2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Preaching: Mark 1:1-8 Part 2

After Thanksgiving, many Christians anticipate Christmas. They see Santa in the mall. The media are filled with Christmas music and advertisements. At church, however, on the First Sunday of Advent, the focus turns to the Second Coming of Jesus. On the Second Sunday of Advent we encounter John the Baptist. Even when the congregation regularly follows the Christian Year and the Revised Common Lectionary, some folk are confused. "When we are unpacking the nativity set at home, why do we hear in worship about the return of Jesus in glory, or about a person munching bugs and dressed in camel hair preaching repentance?"

Because of such confusion I encourage the pastor to orient the congregation to the reasons for the eschatological emphases at the beginning of Advent. The redemptive work demonstrated through the birth and life of Jesus is not complete until the eschatological consummation. Advent is a season of preparation, especially through repentance, for the conclusive coming (advent) of God into history. A little education can demystify these connections.

One sermon might take its cue from the fact that repentance is the main theme of the text for today. The preacher could develop a doctrinal sermon that traces the meaning of repentance in the First Testament and the importance of repentance in the Second Testament.1 The sermon should include special attention to John the Baptist inviting the people to repent. The sermon could meditate on repentance in Christian tradition and theology. The sermon would help people repent as individuals and as a congregation.

Because many people associate repentance with negative emotions (e.g., feeling sorry for one's sins), the preacher should stress that repentance is a positive, dynamic action: turning away from beliefs and practices that deny God, and turning toward the ways of God that lead to blessing. The preacher can help the community identify specific situations for which they need to repent, and specific actions of repentance. Repentance prepares us for both Christmas and for the Second Advent.

Another sermon might focus on the theological symbolism of John's dress and message. According to Mark, the reign of God is the time and place when all things (all relationships and circumstances, involving human beings and nature) conform in every way to the purposes of God. The present world, characterized by the reign of Satan and the demons, will be completely refurbished when the rule of God comes. According to Mark, the ministry of Jesus from the baptism through the resurrection manifests the reign of God in a preliminary way. When Jesus returns the reign of God will be manifest throughout the cosmos.

A key theme in the Jewish apocalypticism that furnishes the background of this text is that the end time (the eschatological fulfillment) will be similar to the beginning time (the world as it was at creation). John is dressed in skins reminiscent of the skins worn by Adam and Eve as they were expelled from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:22), and of the dress of the prophets (e.g., 2 Kings 1:8).

The people leave the cities and towns (in ancient Jewish literature often symbols of degradation and the distortion of divine purposes) and come to John in the wilderness for baptism. By repenting, people leave the present corrupt era and move toward the gate of the garden of the new world, the reign of God. The preacher can help the congregation identify persons, communities, and situations in our world that, like John in the wilderness, lead us toward the reign of God. How can we join them?

A sermon could trace the role and function of the figure of John the Baptist in the narrative of Mark. John is a prophet in the tradition of the classical prophets of the First Testament. He announces the coming of the reign of God (Mk 1:1-8). When John confronts Herod, Herod has John beheaded (Mk 6:14-29). Herod is an archetype of the rulers of the old age whose old era behavior destroys God's purposes for human community. According to Mark, John fills the apocalyptic role of Elijah—prophet from heaven whose appearance signals the beginning of the last days (Mk 9:9-13; Mal 4:5). Mark uses the suffering of John as a pastoral warning to the Christian community; they, too, will suffer when they witness to the gospel (Mk 8:34-9:1; 13:9-23). The preacher could help the community realize that we are called to speak the John-like prophetic word to the Herods of the world today. The church should not be surprised when these rulers react to this message as Herod reacted to John.

Since I am a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in which baptism—the immersion of the believer—is a dramatic act, the reader would expect me to suggest a sermon on baptism. Baptism was a multi-layered symbol in antiquity. It represented washing off the old life and being prepared for new life, initiation into a new community—in this case the community of the new age, returning to the waters of chaos (as in Gen 6-8) and emerging into a new creation. The water is similar to the womb: those who emerge are born into a new family.

These themes are appropriate for Advent. Baptism is God's gift of assurance that, even as we live in the midst of this old world, God has claimed us for the new. Baptism is God's mark. The experience of baptism is a miniature of the cosmic transition of the ages. As we are submerged, we feel the end of an old era. We feel entombed. As we are raised, we feel new life. By experiencing this transition in the ritual of baptism, we can be confident God's grace will carry us through the difficulties that accompany the end of the old world, and God raising a new community of love and justice.

Ronald J. Allen

Christian Theological Seminary

Indianapolis, IN


1. For a sterling example of a doctrinal sermon on repentance, see Barbara Shires Blaisdell, "Repent, For God's Sake and For Yours," in Ronald J. Allen, ed., Patterns of Preaching: A Sermon Sampler (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998), pp. 172-176.