Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Are We Waiting For? (First Sunday of Advent Sermon Text)

Sermon Text: Mark 1:1-11

What are we waiting for?  This is a common advent theme, as Advent is the season of waiting, expecting, longing, and hoping for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.  While I would love to to begin with a clever story, a crafty illustration from my childhood, or even a humorous anecdote that would "prepare the way" for this sermon, I confess- I have nothing. That said, I thought that I would dive right into today's theme, text, eventual proclamation from today's "Face of Advent," John the Baptist, and what all this means for us as God's waiting and expectant people in and for the world.

So, what are we waiting for?

As my family gathered for thanksgiving this year I was reminded that many Americans are waiting for the holiday shopping season to begin.  Actually, we cannot wait so Black Friday is now Black Thursday night.

This time last year Amber and I were anxiously waiting through a high risk pregnancy.

The Imago Dei Youth have spent the past four weeks working through and conversing about the message of the prophet, Habakkuk, who begins his discourse with a similar question consistent with many of the prophets, "How long, O, Lord?"  Here were some of their responses of waiting written on old pieces of wood:

I could ask those who attend Celebrate Recovery, "what are you waiting for," and they may say, you may say: we are waiting for strength to overcome addiction.  Comfort as I struggle with deep rooted grief.  Healing of pain buried for far too long.

If you ask members of this congregation and the roughly 8-10% of our national population (depending on polls), "what are you waiting for," the response is sure to be: steady employment.  I am waiting for work, a paycheck.  I long for the ability to provide for my family and their future.

If I asked new friends in Honduras, "what are you waiting for," they may say: we are waiting for an improved education system.  We are waiting for our police force to provide protection versus promote corruption.  We are waiting for justice in the political realm and peace in our neighborhoods. 

If you ask victims of abuse, "what are you waiting for," you may give pause to their hopes for a voice, justice, healing, to be heard, safety, and protection.

If I asked the same question to Occupiers, "what are you waiting for," they would probably say: a fair and balanced economy.  We are waiting for accountability.

I bring these up, because, despite what this season may reflect in the consumer-driven culture, we are a people and a humanity that are waiting for far more than new products, great deals, and Black Friday shopping sprees.

We are a people who have deep-seated anticipations and longings for the world around us to be different. 

While we may participate in the race to nowhere, we want to be taken somewhere. 

While we may wait through suffering in silence, we long for a voice. 

We want to be delivered.

We want the creation to be liberated.

How long, O Lord, will this day ever come?

Then we turn to the first century, the very real context of today's passage, and we are invited to ask, "what were they waiting for?"  What was John the Baptist, this prophet from the wilderness, waiting for?

In order to gain a glimpse of the longings and expectations of those who eagerly gathered by the Jordan to hear John's message, we must consider the religious tradition of Judaism.

Judaism is a religious tradition that hinges on story, narrative, and memory.

The poetic stories of creation. The flood stories.  The patriarchal stories, i.e. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Yet the bulk of their storied tradition hinged on the Exodus motif.  That is, they were to remember their story as an oppressed and enslaved people in Egypt, liberated from Pharaoh, and delivered through the waters of the sea.

This led to the Torah story and the gifting of God's people with a way of being in the world through the Law.  They were to remember this story and live into this story as God's called and covenanted people, a light to the surrounding nations. In other words, the liberated people out of Egypt were to be a liberating community in and for the world, especially for the poor, oppressed, widows, orphans, resident aliens, and dwellers on the margins.

Again, their story of liberation and deliverance was to be the world's story of liberation and deliverance.

Yet everywhere they turned they witnessed suffering, injustice, oppression, and heinous crimes against humanity, to include those committed by God's people.  They would even be overcome by neighboring nations and violent emperors, empires, and related armies.  In short, their story and God's story were not meshing with reality. It could then be said that the story of Israel up to and during the time of Jesus was of exile, oppression,wandering, pondering, hoping, and expecting for God to act again and bring a new exodus, a final way out. This exodus, which would be led by a new Moses, a Messiah even, would be once and for all. 

The real story of ancient Israel was of waiting.  What were they waiting for?

Waiting for deliverance.

Waiting for salvation.

Waiting for peace.

Waiting for fair and balanced economics.

Waiting for direction.

Waiting for hope.

Waiting for home.

Waiting for God to act and make all things new and right.  This may sound familiar...

Prophets often vocalized this waiting.  How long, O, Lord? They would cry.  Will you forget us forever?  They would plea.

Prophets would even head out to the desserts to fast and pray on behalf of God's people.  In the wilderness, much like their storied ancestors before they entered the land of promise, these prophets would petition and wait for a voice from God to announce that deliverance, once and for all, was coming...

