These illustrations are for Mark 1:1-8
Sermon Opener - Prepare the Way - Mark 1:1-8
His name was John. People knew him locally as the Baptist. Some would say of him that he was a religious eccentric. Others less kind would dismiss him as being simply a flake. He definitely did not seem to be the kind of “How to win friends and influence people” type of personality to usher in the news of the Messiah’s coming. He just somehow doesn’t seem to fit in with shepherds and wise men and the other characters that we traditionally associate with the Christmas story. Yet, this was God’s unlikely servant chosen to herald the spectacular events that would soon follow. A most unlikely promotions man to be sure, but God’s man nevertheless.
From the very beginning everything about John was unique. His mother Elizabeth was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth conceived six months before Mary. But Mary happened to be a very young girl, indeed almost a child. Most scholars put her probable age at thirteen. It was not unusual for a girl in that day and time to be of childbearing age at such a tender age. Indeed, it is not unheard of even in contemporary America.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was a woman who was in the golden years of her life. She had never given birth to a child. You would think of her more in the category of great grandmother than mother. Yet, she and her aging priest of a husband were the unlikely candidates. It’s not out of the question today with recent advances in medicine, but beg the grandmothers here today, don’t take this as a word from the Lord!
And then there was John himself. Being the same age as Jesus they grow up together, played together, yet as they reached adulthood they were different in so many ways. When John began his ministry he lived in the desert solitude of Judea, a rugged desert wilderness…
1. John Lived a Godly Life.
2. John Challenged the People’s Sins.
3. John Pointed the Way to Christ.
While You Wait - Mark 1:1-8
I don’t know anyone who likes to wait. Whether it is waiting in line, waiting on a package to be delivered, or waiting for a prayer to be answered, waiting is not something we usually enjoy. What we sometimes forget is that there is a great deal of wisdom in waiting. This is why Advent is so important. Advent is a good time to learn about waiting because this season is all about waiting well. For the next few weeks we sit on the edge of our seats waiting for God to come to us in Christ and transform our lives with his love. In this process of waiting for Christmas, Advent teaches us lessons about why God sometimes makes us wait.
Many of us never learn the wisdom in waiting because waiting is not always fun. That’s why our culture is built around preventing this dreaded task — fast food, faster internet, faster delivery, faster service, call ahead seating, no waiting! We send a text and we love getting a text back instantly! We go on the internet and we love shopping and buying with one click. We can find a book we want and press one button and boom it is downloaded and so is our credit card! Recently the New York Times published an article stating that we will visit a website less often if it is slower than a close competitor by a quarter of a second. That’s .25 seconds! That’s way too long for any normal person to wait! We don’t like to wait! We want what we want now!
The other day I was running late and when I got to the office I realized that I forgot my cell phone charger and my phone had run out of juice. I rushed frantically to see if some-one had a charger I could borrow. I finally found one and I plugged it in. But here was the problem — I needed to leave the office soon with my phone and I had to have it charged at least half way for the rest of the day and I did not have a car charger. So what did I have to do? I had to wait! I just had to sit there and wait. It was so frustrating! And this was just a phone!
We don’t like to wait. We think it is a waste of time. We are always rushing to the next place or the next thing. We don’t like being held up.
This carries over into our spiritual lives. We want instant answers to our prayers. We want God to respond quickly to our needs. We want God to provide for us within our time frame and schedule. We have everything figured out, right? Everything makes sense to us. Why doesn’t God just act?....
We Want to See Wilderness
For years international students who came to our university asking to see wilderness intrigued me. Typically, it was the German students who wanted to use their spring break to see something they had never seen before. Inevitably, they asked to go to Big Bend National Park in a southwestern corner of Texas. I would usually say something like: “Well, yes, we can get you there. But it’s an eleven hour drive by car and you see nothing along the way. It’s just wilderness!” “That’s just it,” they would reply. “In Germany, we have little villages dotting the countryside, no matter whether you’re in Schleswig or Bavaria. We very much want to see nothing. We want to see wilderness!”
Of course, we always made arrangements for them to do this, delighted that, while some wanted to take trips to San Francisco, an elite group wanted to go nowhere! Recently, my wife and I took an unplanned trip that we had promised ourselves, and we had to be very careful in Texas to give serious thought to the direction in which we drove. It could all too easily happen, given the vastness and the emptiness of much of Texas, that we might end up going nowhere. To us, at least, this would have seemed like a tragedy. The German students, of course, may have known something we didn’t.
David Zersen, Finding Your Wilderness
A John the Baptist Christmas Card
I love receiving Christmas cards. I especially like Christmas cards with good Christian artwork on the cover. The lion with the lamb; the three wise men and the message, “Wise Men Still Seek Him;” the Madonna and child; or the star piercing the darkness over stable and manger; all are beautiful depictions of the Christmas story. Again, I am positive that as a group we have all perused thousands of Christmas cards like these. Yet I do not recall ever receiving one with John the Baptist preaching in the desert. Do you? I can picture it in my mind: a card front marred by the dead, barren wilderness of Judea out by the Jordan River, with this animated, prophetic figure as the focal point. But I have never read one that even closely resembles such a scene. Have you?
John the Baptist is totally inappropriate for the way we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus as Matthew and Luke report that holy night many years ago. Mary, Joseph, angels, manger, shepherds, wise men; a child is born unto us. Glory to God in the highest! That is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the reason for the season. So we honor sweet, little Jesus boy, get warm fuzzies, and hug our family members. What does John the Baptist have do with Christmas?
For Mark, everything. Instead of Bethlehem and choirs of angels, he begins the story of Jesus’ coming with a prophet blaring and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea. In so doing, he adds a new figure to the good news about the incarnation and coming of the Christ. It is John the Baptist. Throughout the centuries the church has recognized Mark’s unique contribution through its observance of Advent in preparation for the celebration of Christmas.
Darrick Acre, A Way Made Ready
I am told that in Minnesota you can step across the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is no more than a tiny stream. It is amazing to me that a river so mighty can begin in such an inconspicuous way.
Perhaps we have a similar experience as we read the first chapter to the Gospel of Mark. The message of Christ has raised up nations and brought them low, launched and defeated armies, started large social movements and destroyed others. Think of all that has been done in the name of Jesus Christ and how inconspicuously the Gospel begins according to Mark. Here we find none of the thunderous poetry used by John to describe the pre-existent Christ. We dream no dreams and no angels visit with us. Caesar Augustus and Herod seem pretty far away. No excuse here for Christmas trees or mob-ridden malls or long hours putting together services of lessons and carols--thank God! All Mark offers to us is John the Baptist, Martha Stewart's worst nightmare, smelling like a camel and calling people to change their ways.
Samuel Massey, You’ve Got to be Kidding!
May Christ Be Born In You
Sue Monk Kidd, in one of her books, recalls her youth and how she would prepare for Christmas. In early December, she would sit by the wooden nativity set clustered under their Christmas tree and think over the last year of her life. She would think deeply about Christmas and the coming of Jesus.
She remembers, one time, visiting a monastery. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas. As she passed a monk walking outside, she greeted him with, "Merry Christmas." The monk's response caught her off guard a bit. "May Christ be born in you," he replied.
His words seemed strange and peculiar at the time. What did he mean, "May Christ be born in you?" At the time she was unsure of what he meant, but now all these years later, sitting beside the Christmas tree, she felt the impact of his words. She discovered that Advent is a time of spiritual preparation. It is also a time of transformation. It is "discovering our soul and letting Christ be born from the waiting heart."
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
Break Free From the Scrooge Syndrome
Each year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, a great number of people find delight in the marvelous story written by Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. There is something in the story that lures us back to it year after year; we never seem to grow tired of hearing its message. The main character in the story is a surly old man named Scrooge, who lives a miserly existence. He sees no benefit in being generous with the poor, or even providing a living wage to dedicated workers. He clutches onto his money and despises the thought of parting with any of it. But it is not only his money that Scrooge withholds from others, it is his entire being. He withholds love and kindness, he withholds warmth and friendship. Then, one night, Scrooge undergoes a profound crisis. He sees himself through the eyes of others. He has a vivid vision of his past; and then his present. But what is most frightful to him - what shakes him to the core of his being - is when he is granted the opportunity of a lifetime. He is allowed to witness his future. But his future proves to be so dark and frightening, that it prompts within him a dramatic change. He undergoes a radical transformation and becomes an entirely new person. Rather than being cold and indifferent to people, he becomes generous and compassionate.
It is a heart-warming story. But more than that, it is a hopeful story. It provides us with the hope that we too can make needed changes in our lives. We can break free from the ruts we have burrowed, and the negative behaviors we have cultivated. We can become kind and compassionate, humble and hospitable, joyful and generous.
I have never read anything which suggests this, but I wonder if the story of John the Baptist influenced Dickens and served as an impetus in his creation of A Christmas Carol?
Gregory Knox Jones, An Alternative Future
True repentance is to cease from sin.
Ambrose of Milan
When a man undertakes to repent toward his fellowmen, it is repenting straight up a precipice; when he repents toward law, it is repenting into the crocodile's jaws; when he repents toward public sentiment, it is throwing himself into a thicket of brambles and thorns; but when he repents toward God, he repents toward all love and delicacy. God receives the soul as the sea the bather, to return it again, purer and whiter than he took it.
Henry Ward Beecher
True repentance hates the sin, and not merely the penalty; and it hates the sin most of all because it has discovered and felt God's love.
Recognizing our Need to Repent
One critic said he had gone to many churches and heard the preacher say, "Don't try to impress God with your works" or "Don't attempt to please God with your merits" or "Don't try to keep the rules and regulations and thus win your way." He looked around at nearly slumbering collections of utterly casual Christians and wondered, "Who's trying?"
Above the Noise
There is so much noise in the world today. There are so many voices competing for our attention. If you want to be heard, you almost have to shout.
I have read that during a typical lunch hour at the University of California at Berkeley, spokesmen for a dozen different causes can be found on the plaza, trying to outshoot one another. One day a lone figure sat down defiantly in the middle of the crowd and held up a sign which said, "SILENT PROTEST." Someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked, "What are you protesting?" The defiant figure held up another sign which said simply, "NOISE."
That experience reminds me of the Salvation Army lassie who was informed by a policeman that a local ordinance would prevent her from ringing her bells to invite contributions. But such a crude law could not stop such an inventive woman. The next day she did a brisker business than ever as she waved one sign and then another in the air. The signs said "ding" and "dong."
There is so much noise in the world, especially in these days that lead up to Christmas - music blaring out of every store: impatient customers raising their voices to get the attention of overworked store clerks; the sound of horns and traffic jams. If you really want to be heard in the midst of all this noise, you are probably going to have to shout.
I am not trying to say that John the Baptizer had to contend with all the noise that characterizes our preparation for Christmas in 2008. But noise is nothing new. There has always been noise when the spokesmen for diverse causes were competing for the attention of an audience. At least this is why I believe that one of the reasons John shouted was simply to be heard.
John Thomas Randolph, The Best Gift: Sermons for the Advent Christmas and Epiphany Seasons, CSS Publishing.
