2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Road Construction Ahead

Mark 1:1-8

One day a man on horseback came racing into a small town on the frontier. He yelled out, "Big Jake is coming! Big Jake is coming!" So all the townspeople were terrified. They ran to their homes—slammed and bolted the doors. They closed up their windows, and children were sent to hide under their beds.

But in the saloon, the bartender was still trying to board up his windows, when all of a sudden his heart stopped, when he saw the biggest man he had ever seen coming right in his direction. The man was huge. He had strips of bullets draped across his chest, and strapped to his legs were two of the biggest guns that the bartender had ever seen. And the man was dressed in black, from head to toe, and he looked incredibly mean.

Finally, the man stepped up to the bar and said: "Get me something to drink, and make it quick." So the bartender obeyed, and in an instant handed him a glass. The man downed the drink in one big gulp. So the bartender said: "Would you like another drink?" But the man yelled back: "No! I don't have time. Haven't you heard? Big Jake is coming."

Many people thought that John the Baptist was the one who they had been waiting for. They thought that he was the Savior that God was sending into the world. But time and time again, John told the people that he wasn't the one. Instead, he said that he came to prepare the way for the Savior. Because even though John was full of the power of God, he said that the one who would come after him would be even more powerful than he.

John's message was quite simple and straightforward. He called on the people to prepare the way of the Lord. He called on the people to repent. But for many people today, when they hear that word "repent," they figure that that word is just old-fashioned and out-dated, and has nothing to do with us today. For the most part, people today would tune John the Baptist out.

It's kind of like how people tune out the emergency instructions that the flight attendants go over as an airplane is about ready to take off. While the flight attendants are giving all kinds of important information about oxygen masks and emergency exits, most people on board are usually looking out the window, reading a magazine or maybe even falling asleep. People will be doing just about everything but listening to what the flight attendant has to say. Because people figure: "Oh, what they're saying, that doesn't apply to me."

But the problem is, that if there should happen to be an emergency on board, there isn't time to go back and to have the flight attendant repeat what she has already said. It'll be too late. What you need to do is pay attention right from the start.

That is what we need to do with the words that John the Baptist speaks to us, because those words do apply to us. What we need to do is pay attention to those words now. When John tells us to repent, we need to listen. Because if we put it off, it might turn out that when we finally decide to listen, it might be too late.

But a lot of people aren't interested in having people like John the Baptist around. They ask, "What gives him the right to tell me that I should change the way I live? After all, isn't that a personal matter, what I do with my life?" But from John's point of view, the answer to that is No. We aren't supposed to just do what we want with our lives. Instead, we are supposed to do what God wants.

Maybe we need a few more John the Baptists today—people who are brave enough to remind us that there is a right and a wrong. In the book, Where Resident Aliens Live, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon tell the story about how years ago there was a teenage boy named Jim Wallis. His parents were Fundamentalists. As he grew up, they never let him go to the movies. One day the boy was looking through the movie guide, trying to find a suitable movie that he thought his parents might approve of. He asked a girl from his church youth group to go with him to see The Sound Of Music. As he was getting ready to leave for his date, his father stood at the door, and with tears in his eyes, said: "Please don't do this. This is against everything we believe in." But he went to the movie anyway.

Looking back now years later, Jim Wallis realizes how silly that whole movie business was. But he says that what he always remembers from that incident is the fact that there are some things that are worth standing in the door for. There are limits as to what is right and what is wrong. The sad thing is that today we have almost completely forgotten that those limits are there, because most people assume that anything goes.

So what John the Baptist has to say is something that we need to hear. We need to hear him calling on us to repent, to change from the wrong direction to the right direction. For example, some years ago Billy Graham led a crusade in Shreveport, Louisiana. Following that crusade liquor sales in Shreveport dropped by 40%, and Bible sales increased by 300%. That would be an example of repenting, of changing from the wrong direction to the right direction.

I have heard it said that it is as if we had two dogs inside of us. A good dog and an evil dog. The question for us is, Which dog are we going to feed? Are we going to nourish the good one or the evil one? But for most of us, I think that the answer is that we try to feed both of them. Sure, we try to do some good things with our lives. But at the same time, we seem to like keeping that evil dog around as well. But John the Baptist is one to tell us that we can't keep both of them. We have to pick one or the other. So which one is it going to be?

We do need to be clear about something here. When we talk about repenting, we are not saying that if we go out and change our lives around, then God will love us and forgive us. That's not what we're saying. What we are saying is that when we realize that God loves us and forgives us, then we will go out and change our lives. So repenting is not something we do to earn God's love. Instead, repenting is something we do to show our thanks for the love that God has already shown to us.

From what we read here in the Gospel of Mark, it seems that when the people heard John's message, they did repent. They came to him at the Jordan River, they confessed their sins, and they were baptized as a sign of their new way of life. What should be most noteworthy for us is the statement that the people confessed their sins. They were willing to face up to and name the sins that were there in their lives. That is something that we often fail to do.

Studies have shown that many Christians participate in Bible studies and in Sunday School classes. But what they found is that most of those kind of classes fail to change people. Instead, people in those classes just use the Bible to reinforce the way they are already living. They don't see the Bible as challenging them to see their sins and to change the way they live.

I once heard about a fellow who called up the highway department to complain about the condition of the road in front of his house. He kept calling and calling, complaining about all the potholes and bumps, but the highway department never did anything. Finally, though, the man kept calling so many times the highway department said that they would do something about his road. But instead of coming out and repaving it, the highway department resolved his complaint another way. They put up a sign that said: "Rough Road Ahead." I wonder if that's not what a lot of us do with our lives. We see the sins that are there. But instead of fixing those sins, we just kind of ignore them.

Once again, we hear John the Baptist calling out to us. "Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord." What do we need to do to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives? Is that road already in the condition that it should be? Or does it need a little patching here and there? Or does that road need to be torn up and rebuilt? Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord.

C. Edward Bowen

Trinity United Presbyterian Church

Vandergrift, PA

Slickville Presbyterian Church

Slickville, PA