A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Isaiah 40: 1 -11, Mark 1: 1 – 8.  Focus on the creation of a level playing field where no one will be able to say they didn’t see what the Lord requires or how he came.  Check out Jody Sinkway and the choir following the sermon.

I like how Mark begins his gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God.” Mark begins his gospel with a title not a sentence. There is no verb in his opening sentence. So when Mark announces the title of his great work. The Beginning of the Good News of the Jesus Christ, Son of God, I for one would be expecting the announcement of a new powerful, warrior king.

Not John the Baptist with his camel hair coat and leather girdle, looking as though he’s fresh from the corner of Broadway and 9th Avenue holding a cardboard sign saying: “Will preach for Wild Locust and Honey” scratched on it.

His message was one that called people out of the ordinary and familiar into the wilderness and in a word he said, “repent”, change go in a new direction. It will not be more of the same ole, same ole. It will not be business as usual. The old will give way to the new.

Isaiah, whom John is quoting, said it this way, “Prepare the way of the Lord… Cease to dwell on days of old and to brood over past history. Here and now I am doing a new thing; this moment it will break from the bud. Do you not perceive it?”

But unlike those who first heard John’s message, I suspect we are not really expecting anything new. We’ve heard it all before. Mary and Joseph, a baby, a manager, a little drummer boy, and you know the rest.

Maybe we expect only what we’ve previously heard as we sit here in Advent waiting for God to show up. But here’s the thing. If we have heard it before it’s not news, it is memory. It’s this tendency we have to want to go back in time to the familiar that keeps us from hearing this as news much less good news. So here is the question. Is it possible for us with all the sentimentality and familiarity surrounding the Christmas story to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God as good news and as something that has only just begun with his birth and is yet to be completed?

There is a tendency when times get tough to yearn for yesteryear. And one of the dangers for churches is that in thinking about the good old days we tend to look backward not so much for information that would truly help us learn from the triumphs and defeats of our ancestors, but to look to the past as if it were an idealized time.

It’s understandable this desire to want to go back to better times. In our time and place where chaos theory reigns, a world increasing in acceleration and change, we want to cling to something that is permanent and solid. The only problem with that is – that in longing for the past we do not prepare for the future.

Every few months the denomination emails me a questionnaire to fill out and return. Most of these I have a habit of deleting, because most of them seem to me to be akin to convening a committee to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But one survey did offer some interesting facts that I think we should consider as we move into the future. It said that the number one factor in growing congregations was “a primary mission directed to those who were not currently members,” and, conversely, the number one factor in declining congregation was “a primary mission to current members.” It’s a difference between maintenance and mission – a preoccupation with the present versus a focus on the future.

You’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with Advent and the Birth of Jesus. Well this is what it has to do with that. We need to begin to hear the good news of the gospel again as if for the first time. Or maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. I think everyone who is here wants to see this church grow, but that’s going to require all of us.

There is one common trait that exists in growing congregations – the members actually see themselves preparing the way for the Lord, just as John did. They see themselves called into ministry to their fellow human beings and do not believe that this can be left to the minister, the elders or the deacons alone. It must involve everyone all the time. They know that if they are not actively involved in reaching out into the community they will not grow. They know that if they do not become the hands and feet of Jesus to a hungry and hurting world than they will not survive much less thrive.

Imagine what it would be like to have a sanctuary filled most every Sunday with people worshipping together. Imagine the energy that would be generated out of this place, the joy and the number of people who you could call friends and family, because that is what we are trying to create a new family of faith.

Notice where John gave his message. It was in the wilderness far, far away from the Temple and those who didn’t come out into the wilderness didn’t hear the news. What that tells me is this: Just like those who didn’t go out – away from their temple rituals – we will not see the coming of the Lord if we only look for him in here.

He’s coming from the highways and the byways. He’s coming up the country rural route roads, and the local streets of Hackensack and beyond. And he’s calling us to come out and travel these same roads with him.

But here is what we are up against. To quote from Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism: “We live in a time where to live for the moment is the only prevailing passion – to live for ourselves, not for our predecessors or for posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”

There is little loyalty anywhere. Our language gives us away when we speak of corporate raiders, and hostile takeovers. We put personalities over principles in our politics. We support things as Christians that we should never support. Our young people see this. They are not coming to church. We are losing the next generation by our silence and our fear of rocking the boat. Even among people seeking religious meaning for their lives they are more like consumers than they are like pilgrims. The assumption among religious shoppers is that they are in a buyers market. Where the most important thing is what God can do for me not what I can do for God.

When we look for what God can do for me rather than what I can do for God we become blind and content on maintaining the church rather than growing it. When we focus on ourselves we slip into a sentimental attitude toward this season and see it as a nice historical story rather than as news about what God is doing in our midst today. The fact is that God not only came once upon a time, but God comes today. The meaning of Advent is about getting out of our comfort zones so we can be opened up for God to make room in our lives. Go did not come to get us into his heavenly kingdom. God came to get his heavenly kingdom into us here and now.

As we prepare the way for God’s coming today, we point to the one who goes before us. We point to the way of God not to our way. We point to him who was born in a barn and died on a cross whose purpose in life was not about making us feel good but about making us good enough to carry forth his work in our time and in our place.

People of God, let us cease to dwell on days gone by and to brood over what was. Here and now God declares – “I will do a new thing; this moment it will break from the bud. Do you not perceive it? Behold I am doing a new thing!” Amen

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