ADDITIONAL ILLUSTRATIONS NOT IN OUR EMAIL
The Four Scents of Advertising - Mark 1:1-8 by Leonard Sweet
A traditional accounting of the number of “senses” the human body registers is five: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. We now know there are between 9 and 21 actual senses, depending on who’s counting. But still there are five main ones, and two biggies in the five: sight and sound.
Even those of us with poor vision and tin ears still rely heavily on sight and sound to get around. Taste and touch are less obviously used, but absolutely necessary. Our sense of touch keeps us from absent-mindedly leaning on a red hot burner or petting a puppy with the disposition of a boxer. Sight, sound, touch, taste -- they are the four senses that give us crucial information and safely connect us to our environment.
Of all the senses, whether in the top 5 or all 21, the sense of smell usually gets short shrift. Mostly we notice its presence when we wish we didn’t have it. When we are cleaning out the diaper pail. Or giving the skunk-adorned dog a bath. Or driving home the eighth-grade basketball team.
For most of us the first thought we have about our sense of smell is . . . it stinks. Nasty odors tighten our stomachs and ruin our days. But our sense of smell offers us a lot more than obnoxious odors. Olfactory memories are among the most personal and poignant our brain can produce. Not just those sweat socks that send you back to your junior high locker room. Not just that foul stench that lets you know the milk has gone bad. There are a thousand other smells filed away in our minds and hearts and souls that trigger deep responses.
Cooking show chefs are always bemoaning the fact that there is no such thing as “smell-o-vision.” All restaurants that advertise on tv would agree. “Foodies” know that the single most attractive, addictive sense is that of smell.
We just finished getting rid of the Thanksgiving leftovers and, by the time we’ve made turkey sandwiches, turkey casserole, and turkey soup, we realize this thing is just an overgrown chicken. So why do we bother with it?
It’s the smell. Turkeys have to cook for a long time. They torture us with their smell for hours on end. Same thing goes with good barbecue. Or a big old pot roast. The smell entices and entrances over hours of cooking.
There are distinctive aromas that are attached to Advent…
The line at the Post Office was of a December length, too long really to wait for such a simple errand. But there he was. When he got to the window he asked for a sheet of Christmas stamps. The clerk proffered a brightly colored set showing lots of candles and emblazoned with the word “Kwanzaa.” “No,” he said, “I’d like some Christmas stamps.” The clerk did a sort of ‘oh-h-h yeah’ thing and rummaged around in the supply and pulled out some jolly snowmen and made ready to ring up the transaction. “No,” he said again, “I’d like some religious ones.” Out came more candles, this time saying “Hanukkah,” and also the lovely blue ones with the gold Arabic calligraphy proclaiming “Eid.” By now it was clear that this was not such a simple errand after all. “Actually,” he said, “I was looking for the ones with the mother and child. I’d like some Christian Christmas stamps.” What a radical notion. Christian Christmas stamps.
We are getting our homes, and our community and our church ready to welcome the King of Glory. Last week we said that the best way to prepare was to acknowledge the awesomeness of God. This week we focus on one of God’s primary characteristics. In today’s world it is also God’s most overlooked characteristic. That is God’s righteousness.
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
A Chance to Warm Up
In a "Peanuts" cartoon strip, good old Charlie Brown says to Linus, "Life is just too much for me. I've been confused from the day I was born. I think the whole trouble is that we're thrown into life too fast. We're not really prepared." And Linus asks, "What did you want . . . a chance to warm up first?"
The Advent season is supposed to be our chance to warm up. It's that time to prepare our hearts and homes for the birth of the Christ child. It's that time when we put all the decorations in their place, the presents are bought and wrapped, the cards sent out and received, and we get ready for Christmas Day. But if we aren't careful the time of preparation will be over and the big day will be here and it will be just another day. We'll finish opening all the gifts; the room will be strewn with scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon; the turkey or ham will have put up a valiant fight but be nothing but leftovers; and we'll be parked in front of the TV watching one of the games. Then all of a sudden that empty feeling will hit us. That feeling of "What's the use?" That Charlie Brown feeling of something missing, as if we were thrown into Christmas too fast. That's when we'll realize we needed time to warm up.
Billy D. Strayhorn, The Manger Is Empty
Tom Long asks the question in his book Shepherds and Bathrobes: "Have you ever noticed where God placed his treasure on this earth?" The treasure is not gold, but gospel. Not silver, but good news. Not hard, cold cash, but grace, love, and peace. He points out that God could have left it with the politicians, those who are responsible for collecting taxes, building schools, and passing laws, but God didn't. God could have left this treasure with Zechariah, the high priest, but his unbelief took him out of the picture. Tom Long states that God left the treasure in the least likely of places: in the love, care, and nurture of a first century peasant woman chosen as the "handmaiden of the Lord." God's treasure was left with the most powerless figure in the ancient world. Doesn't that tell you something about God's grace in today's world?
John A. Stroman, God's Downward Mobility, CSS Publishing Company.
I Baptize Thee...
There is a touching scene in an episode of "All in the Family." Archie Bunker thinks his new grandson ought to be baptized and he tells his daughter and son-in-law so. Gloria and Meathead say No, they don't believe in it. So Archie surreptitiously takes his grandson down to the church, meets with the minister, says he wants the boy "done." The minister tries to explain that baptism is not something just "done," but rather a rite of initiation into the church, and appropriate when the parents want to make that commitment. The program ends with Archie alone in the darkened church sanctuary except for the infant grandson he is holding carefully. He reaches into the waters of the baptismal font, brings the hand back to Joey's head and reverently says, "I baptize thee..."
Adapted from David E. Leininger, Power!
Billy Graham, who has often played the 20th century role of John the Baptizer, had these comments about the disease running rampant in our world: "We're suffering from only one disease in the world. Our basic problem is not a race problem. Our basic problem is not a poverty problem. Our basic problem is not a war problem. Our basic problem is a heart problem. We need to get the heart changed, the heart transformed."
Michael J. Anton, Good News for Now, CSS Publishing
Certainly Mother Theresa was one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time. A number of years ago Mother Theresa was to open a mission in New York City. A building was chosen and the diocese had it renovated. They had it spruced up with a fresh coat of paint. They put in new carpeting. They put in a large hot water heaters for the nuns. On the day the bishop drove up to visit Mother Theresa and the newly arrived nuns, he was greeted by a pile of trash on the curb. They had torn out the new carpet and the hot water heaters. Mother Theresa thanked the bishop but she never wavered in her conviction. If they are to serve the poor in the richest city in the richest country in the world then they must live simply. They prepared for their work by simplifying their lives. Their spiritual grounding depends upon their simplicity of life.
The advent message is prepare. But it is not helpful if I just tell you to prepare. It is hard to know what proper preparation looks like until I see the lives of John the Baptist and Mother Teresa. They prepared themselves with simplicity. Any place and time that you and I simplify our lives, we open up room for God to move. We open up room for God to speak to us.
The painter Lundwig Richter, tells in his memoirs of how he and three friends set out to paint the same landscape. They each were committed to produce as accurately as possible what they saw. Nevertheless, the result was four different pictures, as different as the four personalities of the artists.
The same thing happened when four well-known artists painted the portrait of the United Nations hostess, Maria Lani. Each of them knew her personally and saw her from a different perspective, and the result was four remarkably different pictures.
This helps us understand why there are four Gospels in the New Testament. One Gospel would give us the life of Jesus as seen from only one perspective, and that would mean a very inadequate portrait. Jesus is too complex to be seen from only one perspective. God inspired four men to write the life of Jesus, for each of them gives us unique insight into Jesus that you do not get in the others.
Mark gives us the perspective that is most popular in our modern world. Wycliff Bible Translators have made Mark the most translated book in the world. There is no other book in the world in so many different languages. It is the shortest of the Gospels, and, therefore, the fastest to translate and to read.
Glenn Pease, The Beginning of the Gospel
Several years ago I heard a story that galvanized me. It's a story of some Catholic nuns in Cleveland, Ohio. I don't know the name of their Order, but they have committed their lives to working in the Catholic schools in Cleveland's inner city. Day after day after day, they focus their faith and energy on the education of inner-city youngsters, youngsters whose lives are at risk in so many areas.
One day, out of nowhere, a wonderful gift was given to these nuns. The gift was to pay for the entire Order to go on a vacation. Vans were supplied, and all the necessary money for their trip was contributed anonymously. So, that summer, the nuns closed their Order house and headed to the vacation spot of their choice, the Rocky Mountains.
Most of them had never seen the Rockies, except in their imaginations. They were awed by the glory of the mountains. They would stop and ponder and behold and not be able to take their eyes off the majesty they were experiencing. They noticed, however, that every time they stopped, Sister Margaret, one of the smallest members of their Order, would move to the edge of the group, and then disappear for a while. She'd return sometime later. They didn't know what she was doing.
So on one particular occasion when they had stopped to behold a majestic view, they decided they would follow her. She stole away from the group and made her way down into a gully. They watched her as she walked into the gully. She bent down and reached under a sizable rock, and then turned the rock upside down. She brushed her hands and turned around to walk back up the trail. When she looked up, the entire Order of nuns was watching her. "Margaret, what are you doing?" they asked. "I'm turning over a rock." she replied. "Why?" they asked. "Do you do that every time?" She answered, "Yes." "Why do you do that?" And she replied: "Because I will never pass this way again, and it's my intent to have made a difference while I was here. So I turn some rocks over so that this place is different because I passed here."
What rocks does an urban church like this one have to turn over in the city of Memphis for the good of the common society? What rocks do I need to turn over inside of me in order for the Kingdom of God to make its way through all of the barriers that I put up? I think there needs to be some rock-turning going on inside of me in order that I can, with the help of a truth-teller like John the Baptizer, maybe taste and smell the real experience of Jesus' birth - in the interior manger of my life.
Douglass M. Bailey, Hard Truth for Advent
The Romans sometimes compelled a captive to be joined face-to-face with a dead body, and to bear it about until the horrible effluvia destroyed the life of the living victim. Virgil describes this cruel punishment:
'The living and the dead at his command
Were coupled face to face, and hand to hand;
Till choked with stench, in loathed embraces tied,
The lingering wretches pined away and died.
Without Christ, we are shackled to a dead corpse -- our sinfulness. Only repentance frees us from certain death, for life and death cannot coexist indefinitely.
Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations
Sermon Ender - Forgiveness
Carl Michalson, a brilliant young theologian who died in a plane crash some years ago, once told about playing with his young son one afternoon. They tussling playfully on their front lawn when Michalson accidentally hit the young boy in the face with his elbow. It was a sharp blow full to his son's face. The little boy was stunned by the impact of the elbow. It hurt, and he was just about to burst into tears. But then he looked into his father's eyes. Instead of anger and hostility, he saw there hi father's sympathy and concern; he saw there his father's love and compassion. Instead of exploding into tears, the little boy suddenly burst into laughter. What he saw in his father's eyes made all the difference!
