Hear the Good News from Mark 1:1-8
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.’ ”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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
A nice married couple, we’ll call Dwayne and David (wink wink) were sitting down to their usual morning cup of coffee, listening to the weather report coming over the radio. "There will be 2 to 4 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared," the weather report said. "You must park your cars on the odd numbered side of the streets." Dwayne says "Jeez, okay," and gets up from his warm coffee, bundles up and moves the car. The next day they're sitting down with their morning cups of coffee and the weather forecast declares "There will be 4 to 6 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared. Now you must park your cars on the even numbered side of the streets. Again, Dwayne says "Jeez, okay," and gets up from his coffee. Two days later, again they're sitting down with their cups of coffee and the weather forecast says, "There will be 6 to 9 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared. You must park your cars on the -" Just then the power goes out and Dwayne doesn't get the rest of the instructions. He turns to David and says "Jeez, what am I going to do now?" David replies "Aw, Dwayne, why don't you just leave the car in the garage today?" (lots of laughter ensues!)
So, as you can guess, our worship theme this morning is all about Snow. Now unless you are under the age of 16, or don’t have your driver’s license, Snow can be hazardous to your health this time of year. I have to admit that snow isn’t much of an issue here in Nashville…or at least not anymore. Most of you know that I moved here from Ohio where snow is a common occurrence. And the worst snow storm of them all was the Blizzard of 1978. This was a snowstorm of the century and we got over 40 inches of snow in the last week of January that year. It was so bad that people abandoned their cars on the highways. It was miserable. But the worst part was, I had to deliver newspapers the day after! That paper! Now you can imagine that dealing with that kind of weather might have ruined the joy of winter for me. But the truth is, there are things you can do in the snow that can’t be replicated in warm of mild weather climates. Like…snowball fights!
But I really hope I won’t have to deal with it much on my drives back. Because I really don’t like the snow. Oh, yeah, it’s all nice and fluffy looking as it first begins to fall to the ground. It does bring some warm images of Christmases past to mind…and it wouldn’t really be much of a holiday season without at least one or two inches of the stuff lying around. But if you are really honest with yourself, doesn’t all the frozen wet stuff just bother you after the first couple days following the first snowfall… especially when it begins to turn black with soot and dirt from the passing cars. Let’s face it; does snow really have a purpose at all?
Well, I went to the internet and posed that exact question. What came up from my search was a bit astonishing! Scientifically, here were the answers: Snow is a type of precipitation in the form of crystalline water ice, consisting of a multitude of snowflakes that fall from clouds. We know that precipitation is a major component of the hydrologic cycle, and is responsible for depositing most of the fresh water on the planet. Apart from the obvious role of precipitation in our ecosystem, snow serves as an insulating blanket, lessening to some extent the extremes of temperature fluctuation to which the soil is subjected. But it also brings about a rapid cooling of the overlying atmosphere, which gives rise to polar air masses that drive the ocean currents like a global conveyor belt. In short, snow plays a dominant part in the climate of many of the Earth’s regions.
Besides the ecological benefits of snow, we can understand it to also have spiritual effects. It can be viewed as one of God's instruments for assisting us in the maintenance of our spiritual growth. In dreams, liquid water represents our conscious life experiences – whereas snow is made of frozen water particles. It symbolizes stagnancy, or unchanging life experiences. When there is no change in life, the same experiences are repeated. Have you ever had the same experience over and over, and just couldn’t understand why the same scenario seemed to be constantly played out? It might be the same kind of relationship within your family, or with your supervisor at a job. It could be with your kids’ teachers at school, or with a waiter at a restaurant. Whatever the situation, having the same kind of life experience is not just a coincidence, but is an opportunity for reflection and spiritual growth.
Let’s unpack that a little bit more. For instance, in our text today we have a really interesting character that opens Mark’s gospel. John the Baptist is preparing people for Christ’s coming by calling them to repentance and baptism. He was warning them about what, and who was to come. And what was coming was no picnic for the Jews under Roman occupation. He was a preacher who had no qualms telling people the truth. He showed up wearing clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist and chomping grasshoppers dipped in wild honey. Everybody knew what that meant. In the popular Judaism of Jesus' day, there was this expectation that on the day God started to make things right for the poor and dispossessed - Elijah would reappear. Of all the prophets of Israel, no champion of the oppressed had been more popular than Elijah, a man, they said, who ate false prophets and evil kings for dinner. It would have been something like Abe Lincoln showing up during the march on Selma, Alabama in the 1960s; or Gandhi walking in front of tanks in Beijing, China during the massacres on Tiananmen Square in 1989; or Martin Luther King addressing congress about the rights of immigrants, same-sex couples, and unemployed Americans suffering in this decade of economic imbalances. John the Baptist wasn't just a popular prophet. He represented the very spirit of Israel at its most just and courageous.
"Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near" he warned them, reminding his listeners of that time in the future when everything that stood in opposition to goodness and justice would be swept away once and for all. He was announcing that the reign of God was drawing near and that it would be "game over" for all who worshipped loveless power. "Repent," John pounded from his wilderness pulpit. But he didn't mean simply feeling sorry for cheating on your income taxes, but demanded a reorientation of your entire life. He called everyone to be baptized into a new orientation of life experience, to defrost the old way of thinking and thaw out frozen attitudes of self-absorption and indulgence.
It seems that the holiday season can bring out the worst in some people. On the day after Thanksgiving this past year, Black Friday they call it, the lines out front of retail stores began forming the night before. On TV we saw stampedes recorded on security cameras in Wal*Marts across the nation as people rushed to buy their $198 42 inch LCD televisions. A woman in Los Angeles even pepper-sprayed a crowd of folks that was in her way, injuring over 30 other shoppers. Our incessant need for more and blinding greed keeps our hearts and minds “snowed in” from responding to our true mission as God’s children. That mission is to be a people of faith that consider the needs of others before ourselves. And like John the Baptist we are not simply preaching "self-help,” but are reorienting people to the necessity of change in response to the reality of a new set of circumstances. A new world is breaking in, one which would not tolerate injustice, oppression, deceit, greed and fear. It is time to re-define one's life, to re-align one's ethical stance in keeping with such a new order. "The kingdom of heaven is drawing near."
And that is why John speaks so sternly, so sarcastically to the religious conservatives and liberals who showed up to hear him preach; for that is who the Pharisees and Sadducees represented. It wasn't enough to trust the old patterns of thinking, the frozen-in-stone rules, the predictable rituals - no matter how honored or revered. It didn't matter whether you were Democrat or Republican, fundamentalist or liberal, pedigreed or newcomer. It was deeds that counted not talk; action not reputation. And why was it so important for John that people get their act together in a hurry? Well, here, of course, was the main point of his message. Because John believed that what he was doing was just a preview of coming attractions.
The Bible is very clear about this. It says that a day will come when God will bring an end to things as we have known it, which means an end to climbing over each other for a bigger piece of the cake, an end to exercising power over others simply because you can, an end to the importance of being famous, an end to the obscenity of fabulous wealth living alongside abject poverty - an end to all of that. And the one who will end it will be Christ, of all people. The one who is coming to judge us most fully is the one who loves us the most fully. He will burn away all this chaff that makes us less than human and the world far less human than it is - precisely because he loves us. That is what we are getting ready for - those of us who call ourselves Christ's people and who long for the birth of such a love!
And where will this Christ be born? You guessed it…in the stable of our hearts. Christ comes to us bathed in a new consciousness. He melts the frozen thoughts of our conditioned life experiences with the warm light of awareness. Snow is the water of our baptism, thawed out from frozen attitudes and frigid fears of change. It may seem like a hazard at first, but it can renew our understanding of communion with each other – and that’s what the Christ mass is all about, right? Amen!
In the Russian Orthodox Church, new believers are baptized outside in the frozen lakes. They say it’s quite a transforming experience. But I think it doesn’t take full emersion, or dunking, or even a sprinkling to remember our baptism. For our spiritual reflection I want us to remember what it means to be baptized. But instead of me saying, I want you to read it out loud so that we all may celebrate the meaning of our new birth and the melting of our old selves.
(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “A Preview of Coming Attractions” for December 4, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)
We give you thanks, generous God and Creator of all, for by the gift of water you nourish and sustain all living things.
We give you thanks for the waters of creation’s birth. Over them the Spirit brooded, bringing forth life in all its fullness.
We bless you for the waters of Mary’s womb. In them Jesus was nurtured; out of them he was born as your good news.
We bless you for the waters of the Sea of Galilee. On them Jesus walked toward his disciples and said, “Do not be afraid.”
We give you thanks for the gift of baptism. In this water these children, women and men have become one with Jesus Christ and incorporated into Christ’s body the church; through this water they have been made temples of your Spirit.
Pour out your Holy Spirit that through these baptismal waters these children, women and men have been empowered to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and set at liberty those who are oppressed.
To Christ, to you, and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory now and forever.