December 7, 2014 Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13 Mark 1: 1-8
Rev. Catherine Purves
Imagine, if you can, an airport runway that isn’t straight. Consider the difficulties that would pose for airplanes trying to take off or land. Even with dead straight runways it is hard for pilots to maneuver mammoth planes into position for takeoff. Once airborne it’s a little easier to steer and aim, but it’s still a tricky business. I’ve heard that modern airplanes can virtually fly themselves, but if something breaks and the complicated electronics fail to direct and control the plane, then the pilot is in real trouble, and he (or she) will certainly be hoping and praying for a flat, straight, smooth place to land.
It seems as if John the Baptist was trying to bring the whole country of Israel in for a landing when their hydraulics were shot. Or maybe you could say that he was trying to take off when the mechanism that was supposed to steer the nation was broken. In either case, that runway had better be straight, cleared of any obstacles, and brightly lit. A straight path is what Israel needed because God was about to do a new thing, something so radically new and unimaginable that if they weren’t prepared and if they couldn’t see and measure their own trajectory relative to what God was doing, they would undoubtedly overshoot the runway and probably crash and burn.
Straight paths, clear runways, highways in the desert – long before the age of aviation, John the Baptist knew that this is what the people needed. Now, if he was just trying to steer a handful of righteous folks in the right direction that would be one thing. Most religious leaders worth their salt can shepherd their own crew of faithful disciples and keep them, more or less, on the straight and narrow. But John’s task was far larger than that. In fact, throughout the Bible the scope of what God was up to was far more ambitious than the saving of individual souls. It was the entire nation that had to be redeemed. It was the whole of creation that had to be re-fashioned and restored.
John did have his own crew of faithful disciples, but his ministry was for the people of Israel as a whole. That was the broken-down airship that he was trying to put on a straight runway. Mark tells us 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.”
Perhaps I started thinking about airplanes because of those few verses from Psalm 85 that we just read. The Psalm begins with a proclamation of God’s forgiveness – not just the individual forgiveness of particular sins of select, repentant persons, but the forgiveness of the whole land, the entire people of God. Then the psalmist writes, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” Getting the ground lined up with the sky is what you have to do to land a plane. Israel was one big jumbo jet and did it ever need a straight runway, because the whole nation was coming in for a landing at a new, unknown airport. Faithfulness and righteousness had to come together, God and the nation had to be reconciled, or they could anticipate a catastrophic crash landing.
Unlike the other Gospel writers, Mark doesn’t elaborate on John the Baptist’s fire and brimstone style of preaching. He simply says that John “appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark describes John’s odd appearance and his even more peculiar diet in order to place him in the role of a prophet. But then he quickly moves on to what John has to say about Jesus. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”
John was trying to steer that unwieldy airship of Israel toward their ultimate destination, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, faithfulness and righteousness would come together, the sky and the land would meet. But the people, the nation, had to prepare for that great coming together of God and man; they had to be ready. They needed to repent corporately. God’s forgiveness had already been proclaimed, and, through Jesus Christ, God was about to save them. But they needed to align themselves with that straight runway that would, by the grace of God, bring them to Jesus and bring them home.
This Advent I have obviously been struck by the corporate nature of all of this. You, in all of your wonderful particularity, are profoundly important to God. Jesus did come to save you as an individual, to reconcile you with God, and to bless you with the hope of your faith. But that is not the whole of what we believe or what we are called to proclaim as followers of Christ. Just as John the Baptist called upon the whole people of Israel to repent, so too we need to be concerned about the redemption of our whole nation.
So we see that Advent is not just a time of preparation for individual Christians. John the Baptist lived in the Advent days before Jesus appeared proclaiming the Kingdom of God. For John, the transformation of the nation was his goal, the preparation of the whole people, the straightening of Israel’s corporate path. He didn’t stop when he had gathered an inner circle of disciples, when he had mapped out a runway for them and guided them on their individual faith journeys. He needed to convert the nation. And perhaps that should be our goal as well during this season of Advent.
This is a time of profound unrest in our country. Perhaps like Israel we have been unduly proud of our system of laws and law enforcement. Like Israel we may have become blind to the faults in that system which threaten the justice which it was meant to protect. The seeds of mistrust and of racism and of violence have been sown and now we are reaping an unwanted harvest. As it was in the days of John the Baptist, the call to repentance is like “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” We need to hear that call. It is not enough for us to be able to say, “But I am not violent, and I try to treat all people the same regardless of race.” It is not enough for us to be able to say, “I don’t live in Ferguson or New York or Cleveland.” The events of recent months reveal that something is profoundly crooked about the path that our nation is on. This is not a runway; it is more like a maze. Something is broken, and it will not be easily fixed. The airship of America is in trouble. How can we land the plane?
When we realize this and accept that we are part of the problem because we are part of the nation, we can see that collectively we are not prepared for the Advent of Jesus Christ. How can we not be overwhelmed by the challenge of turning an entire nation so that “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky”? We can affirm with the psalmist, “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” But even if we know the power of God’s forgiveness, it still seems like altering the course of the whole nation and getting it on a straight path through repentance and change is too much for us to envision, let alone accomplish.
That is why we must listen again to that “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” John the Baptist. He could and did call his people, his nation, to repentance. He could baptize with water as a sign of God’s forgiveness. But, he knew and proclaimed that, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Like the transformation of our individual lives, the transformation of the nation is something that we must long for, and pray for, and work for. The paths of justice and righteousness must be straightened out. The runway must be cleared. We can’t do it alone, but we can call upon Jesus Christ to do it, and through the baptism of the Holy Spirit we can be empowered to work for it ourselves with courage and commitment. Like John the Baptist, we can and must speak to the nation, crying out for justice and righteousness and faithfulness. That is what it means to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and to “make his paths straight.”
Mark calls this “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark does not write about Bethlehem or mangers or angels or shepherds or wise men or any of the other things we may associate with Advent and Christmas. That is not the beginning for Mark. The beginning involves preparing the way for the Lord and making his paths straight. The beginning was a call for national repentance and for change. For the sake of our Savior who is coming and for the sake of the nation, let us join John the Baptist in this important work.