The sharp blow of God's message to us is: Repentence. But, look into your father's eyes. What he offers you is forgiveness and that makes all the difference. Repent and you will be forgiven.
James W. Moore, Some Things Are too Good Not to Be True, Nashville: Dimensions, p. 43.
The Failure of God to Die
At the beginning of this century there were many learned people from all the disciplines of academia that were predicting the death of Christianity. Not only the death of Christianity but the doing away with religion in society all together. They claimed that God and belief in God would soon be a silly notion of the past.
Paul Johnson, a biblical scholar, says in his book The Quest for God, "The most extraordinary thing about the 20th century was the failure of God to die. The collapse of mass religious belief, especially among the educated and prosperous, had been widely and confidently predicted. It did not take place. Somehow, God survived, flourished even."
Paul Johnson, The Quest for God, Harper Collins.
Not too many years ago newspapers carried the story of Al Johnson, a Kansas man who came to faith in Jesus Christ. What made his story remarkable was not his conversion, but the fact that as a result of his newfound faith in Christ, he confessed to a bank robbery he had participated in when he was nineteen years old. Because the statute of limitations on the case had run out, Johnson could not be prosecuted for the offense. Still, he believed his relationship with Christ demanded a confession. And he even voluntarily repaid his share of the stolen money!
Today in the Word, April, 1989, p. 13.
Repentance at Christmas
The glory and strangeness of Christmas point in a side-door way to the mess we are in. Indirectly, this season whispers to us about the "out of focus world" in which we live. It is not easy to explain the mess we are in. Many have tried. Few, if any, have succeeded. In his book, The Coming Faith, Carlyle Marney suggests that humankind "is the most savage of the beasts" that our bite is poisonous, our hands are clubs, our feet are weapons.
According to Marney, "nothing in nature is so well equipped for hating or hurting" as we are. Confuse us, and we lash out at anything. Crowd us, and we kill, rob, destroy. Deprive us and we retaliate. Impoverish us, and we burn villas in the night. Enslave us, and we revolt. Pamper us, and we may poison you. Hire us, and we may hate both you and the work. Love us too possessively, and we are never weaned. Deny us too early, and we never learn to love. Put us in cities, and all our animal nature comes out with perversions of every good thing. Mr. Marney clearly has a pessimistic view of human nature.
Marney, it seems to me, is partially correct, but there is also great good in humankind. Our bite is also sometimes sweet; our hands can also offer a caring touch; our feet may be helpers. Nothing in nature is so well equipped for loving and healing as we are. Confuse us and we often run for community; crowd us and we usually seek solutions. Deprive us, and we organize for a better tomorrow. Impoverish us, and we bargain collectively. Enslave us, and many of us will practice nonviolence. Pamper us, and we may instead seek strength. Hire us, and we usually work hard. Love us, and we are fulfilled. Deny us, and we seek. Put us in cities, and we try to enjoy life.
Society is a great composite picture of our power to harm. Society is also a great composite picture of our ability to do good. Art, culture, philosophy, order, and religion have all been used to tame the tiger within us. They have been used as expressions of the common good. We have tried many ways to tame the beast and express the good: the Ten Commandments of Moses, the great code of Hammurabi, Assyrian codes, Egyptian codes. Hindu laws, Oriental Yin-Yang, the corpus of Roman law, Stoic philosophy, the Greek notion of people-all these were attempts to tame the savagery within or to make a statement about what is meet and right. As noble as these thoughts were, none of these civilizers civilized.
Something more is needed if we are to come out of the wilderness we are in. That something more is spoken of by John the Baptist...the way out of the mess we are in is the way of repentance.
Joe E. Pennel, Jr., The Whisper of Christmas, The Upper Room, 1984, pp.35ff.
Preparation - or Lack of It!
To avoid offending anybody, the school dropped religion altogether and started singing about the weather. At my son's school, they now hold the winter program in February and sing increasingly non-memorable songs such as "Winter Wonderland," "Frosty the Snowman" and--this is a real song--"Suzy Snowflake," all of which is pretty funny because we live in Miami. A visitor from another planet would assume that the children belonged to the Church of Meteorology.
Dave Barry in his "Notes on Western Civilization" Chicago Tribune Magazine, July 28, 1991
Hopelessness - For a Sermon on Mary
The message of Christmas is that God intrudes upon the weak and the vulnerable, and this is precisely the message that we so often miss. God does not come to that part of that part of us that swaggers through life, confident in our self sufficiency. God leaves his treasure in the broken fragmented places of our life. God comes to us in those rare moments when we are able to transcend our own selfishness long enough to really care about another human being.
On the wall of the museum of the concentration camp at Dachau is a large and moving photograph of a mother and her little girl standing in line of a gas chamber. The child, who is walking in front of her mother, does not know where she is going. The mother, who walks behind, does know, but is helpless to stop the tragedy. In her helplessness she performs the only act of love left to her. She places her hands over he child's eyes so she will at least not see the horror to come. When people come into the museum they do not whisk by this photo hurriedly. They pause. They almost feel the pain. And deep inside I think that they are all saying: "O God, don't let that be all that there is."
God's hears those prayers and it is in just such situations of hopelessness and helplessness that his almighty power is born. It is there that God leaves his treasure. In Mary and in all of us, as Christ is born anew within.
Henri Nouwen once said, "If we do not wait patiently in expectation for God's coming in glory, we start wandering around, going from one little sensation to another. Our lives get stuffed with newspaper items, television stories, and gossip. Then our minds lose the discipline of discerning between what leads us closer to God and what doesn't, and our hearts lose their spiritual sensitivity.” It’s the hard work of acknowledging our sin and repenting that leads us to God.
