2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:1-8 Part 4

A few years ago I heard a story, likely by Garrison Keillor in a News from Lake Wobegon segment, that captured what many Christians may regretfully admit is the spirit of the season. A pastor had preached a powerful sermon, a scathing critique of the commercialization and secularization of Christmas calling for focus on spiritual realities. After the service, he drove thirty miles and back to buy his son a video game called Annihilation, muttering to himself a still more scathing critique.

It is common practice this time of year to denounce the sentimentalization, commercialization, and secularization of "the Christmas season;" and then mourn our failure to live up to our ideals. We rightly perceive a challenge in the collision of faith and popular culture. In reality, however, the challenge is greater than we might imagine. We are not in "the Christmas season." That is itself a secular idea for this time of year, so capitulation to its worst aspects is almost unavoidable. "The Christmas season," which bids us hasten ahead to give gifts and celebrate the time, bears little resemblance to the liturgical season of Advent with its notes of solemn joy. Our theological task is not to rescue "the Christmas season" in these weeks before the day of our Lord's nativity. It is to speak faithfully of living before our Lord's coming.

Advent is the time in which the church dwells with the awareness that it exists in the tension between the first and final comings of Christ. This tension shapes proclamation. It challenges us, perhaps this year especially, to speak clearly about the tensions of an "in between time" and of reclaiming the Advent word par excellence, "prepare."

There is a widespread awareness, certainly reaching its zenith this month, that all humanity now lives in the tension of an "in between time." The second millennium of the common era is in its final days. The third has not arrived and will not be ushered in prematurely. The world and its peoples live in and with the tension, waiting. This "in between time" has been a time of great uncertainty. Its real significance is unknown. At the time of this writing, the scenarios range from mild disruption to "the end of the world as we know it."

By contrast, rather than being a time of uncertain meaning, Advent signals an "in between time" full of significance. Being between the gospel's beginning in promise and its final consummation, our time is part of what Origen called the "continuing middle" of the gospel. Our time, no less than any other, is the time of God's good news. It is a time of hope, of the patience of the Lord which we are to consider as salvation (2 Pe 3:15). The church lives between the realities of Christ's first and final advents, embodying what we proclaim in song as "the desire of nations" in our memory and hope. We live in memory of the coming of God into human life and history. We live in the hope of the full redemption of all life and history. In this tension of memory and hope proclamation of the gospel begins.

Throughout the history of Christian theology, John the Baptizer has been interpreted as a figure standing in an "in between time" of memory and hope. In him, the memory of the promises made to the Israel and their hoped for fulfillment met. Augustine wrote that the prophets before John were granted only to foretell the coming of Christ in Christ's absence. To John it was granted to foretell Christ in Christ's absence and to behold Christ in Christ's presence.1 His proclamation began in that tension of memory and hope that Mark identifies as the beginning of the gospel (Mk 1:1). Given our connection to John, his call to prepare is appropriately our own. This brings us to another theological reclamation.

As the year has passed, ever more urgent calls to prepare for "Y2K" have come. The calls, however, have not reflected the joyful solemnity of preparation for the coming of God. They have not even reflected the stereotypical "millennial warnings" of God's impending wrath. Even among those warning of impending chaos, we hear more about the technological dimensions of the millennium than about the theological. The dawn of the new millennium may bring human suffering, but as Patrick Miller notes, it will not be self-evident divine judgment. No, "this is one we are not inclined to blame on God, nor are we likely to see it interpreted theologically. The millennium bug is our own problem…."2 Has our Advent theme of preparation become, "We have gotten ourselves into a predicament. Now how can we fix it?"

We speak from the perspective of faith when with Karl Barth we declare that preparation cannot be along the familiar lines of human thought and desire. Preparation can mean one thing only—renewal.3 We should define this renewal as repentance. Given the memory of God's fulfilled promises of salvation, and anticipation of the fullness of salvation, repentance cannot be interpreted in terms of remorse or sorrow. It is a turning toward the God whose coming is both remembered and anticipated. George R. Beasley-Murray has noted that metanoia is rightly represented only by those terms that speak of turning toward, of conversion to, of change in relationship to God.4 To repent, then, is to orient oneself in openness and commitment to God's promised future. As such, to repent is to prepare for the coming of God.

Philip E. Thompson

Roberts Chapel Baptist Church

Pendleton, NC

NOTES

1. Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 9.

2. Patrick D. Miller, "The Millennium Bug," Theology Today, 55, Jan. 1999, p. 92.

3. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 57.

4. George R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 34.