Mark 1:1-8 (Advent 2B)
St. John, Galveston 12/10/23
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

From the Gospel of St. Mark, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

While the much beloved hymn, “Silent Night,” will soon leave us basking in the glow of a candlelight serenity, reflecting on the birth of our Savior, the days before will likely be filled with many distractions that seek to take our focus off of Christ and the true meaning of the season. The seasons of Advent and Christmas bring with them all sorts of demands on our time. There are office parties to attend, family gatherings to go to, not to mention, decorations to put up, gifts to be bought and wrapped and meals to be planned and prepared.      

Fortunately, the two sacred days of the retail shopping season, namely Black Friday and Cyber Monday, have already come and gone. On Black Friday shoppers made their annual pilgrimage to the altar of their favorite retail stores at the most ungodly hours of the day. One has to wonder why Sunday morning is considered by many a time to sleep in, even though God’s Incarnate Son comes to visit us in Word and Sacrament, while the wee hours of Thursday night and Black Friday are embraced with anxious anticipation and even rabid excitement.  

Between the two sacred retail days, Advent began without a great deal of fanfare. It is the respite, if you will, for the weary, a time to reflect on the coming of Christ and to repent of our tendency to make this most holy season about “things,” rather than about Christ. Now, please don’t get me wrong, there isn’t anything particularly sinister or evil about purchasing gifts for Christmas, whether on Black Friday, Cyber Monday or any other day of the year for that matter. Nor is there anything evil about taking advantage of good deals.

What is sinister, in a subtle way, is that Black Friday and Cyber Monday appeal to the consumer driven mindset of our culture in such a way that they become the sacred days of the season, creating an enthusiasm and a devotion that is seldom seen within the hallowed walls of the Church. The question is, now that those “sacred days” have passed, what does the deal minded consumer have to look forward to?          

“There is a parable of life in the story of a farmer whose dog followed him to town one day. As he hitched his horse and buggy to a post in front of the country store, the storekeeper, seeing the panting dog, chided the farmer for making the dog run all the way while he rode in his buggy. The farmer responded, “That dog is not tired from following me to town. What tired him was all of his foolish zigzagging. There was not an open gate, a hole in the fence, or a tree stump that he didn’t explore. He is tired from all his zigzagging.”

When we give in to our culture’s pre-Christmas demands, we wear ourselves out, and, at the same time, we cloud our sense of direction, where we’re going, if you will. We simply chase everything that appears. And so, the famous poet, Robert Bums, confessed late in life, “The misfortune of my life was want of aim.”

King Solomon, whose riches and possessions were legendary, reminds us of the futility of trying to find fulfillment in things. “Whatever my eyes desired (he wrote) I did not keep from them.  I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.  Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Many years after Solomon wrote those words, the church Father, St. Augustine, identified very pointedly and eloquently why our hearts are often empty, always seeking, always striving for meaning and purpose. “Our hearts (he said) are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.”
On another day, at another time, people made their way to the Jordan River to hear what the prophet was saying. John was a peculiar man, clothed as he was in camel’s hair, eating wild honey and locusts. His appearance alone was intriguing to people. As it turns out, the enthusiasm of Black Friday and Cyber Monday couldn’t hold a candle, in terms of interest, to John’s day in the wilderness of Judea. In fact, we are told that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him and were confessing their sins.”  

I don’t mean, in the least, to diminish the Gospel and Jesus’ sacrifice, but, let’s be honest about what went on that day. There in the Judean countryside, John offered wanting hearts the deal of a lifetime! God was coming into the world bringing with Him forgiveness and life and salvation! He was doing a new thing, taking on human flesh that He might bear in His body the sins of the whole world! And the most amazing thing is, He was giving the blessings of His sacrifice, He was bringing the cross that His Son would soon die on, to bear in the lives of the most unworthy sinners through the most unlikely means.  

When John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, baptism wasn’t new to the people of Judea. To baptize simply means to wash! The Jews had used baptism in their religious rites for many, many years.  In fact, it was their custom to wash, that is, to baptize the various utensils that would be used in their religious observances and ceremonies. It is because of the cleansing nature of washing, of baptizing, that John was so astonished when Jesus came to be baptized by him. He said to Jesus, “You come to be baptized by me. I need to be baptized by You!”

The point is--the Jews understood the ceremonial nature of the rite of baptism. John though came preaching a different baptism. His was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Once again God was doing a new thing! Later, St. Paul would tell us exactly what that new thing is that God would be doing through baptism. He wrote, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Remember, we are Lutherans! When Scripture speaks of the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” we know that it is speaking of baptism.  
In your baptism, my friends, God gave you the deal of a lifetime! He took from you what is yours, namely your sin, and He gave you what is His, His holiness and righteousness, even the favor of the Father. All that Jesus did for you in dying and rising from the dead was brought to bear in your life through that simple, unassuming cleansing of days gone by. Consequently the seasons of Advent and Christmas actually mean something to you. In fact, they, along with Good Friday and Easter mean everything to you. These, after-all, are the true sacred days of our lives. They define your life, as well as your purpose and meaning in life. St. Augustine was right! “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.”  And so, we come here, throughout Advent and Christmas, indeed, throughout the entire year, that God would fill our hearts with Himself, that we would finally find our rest in Him and in the gifts that He so graciously bestows on us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +