Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 10, 2017
Scripture: Mark 1:1-8
So are you ready for Christmas yet? Have you got your tree up? Is your house decorated? I hope that you stayed safe if you put lights on the outside of your house – we’ve had a fair bit of ice these past weeks. What about your Christmas baking – is it done yet? Do you send Christmas cards? Are they in the mail yet? And what about your Christmas shopping? Have you got all of your presents, or at least figured out what you are going to buy? Are you ready for Christmas yet?
The good news is that here in church-land, it isn’t Christmas yet. This is only the second Sunday of Advent – the season of Christmas doesn’t begin until the evening of December 24 and then lasts for 12 days – the Twelve Days of Christmas. The season of Advent is followed by the season of Christmas is followed by the season of Epiphany. We aren’t there yet – this is the season of waiting and preparing.
And in today’s reading we heard about John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
This is the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. We don’t have any of the details of the story of Jesus’ birth that we find in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. We don’t have any background on John the Baptist – it is in Luke’s gospel that we read about how he was a cousin of Jesus; born to Elizabeth and Zechariah who, by all rights, should probably have been too old to have children; who leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came near to Elizabeth. Mark doesn’t include any of these details about John. Instead, Mark tells us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Now John seems to be quite a character. He was dressed in camel’s hair. He had a leather rope tied around his waist. And he certainly didn’t eat what we would consider to be a balanced diet – instead he ate bugs and wild honey.
And he didn’t seem to be a gentle preacher. He shouted at people, telling them to repent – to turn away from their sins and turn back to God. And then he shoved them underwater in the river Jordan to symbolize their re-birth to this new way of living.
And yet people were drawn to John. Despite the lack of comfortable pews or chairs or even a church building; despite the lack of coffee time or potluck after his services; despite the lack of a praise band or flashy powerpoint to accompany his message; despite the harshness of his message, people were drawn to John. We are told that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
John is very much an in-between character, living in an in-between time, and living in the wilderness which is an in-between place. If you look closely at the reading, you will find John there in the centre of the text, but the text points backwards to the prophets, and John himself points forwards to Jesus, the one coming after John. He knows that he isn’t the main character in this unfolding story, but he calls on people to get ready. It’s coming. It’s almost here!
John is also out in the wilderness – I don’t know about you, but I find the wilderness to be an in-between place, a threshold place, a place that is outside of our normal time and space and lives.
One of my favourite places to be and one of my favourite things to do in the summer is to go out on a canoe trip – the longer the better. One of my friends and I like to go out for a week or two at a time. We carry our food and our tent and our sleeping bags in our backpacks and paddle from lake to lake, down rivers, sometimes carrying our canoe and gear around rapids and waterfalls, or sometimes choosing to run the rapids.
It is not necessarily a comfortable place to be. Our canoe has capsized a couple of times. It is hard work, paddling and portaging all day. At night, we are sleeping on the hard ground, as there isn’t room for fancy air mattresses in our backpacks. And depending on the time of year, the mosquitoes and blackflies can be something fierce – I’ve been known to come out of the wilderness with mosquito bites layered on top of mosquito bites.
And yet there is something about being away from the internet, away from telephones, away from Facebook, away from other people. And yet there is something about the repetitive actions of paddle… paddle… repeat; or portaging along a rough trail with a canoe overhead and a heavy pack on your back, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. And yet there is something about being in tune with the cycle of the day from sunrise to sunset with no watch or clock to track the hours.
It seems like each time we go on one of these trips, one or both of us is discerning something, working through a major life decision, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Stepping outside of our regular life into the rhythms and surprises of the wilderness gives us the time and the space to work through these things. There is something special about these in-between places of wilderness.
Now John the Baptist’s wilderness was different than the northern Ontario wilderness, or the northern BC wilderness. John’s wilderness was a desert wilderness – a dry and rocky place with no trees or grass growing except near the river; brutally hot during the day and freezing cold at night.
And still people were leaving their homes and the cities to head into this harsh wilderness, and when they returned home they were changed. They had confessed, they had repented, they had turned back to God, and they were preparing for the one who was to follow John.
Just as the wilderness is an in-between place, this season of Advent is an in-between time. We are in the middle of this season of not-yet-Christmas, yet we are called to prepare ourselves. The world around us is also telling us to prepare – prepare your homes, prepare your food, prepare your gifts, make this the most perfect Christmas ever. Here in the church, we have brought out our Christmas decorations; we are lighting our Advent candles one-by-one preparing ourselves to light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve; we are having special events like the Ladies’ Christmas Dinner this week. Like John the Baptist, we are looking forward to the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s Word-Made-Flesh.
But if we step outside of the story of Mark’s Gospel, and if we step outside of the rhythm of the seasons of the church year, if we place ourselves here in Chetwynd in 2017, we can also look backward to the birth of the Christ Child more than 2000 years ago. Jesus is already born! We don’t have to wait until Christmas to celebrate – we can celebrate in the here and now.
Just as the wilderness is an in-between place and Advent is an in-between season, we are living today in in-between times. We are caught between the “already” and the “not yet.” God has already been born in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom has already broken into our world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The time of God’s kingdom is now. But God’s kingdom has not yet reached its completion. We aren’t quite there yet. God’s kingdom is now; and God’s kingdom is not yet.
And in this season of Advent, we can rest in this tension, and celebrate it. We can allow ourselves to be pulled backwards into the story that began centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. We can allow ourselves to be pulled backwards into the world of John the Baptist, preaching a baptism of repentance. We can allow ourselves to be drawn backwards into the story of the birth of a baby who changed the world.
But at the same time, we can allow ourselves to be pulled forward as we prepare for the celebration that is Christmas. We can allow ourselves to be pulled forward as we imagine and dream into being the sort of world that John and Jesus proclaimed. We can allow ourselves to be pulled forward as we prepare ourselves for the coming fullness of the kingdom of God.
The word “gospel” means “good news” and the opening words of Mark’s Gospel proclaim that the story that it tells is only “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The good news of Jesus Christ continues beyond the words printed in the Gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ continues right through to today and beyond.
I’m going to spend some time in the Advent wilderness in the next couple of weeks, sitting in this tension of the “now” and the “not yet.” Won’t you join me there? We lit the candle of peace this morning, and my prayer is that as we sit in this tension, we all might be filled with the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.
Let us pray:
God of the wilderness,
In this time of busy-ness,
help us to make space in our lives
to slow down,
to listen for your voice,
to wait and anticipate,
And into that quietness,
help us to look back
and remember all of the stories that came before;
and help us to look forward
and prepare ourselves for your coming kingdom.
We pray this by the power of the Holy Spirit,
through Jesus Christ, your Word made Flesh.
("My" Wilderness - a portage beside the Bloodvein River, Atikaki Provincial Park, MB)
(Photo Credit: Laura Marie Piotrowicz)