Turn Up the Lights: A Constant Struggle

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Mark 1:1-8

Last week we began the season of Advent with a wake-up call.

“Keep awake,” said Jesus.

Keep your eyes open and your spirit alert, because even in times of trouble and woe there is grace for the journey and the promise of a Love that will not let us go.

Recalling Israel’s great prophetic hope and the fulfillment of that promise in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Advent hits us with a bright and disorienting light and the announcement that it’s time to get up.

Today, as our eyes adjust to this light and we move deeper into Advent, we’re better able to get our bearings and to accurately assess where we stand.

Revisiting last week’s image, if the First Sunday of Advent is our wake-up call, then on the Second Sunday of Advent, our eyes are open, our feet have hit the floor, and it’s time to take a look in the mirror.

It’s the ministry of John the Baptist that helps us to accomplish this task.

Mark’s Gospel begins with a lightning strike.

Chapter 1, verse 1, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Announcing that he plans to tell us a story about Jesus—the Son of God—a story that is, in fact, good news for those who receive it, Mark immediately steers our attention to the prophets of old, specifically Isaiah, who spoke of God’s forerunner, God’s messenger, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”

Mark immediately identifies John as the one about whom Isaiah spoke.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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.

Mark then paints a picture of a rather wild-eyed preacher.

John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

Later, Mark says more about John, describing him as a fearless truth-teller, one who would challenge society’s richest and most powerful members, even at the cost of his own freedom, even at the cost of his own life.

John was bold and brash, this is clear, but he wasn’t self-serving. He was telling the truth. Something incredible was taking place—a savior walked among the people.

John preached a message of forgiveness and repentance because Heaven’s Merciful God was making possible a new beginning for the people. John told the crowds that they were living in an era of amazing grace, a grace that had the power to give anyone who accepted it a second chance and a fresh start.

John was a wilderness man with a fiery tongue, but that’s not why we revere him.

We remember and honor John the Baptizer because the one about whom he preached still walks in our midst, bringing the change, and forgiveness, and new life that John envisioned so long ago.

John matters to us because his message is as urgent and contemporary as ever.

Repent and be forgiven because Jesus comes to set us free from the spirits of our age.

All that is crooked, all that is uneven—God’s Holy Spirit would make a straight and level way forward.

From the Spirit of Materialism that leaves us unsatisfied, to the Spirit of Fear that leaves us uneasy, to the Spirit of Self-Righteousness that tempts us to believe that we can leave the heavy lifting of change and transformation to someone else, someone who really needs it, we stand in need of deliverance. We need God’s Spirit to chase away these shadows and bring light and renewal to us.

An ancient prophet named Haggai offers one of my favorite descriptions of the spiritual futility that follows in the wake of all things that strive to take God’s rightful place in our hears.

To a community that was working hard at going nowhere, Haggai writes,

Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

There’s something so evocative in these ancient words, and a timeless truth as well.

While it’s true that there are times when we can see clearly the difference between right and wrong, and choose what is wrong anyway, I think it’s far more common to find ourselves in a situation that just seems so far removed from the promises of God without really understanding how we got there.

No one heads out on a hike planning to get lost, do they? Rather, through a series of quick decisions, poor decisions, even indecision, the wanderer comes to the realization that they don’t know the way home.

Or in Haggai’s words, they discover that they’re poor because they’ve been putting their earned wages in a bag with holes.

It’s as imperative for people in this position to experience a visitation of grace as it is for the one whose missteps are on clear display.

Repent and be forgiven because Jesus comes to set us free from the spirits of our age.

Anne Lamott expresses this idea in a tweet-sized thought.

Repentance just means to change direction, or to change course.

It should not be accompanied by a wagging finger, because it’s a blessing. 9 May 2014

She’s right.

Repentance is an act of hope in an era of shame.

It’s the blessing of realizing that the way things are is not the way things have to stay.

It’s the blessing of God-stitched clothes when sin convinced us that fig leaves would do.

It’s the blessing of being fully known and deeply loved, the grace of being comfortable and at peace in one’s own skin.

Repent and be forgiven because Jesus comes to set us free from the spirits of our age.

This is the mirror John holds up for us, inviting us to be humble so that we might be honest about the changes that need to take place within and among us.

Barbara Brown Taylor expands on this idea when she writes,

The recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. There is no help for those who admit no need of help. There is no repair for those who insist that nothing is broken, and there is no hope of transformation for a world whose inhabitants accept that it is sadly but irreversibly wrecked. (Speaking of Sin, p. 59)

This is the invitation to break free from the icy grip of lesser spirits so that we might know God’s warm embrace.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, our eyes are open, our feet have hit the floor, and it’s time to take a look in the mirror.

It’s a day that brings to mind a famous quote from George Orwell, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

To experience John’s ministry, to receive “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” takes a constant struggle, too.

It’s the struggle to live honestly and to be formed and reformed by love.

It’s the struggle to admit that something is wrong when we know that something is wrong, to say that something is broken when we know that it needs to be fixed, even when the broken something is our heart, especially when the broken something is our heart.

Saint Mark writes,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’

As they have been, may the promises of ancient prophets be
renewed among us this day.

May an honest look in the mirror inspire us to live honestly and lovingly before God and our neighbors.

And may we always give thanks to God for this Good News.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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