Second Sunday in Advent
December 6, 2020
Focus: God forgives the sins of the humble who repent.
Function: That the hearers, as repentant people, call others to repentance also.
Structure: 2 parts – character study and short homily.
Hearing the Gospel according to Mark
Last weekend marked the celebration of the Church’s New Year, beginning another calendar year together that revolves all around the life and ministry of Jesus and His bride the Church. I even received two posters of the circular Church calendar in the mail just this week! (Hold it up.) I’ll leave this on the back table for you to look at if you’d like as you leave today. But, certainly take the time to reflect on each season and how they all uniquely point you to Christ: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and finally Pentecost, which includes the Church’s work of sharing the gospel to all nations.
As we move through the calendar, we use the different gospel accounts to help us focus a little differently each year. Last year we learned of Christ from Matthew. This year, from Mark. And next year, from Luke. Then we’ll repeat that cycle over and over again, too, as the Church has been doing for a long time now.
Since we’ll be opening up our Bibles together to read from Mark’s account of the gospel another thirty times before this year is up, I thought it would be helpful for me to share with you what I know about this disciple.
Mark isn’t one of the Twelve disciples who followed Jesus so closely for those three years, like Matthew and John. Instead, Mark comes into the picture later, beginning with Acts 12. We learn from Paul’s writings that Mark is the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), a traveling companion of Paul. And so for a time, Paul and Barnabas are on a missionary journey together, and Mark with them. But, John Mark, as he is also known, abandons them on that journey for reasons the Bible doesn’t say (Acts 13:13). We simply hear that he heads off to his home in Jerusalem.
Paul and Barnabas end up fighting over whether or not to take Mark along on the second missionary journey, so much so that they end up parting ways and going on separate missionary journeys (Acts 15:36-41). Thankfully, Paul and Mark do eventually reconcile, as Paul will call him “very useful to me” as he writes to the young pastor Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11).
Peter will at one point refer to Mark as his “son” in 1 Peter 5:13. That likely should be read as a spiritual fatherhood, that perhaps Peter is the one who first shared the gospel with Mark, or at least helped bring him to a mature faith. This makes sense, as Peter spent a lot of his time after Pentecost working with the Christians living in Mark’s hometown of Jerusalem.
Eventually, Mark makes his own way down to Africa, to northern Egypt, to the city of Alexandria. He is considered to be the one who planted the first Christian church there. And while that city would go on to be the hub of Christendom a few centuries later, it wasn’t always that friendly to the gospel. Many of the Alexandrian people were so angry with Mark for telling them to repent of their idols, their false gods, that they put a rope around his neck and dragged him through the city streets until he was dead. That happened in 68 AD, the same year the Romans executed both Paul and Peter in Rome.
Mark’s gospel account is known as the action gospel, because he keeps it so quickly paced. It’s only about three-fifths (62% the size of Matthew; 58% compared to Luke) the size of what Matthew and Luke needed to share the same message. And our best guess is that he was writing to the Roman people. The action-packed writing style probably would’ve helped with that, but there’s one key detail that shows up in today’s reading that says it more loudly than anything else: the title Mark gives to Jesus, “the Son of God.” Only one man in the entire gospel speaks those words about Jesus: the Roman centurion, at the foot of the cross, in Mark 15:39, which we’ll read together the Sunday before Easter.
Our The Lutheran Study Bible, sums up the purpose of Mark’s writing like this: “To proclaim Jesus the Son of God, who calls disciples to repent, to believe the Gospel, and to bear the cross,” (pg. 1652). That’s a great transition back to the text we read today, as Mark puts most of that into these opening verses, everything but bearing the cross, although arguably that’s precisely what John the Baptist is doing in the text.
We have another chance next month to focus on John’s baptism, as he baptizes Jesus on Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, January 10th. So today I want to focus on the idea of what John came to do: to “make His paths straight.”
As a prophet sent by God Himself, John’s job, his task is clearly revealed to us as far back as 700 years before, spoken first by the prophet Isaiah (40:3). To prepare people to see their coming Savior. Isaiah speaks of it as a leveling, valleys filled, mountains lowered, everything being made straight and smooth and walkable. After John’s work is done, there is no excuse. No one can rightly say “I never heard of Him” or “I never saw Him.”
John risked his life, even gave his life, to this calling and purpose. He spent his days preaching and teaching anyone would listen. Mark even boldly says “all Judea and Jerusalem.” He calls them to repentance, to give up their sins and their idols, and instead trust in God’s provisions, given through this Son. John’s life is forfeited when that message of repentance falls on King Herod’s deaf ears (Mark 6).