Mickey Anders, Back to the Basics
The Meaning of Time
Have you ever thought about the meaning of time? Philosophers refer to chronological time. That is time as measured by the ticking of a clock. It is calendar time. It is time as measured by the earth rotating on its axis, time as measured by the earth's journey around the sun. But what if the earth were destroyed. What if the sun was no more. Would time cease to exist?
Philosophers also talk about subjective time. To a child waiting for Christmas, time moves so slowly. To his parents, Christmas may come all too quickly. To his grandparents, Christmas, 1949, may seem like just yesterday. Subjective time is relative.
As one scientist put it, if you sit on a hot stove, a minute seems like an hour. Chronological time is subjective time. The Bible introduces another kind of time which it refers to as "Kairos" -- God's time.
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
A Sense of Urgency
Time is important. And time is in short supply. Dwight L. Moody preached on Zacchaeus with great fire and conviction. The whole story of Zacchaeus just came to life right there on the platform. But he called him, "Zacchus." And on the way home from church his children would chide him. "Pa," they'd say, "it isn't Zacchus. It's Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus." "I don't have time to say Zacchaeus," Moody would bellow, "there's too much work to be done!" And later on in his life, his heart began to play tricks on him while he was in England. He had a checkup there, and the doctor told him to take it easy. So an upcoming campaign in Chicago was promptly canceled, and he headed for home. On the way, the ship developed engine trouble and wound up drifting helplessly out of the main traffic lanes. As the days passed, the chances of the ship's being spotted grew dimmer.
One of those dark days Moody was standing by the ship rail, and thinking about time and how much of it he had left, or possibly, how little. And he vowed to God that if his life could be spared and he could be given a little more time, he would devote it to preaching the gospel. The ship was promptly sighted and rescued, and the rest of the story is on record. Moody's campaign in Chicago was so huge and so blessed of God that the World's Fair being held there had to be closed down on Sundays because they had no customers. Time had suddenly become very precious to Moody and he did not want to waste any of it. There was still work to be done.
Many of us can feel the pressure of time right now as Christmas comes ever closer. John the Baptist had that same urgency. Jesus had that same urgency. The early church had that same sense of urgency. Time is important. Time is in short supply
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
The Last Chapter First
The story is told about a fellow who loved to read mystery stories but he didn't like to be kept in suspense. He would read the last chapter first. That way he could read the book in the assurance that in the end good would triumph over evil. To the villain he would silently announce, "Don't get too sure of yourself. I already know the ending of the story. You'll get yours later."
The Christmas story allows us to see the last chapter first. The babe in the manger is God's announcement to our universe that he is at work reconciling the world unto himself. The angels could sing about "Peace on earth, good will to men" not because it had been realized in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago or even in our city today. In the mind of God, however, it is this moment already a present reality. The future belongs to Him. This moment is God's moment. He is alive. He is here now. Time is important. Time is in short supply. Yet his love and His nurture are timeless.
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
In the Wrong Place?
Many years ago a pastor was invited to preach at a nearby country church he had never been to before. As he set out he was uncertain which road to take since most rural roads are not clearly marked and the directions he had been given left something to be desired. He stopped to ask directions along the way. The person he asked tried, but mistakenly steered him down the wrong road.
The morning was pleasant and although the road seemed a little longer than the pastor had expected, he cheerfully continued on his way. Finally he arrived at a little white church just as the Sunday School lesson was concluding. The pastor entered the church and greeted some of the people as he made his way to the pulpit. That morning he delivered a strong and inspiring sermon. People in the congregation weren't quite sure what to think, but they listened attentively. When the worship service concluded, the pastor descended from the pulpit, shook hands with the good people and headed toward home.
Meanwhile, there was another small church a few miles away. It was filled with people waiting and wondering what could possibly have happened to the pastor who was scheduled to preach for them. Our hero never suspected that he had preached at the wrong church that morning.
There are times in our lives when we have to admit that things seem out of place. Somehow things just don't seem to fit. Advent is one of those times. Everywhere we go we see signs of the Christmas season - festive decorations, brightly colored lights, carols playing loudly at the mall, Christmas specials on television reminding us of the jolly nature of the holiday. Yet, when we arrive at church on this, the Second Sunday of Advent, we are greeted by an unlikely figure, John the Baptist. Something just doesn't seem right. It seems that we are in the wrong place. Or at the very least John the Baptist has picked the wrong Sunday to be our guest speaker.
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
Breaking into Our Lives
It was Christmas almost forty years ago when Rex Pickett was stationed in Korea as a young Marine lieutenant. His wife and baby daughter, whom he had never seen, were home in the United States. On Christmas morning the thermometer hovered around zero with several inches of snow covering the ground. Outdoor worship services were planned for that morning. Although no one was required to attend services Rex went out of respect and "to set a good example for the even younger Marines." Nearly two hundred marines turned out for the service. They sat on their helmets in the snow. They faced a small portable altar. The chaplains had no microphones, and the portable organ suffered from the extreme cold.
Something happened to Rex in that worship service. God broke through into his life. He thought of all that was precious to him: home, his wife, his unseen infant child. In that moment as they tried to sing Christmas carols in the cold air he realized that Christmas does not depend on church architecture or fine clothing, expansive meals or expensive gifts. Instead Rex claimed, "Christmas is best celebrated as a voluntary act in which we replenish our personal faith in the company of others." Far from home and loved ones, Rex realized "that Christmas Day, in itself, is not important, but the faith it represents is."
Let us not forget in the coming weeks that Jesus is the reason why we celebrate Christmas. Advent reminds us that God often breaks into our lives in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. At those times we discover that we must change our ways and realign ourselves with Jesus Christ.
