents bought for everyone on your list? The gifts all wrapped? The tree up? The lights on the house yet? Are you going out of town for the holidays? If so, do you have the travel plans made, the tickets purchased, the bags packed? Or perhaps you have guests coming to your place for Christmas. Are you prepared for their arrival? Do you have the house cleaned, the meals planned, the guest bed all ready to go?
There's a lot to do to get ready for Christmas isn't there? A lot of preparations need to be made. And even if you don't have relatives staying at your place in the next few weeks, we all have a guest that's coming very soon… Jesus. For that reason, the most important thing to prepare this Advent season is ourselves. We want to prepare our hearts for Jesus return.
A man by the name of John, more commonly called, John the Baptist, helped the people of his day do that very thing—prepare for Jesus' arrival, his advent, on the scene. He helped them prepare their hearts by preaching a message of repentance. And really John helps us to do the same. He helps up prepare for Jesus' advent by that same message of repentance.
But what exactly does "repentance" mean? How do we get ready for Jesus' advent? Well to repent literally means to have a change of mind, a change of direction or to turn around. But when you turn around and make a U-turn, you not only turn from the wrong direction, but turn to the right direction. This morning John helps us Make the Proper Preparations. He helps us Turn From Our Sinful Ways and Turn To Our Savior in Faith. Listen again to a summary of John's ministry in Mark 1:1-8…
1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"— 3"a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' " 4And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
I. Turn From Your Sinful Ways
Mark begins his gospel by telling us what it's all about. This whole book, he says, is the beginning of the gospel, the good news, about Jesus, the Christ, who was no ordinary man, but the very Son of God. That's his whole purpose in writing. So Mark skips past all the unnecessary stuff about Jesus childhood, his adolescent years, about the first thirty years of Jesus life. And he gets right into the ministry of Jesus. And it all began with John the Baptist who helped get the people ready. He helped them make the proper preparations for Jesus' advent.
But Mark points out that John wasn't just an ordinary guy. He was different, for a number of reasons. For starters, he had some special prophecies made about him. Mark quotes two Old Testament prophecies when he writes…"I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"— 3"a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "
Then he says, "And so John came." Mark is saying that God sent John to fulfill those prophecies. John did not come on his own, as some self-proclaimed prophet, but with divine authority. His was a message from God to prepare the way for the coming Savior, just like a messenger would travel ahead of a king to get the people to repair the roads on which the king would travel, to help them prepare for such an important guest. John was sent to prepare the hearts of the people, as that would be the road on which Christ would travel. And he did that by his message of repentance.
John was also different in the way he dressed and acted. He didn't dress in the finest of clothes like the Pharisees did. He didn't wear a nice suit and tie. John was a weirdo. But his strange dress and diet attracted people to him. Mark uses hyperbole when he says "the whole countryside and all the people of Jerusalem" went out to see him. And many people heard what John had to say.
And finally, when they did, they learned that John's message was different. By his dress and diet, he pointed out that the "material things" of this life weren't really that important. What really mattered was whether or not they were ready for Jesus' advent, God's coming to earth. And by his preaching John helped them get ready.
Though it must not have been fun for them to hear, John pointed out all their sin and called a spade a spade. The Greek word for sin in these verses is amartia, it means to miss the mark. John showed the Jews that they had missed the bulls-eye of God's demands. In fact, they had missed the target completely. God demanded absolute moral perfection from his people. But they were far from it.
In Luke 3 we get a sampling of what John preached to the people as he pointed out that sin. He pointed out their greed and selfishness as they misused the blessings God had given. He told them, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." (v.11) He pointed out their theft and their dishonesty in their attempt to get more material wealth for themselves. He told the tax collectors, "Don't collect any more than you are required to," (v.13) and the soldiers, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay." (v.15)
It certainly wasn't fun for them to have their sins pointed out. It never is, just like it's no fun to be woken up at three in the morning by someone screaming, "Fire! Fire!" But who would complain if the cry woke you from your sleep and saved your life? If that annoying scream saved you from burning alive? Who would get upset and say, "Don't wake me up! I'm sleeping!"? This cry of John's, pointing out their sin, was meant to save them from the eternal fires of hell.
And his shouts worked. The people did repent. They had a change of mind about themselves and saw what they really looked like in the mirror of God's law. They recognized how serious a problem their sins were. They confessed their sins and cried out to God for help.
God kept his promise about sending John the Baptist as the forerunner, the one who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. In fact, God has faithfully kept every promise he's ever made. For that reason we know that he will keep his promise about Christ's return to this earth. And so, we too had better make the proper preparations to get ready.
