Road Construction (12/07/2014)

Read Mark 1:1-8
One day a man on horseback came, racing into a small town on the frontier. And he yelled out, “Big Jake is coming! Big Jake is coming!” And so all the townspeople were terrified; they ran to their homes and bolted the doors. They closed up their windows, and children were sent to hide under their beds.
In the saloon, the bartender was still boarding up his windows, when suddenly, in walked the biggest man he had ever seen. The man had strips of bullets draped across his chest, and strapped to his legs were two of the biggest guns that the bartender had ever seen. And the man was dressed in black, and he looked incredibly mean.
That man stepped up to the bar and said: “Get me something to drink, and make it quick.” So the bartender obeyed, and in an instant handed him a glass. And the man downed that drink in one big gulp, and he got up to leave. So the bartender said: “Would you like another drink?” But the man yelled back: “No! I don’t have time. Haven’t you heard? Big Jake is coming.”
Many people thought that John the Baptist was the one who they had been waiting for. They thought he was the Savior that God had promised to send. John was very popular and many went out to the wilderness to listen to him preach. But time and time again, John told the people that he wasn’t the one. Instead, he said that he came to prepare the way for the Savior who would be arriving soon.
John preached a message that was quite simple and straightforward. He called on people to repent and to believe in the one who was coming. John was a pointer – he was pointing to the one who was coming, one greater and more powerful than he. John was saying, “Here’s the one God has promised to send us. Here’s the one to follow, here’s the one to look to for grace, for salvation, for guidance, for help. Don’t look to me for those things, look to the one who will soon arrive.
That is what repentance means, it means to turn our attention, our minds, our hearts, and our strength to following the one whose birth we celebrate this Christmas, our Lord Jesus.
But for many people, the call to repent falls on deaf ears.
It’s kind of like how people tune out the emergency instructions that the flight attendants give on airplanes. Most people on board are usually looking out the window or reading a magazine or maybe even falling asleep. I’m looking at the Sky Mall Catolog, dreaming about things I want to buy, and my wife elbows me and says, “pay attention!” The problem is, that if there should happen to be an emergency on board, there isn’t time to go back and to have the flight attendant repeat what she has already said. It’ll be too late.
The Bible teaches us, beginning in the book of Genesis, that we are created by God, to walk in fellowship with God and in obedience to God. And God has sent us his Son Jesus, to show us his love for us and his will for our lives. And so John is saying that this one, this Jesus, is the one we are to listen to and to follow. And that’s what John means when he says, “repent.”
That call to repent is simply the invitation to change the directions of our lives.
Repentance literally means to “turn around” or “change directions.” We’ve all seen signs when traveling that say “Road Construction Ahead.” Sometimes it means there’s going to be some twists and turns in the road, or a lane will be closed, or there may even be a detour ahead. One time, when I saw road construction on Highway 14 heading toward Rochester, I had to take a detour and drive on a completely different road, in what seemed like the exact opposite direction I wanted to go. Road construction and road detours are a picture of repentance.
God may call us to make some small re-directions in our lives to get us on the right path.
Or, God may call us to change the entire direction of our lives. What repentance does mean is to admit to God our mistakes, that we have gotten onto the wrong road in life, and to seek God’s help to get on his path for our life.
There’s a story of a wise, old man teaching his grandson about life. He says to the boy, “A fight is going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy and self-pity, a spirit of meanness, greed, and arrogance.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace and love, kindness, humility, and faithfulness. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I know for me, there are times I try to feed both of them. Sure, I try to do some good things with my life. But at the same time, I like keeping that evil wolf around as well. But John the Baptist is telling us that we can’t keep both of them.
In order to understand this battle that rages within us, and to understand the source of our strength, we must put aside this false notion of an angry, hateful God who wants to punish us. That’s not what we’re saying. What we are saying is that God already loves us so much that he sent his Son, Jesus to be born and to live among us and to teach us the way that God wants us to live. Remember John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”
So repenting is not something we have to do to placate God’s anger. Instead, repenting, changing our ways, is something we get to do and are glad to do, because God loves us and is helping us to get on the right path in life.
And from what we read here in the Gospel of Mark, it seems that when the people heard John’s message, they did repent.
They came to him at the Jordan River, they confessed their sins, and they were baptized as a sign of their new way of life. This wasn’t baptism like we have in the church, although the symbolism is similar. For the 1st century Jewish believer, baptism was seen as a kind of cleansing bath, as a sign that they were “washing away” their old life of sin, their old life of unfaithfulness to God, past behaviors of which they were ashamed. And so, they put their whole body in the water, symbolizing that the old life had been completely washed away, and they came out of that water ready to live a life of obedience to God.
Our baptisms are not the same as John’s Baptism. But what we can do is to remember what our baptism means. Our baptism means that God washes away our sins. We are forgiven. And our baptism means that God makes a commitment to us, to help us get our life on a new path, on God’s path, a path of following his will for our lives as revealed to us in Jesus his Son.
Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer of the church, said this about baptism: “When you wash your face remember your baptism.” I encourage you to write that on a piece of paper and tape it to your bathroom mirror: “When you wash your face remember your baptism.”
We are called to change our ways, to repent, and our baptism is our assurance that we are not left to do this alone, by our own strength. John says that although he baptizes with water, there is one more powerful coming, our Lord Jesus, he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Here, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, will be the power of our Lord to transform us, to change us, to make us new. We are simply called to open our hearts and minds, and clear the way for our Lord to enter into our lives. As that well known Christmas carol puts it, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” (O Little Town of Bethlehem)
So, there we have it. As we celebrate this Christmas season, remember this call of John to repent. This call to repent says that our lives are not created to be our own. We are created to live in Christ and to walk in obedience to his ways. The crowds who heard John got ready to follow Jesus, and we are called to do the same.


About pastorjohnwaseca

ELCA Lutheran Pastor
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