The Second Sunday of Advent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Mark 1:1-8

If you find the holiday season depressing, you are not alone. Lots of other people do, too, and I don’t want to ignore how hard this season is for so many people. (It is, I know, and I’ll talk about that.) But for most, this is a warm, snuggly time of year (and, of course, it’s that expectation that just makes it harder for people who are sad).

But the Christmas lights have been lit in Topeka; Christmas music is everywhere you go, and the feel-good Christmas movies like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” are just around the corner, soon to be playing practically non-stop on TV.

And our readings today seem to heighten this sense of all-is-well-with-the-world. Our lesson from Isaiah begins, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid….” It speaks to people, who long for hope, that hope and help are on the way.And, as we begin to sink our teeth into this new church year (Year B) in which Mark’s gospel is featured, we start with the very first line from that book, and what a comforting start it is: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Good news. “The Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” – “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Good news! Good will toward men. Peace on Earth. All is right with the world.

Then, enter John the Baptizer, “Crazy John” he was called by his contemporaries, I’m sure. Wild-eyed, with wild hair — a leather belt around his waist, clothed with camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, looking and sounding for all the world like Elijah, the long-dead wild prophet of old. And not the best temperament, we assume. “PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! He shouts. MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT! YOU ARE ALL SINNERS! REPENT, YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU TO FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME?

That bloody well puts a damper on the magic, doesn’t it? Isaiah was comforting us, and Mark just told us that this is about the good (wonderful) news of Jesus. We were in a warm, snuggly mode, a decorations and eggnog, all-will-be-right-with-the-world, Christmasy, feeling place. And then John shows up at the party.

Why would God send an obnoxious, uninvited, loud, wild man like John — who clearly lacks the social graces — to our Christmas party? I think it’s because without John at the party, we could forget—completely miss—the season and the reason for Advent. Without John crashing the party, we could very easily pay more attention to the ritual of celebration—to the party for the party’s sake—than to what it is that we are really celebrating: The coming of Christ; The comfort of God for his people; the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Advent gets lost in the frenzy of Christmas cheer (and stress and sadness for some), and when that happens, we miss the meaning of both seasons, and we get so swept up in the party, that we ignore or, at least, miss what we really should be celebrating — gratitude. The gift of Jesus.

Advent should be about waiting, and expectation, and preparation for receiving Christ, and Christmas should be about our gratitude for that great gift. But we won’t be grateful, if no one lacks the social skills to shout to us, and remind us, why we should be so very grateful for God’s action at Christmas time, –and for the great gift that is Jesus. We need John the Baptist to remind us. We need this uninvited guest, every Advent, to come and to say to us, “Here is your challenge: PREPARE THE WAY FOR GOD! OPEN YOUR HEARTS TO RECEIVE HIM. In Gratitude – grateful, thankful, and mindful of this great gift of salvation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.

If you find yourself hopeless, let this give you hope.
If you find yourself too wrapped up in the tinsel and glitter and the pomp and circumstance of the season, let this slow you down and give you focus—refocus.

I don’t want to downplay the feelings of those who have a hard time or feel sad and depressed at Christmas. I acknowledge those feelings are real. I don’t want to spoil the party for those who find the holiday season, and shopping, and rushing around, invigorating and exciting and fun. But I do want to call everyone to consider the point and purpose of Advent, and Christmas. In Advent, it is to pause. To slow down, to focus on and to consider the reason for the season. To reflect on our blessings (even in the midst of despair), and to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. So, at Christmas, we can truly receive the good news and the gift of God among us.

In Advent, we are reminded of, and hear the truth, again. So, that at Christmas, we can receive and respond in joy to God’s flesh and blood presence in our lives, and in our hearts, in Jesus.

Every year, John the Baptist bursts into our Christmas preparation and reminds us of this truth: That the One most powerful is on his way to show us the way. He reminds us to focus on what is most important and to give gratitude—be thankful—for the good news—the best news—that comes to us at Christmas. He is the voice of the one crying out to us in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.

We all need to be forgiven. We all make a mess of so many things. We are all imperfect in our relationships with one another, and with God. And we know that, deep down. Certainly God does. Advent is the time when we can acknowledge those things and work to change them. God looks at us, all of us together and each of us individually, and says, peace to you. I love you. I will come to you.

That is the Advent message we need to get: to prepare for the Christmas celebration, for the coming of Christ into our hearts and our lives. To accept in gratitude his love and his presence and his peace. If we can do that, then we can feel good – really good – and grateful – really grateful – about what God does for us at Christmas.

Enjoy the season, look forward to Christmas, but not past Advent. Be different. Be counter-cultural from the rest of the world this season. Don’t just let this period before Christmas be all about shopping, and Santa, and Jingle Bells and chasing a Madison Avenue ideal of a warm, cozy, fuzzy, jolly expensive time of year.

If this season is a sad time for you, think on Jesus. Try to focus your thoughts on the hopefulness of what Christmas means, for you and for the world. & If you need help with this, seek out family or friends or your priest. & Look for Christ & look to Christ in them.

To all, listen to John. Challenge how you live in the world. Challenge what you do with your treasure. Challenge what is important to you, and how that is manifested in your life.

Be different. Prepare the way of the Lord. In your heart. In your life. And be profoundly grateful for what God has done and will do, for you and for the world, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.