Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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What's On Your Christmas List?

Mark 1:1-8

 Well, we only have two weeks to go till the Big Day.  How are you doing?  Are you ready?  Are you getting there?  Are you checking off the stuff on your list?

 You do have a list, don’t you?  Of course, you do.  You probably have several lists.  There’s the grocery list; all that stuff you have to buy for Christmas dinner.  There’s the shopping list of who you’re buying gifts for.  There’s the to do list.  Gifts to wrap.  A house to clean.  Christmas cards to send.  And so on.  

 Here’s my list:  I still need to buy a few gifts for the kids, and also for my two nephews.  All of the wrapping still has to be done.  I need to buy some things for Christmas dinner.  And there’s a few odds and ends, clean the house and such.

 Is this what getting ready for Christmas is all about?  Christmas is a celebration of the coming of Messiah.  And this season of Advent is a reminder of his promise that he is coming again.  Are we ready for that?  How do we get ready?  

 We heard a little bit this morning about one of the strangest characters in the Bible, John the Baptist.  Let’s imagine for a second that John had a Christmas list.  What would be on his list?  Buy locusts, wash camel hair?  Maybe, but I think his list would be filled with things a bit more profound:  Repent.  Flee from empty religious ritual.  Humble yourself.  Turn from your sins and do what is right and just and merciful.  Reject complacency and seek God with all your heart.  Warn others about the coming judgment.  I think those are the kind of things that would be on John the Baptist’s list.  And it’s a list that would be very different from ours.  

 Let’s talk about this strange man, John the Baptist.  We know he was related to Jesus.  His mother Elizabeth was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  We don’t know exactly how.  They were probably cousins of some kind or another.  But after the miraculous circumstances of John the Baptist’s birth, he disappears completely, only to reappear in the wilderness, on the eve of Jesus’ ministry.

 His appearance was the fulfillment of prophecy.  Isaiah and Malachi, whose prophecies are recounted here, foretold of a messenger who would come ahead of God himself to prepare the way.  Malachi foretold that he would be a prophet like Elijah.  And John was.  Both of them lived in the wilderness, wore simple clothing, and ate the simplest of food.

 Everything about John was a protest.  He lived in the wilderness.  That was reminiscent of Elijah, but also, it was John’s way of rejecting the ease and the complacency of Jerusalem.  The religious leaders were happy to enjoy a life of ease and comfort in the city.  But John chose to live in the wilderness, a place where he could hear the voice of God, rather than being tempted by the spiritual complacency of others.  

 He lived simply.  He wore camel’s hair.  He ate locusts and honey.  He lived off the land, not off of a society that was losing touch with the heart of God and finding comfort in empty rituals.  He was also identifying himself with the poor, rather than with the wealthy chief priests in Jerusalem.  John’s father was a priest, so he could have enjoyed that life of ease, but wanted nothing to do with it.  

 And John preached a message of preparation.  He announced the coming of Messiah.  Mark’s gospel differs from the other three in that it has no birth story, no background on Jesus at all.  The reason is that it was just not important to the purpose for which he was writing.  Mark was written to a specifically Roman audience.  And one of the quirks of Roman customs is that an important person would never just show up.  They would always be preceded and announced by a herald, so people could get ready.  Mark, writing to this Roman audience, begins with the herald and his message:  Get ready!

 How do we get ready?  How do we prepare for the coming of Christ?  

 We prepare by repenting of our sins.  

 John preached and practiced baptism.  That might not seem strange to us, but it was to the people who heard John.  You see, in Judaism of the first century, ceremonial washing was very important.  But baptism was not “washing.”  Baptism was a rite of conversion.  The only time Jews practiced baptism was when a non-Jew committed to becoming a Jew.  If that happened, they were baptized.  Baptism was symbolic of the death of a person’s “old life” and the beginning of a “new life.”  

 For John, a Jew, to preach baptism to other Jews, was very strange.  He was preaching conversion to the people who thought of themselves as already being the children of God.  

Why would they need to hear it?  Because they had become spiritually  complacent.  They were counting on their birth, their heritage, their identity with a

particular people as the source of their security before God.  John was introducing a new concept to them.  They had always thought of their identity in terms of the community they belonged to.  But now John was saying that it was not enough to be born into the faith community.  A person also had to make a personal decision to flee from sin and seek God.  

To repent is to turn around.  To repent is to turn from a way of life ruled by sin to a way of life ruled by Christ.  

And John preached this message to a people unaccustomed to thinking about repentance, but who needed to hear it because they were counting on their heritage rather than their own decisions for security before God.  Are we so different today?  As a society, we are not accustomed to a message of repentance.  Our society has bought into the idea that we all make up our own rules of right and wrong.  Our society doesn’t like to hear that some things are right and others are wrong.  But we need to hear about repentance because we are not right in the eyes of God.  And too many of us count on our “birth” as Christians rather than our decision for Christ.

We prepare for the coming of Christ by humbling ourselves.  I think this goes hand in hand with repentance.  If we understand our need for repentance, then we understand why we should be humble because we come before God as sinners in desperate need of a Savior.

John’s line was, “I am not worthy to untie the straps of the Messiah’s sandals.”  In Jesus’ culture, the feet were considered the most disgusting part of the body.  And it makes sense.  Everyone wore sandals and the roads were dry and dusty or muddy.  They were littered with animal dung.  Untying somebody else’s sandals was a truly demeaning task.  It was considered fit only for slaves.  No teacher would ever ask his disciple to untie his sandals.  But John said, “I’m not even worthy to be the slave of the Messiah.”  

John was speaking out against the pride of a people who were used to thinking of themselves as God’s own people, and thinking of everyone else as less than fully human.  Again, is this so different from us today?  We like to say, “God bless America.”  But is America doing the things God would want us to do so that he would bless us?  

We prepare for the coming of Christ by practicing justice and mercy.  If we are truly repentant people, we show it by practicing the things God wants us to do.  

In Luke’s Gospel, which tells us more about John’s ministry than the others, the people respond to his message by saying, “What should we do?”  And John tells them, if you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one.  If you have extra food, give it to the needy.  The tax collectors ask, “What should we do?”  And John tells them to be honest and not collect extra for themselves.  The soldiers ask, “What should we do?”  And he tells them not to abuse their position by making false accusations or extorting money.  

If we have truly repented of our sin, then we must commit ourselves to doing the things God wants of us.  And what does he want of us?  He wants us to be just.  He wants us to treat others fairly and rightly.  And he wants us to be merciful to those in need.  Those things mean more to God than any amount of prayers we could offer or devotions we could do.

And finally, we prepare for the coming of Christ by pointing others to him.

That was John’s whole purpose; not to attract people to himself but to point them to the One who was to come.  The crowds thought he himself might be the answer, but he kept pointing them to Jesus.  The Gospel of John tells us how he sent his own disciples away to follow Jesus, which I’ve always thought really showed his humility.  Few of us can point others away from ourselves when they think that we might be the answer for them.  

We aren’t the answer.  But we know the one who is.  And we should not be content to sit idly by as long as many around us don’t know him.

We all have our Christmas lists.  But if we don’t finish them, Christmas will still come.  The real question is:  If we don’t prepare our hearts for Jesus, if we don’t do the things God want us to do, then will God come to us?

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