Something Old, Something New
Isaiah 65:17-25 and Mark 1:1-8
December 3, 2017
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
It is the first Sunday of Advent, and in this season, we expect to hear the story of the birth of Jesus. The gospels of Luke and Matthew both begin with the stories of Mary and Joseph and of Jesus being born as a baby. John begins his gospel with the Word becoming flesh in Jesus.
But not Mark. Mark begins with saying the good news of the gospel is found with John the Baptist, who cries out in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s not what we expected to hear this first Sunday of Advent.
Can you picture the Christmas card? A rugged man, standing in the desert, wearing a dirty camel’s hair vest, with honey dripping from his scraggy beard and a locust crushed between his crooked toothless smile. With a greeting that reads: Repent and be baptized! Turn from the ways of sin! Wait for the Savior to come! Certainly not a Hallmark card you would put on your mantle.
Not the way we might have expected to start this season that we call the most wonderful time of the year. But I think this is just the right way to begin Advent. To challenge our expectations for a perfect Christmas season, to look anew at this strange old story. To allow Something Old to speak Something New.
The absence of a "Once Upon a Time" beginning takes us by surprise as we find the good news outside of where we expect. In Mark, the good news is not found in a manger, with a precious infant, no crying he makes. The good news is not found with angels singing glorias or kings bringing gifts. Instead, the good news is found in unexpected places: in the wilderness…in the waiting… and in repentance.
The good news is found in the wilderness. John the Baptist was in the wilderness, not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside of her city walls, in the margins, in a dry and deserted place. And there in the wilderness is where John met the people with good news. That is: God doesn’t wait until we have our life all figured out, relationships healed, and all things made right. God doesn’t wait until we have our houses perfectly decorated, our families together and smiling, with chestnuts roasting on an open fire. God comes to us just as we are, wherever we are on the journey of faith, to whatever mixed-up, muddled-up place we are in. The promise is that, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to (know that God) loves us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. (Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life).
The good news is found in the waiting.
John the Baptist said, “One who is more powerful is coming after me.” He promised Jesus will come, baptize with the Holy Spirit, and make all things new and right. But, the people had to wait.
It is hard to wait. Especially when what we wait for doesn’t turn out to be what we hoped for.
--As a young girl, I was very much a tom-boy. I climbed trees, helped my Dad fix the car, wore my hair short and always had on a ball cap. And I hated dresses. Despite this, one Christmas when I was about 6 years old, my Grandma gave me a dress. I faked a smile, and mustered a polite, “Thank you.” But afterward, I cried to my mom. She reassured me that she would take care of it. As the next Christmas approached, Mom talked with Grandma and told her I did not like dresses and to please not buy me one. I waited in great expectation of a better gift from Grandma—anything but a dress. I opened the present slowly, with high hopes, but as I moved aside the tissue paper, my hopes were dashed: another dress! I smiled, whispered thank you, Grandma, then took it to my Mom, who tucked it behind the chair, and whispered, “don’t worry, I promise we will return it tomorrow and get something you like.” And we did. This went on for years…the waiting, getting my hopes up, and then the disappointment…another dreaded dress. But every year, there was a promise from Mom, a returned dress and a new gift I picked out. Over time, I learned to get through the disappointment by focusing on the promise of something to come.
Biblically, waiting is not just something we have to do until we get what we want.
Waiting is part of the process of becoming what God wants us to be.” (John Ortberg).
The good news is found in repentance.
John the Baptist preached repentance. The word Repent is from the Greek word metanoia, which means to turn around, to change one’s mind, heart, and way. When personified, Metanoia was depicted as a shadowy goddess, who accompanied Kairos, the god of Opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance for the “missed moment.”
We all know what missed moments feel like. They fill us with regret and shame and sorrow. We wish we could hit rewind and do it all again differently.
This week, I heard of people who turned potential missed moments into opportunities for sharing.
· My son Christian got a ride to school with 2 friends in the neighborhood. They decided to go through the Starbucks drive-through on the way. They ordered their drinks and when they got to the window to pay, they were told that the car in front of them had paid for their drinks. Not what they expected—to receive a gift from a stranger—and it turned their hearts to joy.
· Alice Nadin (get permission) went to the store to buy gloves to donate to the Men’s Shelter. As she was checking out, she shared with the clerk why she was buying gloves. The man behind her picked up a pair of gloves, paid for them, and gave them to Alice, saying, “Here, take these, too.” Not what she expected—to receive a gift from a stranger—and it turned her heart to faith in her fellowmen.
· My sister Tina heard that a friend’s father had died. She had not talked with her friend in awhile, but she did not want to regret missing the funeral. So, she took a day off work, drove to Pittsburgh, and went to the funeral to support her friend. Not what her friend expected—to see an old friend in a time of need—and it turned her heart to gratitude.
This is the season to turn missed moments into opportunities for sharing the good news in many different ways. To allow our minds and hearts to be turned around.
The good news is found in unexpected places.
John baptized people in the wilderness. Jesus called us to baptize people. It’s Something old—its been around for a long time—and I have done many baptisms. I know what to expect. I call the family up. The elder presents the baby for baptism. I ask questions of the family, the congregation, and the children. I then put some water on the baby’s head, say the words, and walk them around the church. Done. Last Sunday, this is what I expected to happen.
But, instead the unexpected happened.
I invited 3-year old Emily to help me pour the water into the font for her brother Jacob’s baptism. I expected her to help me pour then step back with her parents. But, instead, she put her hand in the font with mine, and with me, put some water on her brother’s head. She did it again and again. She walked the whole way around the church with me, keeping a close eye on her baby brother. She prayed with me. Then as I was giving him back to his parents, she said, “His head is still wet.”
This simple observation of a child spoke unexpected good news to me:
God’s promise of grace is still wet. It is still new everyday. It never dries out. It never gives up. It is found in the most unexpected places—even and especially in our wilderness and waiting. It turns our minds from despair to hope, our hearts from fear to love, our lives from taking to giving.
God's promise is that there is no place on earth God will not go or be for us.
Friends, this Advent, expect the unexpected—Something Old can become Something New.
May it be so. Amen.