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December 7, 2014 - Mark 1.1-8

“Putting Peace in the Proper Place”

Mark 1:1-8

December 7, 2014

 

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’ ”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

“Peace on Earth, good will to all men.”  These are the words that will ring through the air all during the Christmas season.  I get teary eyed now every time I see “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Linus tells everyone the true meaning of Christmas when he quotes the Luke 2 passage at the school play.  “Peace on Earth, good will to all men.”  I love it. 

Peace.  Today is the day of Peace in Advent.  Peace.  It is an elusive and slippery thing, this Peace.  It seems to be the one thing that the whole world knows it needs but somehow can’t seem to find. 

Peace.  It is the quest of restless souls.  Peace.  It is more than the absence of war or bloodshed, it is the inner quiet and contentedness that defies all turbulence and turmoil that would seek to upset our lives.  Peace.  It is the calm that is never outdone by the demands of the moment, and is never displaced by the fear that comes with a crisis.  Peace is unexplainable and also unattainable without the Prince of Peace.

Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, and the source of our Peace. 

So why is it that so many of us are falling to pieces?

Perhaps it is because there is a path to peace that we must follow.  Perhaps we must clear a path for the Prince of Peace. 

The Path to peace begins in the wilderness, and it begins with a single minded man obsessed with a single thing.

 

My barber shop in Louisville, Kentucky was at the Oxmoor Mall, just off of I-64.  My barber was obsessed with the length of sideburns.  He had one message and he never wavered from it.  “Your sideburns should never be longer than the bottom curve on the inside of your outer ear.”  He would hold the comb up next to my sideburns and give me a lecture about the length of my sideburns every time I got a haircut.  If I got 20 haircuts from him over the three years I lived in Louisville, then I got 20 lectures on the length of my sideburns.  The funny thing is, I’ve never wore sideburns.  I do not know what got him going, but apparently his one message in life was to rid the world of men that wore their sideburns too long.  That was his one message and he never wavered from it.

This was confirmed for me when I was passing through Louisville six years after I had moved from there.  I went to the mall to eat and get a gift, and there he was.  Same barber in the same spot, and lo and behold, he was lecturing the young man in the chair about the length of his sideburns.  Wow!

He reminds me of John the Baptist.  He also had one message that he never wavered from.  “Repent!  Prepare the Way of the Lord!”  Out there in the wilderness, the Baptist never wavered from his message, and was never off topic.  “Repent!  Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

 

Mark opens his gospel quoting the Old Testament.  He is pointing out the exact fulfillment of prophecy.  John was Old School.  He was a real, bona fide throwback to the old Hebrew Prophets.  They did strange stuff.  Isaiah walked around naked.  Ezekiel laid in his yard.  You don’t really want me to tell you about Jeremiah so close to lunch.  Wilderness.  Locusts and honey.  The wilderness was a time to be tested and to rely upon God. 

Most modern listeners to scripture today are not willing to hear about repentance, and most preachers are not ready to preach about it.  It is disturbing to an audience to hear that you must change your direction.  It turns people away, honestly.  But John the Baptist did not dilute his message with soft, gentle, pop psychology kind of language.  His language was rough, rude and real.  “The axe lies at the root of the tree…” “You brood of vipers…” “Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance…”

It is not a far reach to say that John’s message applies to us in our own wilderness today.  If we honestly examine our cultures sexual habits, business mores, inner cities, the political manipulation of the masses, oppression, and insatiable desire to unashamedly pursue wealth, then the words desert and wilderness do not seem like too much of an overstatement. The wilderness is where the people of Israel lost their way and wandered 40 years until they were ready to trust God.  The wilderness is where John the Baptist called people to come to repentance, and it is in the wilderness that we find the beginning of the path to inner peace.

To repent has a significant meaning.  It means to change direction.  To go in the opposite direction.  To be cleansed and start over again.  But you cannot change direction or begin again unless someone tells you, “HEY! You are going the wrong way!”

In the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin and John Candy are riding down the freeway in the middle of the night.  A car desperately pulls up beside them and the people in it start screaming “You are going the wrong way!”  Sleepily, Martin says to Candy, “someone is screaming that we are going the wrong way.”  Candy replies, “How do they know where we’re going?” “Yeah,” Martin says.  That’s when he sees that the median is BETWEEN his car and the other car, and that they are headed south bound in the north bound lane.  Coming straight at them, are two 18-wheeler tractor trailer trucks.  They barely escape with their lives, their lives flashing before them, sparks flying.  John the Baptist is screaming at the top of his lungs, “You are going the wrong way!  Turn around!  You are going to die!”

He is telling us to prepare the way for the Lord.  The path for a King must be made straight and level.  God is coming.  Jesus is coming.  We must get the way prepared.  Repentance is the first step towards preparing the way.  It is the first step in being honest about ourselves.  We sin.  We fall short of God’s glory.  We wander, we lie, we cheat, we lust, we covet, we are greedy.  Repentance begins with the simple admission that in our sin we need to be forgiven, that we need to confess.

It seems to me that a real universal among humans is the search, for the lack of a better term, “inner peace.”  If you see any poll about our culture today, a desire for spiritual meaning and peace of mind always rank super high with people today.  But nothing is more anguishing to me than when I hear the polling data and see that most people in our culture think the church is irrelevant.  When people like us again take repentance seriously, then our world will once again take the church seriously.  Often we Protestants malign the way that Catholics “do confession.”  The criticism is often made that a simple homework assignment of  X of “Hail Marys” and X “Our Fathers” isn’t a good way to do repentance and confession.  That critique has a lot of validity to it, but any good Catholic could ask me, “So how do you guys do it?”  That should be question, shouldn’t it?  How do we do it?  How do we “do confession?” 

The truth is we are not comfortable with it.  The only corporate way we have to confess is through the Pastoral Prayer.  We do that, and it is a good way to do that corporately.  But what about my sins?  And your sins?  We need to say in the family of faith the same thing we say to God.  It makes it more real to us.  That means that you and I are going to have to trust each other enough, that you are going to have to trust the person sitting next to you enough to be able to go to them and have a tough conversation where we forgive each other, encourage each other, and resolve to work together to walk in repentance.

Sometimes we like to think that repentance is just a vertical matter, between God and us.  But it’s not.  It certainly begins there, but unless the repentance becomes horizontal as well as vertical, then we are not living it out.  If it stays from God to me, then I am shutting it down on my end.  Real repentance flows from God to me and to those around me.  That is the horizontal.  You and I have been forgiven by God.  If we take that seriously, we will forgive each other.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, Gospel Medicine, about how repentance is lived out horizontally and not just vertically.

In case you have not noticed, Christianity is a religion which the sinners have all the advantages.  They can step on your feet fifty times and you are supposed to keep smiling.  They can talk bad about you every time you leave the room and it is your job to excuse them with no thought of getting even.  The burden is on you, because you have been forgiven yourself, and God expects you to do unto others as God has done unto you.

This is not a bad motivation for learning how to forgive.  If God is willing to stay with me in spite of my meanness, my weakness, my stubborn self-righteousness then who am I to hold those things against someone else?  Better I should confess my own sins than keep track of yours, only it is hard to stay focused on my shortcomings.  I would so rather stay focused on yours, especially when they are hurtful to me. 

Staying angry with you is how I protect myself from you.  Refusing to forgive you is not only how I punish you; it is also how I keep you from hurting me again, and nine times out of ten it works, only there is a serious side effect.  It is called bitterness, and it can do terrible things to the human body and soul.[1]

 

Bitterness is the opposite of repentance.  It is not ignorance, when you do not know there are stones and fallen trees that lie in the path of God to your heart.  It is knowing that the stones and stumps are in the way and blaming someone else for putting them there, refusing to turn around and prepare the way of the Lord.  The path to inner peace is found in the wilderness.  It is cluttered with obstacles.  It begins here.  The path to inner peace begins with repentance.  Where there is no honest confession and repentance, there can be no real peace.

 

There can be no peace where there is not forgiveness.  We must forgive those who have wronged us, even when they do not ask for it, or we cannot know the peace of God.  Without forgiveness, there is only an endless cycle of hate and blame that only consumes those involved.  Forgiveness is a must, and it cannot happen passively.  Some will say, “Just let it go.”  Well, it will not go on its own.  You must break the cycle of un-grace, and actively forgive that person that has wronged you - ESPECIALLY if they have not asked for it.  In fact, if we do not forgive we cannot say that we have truly repented.  Jesus did not wait for us to ask for forgiveness before he forgave us.  Repentance is all about understanding what the Prince of Peace has already done.

 

Repentance is the admission that we have failed.  It is in fact, self-judgment, or at least the admission that when God judges us, we will be found lacking.  “Judgment is above all about being known . . . all the way down. It is about being seen through, seen into, and known for who we really are. It is about the total failure of our defenses and the abject poverty of our pretensions. It is about stepping into the light, or having the light turned upon us, so that every nook and cranny of our being is illuminated for examination. It is about standing before God without our armor, our masks, our possessions, and our excuses, with nothing but our beating hearts and the slim volume of our life histories to commend us, waiting to hear God's true word about ourselves.”[2]

 

If we are going to find God this Advent season, we have to get away from the crowds, get away from our old lives, and go someplace off in the wilderness where life and death is at stake. It won't be easy. Such a path calls for repentance, turning away from an old life, and embracing a new one.

 

For some of you, the path to peace begins with a step out into the aisle.

 

 

 

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown; Gospel Medicine, Boston: Crowley Publications, 1995.  Referenced from p. 46 of Pulpit Resource, William Willimon, editor.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 130.