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
Who Is God?
William J. O’Malley, in his book, Meeting the Living God, gives us some modern descriptions of God, descriptions which he terms “false gods.” See if you find your understanding of God among any of these:
“God is there when I’m in need. Otherwise, when things are going okay, he doesn’t intrude on my life.”
“God is the Good Shepherd who pats our woolly heads and makes everything right again.”
“God is a judge whose sole purpose is to condemn and forgive; we do not encounter him until we die.”
“God is an infinitely distant and holy perfection. He is the reason behind things, but he is too pure to muddy himself in human life and its concerns.”
“God is the pal at my elbow who goes along with anything I choose to do.”
False gods. Who is God? The Bible is very clear. God is a righteous God. “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty “
William J. O’Malley, Meeting the Living God
Changing the Inner Parts
A man once owned a large and expensive clock crafted in Switzerland. He kept the clock in a window, where it was seen by passersby who set their watches by it. But something was wrong with the clock. Its hands habitually showed the wrong time. So the man spent considerable energy every day in turning the clock’s hands to the right positions. This went on for several years, which kept the owner weary. One day someone suggested, “Instead of wasting your energy in correcting the hands, why don’t you fix the clock’s inner parts?”
“What a tremendous idea!” the owner exclaimed in astonishment and delight. “I never thought of that!” God did not intend to make a few cosmetic changes by sending Christ into the world. God intended nothing less than to change the whole dynamic of human character. That’s why each Advent we encounter this strange character John the Baptist with his call to repentance. It is to remind us that Christmas isn’t simply about candy canes and reindeer and snowflakes and colored lights. It is about a righteous God who loves humanity so much that He sent His Son to redeem us from our sins. This is the heart of Advent.
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
A Confusing Scene
In a Family Circus cartoon, the little girl sits her baby brother on her lap and tells him the story of Christmas. According to her version: Jesus was born just in time for Christmas up at the North Pole surrounded by eight tiny reindeer and the Virgin Mary. Then Santa Claus showed up with lots of toys and stuff and some swaddling clothes. The three Wise men and elves all sang carols while the Little Drummer Boy and Scrooge helped Joseph trim the tree. In the meantime, Frosty the Snowman saw this star.
We can appreciate her confusion. There is a lot to learn about Christmas. Who does the teaching in your home as you prepare for Christmas?
King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
Ready All the Time
Charles L. Allen tells about an outstanding businessman, J. Arthur Rank. Mr. Rank has an elevator straight up to his office, but he does not use it. He prefers the stairs, and he calls them his "Prayer Stairs." When he walks up those stairs in the morning, he takes each step separately and deliberately, and he prays to God to guide him every step he takes that day. In the morning he walks up those stairs asking God's help. In the evening he walks down those same steps thanking God for the help God has given that day.
Mr. Rank is ready for Christmas. Mr. Rank is ready for anything. Unfortunately, there are too many people who think that Christmas is to be celebrated by working up some mushy, sentimental feelings about God and the Christ child one day out of the year and then putting those feelings back on the shelf or back in the trunks and baggage for another 365 days. Those folks aren't really ready for Christmas. They're not ready for the birth of Christ in their lives. And that's what we are preparing for, isn't it? We are preparing for Christ's birth within the hearts and souls of each of us. And if we are prepared, then Christ will be born in us this Christmas.
Billy D. Strayhorn, The Manger Is Empty
Living the Faith – Star of Peace
Pastor Joel D. Kline writes: “Some years ago I read a novel by Jan de Hartog entitled Star of Peace. It’s the story of a ship’s captain transporting 250 Jews from Nazi Germany to Montevideo, Uruguay, the last port in the world willing to receive Jewish refugees. When the ship arrives there, however, it is soon discovered that all of the passengers’ visas are forgeries, and authorities tell the captain that his only option is to return the Jews to Germany, regardless of the fate facing them there. The captain, recently converted to Christianity, cannot in good conscience do so. And so he hatches a plan to unboard the passengers by night along the coast of the United States, hoping then to arouse public support to keep the refugees in the US. But the Coast Guard catches wind of what the captain wants to do, and at every step thwarts his plan.
Weeks pass, and finally the American authorities determine that their only resolution is to have the captain declared mentally unstable. That would require the signature of the ship’s doctor, a man named Hendrik who generally went to great measures to avoid involvement in controversial issues. Indeed, Hendrik seldom thought much of anyone beyond himself. But the experience on board the ship had begun to affect him deeply, and when pressure began to be placed upon him by government officials, Hendrik refuses to become a part of the scheme. Finally in frustration Hendrik cries out, “I’ll see you all in hell first, before I collaborate in your neat little scheme. Insane? He’s not insane; he’s putting his faith into practice. And the fact that you consider that to be insane tells me more about you and my government than I care to know!”
It’s remarkable, isn’t it, what can happen when we begin to stake our lives on the conviction that ours is a God who is in the business of making all things new. Even more, it’s remarkable what can happen when we respond to God’s invitation to join in the task of living and proclaiming life in God’s kingdom.
Joel D. Kline, Standing on Tiptoe
Getting to Bethlehem
If you ask a travel agent how to get to Bethlehem you'll be booked on an El Al airlines flight to Tel Aviv, ride on an air conditioned coach up through the hills, probably pass through Jerusalem, and then into the tourist trap called Bethlehem.
Ask anyone in the New Testament how you get to the little town of Bethlehem and they'll say, "Go out to the desert, keep going till you get to the River Jordan. You can't miss it. You'll find a man out there, standing knee deep in the water, baptizing people. That's John the Baptizer. You ask him. If you want to go to Bethlehem, you've got to start there. There is no other way to get there."
