2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Briefs: Mark 1:1-8 Part 2

All that's over. It just stops. Like waking from a dream of palaces and patios to find the roof leaks and the rent's due. Like shutting off the stereo, and you hear the rat gnawing in the wall. That's just the fact of it. In my mind, I serve God. But there's another force in my life, and I say, `I'm going to do that.' I don't do it. I say, `I'll never do that.' I do it. Crucified between the sky of what I intend and the earth of what I perform. That's the truth. You know what the moment of truth is."

With this extraordinary capacity for developing images, Craddock delights as he returns again and again to the persuasive presence and speech of John the Baptist. The refrain, "Did you ever hear him preach?" is sprinkled throughout this sermon. One would fear that Craddock is drawing dangerously close to preaching John rather than Christ. Yet, there is an unmistakable resonance with the gospel here in this sermon. Then, as the sermon concludes Craddock's approach becomes clear. Craddock doesn't preach Christ in this sermon, nor does he preach John. Craddock invites us to hear John preaching Christ. Have you ever heard John preach? Craddock would argue, I believe, that if you have heard Christ proclaimed as God's Messiah, God's promise that things can be different, then you have heard John.

Baptism2 is Olympia Brown's sermon on the eighth verse of this lection. Here Brown challenges the church to a deeper understanding of this sacrament. Beginning with the text, Brown asks what is baptism of water and baptism of the Holy Spirit, what are the relations in which they stand to each other and what is their significance and importance? One may initially suggest that these questions cover far too much theological ground for one sermon. Yet, with apparent sensitivity to this danger while maintaining theological precision, Brown's sermon does not overwhelm.

After identifying these substantive areas she intends to address, Brown asserts that the form of water baptism has occupied far more attention of the church than is worthy. For Brown, discussion of form is, "the most trifling and frivolous question which can possibly engage the attention of rational Human Beings." Yet, argues Brown, of the baptism of the Holy Ghost, little has been said. From the moment of this observation, Brown says much and does so in a fulgent manner.

Perhaps the central witness of Brown's sermon is that baptism of the Holy spirit The Broadway musical, Rent, is a story of young people growing up in the city of New York who long for a new beginning; an opportunity to start over. The power of this production is it's ability to mirror that world which persons of privilege often turn away from pretending not to notice. Yet, once seated in the theater and the cast begin taking their place on the stage there is no polite way to escape acknowledging the grainy texture life often takes. The play confronts the hardships, struggles and disappointments we all share, privileged and not so privileged alike. It is a story that is desperate for a refreshing promise that things can be different.

It is this promise that is celebrated by Fred B. Craddock in his sermon, Have You Ever Heard John Preach?1 In his customary, and often brilliant, conversational style, Craddock begins with the observation that there is no human being more influential upon the life and career of Jesus than John the Baptist. Craddock reminds us that the first sermon that Jesus ever preached was the sermon of his model, his leader, John. Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Same sermon. Yet, asks Craddock, what did you expect? It was Jesus' first sermon. And the promise? That in God's Messiah, Jesus Christ, there is a new beginning, a new creation, the opportunity to just start over.

Craddock doesn't simply use good illustrations but rather does something more—develops images that invite the claims of the gospel to shape in our imaginations. Listen in your imagination to these words: "What's frightening about listening to John preach is that he puts you in the presence of God. And that's what everybody wants, and that's what everybody doesn't want. Because the light at the altar is different from every other light in the world. In the dim lamps of this world, we can compare ourselves with each other, and all of us come off looking good. We convince ourselves that God grades on the curve, and what's the difference? We're all okay. And then you come in the presence of God, and you're at the altar, and it's all different. For if our hearts condemn us, think of this—God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. There's no way to modulate the human voice to make a whine acceptable. The whining is over. The excusing is over. It's the school, it's the church, it's the board, it's the government. It isn't! implies that there is the divine life in the soul. This witness provides the breath and structure for the sermon. With remarkable clarity, Brown speaks of the activity of this baptism upon the soul:

So the soul which contains in itself the elements of moral perfection must be quickened by the Divine Spirit, permeated by the love of God, baptized with the Holy Ghost before it can progress in its course.... Its capacities are undeveloped until it is brought within the influence of the Spirit of God from which everything good proceeds and is in harmony.

