Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mark 1:1-8

I learned a lot about myself and my family by playing with my neighbor Paul. Paul, who is a year younger than me, lived across the street from us in a big white two-story house. And I used to go over to his house to play.

You see, there was a door to the attic in his second story room, and we used to go through that door and pretend that is was another world. There are all kinds of adventures 9 and 10 year old can create in an attic.

Part of the attic had plywood laid over the beams so that they could store their stuff up there. But there were not any walls so we’d leave the safety of the plywood floor and walk from beam to beam -- careful to never step on the sheet rock below.

It was a great house and a fun family. Like many of the other people in our neighborhood they were second or third generation Italians. And the Italian communication pattern is a lot different from that of our family. I’ll get to the point. They shouted and yelled a lot. Everything was big drama -- and not just in Paul’s family.

I never realized just how much their drama was different from our drama until one day that I was over there playing when Paul’s parents got in a big shouting match. Wow. It was really loud. And I remember turning to Paul and saying, “Maybe I should go home now.”

His response was telling, “Why? There’s nothing wrong.”

I said, “But everyone is shouting.”

He looked at me, “They are?”

I realized at that moment just how different his family was from my family and how loud people stressed me out. I went home in spite of his pleading.

One day Paul was playing in the attic and he slipped. The weight of his foot went onto the ceiling below. And you know that the wall board wasn’t very sturdy -- especially 40 years ago. He was alright but his foot ended up dangling through into the downstairs living room. I wasn’t there at that time (fortunately) but you could hear the yelling across the street. We never got to play in the attic again.

I remember another incident involving Paul and his family -- actually his mother -- a few years later.

In the 70’s streaking was the fad at the universities. And some of the high school guys trying hard to be cool decided they should try it. There were about 12 sophomores, including Paul, who walked across the street from campus -- stripped behind some bushes -- stashed their clothes in the bushes -- put paper bags with eye cutouts over their heads.

As a group they dashed buck naked across the street back onto campus -- cutting through the hallways, past the office, and in one cafeteria door and out the other. They looped back across the street. And in probably less than four minutes from when they started were dressed again.

You can imagine the stir on campus. Most everyone thought it was pretty funny. Something to talk about.

The administration, however, didn’t really have much of a sense of humor at that point in time. And in spite of the paper bags everyone knew who those guys were -- including the administrators. They didn’t even bother calling the students into the office. They just called the parents to come pick them up -- take them home.

When Paul’s mother arrived she was fuming -- red hot before she drove her squealing tires onto campus. She didn’t even bother reporting to the office but went directly to his math classroom a few doors down from the journalism class where we were working on a story about streakers.

Picture this rather significant Italian woman on a mission. His mother burst into that math class with the energy of an entire SWAT team, grabbed Paul by the ear, and started yelling and shouting. Then she beat him with the yardstick she had brought from home. It was loud.

“If you’re going to embarrass me, I’m going to embarrass you in front of all your friends.”

The teacher stood there stunned -- not sure what to do.

All the windows in all the classrooms on campus were open and I’m sure that half the student body heard the shouting match. She yanked Paul out of class and dragged him home. Mercifully he never came back but ended up in some Catholic High School.

It wasn’t pretty and her shouting made her look like a complete lunatic. It only solidified in my mind how futile and unproductive shouting actually is. As I see it, shouting is an indication of insanity -- temporary or otherwise. And I actually tend to tune out people who raise their voice on a regular basis.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not fond of shouters -- people who type everything in caps -- who want to make sure that they are louder than everyone else.

When it comes to noise level less is more.

As I see it, quiet cars are superior to noisy cars. People who soup up their cars so that they’re loud -- who peel out and burn rubber -- are consciously or unconsciously trying to compensate for something that they feel is missing from their lives.

Why do people have loud annoying ringtones that take over the entire Target store when a softer more conventional ringtone will do the job just fine? They want to be noticed.

Why do preachers yell? As I’ve studied preaching and preachers it appears to me that the volume tends to go up when the preacher has less of substance to say. There is negative correlation between volume and real content depth.

That’s not gospel per se -- just the way I see the world. But it is practical wisdom. Proverbs 25:15 says, “Patience can persuade a prince, and soft speech can break bones.”

So, you can see why then I’m perplexed to read in Mark 1 that John the Baptist is also John the Shouter. Right at the very beginning of Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus we find a bunch of shouting.

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
3 He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”

The prophet Isaiah had predicted that there would be a voice preceding the Lord’s Savior -- someone to clear the way.

You’ve all seen the movies, in ancient times when someone really important was coming along, there was a runner -- someone with a loud voice -- moving down the road in front of the noble entourage shouting at people --
  • “Clear the way. The king is coming.”
  • “Get your old ox cart off the road.”
  • “Step to the side.”
  • “Get ready to bow.”
John was a shouter -- kind of like the motorcycle cop blowing his siren at the front of the motorcade. Making a lot of noise to get everyone’s attention -- to clear the road.

And indeed, that’s what John was, the shouter clearing the way. But he was more than just a road plow. He was a loud mouth shouter.

That is, indicators are that he was a bit loud, perhaps obnoxious, and stressful. That’s how he prepared the way for the Lord -- by creating stress.

Mark 1:4 says “This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.”

That is, John the Shouter was telling people to repent of their sins -- to change. And nobody really likes the idea of change. It’s stressful. Most of us gravitate toward the easy road. And we only want to change when things become so bad that changing seems easier than going on in the old way.