They all say the same thing, all four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They all say that if you want to go to Bethlehem, you've got to start with John the Baptizer.
Mickey Anders, Back to Basics
Music to Remember
In Alex Haley’s book, ROOTS, there is that memorable scene of the night the slave, Kunta Kinte, drove his master to a ball at a big plantation house. Kunta Kinte heard the music from inside the house, music from the white folk’s dance. He parked the buggy and settled down to wait out the long night of his master’s revelry. While he sat in the buggy, he heard other music coming from the slaves’ quarters...the little cabins behind the big house. It was different music, music with a different rhythm. He felt his legs carrying him down the path toward those cabins. There he found a man playing African music, his music, which he remembered hearing in Africa as a child - the music he had almost forgotten. Kunta Kinte found that the man was from his section of Africa. They talked excitedly, in his native language, of home and the things of home. That night, after returning from the dance, Kunta Kinte went home a changed man. He lay upon the dirt floor of his little cabin and wept, weeping in sadness that he had almost forgotten, weeping in joy that he had at last remembered. The terrifying, degrading experience of slavery had almost obliterated his memory of who he really was. But the music helped him to remember. (Ibid., p. 113)
Donald B. Strobe, Collected Works, www.Sermons.com
The Importance of Words
In a book on preaching by George Sweazey, the author reminds us that “Christianity is not something you talk about, it is something you do. Sitting through sermons can become the major Christian activity.” And, of course, that is not all that we are called to do, is it? “What we want is deeds, not words,” we sometimes say. But Dr. Sweazey says that that is a false dichotomy. Indeed, says he, words are deeds! The ancient Greeks had a saying, “By words alone are lives of mortals swayed.” Sweazey writes: “the talkers are the doers, if what they talk about is important. The greatest doer of all was called the Word,’ and words that start with him have changed men and nations.” (PREACHING THE GOOD NEWS, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Co., 1976. p. 3) He goes on: “If what a preacher says can alter even slightly the direction in which people are aimed when they leave the church, the effect can be beyond all calculation.” What people think determines everything. Lincoln said: With the public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public opinion goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. (Sweazey, op. cit., p. 9) Physicians and farmers labor to keep people alive. Preachers labor to make their lives worth living. And that is infinitely worth doing. Joseph Conrad said that words, “Have set the whole nations in motion and upheaved the dry, hard ground on which rests our social fabric... Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.” Actions are important: but words motivate actions.
Lead Us Not Into Temptation
In our Lord’s Prayer we are often puzzled by the traditional words: “Lead us not into temptation.” How can this be? The Letter of James says that “God tempts no one.” (James 1:13) Many of us much prefer the more modern ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer which we have been using for the past several weeks. I’d like to know what you think. Do you find it helpful to understand the words, or would you rather use the more traditional, familiar phrasing? You all know, of course, that even in the traditional form of the prayer there are differences. Methodists ask to have their “trespasses” forgiven, while Presbyterians pray about their “debts.” Someone once said that the Presbyterians, being Scots, would rather have their debts forgiven than their trespasses any day! Be that as it may, the Greek word actually means “sins”. That is what we are praying about. To have our sins forgiven to the same extent that we are willing to forgive those who have sinned against us. Pretty strong stuff, huh! “Save us in time of trial,” says the Ecumenical Version. Testing times are not intended to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen us. And God is there to help.
Donald B. Strobe, Collected Works, www.Sermons.com
Where Is Loyalty in an Age of Immediacy?
We live in an age of immediacy -- instant foods, instant winners with our lottery mentality, instant information in the computer world, instant gratification in the drug culture. There is little loyalty to the past nor sacrifice for the sake of the future. Christopher Lasch in his classic, "The Culture of Narcissism," notes the forgetful character of the late twentieth century U.S. culture: "to live for the moment is the prevailing passion -- to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or 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 in the workplace. Our language gives us away when we speak of "headhunters," "corporate raiders," and "hostile takeovers." Few athletes remain with the teams that signed them. Free agency reigns in professional sports. The assumption among religious shoppers is that we operate in a buyers’ market. The consumer makes choices based on present needs with little thought for the past or the future.
Elton Richards, The Future….It’s Coming
Henri Nouwen once said, "Our lives get stuffed with newspaper items, television stories, and gossip. Then our minds lose the discipline of discerning between what leads us closer to God and what doesn't, and our hearts lose their spiritual sensitivity.” It’s the hard work of acknowledging our sin and repenting that leads us to God.
Mickey Anders, Repent
Leading the Way
The twentieth century provided numerous examples of prophets who have blazed paths for others to follow. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, through a method of nonviolent resistance, led his people to throw off British Imperialism and bring freedom to the sub-continent and its peoples. In the 1960s, using similar tactics, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of the dream he had of a nation where people would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In the late 1970s, Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador heard the cry of the poor in his land and acted to bring hope and justice to a society dominated by wealth and power. Nelson Mandella and Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa provided the light to lead their nation out of the dark night of apartheid to a new light of freedom for all. Our history is replete with examples of contemporary prophets, but are we listening to their collective voice and finding the path they have blazed?
John the Baptist pointed the way to Jesus, serving as a prophet for the people of his day. Let us, in whatever capacity God has provided in our lives, do likewise. Let us be prophets who blaze a path to the Lord, both at Christmas and for eternal life.
Richard Gribble, CSC, Sermons On The Gospel Readings: Sermons for Sundays in Advent, Christmas, And Epiphany, New Beginnings in Christ, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 0-7880-2370-5a