Two sermons by Thomas G. Long on this text move in different but equally compelling directions. In the Beginning3 is a brief sermon where Long directs us to the crucial nature of beginnings. Opening words set the direction and tone for all else that follows suggests Long. This is why novelists, playwrights, essayists, and preachers spend a great deal of brooding time looking at a blank sheet of paper marked, "Page one." So, asks Long, how does one begin telling the greatest story ever told? What direction and tone are suitable for the narrative of God's saving love in Jesus Christ? The author of Mark's gospel begins in the wilderness. It is there, in the wilderness, the desert, the lonely place where the winds blow hard and the dangers are many that Mark wants his readers to realize that God's salvation begins. This comes as good news to a people who were wandering through their own wilderness. It is good news to those who sit in our churches today who experience wilderness places in their lives. Whether that place is a surgical waiting room, a divorce court, or a welfare office Mark lifts us up and tells us, "It is here, in this place, that we see the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

What Do You Mean, "Repent?"4 is another sermon by Thomas G. Long on this text. In the previous sermon the focus was on the wilderness as the place of God's salvation; here Long examines the meaning of repentance. Imaginatively, Long presents John the Baptist as one with a tumbleweed hairdo, animal skins draped over his outsized frame, popping honey-dipped locust as his rough baritone howls like the desert wind to the gathering crowds, "Repent!" In this portrait of John, Long suggests that there is a truth and there is a falsehood. The truth in the image is that John is intended to jar the readers of Mark, to shock our sensibilities. The falsehood of this portrait is that John is intended, not to excite the reader's fascination with the bizarre, but to jolt them with a memory. Wearing clothing of the past, dressed like the old prophet Elijah, the author of Mark wants his readers to understand that John represents the past. Only through the lens of the past are we able to understand what he has to say to the future.

Long has crafted this sermon using a template that is found in many of his sermons; what has been called the "not this, not this, but this" template. Simply, this form of sermon development offers two examples of what the text is not about before stating the point of the text. In this sermon Long suggests that the repentance preached by John the Baptizer is not something which just naturally happens to people as they move along through the journey of life. This kind of repentance is what happens in one form or another to everyone, suggests Long. It is a reformulation of values, an alteration of the ways we cope with life and make our key decisions. Nor is John speaking of repentance as a mid-course correction; a resolve to live differently like making a New Year's resolution. No, the repentance of which John speaks calls for a revising of the past. Long observes, "It (the revising of the past) calls for us to look behind before we dare to move ahead. It calls for us to encounter the past we have lived through but have not fully experienced, the past we have inherited but not inhabited, before we enter a future we do not yet comprehend."

What does this mean? asks Long. Consider the experience of a business executive on the verge of implementing a shrewd business plan. The scheme involved temporarily dropping prices below the level of profitability in order to starve a smaller competitor out of the market. Then, with the market to himself, prices and profits could rise. The fact that the competitor was a struggling family-owned business, not really a major factor in the market, but the sole livelihood of a family with three small children, was known to the executive. The plan was technically legal, though, and all competitors are fair game, since business, after all, is business.

Just as the arrangements were nearly in place, the executive was called back to his hometown for the funeral of a cousin. During the graveside service, as the man sat under the funeral tent that was stretched over the family plot, his eyes fell on the gravestone of his grandmother, who had died when he was only a boy. Inscribed on her stone were words from the Book of proverbs: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."

"The teaching of kindness…." The words seemed to be written in fire as they burned in his heart. He had read them many times before on nostalgic visits to the cemetery, but now they leapt from the past into his life. He did not merely recall his grandmother; he was confronted by her memory, judged by the commitments he vaguely knew she held, but had not considered to have any claim on his life. It was a strange and disturbing experience, and he returned to his city with no will to destroy, but to seek somehow to know and live "the teaching of kindness." To answer Long's question in the title of this sermon, this is what John means by repent.

Doug Hood

Irving, TX

NOTES

1. Fred B. Craddock, "Have You Ever Heard John Preach?", A Chorus of Witnesses: Model Sermons for Today's Preacher, ed. Thomas G. Long & Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 34-43.

2. Olympia Brown, "Baptism", And Blessed Is She: Sermons By Women, ed. David Albert Farmer & Edwina Hunter (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), pp. 33-40.

3. Thomas G. Long, "In the Beginning", The Ministers Manual For 1990 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), pp.204, 205.

4. Thomas G. Long, "What Do You Mean, "Repent?", Shepherds and Bathrobes: Sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, Cycle B Gospel Texts (Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1987), pp. 16-22.