Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; I Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
Focus Statement: God is coming: Get ready!
When I was in college, I caught a robber breaking into my car.
I was in Houston, at a store downtown, and had parked in the small parking lot behind the building. As I walked out with my purchases and rounded the corner, I saw someone sitting in the driver’s seat of my car messing with the steering column. Rather than stepping back and calling for help, I hollered at the guy and he started running. I ran after him, but he got away. I came back and called the police, who came and looked at the car. It was not very damaged, and nothing was taken. But I still felt violated and angry. Maybe you have been burgled, and know that feeling too—it’s not really about the stuff being taken, it’s about the sudden insecurity and anxiety that’s left over afterward.
I get anxious and fearful about the passages in scripture talking about Jesus coming “like a thief in the night.” To my ears it sounds like the same thing. Look again at our reading from the 2nd letter of Peter this morning.
“With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise…but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (Metanoia) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
“A thousand ages in thy sight/are like an evening gone/short as the watch that ends the night/before the rising sun.” We sing those words, we acknowledge that TIME, as we perceive it, is not an issue for God. For us, definitely. We are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. This is certain, for each and for all.
This language of “the heavens will pass away with a great noise/the elements will be dissolved (or “absorbed”) by fire” expressed for the letter’s first audience a then-current understanding of how the world would end, when time and the creation should come to a conclusion and return to the fiery energy and light from which they were made. It’s not so much “Big Bang Backwards” as a return to the source and origin of all things.
The author understands this not as a threat but as an urgent invitation: “Since you (all) already know this, and that God is patient, seeking the repentance (metanoia) of all, then you also know the solution to the problem.
You all remember Metanoia? Turn around, you missed your exit, you’re going to Columbia when you wanted to go to Atlanta. Change direction; change your way of thinking; change your minds. The surprise, the shock of the coming of the Day of God is no surprise at all. Be ready always, in lives of holiness and godliness. You are not waiting for disaster and destruction, but for all things to be made new. Be ready; Get ready!
When I was newly ordained, I served as the assistant at St. Paul’s Church in Waco, Texas. Waco, Texas is an interesting place. We were twenty miles from the infamous compound of the Branch Davidians and David Koresh in one direction, and we were twenty miles from then President George W. Bush’s presidential ranch in the other direction. We were surrounded by crazy people.
Waco, Texas is a city in a wide-open country. There’s lots of uninhabited space surrounding the town and suburbs. Not a lot of trees out there. Lots of room to wander, and wonder, and ponder. And that openness, that wilderness, draws people (some sane, some less so) who are asking the big questions.
“John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark’s gospel begins by plunging us into the midst of the story. No set-up at all, save a single verse quoting the book of the prophet Malachai (Not Isaiah, in fact) which is the last book in the Hebrew scriptures. By choosing this quotation, and by describing John the Baptist as he does (Wild man, wild clothing, lives in the desert, eats bugs), the author of the Gospel of Mark is telling us to remember Elijah. Elijah, the most important prophet Israel had ever known, whose return was to signal to the people “Get Ready—the Day of God is about to arrive.”
John comes, like Elijah, to speak not of himself but of someone else. He points to what he is doing—baptizing with water, as a ritual of cleansing and preparation. It’s a ritualized bath, to signify the desire for inner and outer cleansing, in anticipation of what is to come. BUT, says John, “You haven’t seen anything yet. You think this is something important—just wait!”
“I baptize with water; he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew and Luke have the words as “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire, again…not for destruction, but for cleansing and purifying, for the restoring and return to the origin and source of all things, our own creation included. The fire of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon God’s people to restore and re-member them—to put them back together, to draw them back into God’s own self.
Over and over John the Baptist says “I’m not the one you’re looking for.” He points beyond himself, to One who is just offstage, just out of sight, around the corner, waiting in the wings.
Monday afternoon I was waiting in the wings. The monthly vestry meeting was scheduled for that night, and I was beset with the worst case of stage fright I’ve ever experienced. (To put this in context, I’ve been performing in front of people since I was able to wear a tiny white choir robe and stand on the chancel steps of First Methodist Church, Liberty Texas, with the Cherub Choir to sing “Jesus loves me.”) So I’m used to being in front of crowds. But this was something else altogether. The vestry was going to take a vote, and although I had every confidence in the outcome, I was still more nervous than I’ve ever been in my time here at St. Augustine’s. I called a friend in Texas, one of my wisdom people, who talked me down out of the tree into which I had climbed, and reminded me that, even in this, it wasn’t all about me anyway. As much as I love this parish, and as much as you all love me, we aren’t really the point. We exist, priest and parish, to point beyond ourselves. We are here, like John the Baptist this morning, to declare the coming—the arrival, the advent—of The One whose shoelaces we are not worthy to untie, but who has made us worthy, by creating us and loving us, to stand upright and welcome Him, as both the baby in the manger, and as the creator of the sun, and the moon, and the stars of night.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us.