Insert John the Baptist here- dressed in an attire that included a leather belt and camel hair and disciplined by a diet of locusts and honey.  It is clear that despite the vocation of his father, Zechariah, John is no temple priest, rather a radical prophet.

What I love about today's text is that Mark's beginning is unlike any other of the gospels.  Matthew begins with a family history of Jesus.  Luke interweaves the birth stories of both John and Jesus.  The Gospel of John hints at Jesus as the Word of God in flesh as the  "beginning" of a new creation.  But Mark gives us a rather odd illustration and characterization of John the Baptist that seems to parallel not only the Baptizers ministry, but also and especially that of Jesus, with the prophetic hope for a new Exodus. 

Hear the echoes:

"Prepare the Way."

"A voice cries from the wilderness."

"They were baptized by him in the river Jordan."

John came out of the wilderness, as the passage Mark cites from Isaiah reminds us, to prepare the way out of captivity. 

The message of John is urgent.  John came out of the wilderness to announce it.  The Baptist prophet invited his disciples to be baptized into it as preparation for this new exodus that was on the horizon.

And John's baptism was a baptism of repentance.

The word repent is a difficult word to digest.  We have heard it on our television sets, maybe on city street corners, possibly at conventions, and on occasion in pulpits.  We may cringe when it is spoken...maybe we should?

But I think scholar and author, Marcus Borg, helps to redeem the word for us:

"to repent is to 'go beyond the mind that you have'- to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about" (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, 201)
That in mind, envision anew John's proclamation of a baptism of repentance.

It is as though the prophet John is saying to those gathered:

Go beyond your mind consumed by suffering.

Prepare yourself for an unconventional kingdom that is breaking in all around us.

No longer look towards temples or traditions, emperors or kings, for religious or socio-economic security.

Instead, get ready for God to act once and for all and incarnate a fresh understanding of what life with God is all about. It will be an unconventional way of deliverance.

Then we read the final stanza of today's text:
"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Jesus is not baptized here by John because he is in need of the confessional rite.  Jesus is baptized because he is the one whom John has been waiting for.  Jesus is the one the people of God gathered by the Jordan had been waiting for.  Jesus is the new Moses, the Messiah, who announces and embodies this unconventional understanding of what life with God is all about.

Hear yet another Exodus echo as Jesus, much like the people lead out of Egypt, comes out of the water of his baptism, the Spirit descends upon this Messiah, and a voice announces, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased."

If you read on in Mark you will find that Jesus then immediately heads out, much like John, into the prophetic wilderness, only to return with a message similar to John's, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

As N.T. Wright phrases it:
"[Jesus] was, in fact, to this extent very like John the Baptist, only more so" (Jesus and the Victory of God, 163)."
This is what the people of God had been waiting for.  Jesus is who they had been, who we have been, waiting for.

And the signs, works, and message of Jesus' inaugurated kingdom are quite unconventional.

So, what are we waiting for?

It is easy to read today's text, sing a few songs, and leave this place inspired yet unchanged.  Yet Mark reminds us throughout his gospel, especially in the dramatic beginning, that deliverance has once and for all come.  Therefore, we are to stop waiting, change our minds, and live lives of urgent preparation for this unconventional kingdom of God that comes to us in and through the person and work of Jesus.

Again, what are we waiting for?

John calls us to look towards Jesus and pursue lives of unconventional preparation now.

In other words...

What are we waiting for to extend radical hospitality to our neighbors in need?

What are we waiting for to share resources and ideas in regards to poverty alleviation in our communities and around the world?

What are we waiting for to speak on behalf of those on the margins, the widows, the orphans, the homeless, and those long silenced by the powerful elite?

What are we waiting for to extend compassion to those who grieve and comfort to those who suffer?

What are we waiting for to look towards Jesus as the one who can set us free from addiction, lead us out of our greed, and move us towards a new family and community called the church?

What are we waiting for to confess our participation in unjust systems that exploit and creatively pursue alternative means to give, to serve, to love, and to live into God's future now?

What are we waiting for to share the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God with friends, family, classmates, and co-workers?

What are we waiting for?  Christmas?

May we repent from our waiting and proclaim with our lives and lips that in Jesus good news has come once and for all. 

May we be a people who live unconventional lives of preparation for this new exodus that began in Jesus and will one day lead all, to include you and I, into a new and resurrected creation we will all call home.

So, may Jesus meet us in all our forms of waiting and longing this Advent.

Still more, may Jesus lead us out of and beyond our waiting and into unconventional preparations for the kingdom of God.  Amen.