But how do we do it? Well the ads, flyers, and commercials all suggest that to get ready for Christmas you have to buy more stuff. Our society in general puts a great emphasis on material wealth, but never so much as around Christmas. All the retail stores pretend to help us get ready for Christmas with those countdown signs you see everywhere, "Only 21 days to Christmas!" But all of these distract us from what we really need to get ready. What we really need is repentance.
Though it may not be fun, we too need to have our sins pointed out to us. We too need to see our own reality in the mirror of God's law. We need this cry of "Fire! Fire!" to save our lives from hell. We need John's reminder that this life isn't what it's all about. It's not all about fine clothes and great foods. It's not about living in nicest homes in the best parts of town. It's not all about the great presents I get. It's all about getting ready for Jesus.
We need to have our greed and selfishness pointed out just as the Jews did. We need to be warned against those attitudes that always want more and more, never content with what we have, never willing to share with others or give to God with willing hearts. We too need to have our dishonesty and thievery pointed out, like when we rob from our employers by not working our hardest all the time we're on the clock. We too need to have the Holy Spirit work in our hearts with his law to turn us around, to turn us from our sinful ways that we confess them before God and cry out to him for help.
And when we do, he won't leave our cry unanswered but will give us the comfort of the gospel. That's exactly what John did. He not only told the people to turn away from their sins, but he pointed them to Christ and told them to turn to him in faith…
II. Turn To Your Savior in Faith
When John pointed out the people's sins, they did recognize that there was nothing they could do to take back the sins they committed. There was nothing they could do to make things right with God again. They were in desperate need of help. They badly needed a Savior. And when they looked to John to be that Savior, he pointed out that he wasn't it…
7And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
John didn't say, "Come to me. I have the solution. I have all the answers. I'll give you all you need." No. He knew he couldn't help these people himself, so he didn't want them to focus their attention on him. Though Jesus said of John the Baptist, "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John…" (Luke 7:28) John didn't want to be thanked for his ministry. He didn't care if he was acknowledged. "Don't look for your help from me. Look to the one who is to come. I'm not even worthy to untie his shoes, he's so great. (A task that a Hebrew master wouldn't even demand of his slave it was considered so lowly a job.) He is where you ought to turn," John told them.
And he pointed them to the real answer to their great need. He pointed them to Jesus. Though Jesus came after John chronologically, being born later, appearing on the Judean scene at a later time, he was and is greater than John—the very Son of God, the Savior of mankind. So John rightly said, "He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:27) John was only the instrument to point people to Jesus. Jesus had the real power. John baptized with water, but Jesus would baptize with his Holy Spirit. If the people would look to Jesus, John pointed out, they would be forgiven of their every sin.
And the Holy Spirit did work through John and his message to not only turn the people away from the wrong direction of their sinful lifestyles and self-righteousness, but to also turn them to the right direction, to Jesus their Savior. Many people heard John's message of Law and Gospel, confessed their sins and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.
And dear friends, when we recognize our sin and our great need for a Savior, God doesn't leave us hopeless either. He sends "Johns" into our lives to point away from the wrong solution and toward the only right way in Christ Jesus. We do need a Savior, in a bad way. But our help doesn't come from a man like John, it doesn't from your pastor or your president, from your wealth or your works. It doesn't come from your own wisdom, your own spiritual struggles, or your repentance. We, like John, need to look away from ourselves and toward our Savior. There we find the real solution to our great need.
In Christ, we find the forgiveness of sin, for every time we've missed the mark. We find forgiveness for our materialism, for losing sight of what matters most. There we find forgiveness for giving without a cheerful heart or motivated by how good it makes you feel, instead of by thanksgiving to God. There we find forgiveness for every sin since our Savior took them all on himself and paid the penalty they deserve on the cross.
And we turn to Jesus in faith and remember our baptisms where our sins were forever removed. We remember our baptisms and drown our sinful, selfish natures again each day. We turn around, turn away from our sins and put our trust in Jesus who won salvation for us. Then we're truly prepared for Christ's advent, ready for his return.
And then we're equipped to be like John and help others to get ready too. Invite your holiday guests to come to church with you. Remind your co-workers that Christmas isn't all about gifts and commercialism. Invite them to the Kids' Christmas Eve service or to worship Christmas Day. In love, call out, "Fire! Fire!" and show your friends their sins so they too see their great need for a Savior. And share with them the only answer to their need in Jesus and his death on the cross. You too are God's instrument to lead others to repent, that they too might turn away from their sins, and toward their Savior; that they too might make the proper preparations and be ready for Christ when he comes.
These are the preparations that are far more important than the Christmas shopping, or the Christmas decorations, than the parties and events. And God will give us the courage, wisdom and strength to make the proper preparations. In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.