My sermon from Sunday.
Advent 2B—Mark 1:1-8 and Malachi 3
It was a classic the moment it hit the television airwaves. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” Grainy black and white video footage of famous people filled the TV screen, as the voiceover continued. Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Henson, Pablo Picaso and others. “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
“Think different” read the tagline at the end of the ad for Apple. Think different.
The equivalent in the Greek is metanoia, a word we heard translated this morning. Metanoia literally means, “to think differently after” or “to change one’s mind.” We heard it this morning in the English as the word “repentance.” It was John the Baptist’s message. He was sent as the messenger to prepare the way of the Lord, and he did so by saying “think different,” “repent,” “turn around.”
Mark the gospeler tells us that John was fulfilling the prophet Isaiah as the messenger sent to prepare the way. If you’re good at sleuthing, you may have noticed that the reading from Isaiah we heard this morning that Mark is quoting doesn’t actually have the first line in it. Mark begins his quotation, which he attributes, to Isaiah with a line from the prophet Malachi, the line which reads, “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way.” Mark couldn’t Google the lines like we can today, and available scrolls to double check his work were few and far between, and most likely unavailable to him. But this isn’t really a big deal in the scheme of things. Mark depended almost entirely on his memory for these lines. And this whole thing is fascinating to me, as one who likes to notice the details.
The line from Malachi comes from chapter 3 of that book: “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,” the prophet declares. The entire prophecy is about how God’s people who were living in Israel after the time of the Babylonian exile had become unfaithful. Malachi, the name literally means “My messenger, is coming to prepare the way. So he begins calling out the ways in which the people have missed the mark.
Here are some of the things he mentions about them: they were breaking the covenant by bringing flawed animals to be sacrificed, animals they wouldn’t offer to anyone else. Animals they couldn’t sell or use to pay their taxes. So they brought these cast off animals to fulfill their sacrifice rather than bringing animals that were unblemished as God had requested.
They were being unfaithful in their marriages, unfaithful to the spouses of their youth and getting divorces in order to marry others.
They participated in injustice. They defrauded laborers of wages, oppressed the widows and orphans, deprived justice for the aliens who lived among them. They withheld the tithe from God, offering a smaller portion than what God had asked of them. And they spoke arrogantly against God, asking why they should even bother serving God.
So when Mark mentions this line in relation to the message proclaimed by John the Baptist, I suspect he was thinking about these and other ways that we sin, or fall away from God.
Talking about sin is a sure fire way to limit your success as a preacher. If I was hoping to be a famous tv preacher, I’d need to be saying things like, “You are just fine the way you are! If you follow after God you will become wealthy and experience God’s tremendous blessings in your life. There is no reason to really change anything, other than your negative thinking to more positive thinking. And when you do, God will make you healthy, wealthy and wise,” which, of course, isn’t something God said but something Ben Franklin said in Poor Richard’s Almanac.
John the Baptist was taking his side along both Malachi and Isaiah in preparing the way by preaching a message of repentance. He proclaimed why sin pollutes us and is not the way of God. Sin is anything that separates us from God.
Minister and author Frederick Buechner describes it in this way, “The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery.” He continues, “Other people and (if you happen to believe in him) God or (if you happen not to) the World, Society, Nature—whatever you call the greater whole of which you’re part—sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self.”
Where are the gaps within your self? As a priest once put it, the issue is often that we are “out-of-true,” like a tire that won’t turn properly. Are you off-centered, unable to be in balance, feeling like the life you are living is not the one God has called you to? Our sin widens the gap between us and God, and us and our neighbor, and between the person we are now and the person Christ calls us to be. When we sin, we become less and less the one God created us to be and more and more someone wanting to seek our own will over God’s will for us.
I had a good friend who went through a lot of change in his life a couple of years ago. He faced some demons from his past. He was honest about his drinking problem. He fessed up to the ways he had hurt others. He took on healthier habits. He made strides in areas of his life that had long been neglected. After a good 10 months in to this process he grabbed a coffee with me. “If I had known what a difference this would have made in my life, I would have done this so much sooner,” he said to me at that Starbuck’s. He uttered those words because he never saw himself as a person in need of change. People around him would have said the same thing. But deep down he felt God wanting him to go in a different direction. So he followed that inner voice of God and sought reconciliation. It made all the difference.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” We seem to like our crooked paths, thank you very much. We seem to not want to prepare the way of the Lord.
We do, however, want to prepare for Christmas. We put up the decorations and the tree and the crèche and the wreaths so that we can get in the holiday spirit. We play the music and get wrapped up in the busyness of this time of year. We get it all done to get ready for Christmas in that way, but the internal work we leave for another time. Or another year. Possibly another decade. Just not now.
But if we’re truly going to be ready for Christmas, if we are going to do the work of Advent, then we need to hear John the Baptizer’s message. Repent. Turnaround. Make those paths straight. If you want to hear the good news about Jesus, if you want to get ready for all that he will bring, then you need to get ready, you need to wake up, you need to turn around.
What will help you change your mind? What will make you want to turn around? What will make you recognize the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ? It begins with metanoia. It begins with thinking differently.
Because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Are you crazy enough to believe that the world can be changed? Are you crazy enough to believe that your world can be changed? Imagine the way life could be. Imagine what this Christmas would be like if you truly heard the Baptist’s call and repented for the places where you need to find forgiveness. Turn around. Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.