But the change that John advocates is unrelated to getting a better life. His message isn’t that you should repent of your sins so that you can live a fuller and less stressful life. Rather, he advocates repentance because it’s what you have to do to be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t immediate personal advantages to turning from sin and receiving God’s forgiveness. There are. But that wasn’t what John the Shouter was emphasizing.

And then he was actually baptizing people. Baptism was considered to be a ceremonial washing for people who were converting from paganism to Judaism. But John was baptizing Jews. And that was really a pebble in the Jew’s shoes. He was saying that it’s not enough to be Jewish. Being Jewish is cool but you need more if you’re going to be ready for the coming Lord. You need to be a part of something new and different -- something with a new heart and new way of doing things.

No wonder he wasn’t so popular with the Jewish administration.

As I read the story, he was loud, shrill, and annoying. So much so that eventually he lost his head over it all. But we’re getting ahead of the story.
Verse 5 -- "All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 6 His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey."
That is, even his clothing was shouting and flamboyant. He dressed and acted like the great prophet Elijah -- another shouter -- who managed to raise the ire of the establishment.

There is a reason that John set-up out in the desert by the Jordan River -- outside the boundaries of refined or even civil living.

I’m thinking that John the Shouter wouldn’t be my first choice for relaxing dinner company. I mean, who’d want to spend the evening in a restaurant with a guy who dips his grasshoppers in honey. Definitely NOT my kind of guy. And probably not YOUR kind’a guy either.

Well, John the Shouter may be annoying, uncouth, and stress inducing but that’s the point.
Someone once said that the role of the preacher is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." John majored in afflicting the comfortable. And while we don’t want to adopt shouting as the modus operandi of life -- there are times when it is appropriate. There are times where and when shouting can be helpful.

“Get out of the street, there’s a car coming.”

“Is anyone here? Your house is on fire.”

A little shouting -- especially from someone who doesn’t normally shout -- I pay attention -- but if there is much of it I tend to tune it out or leave.

Shouting may not be pleasant or desirable -- or socially uplifting. It might be stressful and as irritating as fingernails on the chalkboard. But there are times when it gets the point across. That is, stop business as usual, wake up, sit up, take notice -- pay attention. Change what you’re doing.

And that’s the point behind all this unusual shouting.

And the reality is that if we’re serious about being prepared to welcome Christ into our lives -- and to enter into his world -- we can’t go on with business as usual. That’s why there is so much dissonance about Advent.

The world around us is telling us to think happy thoughts and foster joyful feelings -- to enter into the “happ -- happiest time of the year...” But John the Shouter is trying to stress us out and is calling us to examine our lives and to consider whether we’re really ready for the presence of a Savior. He’s justly yanking our chains to get a reaction.

Of course, the possibility is that we’ll tune him out as just another loud quackie fanatic extremist -- an over-reacting cranky parent with a yardstick who has gone off the deep end. But if we do so we’ll be missing a God given opportunity.

Is John shouting at you? Is there something that the Holy Spirit has been telling you to leave behind so that you can more fully and precisely turn to God?

Our verses this morning are the first in the Gospel of Mark. They mark (pun intended) the beginning of a story which ends up with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s like a funnel. And to really understand the invitation of John the Shouter it’s best to receive it in light of the whole story.

And that story is that God has initiated a new era with new values and new goals and a new relationship with himself -- all secured through the action of Jesus.

And it’s interesting that while Jesus is at the end of his life on the cross he becomes the shouter. We read in Mark 15:34 --
“Then at three o’clock Jesus called out (or shouted -- same word as used in 1:3) with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
As Jesus takes on the sin of the world he feels the loneliness and the sorrow of that weight. But in doing so, with his disheartening shout he sets us free from bondage to the things which stress our relationship with him. In other words, because of Christ we can truly turn from the things which would hinder our relationship with Christ.

With a shout we are free -- free to turn -- free to please God -- free to live new lives in accordance with his kingdom.

And that’s the good news.

Let’s pray:

Gracious God, with the cry of a baby you injected yourself into our world and our lives. You made yourself present -- and we know that you are coming again to make that presence the long term reality of our world. He look forward to that but at the same time recognize that such a promise means lots of change is in the air. And we don’t really like change. We want to continue living in the same way with the same muddy thoughts and the same familiar surroundings. But we know that we need to change -- to be changed -- if we’re going to really enter into your kingdom life.

And so we would pause and listen to hear if you might be shouting something to us through the silence.

Lord we again turn to you and renounce all that is of the devil and evil. We declare our opposition to a way of life that is in contradiction to the gospel.

Some perhaps are turning to you for the first time and are beginning a new walk. Lord, we mark this day as a turning point when we would trust you and redirect our lives so that we are living for you rather than self. Please make it so in order that you might be truly and appropriately honored through us. Amen.

AFFIRMATION OF FAITH -- based on Acts 13 (MSG)
From out of David's descendants God produced a Savior for Israel, Jesus, exactly as he promised—but only after John had thoroughly alerted the people to his arrival by preparing them for a total life-change.

However, the citizens and rulers in Jerusalem didn't recognize Jesus for who he was and condemned him to death on a cross. But then God raised him from the dead. There is no disputing that—he appeared over and over again many times and in many places to those who had known him well. And we're here today proclaiming the good news: the Message that what God promised the fathers has come true for the children—for us!

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