2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Preaching Mark 1:1-8

On the first Sunday of Advent we heard a message about the "End Time" (Mk 13:24-37). We were admonished to be awake and to live with expectancy in the "Meantime" of our lives. We sang about our bondage, our exile, and our longing. "O come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel who mourns in lonely exile here...Rejoice! Rejoice; Emmanuel will come..."

For the faithful, for those who have run a good race and kept the faith, this is good news. But what kind of news is this for all the rest of us? What kind of news is it for all of us who have bowed the knee to the god of money or success? What kind of news is this for all who have not run a good race or kept the faith? What kind of news is this for all of us who are in bondage to our own failure; to our own selfish, foolish mistakes; to our own avarice and lust? What kind of news is this for all who live exiled in the far country of broken promises and broken dreams and are laboring under the burden of a past we cannot fix and of hurts that we cannot heal? On the Second Sunday in Advent we gather with the news that God will say the final word in the end time still fresh in our memory, but wondering if there is good news for us?

Surely the words about the end time are good news for the saints, but what hope is there for the sinners?

The gospel lesson for today is good news for the sinners if the preacher can help it to be heard. It is a lesson that is alive with preaching possibilities. It is especially a word of good news for men and women who find hope and freedom hard to locate anywhere in their Christmas preparations. It is a word of good news about a God whose ways are not our ways. It is a word of good news about a God whose grace is both amazing and prevailing. It tells us of a God who sends a messenger from the wilderness to tell us that we are not forgotten or abandoned no matter what we have done or failed to do. It is a word about the strange moments, the strange places and the strange people that break into the "Meantime Moments" of our lives and reveal God's renewing grace.

In preparing the sermon the preacher would do well to note the frequency with which the images and themes seen in these beginning verses of Mark's gospel are also seen in the places in the scripture. It is as if the Bible is saying that there are certain moments and events to which attention should be paid, and certain times which are more pregnant with redemptive possibilities than other times. The Bible is filled with stories of interruptions: Epiphanal moments in some wilderness, new hope, freedom and new life that comes to us as gifts from God. The preacher should notice that Advent is such a moment of interruption. It is filled with epiphanal possibilities that disturb the ordinary and call us to hear of God's desire to be born in our lives.

A temptation the preacher would do well to avoid is the temptation to be John the Baptist and view the congregation as the sinful crowds dwelling in Jerusalem and in all Judea and use this sermon as an opportunity to call them to repentance. A better tact would be for the preacher to identify with the crowds in Jerusalem and Judea and walk with them into the wilderness to hear the Word of God that has come to and through this strange messenger. The Old Testament reading sets the tone of the sermon. The preacher is to bring a word of comfort and not a word of condemnation or confrontation. Today's gospel text offers an opportunity to speak a special word of comfort to those in the congregation who are in bondage to past failures that good words will not fix and remorse will not undo. The sermon can be a word of liberation for those who, at this season, find themselves in the bondage of loneliness, sickness, and isolation. Through baptism John brings the gift of forgiveness, hope, and freedom; and points beyond himself to one who brings new life.

The preacher would do well to note that the word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness. So it is with us. The word of God nearly always comes to us most powerfully in some wilderness place or moment. This is an important thing to notice for all of those who have come to worship with some sense of wilderness in their own lives: The recently divorced parent living in a wilderness of broken dreams and broken promises; the Yuppie whose life is filled with activity but who lives in a wilderness of emptiness; the preacher who is so busy with Advent activities that he or she is in a wilderness of spiritual fatigue.

A final point that might well be made is that only those who sense their poverty; only those who experience their bondage; only those who can move from the myth of self-sufficiency to acknowledge their neediness; only those who confess their hurt, hunger and brokenness can receive the gift of forgiveness and the liberation and healing that comes with that forgiveness. Blessed are the poor in spirit... At this time of the year when many try to guess what others want or need, the preacher can invite the congregation to present to God their deepest longings with the sure and certain hope that God can begin the process of healing the hurt and helping us move toward the one who can and will make all things new.

Hugh L. Eichelberger First (Scots) Presbyterian Church Charleston, SC

NOTES

1. John Claypool, The Light Within You (Waco: Word Books, 1983), pp. 151-59. 2. Preached at First United Methodist-Church, San Diego, CA, on Dec. 6, 1987. 3. Preaching, Nov-Dec'90, pp. 51-52.