But before that day came, John pointed many to Jesus, to their Savior. And those newly baptized disciples went and did likewise. And those they pointed to Christ then pointed others to Christ. And what was at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection a very small group numbering in the dozens, today stands at over two billion people who are still fighting the good fight of the Church Militant.
John humbly called people to repent, and many responded with their own humility, trusting that there really is a forgiveness of sins that comes through the blood of Jesus Christ. And at some point or another, the path was made straight for your family tree. For some of you, it’s so many generations ago, you can’t track it down. But there may even be a few gathered among us together this day who are the first in their line to place their hope and their trust in Christ.
There is beauty in hearing this call. It’s not that we’re no longer sinners. Unfortunately, we still are, each and every one of us. No, the beauty is that you know where to go with your sins. Can you think of anyone in Scripture who sinned against God and didn’t know where to go with that guilt? Of course, the Word is filled with such people, but Judas Iscariot jumps to my mind pretty quickly. He thought he knew where to take his sin and his guilt. But when he confessed, all he heard was “what is that to us? See to it yourself.” The tragedy of his sin was met with the tragedy of no forgiveness, and the result was a terrible death.
You know people who are like Judas. Who know that they have sinned, even if they can’t articulate it that way. They know they’ve committed wrongs, and the guilt is eating at them and driving them to despair. And in that dark place, where do they turn? They turn to another dark place. Many use addictions like drugs, alcohol, or pornography to fill that void, thinking they can just drown out all the guilt. But the guilt of their addiction only adds to the guilt they already felt, and the distance between them and the surface is only deeper.
Others turn to the endless stream of “self-help” books, apps, and preachers, thinking that if they only try hard enough, they can scratch and claw their way back out of the chasmic hole they’ve dug for themselves. Sadly, even many Christian churches through the centuries have fallen into that dreadful trap, teaching the people of God that it’s even possible to make your own way out of the hole. As you fight and claw day after day scaling that wall with no rest in sight, one of two things happens. You reach an obstacle you can’t overcome, a guilt too burdensome for you to forgive yourself or to repair the wrong you’ve done. And it sits above your head like a rock ledge jutted out from the wall. You can’t go around it. You’re just stuck. Or, even if you never reach that hazard, eventually, you tire of trying, of scaling, day after day and year after year, and you simply let go, and fall to the bottom of the bottomless pit. Either way, eventually you fail. And death consumes you.
This is the end for those who don’t know where to turn with their sins. But you do! You do know! You know to repent of your sins, all the wicked thoughts, words, and deeds that so consume your day-to-day life. You know to bring them right here! (point to the foot of the cross). And what happens when you do?! (pause for hearers to consider). Christ forgives you! That sin, that guilt, is taken off your shoulders and off your plate. He takes your sin upon Himself, as though it were His own. His thought. His word. His deed. And He dies for it. He dies for you. This is the promise of the gospel, whether we hear it from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Your sins are forgiven. That chasm that separated you from God has been filled in by the body and blood of your Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as He fills you with Himself. There is no longer a wall to be scaled. There is no longer a sorrow to be drowned. You are His!
As it has been done before you, so it is now. As John preached repentance and pointed to the gospel, and his hearers then preached repentance and pointed to the gospel, and eventually someone in that path preached repentance and pointed your family to the gospel, now the task of John falls to you. It’s now your turn, as disciples of Christ, to make other disciples of Christ by preaching repentance and pointing to the Gospel.
You can’t save another person, no matter how hard you try. It’s not your job. You can’t convince them, no matter how hard you try. The Bible says the unbeliever is a fool (Psalm 14:1). And you can’t argue logic with fools. The task of creating faith in your neighbor belongs to God. Leave that job to Him. Your job is simply to point the way. To tell your neighbor drowning in the smell of liquor or the sweat of lust that there is hope in the midst of all their despair. To tell your neighbor whose stress is so unbearable as they try to fix everything in their life that there is One who has already fixed all things for them! This is the hope of the gospel, whether they hear it from _____, _____, ______, or ______ (insert names of people present).
I love the way one of our seminary professors, Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Oschwald phrased it:
“In the wilderness of our lives, a voice now calls. In this wild mess that we have made of our life, a wilderness that constantly wants to turn us back into beasts—beasts of prey or beasts of burden—one voice cries out: “Prepare a highway! A highway in the wilderness! Someone is coming to you! He’s not waiting in town.’ He’s not waiting until you can find the way out, until you can make your way to him. He is forging His way through the wilderness in which you live. And His road in will be your road out!’
“That’s why the road needs to be smooth and level. Your King will walk this road; that is true. But on this road, He will lead you and all His lost ones out of the wilderness to His Promised Land.
“That’s news worth announcing. May God bless you as you prepare yourself and your people to be God’s Advent Announcers.”