Second Sunday of Advent

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Mark 1:1-8

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 

The Christmas Angel

To find the Christmas angel in the gospel according to Mark, we have to look hard. There is no angelic appearance of Gabriel to Mary, as there is in Luke. There is no angel appearing in a dream to Joseph as there is in Matthew. In Mark, Mary the mother of Jesus is named only in passing and Joseph is nowhere to be found.

The Christmas angel comes in the quotation from Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;”

The angel is almost impossible to find until we remember that the word “my messenger” is the English translation of the Greek word, angelon. There it is, not Gabriel, not Clarence, but John the Baptizer in the part of the Christmas angel, announcing the advent of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, the Son of David, Messiah, God in human flesh. Mattia-Preti-St-John-the-Baptist-Preaching-600x360

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Eddie Murphy steps out on the set with a strange smile plastered on his face. You know immediately he’s doing an impression of someone, but it takes just a second to realize who it is. It’s when he puts on the cardigan sweater and the tennis shoes that you know, even if you don’t have the sound turned up, that he’s singing “It’s a beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and channeling Fred Rogers.

John the Baptizer, when he slips on the camel hair and leather belt and crunches in his teeth those delicious locusts dipped in wild honey, we know what kind of angel, what kind of messenger John is channeling. Even if we don’t have the sound turned up, we can hear the tune of that piece from Handel’s Messiah,

“All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way . . .”

Ah, a prophet like Isaiah or Elijah.

And, sure enough, John comes preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This is not the Christmas angel of our culture, not at all; but then, the church, at its best, does not follow the world, it follows Christ. Imagine if we sent out Advent cards instead of Christmas cards. Perhaps the front of the card could feature the prophet in the wilderness dressed like Elijah, with a cartoon balloon from his mouth saying, in huge capital letters, “REPENT!”

What would the inside say? Perhaps, “Wishing you a season of shocking self-awareness and humble contrition.” Imagine receiving such a card from a loved one, perhaps with a list of suggestions of sins you in particular might want to consider putting on your repentance list.

Well, thanks a lot, Mark the Gospel writer. I can already feel that Christmas spirit.

It may sound kind of ridiculous, given how far removed such a thing is from the world in which we live, and yet, that is exactly where the gospel leads us on the path to Christmas. We cannot realize the depth of God’s gift in Jesus Christ until we realize the depth of our need. It’s a paradox, this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

On the one hand, traveling that path from the starting point of blaming others into that dark and frightening forest of seeing our own sin as part of every problem we care about can overwhelm us. It can lead to pain and heartache. It’s not exactly the kind of Christmas preparation the secular world presents as a pathway to comfort and joy.

And yet, the comfort and joy God has prepared for us waits at the end of that very path.

In the movie Blood Diamond, Solomon Vandy, a fisherman from Sierra Leone, is taken prisoner by the rebels and forced to work in a river panning for diamonds that will be used to finance the civil war. His eleven year old son is kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed, forced to participate in such atrocities they can hardly be described. His wife and daughters become refugees, barely escaping the violence of the civil war.
When a very dodgy character, a diamond dealer and gun runner, asks a journalist named Maddy to take Solomon with her and reunite him with his family, she says, “All this suffering, millions of people dying, and you want me to help one guy? Why should I do that?”
And then, you can see it on her face. She hears what she has said. In the next scene, we see her next to Solomon in a helicopter on the way to a refugee camp where he will begin to put his family back together.
What difference can I make? Why bother to help one child with an angel from a tree, why bother to give a few dollars toward the problem of sexual slavery when the problems of human suffering are so huge? Surely we can do nothing more than bail out a cup of salt water from the Gulf.
The Advent message is that God has come to earth in human flesh. Even when all we can see is suffering and sin, we gather at this table and affirm that God has not abandoned this world. We commit ourselves to rise up and live for the Prince of Peace. In these few years we have, we will walk in the path that God has made, even when we cannot see the sweet fruit hidden deep in the orchard.
Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through the mountains of North Carolina one afternoon, and they encountered sheadstoneeveral miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally, they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, “Those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone.” The words on the road sign read:
End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

Until we reach the end of construction, the journey will be full of road blocks, frustrations, and rough patches.
The courage to take this Advent journey comes from knowing our destination, that place where peace reigns, where every path is made straight, every rough place made plain. Until then, remember the words of the Christmas Angel: “Fear not.”
Thanks be to God.

If you would like your free copy of “Cheaper Than A Seminary Education,” a 45-page e-book on reading difficult passages of Scripture in context, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. If you decide it’s not for you, you may unsubscribe at any time.