“A Way for the Light”
December 7, 2008 - Second Sunday in Advent
My daughter’s head was cut off… because our camera lens did not open all the way. Our digital camera is getting old, as such things go, over six years. Every once in awhile, particularly outside in the cold, the automatic lens cover doesn’t open completely. I have to warm it in my hands or even pry gently to persuade the little sliding doors to open and let in light on the whole scene being photographed.
John the Baptist comes in Mark 1:1-8 to prepare us for letting in the full light of God appearing in Jesus Christ. The prophet’s image is smoothing and straightening a road for the Messiah’s arrival. We can also picture it as making a clear path for His light.
Verse 1 says this is, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But you and I might say it’s not. Mark’s gospel skips the beginning of the story, the event we’re getting ready to celebrate in less than three weeks. Where is the Virgin Mary, the troubled Joseph, the Baby in a manger? Mark jumps over all that and starts his gospel with the rough, strange figure of John the Baptist and moves right on after our text in verse 9 to introduce Jesus as a grown man. Like the title of a John Grisham book, Mark appears to be “skipping Christmas.”
Mark had a different Gospel beginning in mind. As he begins telling the story of Jesus, the place to begin is preparation. If we want to learn about Jesus Christ the Son of God, if we want His light to shine into our lives and hearts, then, like the people to whom John preached, we need to clear the way for that light.
So Mark starts by quoting the Old Testament about the need for preparation. He says it’s Isaiah, and we read the relevant passage from Isaiah 40 this morning, but only verse 3 is that prophet. Verse 2 comes from Malachi 3:1. Mark found these two passages combined already, in a kind of ancient Reader’s Digest compendium of scriptures which have the same theme. That theme was “prepare the way.”
We clean camera lenses. We wash windows. We repair mini-blinds. We brush the bugs out of ceiling fixtures. We want the light to come through, bright and clear. John the Baptist calls for the cleaning and clearing of our lives in preparation for the light of Jesus. The major obstruction to His light is sin, so we read in verse 4 that John came, “preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
For Mark, the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, begins by preparing the way. We need to wash the windows for the light of Christ to shine in on us. We need to clear our eyes to see Him coming. We need to cleanse ourselves to be a pure way for His light to enter this world. Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas. It’s time to do what John asks, to clean the lenses through which we view God’s great gift.
John called people then, and still calls you and I, to be cleansed. It begins by repenting, by turning away from sin that blocks His light. Then we accept God’s forgiveness in order to be washing clean. Your baptism is the sign of that washing. Baptism demonstrates what Christ desires to happen not just to your body but to every aspect of your being. Jesus wants to enter your heart and soul and fill you with light.
Mark doesn’t really skip Christmas. Instead, he gives us an Advent message from John. We’re invited to welcome the holy Light into ourselves, to be ready for Christmas illumination to dawn not just on us but in us.
Dark times welcome light. We’re in the gloom of economic recession combined with war. We’re angry with politicians and businessmen and ourselves for letting it happen. John’s time was also dark. Israel was under the thumb of Rome. King Herod was a puppet who spent his time on costly building projects, an illicit marriage, and sucking up to the emperor. Ordinary Jewish people felt ignored and exploited, and when John the Baptist arrived with the message of a change coming, they came out expectantly to listen.
Mark exaggerates a bit. Verse 5 says everyone in the country and in the city went out to listen to John, confess their sins and be baptized. But you can bet King Herod and his so-called “wife” Herodias weren’t in line at the river. Neither were some other prominent figures. Generally, though, the response to John’s message was overwhelming. Like our own country, they felt the need for change. The difference is that they heard and realized that the change needed to be in themselves.
Luke chapter 3 records for us that John asked ordinary people to share with the needy. Corrupt government officials were called to tell the truth. Soldiers were exhorted to be content with their pay. Preparing for the light of Christ meant changed lives. In the simple formula stated in the middle ages, John taught them, “Do good and avoid evil.”
That’s still how you and I are invited to prepare for the light of Christ, both at Christmas and when He comes again. As we read from Peter this morning, the light of Christ will one day come as a fire burning up everything in its path and so II Peter 3:11-12 says, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God…”
Holy and godly lives, changed lives, cleansed lives that let His light shine through. That’s what John the Baptist called for at the first advent of Jesus. It’s what Peter calls for at the second advent. It’s what this season of Advent calls for now. Do good. Be kind to someone in need. Avoid evil. Leave your sins behind. Be ready. But we’re not.
Making a way for Christ’s light in ourselves is hard work, harder than most of us can bear. Some of it’s not so bad. It’s easy, even fun to put cans of food in a bag for the postman to pick up for Food for Lane County. It’s not terribly difficult to give up a swear word or two or hold your tongue when you could say something mean. Yet deeper cleaning, deeper penetration of His light into us takes more.
If you want to let real daylight into a dark place in your house, it takes hard work. You have to cut into the wall or the roof and install a skylight or a light pipe or a new window. It could be major surgery on your house. Deep spiritual preparation for Jesus might be like surgery on our souls.
In fact, surgery is a good example. Physicians now can get light into your body for many simple surgical procedures. Laparoscopy uses a tiny light and a camera on the end of a tube to allow the removal of an appendix or a gall bladder through a tiny incision. But other surgeries require more visibility, more light. They have to “open you up” as they say, and as our friend Emma knows very well. Ultimately, for Christ’s light to enter us, it will take that kind of major surgery on our souls.
That’s why John the Baptist is the beginning of the story. You and I can only do so much to open ourselves up to God’s light. Confessing our sins and accepting the sign of baptism is the start. Then if we want the light to really shine in us and through us, we need more help. So verse 7 says John’s message was, “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
If heavenly light is really going to shine in us, if our souls are going to be opened up to God in all His brilliant glory, it won’t happen with just a little laparoscopic repentance, a few minor adjustments to our behavior. Those are important, but they’re just the start. God comes to us with the full surgical light of the transforming power of Jesus Christ, a transplant of His Holy Spirit into our human spirits.
“Prepare the way of the Lord” certainly means all the little ways we can open ourselves up to the light of Christ, to let His light shine through us, to be the way His light shines on others. Donate a gift for a child. Call up someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time. Confess sin to another Christian. Spend time in prayer. Read daily in an Advent devotional. Accept a responsibility at church. These are all good, but they are just the start. When you do them, like those who accepted John’s baptism, you get yourself ready for something deeper, something greater, something brighter.
If you put that skylight or that new window in your house, the first bright, sunny day is likely to be a revelation. The light will be amazing, but the light will reveal things you may not have noticed before: dust in the corners, walls that need fresh paint, furniture that’s worn out. Letting the light in may just be the beginning of a bigger transformation. That’s how it is when we begin getting ready to let Jesus Christ more fully into our lives.
Advent preparation goes well beyond December 25. Christmas and all that leads up to it is an illumination that just grows brighter and brighter as your life continues, as the way for that light opens up in you more and more.
It sounds intimidating—a total remodel of your life, major surgery. Not much fun, not something to which you really look forward. Yet ask Emma just how good it feels to have the surgery done and be on the way to recovery. Then remember the title Mark gave his story in verse 1, “the gospel about Jesus Christ,” the good news about Jesus Christ. It’s light that He is bringing, light, not darkness. It’s good, not evil. Even when it’s hard, it’s good, and bright, and beautiful.
I invite you to open your life, your heart, your soul once again to the light that is still coming into the world through Jesus Christ, the light that is Jesus Christ. Make a way for His light in yourself. He will come to you at Christmas. And He will come to you again, on a bright morning yet to appear, to fill you with the light of His glory.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj