A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Frankfort, Ky., on December 4, 2011.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” Mark 1:1. With these simple words, Mark began his account of the life of Christ.
He throws us a curve, though. He doesn’t begin by telling us about the birth of Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do. Instead, he focuses his attention upon John the Baptist, the first prophet to speak in over 300 years and the last Old Testament prophet responsible for preparing the way for the Messiah.
So, if you are looking for the Christmas story—angels, shepherds, Wise Men, music, a manger and animals gathered around Mary and Joseph—you won’t find it here. What you will find, though, is a Christmas lesson, which can transform the holidays into holy days.
What is that lesson? There is a spiritual component to celebrating Christmas. If you leave it out, you may enjoy the holidays, but after all the gifts have been exchanged, meals have been eaten and decorations have been put away for another year, something will be missing in your life. Instead of being refreshed and renewed, ready to face life’s challenges in the New Year, you will be drained and exhausted, wondering if all the work you did was really worth it.
What is that spiritual component? It is spending time alone with God, which, by the way, will be a real challenge in this busy season.
The part of our text which intrigues me most is where John delivered his prophetic message. It was not on the crowded streets of Jerusalem or in the sacred temple, the hub of all religious activity for the Jews. Instead, he stayed in the desert and preached to anyone who would leave the city to come and hear him. Why did he do this?
This was where he was comfortable. He was a Bedouin and lived a very simple lifestyle. Chances are, had he gone to the temple, he would have been ignored. People would have been too busy or unimpressed to listen to him. He would have been one voice among many, merely a nuisance.
Therefore, John stayed in the desert and drew people out of the city where he would not have to compete with vendors and skeptics. It was here the people could give John their undivided attention, transforming the desert into a place of reflection, retreat, renewal and restoration.
I’m not surprised. Throughout history, God’s people returned to the wilderness to get back in touch with God. When they lost their way or their spirits were depleted, the wilderness is where they headed. When they wanted to know where God was at work in the world, they retreated to the desert to think and pray. It appears John was calling them to do this again.
When they went to the desert, what did they hear? They heard a prophet in the tradition of Elijah call them to confession and repentance. He told them they needed to get serious about their faith and remove the barriers from their lives which would keep them from hearing Jesus’ message and following him. Cleansing their soul, symbolized by baptism, would prepare their hearts and make them receptive to his ministry. They would be ready to welcome Jesus and listen to his message after examining and purifying their lives.
I believe this is true for us, too. Christmas will mean so much more to us if we pull aside everyday to feed our spirits through study, prayer, reflection and meditation. I strongly encourage you to do this. In addition to going to the mall, parties, relatives’ homes and even church, go to the wilderness. Find that place of seclusion where you can commune with God and replenish your spirit. With God’s help, examine your values, priorities, lifestyle and relationships to see what changes need to be made in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus and be his faithful disciple.
Last week, I quoted Dr. Walter Brueggemann as we examined Isaiah 64 on the first Sunday in Advent. “Advent is about God coming out of hiding,” Brueggemann writes about this Old Testament passage, which refers to the elusive nature of God. The ancient Israelites needed God’s help to rebuild their homes and lives after they returned to Jerusalem from fifty years in exile in Babylon. Their pleas for help, however, seemed to go unanswered.
Based upon this week’s text, I believe we could say that Advent is about bridging the gap between God and us. The closer we get to God, the more meaningful Christmas will be. In light of this, what can you do in the days ahead to close that gap and draw closer to God? Where could you go to spend time just with God?
In years past, my favorite place to do this has been in front of the Christmas tree early in the morning or late at night. Sitting in a room lit only by the lights on the tree created the perfect atmosphere for me to talk to and listen to God. By the way, it is also a good place to close the gap busy schedules have created between you and your family members.
Could you do this? Will you do this? I hope so because I am convinced it will not only help you to enjoy the holidays, but also celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.