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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

December 10, 2017, 2nd Sunday of Advent

 The Secret of Waiting

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

            I do not care what the calendar says, yesterday was the first day of winter!  (Can I hear an “Amen” from everybody on that?)  In the middle of the day – a day that looked like snow, even though it never snowed – I was home alone and decided to do one of my favorite things I get to do in Nashville, which is to walk in Percy Warner Park.  I was heading up the stairs (If you think I am compulsive, one hundred eighty-three steps, but who is counting?), and as I began to climb, I spotted this friendly black lab, off his owner’s leash, playfully running up to a large black dog, a dog that looks like your old Scottie dog, but much larger.  I have since learned it is a black Russian terrier, a breed that grows up to one hundred forty pounds.  As the playful lab came up to the black Russian terrier on a very tight leash, the Russian terrier began to growl, and took hold of the lab’s neck.  There was a skirmish with the two owners getting tangled up in a mess.  The owner of the black Russian terrier was so apologetic, even aghast. 

            The playful black lab got away from the black Russian terrier, ran off in the other direction, and I lost sight of them.  But the fun was only beginning for the black Russian terrier, because his owner was furious with him, and began to scold him!  I was just at the bottom of the steps, and the whole time I was climbing the steps, he was forced to sit and she yelled at him.  She let him have it!  And then, finally, they began to walk up the steps, and I passed them, but they were behind me.  The whole time the owner continued to talk to Ivan.  (What a name for a black Russian terrier!)  She said, “Bad dog, bad dog, bad dog!” over and over again.  She said, “That dog just wanted to play, Ivan, and you have to learn not to fight.”  She said, “It’s wrong to fight, and I am very disappointed with you!”  “Ivan, if you don’t learn how to be friendly to other dogs, you won’t get to walk in the park ever again!”  She did not stop her scolding of Ivan!  I found myself wondering, “How much of this is Ivan getting?”  But by the crestfallen look on Ivan’s countenance, who knew that his mistress was very unhappy with him, I am guessing he got the main message: It is bad to pick a fight, and it is way better to live in peace. 

            The whole time I was thinking, “Thank you, Lord, for tomorrow I need to preach on John the Baptist, who was not unlike Ivan’s owner!”  John the Baptist also was, we are told, “a voice crying in the wilderness.”  I have always imagined that John yelled when he spoke, and that he yelled a whole lot.  John hardly would be the first name you would think of in putting together your Christmas party list of invitations.  He was harsh, he was candid, and he had this bad habit of speaking the truth no matter how it might offend. 

            Then there was the matter of his clothing.  His camel’s hair shirt and leather belt would hardly blend with folks’ festive garb at our Christmas parties, anymore than it fit in first century Rome.  John’s clothing was as out of style when he wore it, as it would be today, because he consciously decided not to dress like the Romans dressed, but rather to dress like the prophets of old had dressed in Israel. 

            For four hundred long years before John appeared, there had been no prophet in the land of Israel.  Things were grim for the Jews in those days of John’s coming, for the average resident of Palestine living under oppressive Roman rule.  Life was misery.  They had been waiting for centuries for some word from the Lord, for someone to offer hope, and waiting maybe even more, for someone who would come to deliver and save them.  So no wonder that we read in Mark’s Gospel that “people from the whole Judean countryside, and all the people of Jerusalem, were going out to John, being baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.”

            John was single-minded; John was laser-focused.  He shouted the word, “Repent!” which means to change your ways.  And John never let up.  John was intense, he was charismatic, he was electrifying, and he was utterly fearless, denouncing evil wherever he found it, even in the unlawful, immoral marriage of King Herod – a word that, literally, cost John his head.  When he was alive, people flocked to John.  Josephus was a remarkable Roman historian, and a Jew as well.  It was Josephus’ judgement that John was far more important to history than Jesus ever would be.  I suspect that Josephus, a very skilled historian, like many other historians, would be surprised by how things turned out.  But one thing for sure, John made a much bigger splash in first century Palestine than Jesus ever did.  It was the Greek Diogenes who said, “He who never offended anyone, never did anyone any good!”

            John the Baptist, like Ivan’s intense owner, kept love and anger in harness in order to make a difference among those that he loved.  Folks poured forth to hear and to see John, even though his message was hardly what we would call “good news.”  The truth of Advent, of this season, is this: Unless you face the darkness, there can be no light.  Unless you are open to denunciation, there can be no meaningful annunciation.  Unless you are honest about evil, there is little hope for goodness.  No judgment of evil, no hope of redemption.  Which is why theologian Karl Barth said, “Christmas without fear carries with it fear without Christmas.”

            John the Baptist hated sin.  He despised pretense and evil and darkness and dishonesty.  He hated it and he spoke a word of judgment.  John spoke with a clear sense of indignation over human sin wherever he encountered it.  And, literally, John the Baptist put the fear of God into people.  The Bible tells us, whether we like to hear it or not, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

            In so many ways, John was like Ivan’s strict owner.  He made people face honestly their own sinfulness; he made folks own up to their own moral and spiritual failure.  And John reminded people, as all true prophets of God always have, that their lives were not close to what they were meant to be by their Creator.  And they still are not.  My life is not near all that God means for it to be.  Let’s be truthful please, in this place – your life is not either.

            John the Baptist reminds us, first, that what is crucial is not our success, but rather how we bear and learn from our failures.  Do we face our failures truthfully, or do we go on lying to ourselves?  Do our failures stretch our minds, and do they widen and deepen our hearts?  Do they teach us the grace of dependence, that is – how much we all depend on the kindness and the mercy and the forgiveness, not just of God, but of each other?  I have learned far more from my failures, from the mistakes I have made, than I have ever learned from any amount of successes.  It was, after all, their failures that brought thousands and thousands to the River Jordan, to John, to repent, to change, and to be baptized. 

            I believe that it is our own moral mediocrity, our awareness of how far short we fall, our own failures, that bring us again and again back to God, to be honest to God, and honest with ourselves, and to be forgiven and to grow and change.  No honesty about our failures on our part, and there is no real growth in grace.  We might never become the people we are meant by God to be, if we do not have a place and a way to come clean about who we are.  That is how God makes us into the generous, wise and loving children that God longs for us to be.  God is the one whose mercy runs deeper and freer than our worst sins. 

            Do any of you know who James Dyson is?  James Dyson is seventy years old, he is British, and never received any formal engineering training, but in my household right now, James Dyson’s stock is high!  Connie likes James Dyson so much that she owns not one, but two Dyson Animals, both the V6 and the V7, which are incredibly light, high tech, battery run vacuum cleaners.  James Dyson has a lot to teach us.  For instance, while Dyson is now famous, and a billionaire because of his Dyson vacuum cleaners, it did not come easy to him.  What he did came after years and years of work, and trial and error.  Into that ingenious little vacuum cleaner there are one hundred thirty-four patents, one hundred eighty-eight thousand hours of development, employing one hundred fifty engineers, to design this incredibly light and useful invention.  I love even more what James Dyson has to say about what he learned in his life.  Listen: “Success comes through perseverance, by taking risks, and having a willingness to fail.  I fail every day.  Failure is the best medicine – as long as you learn something from it.”

            I thank God for John the Baptist, and for every true prophet who teaches us by making us face honestly our own failures.  Ivan’s owner wore him out so he would stop fighting and become a better dog.  God confronts us with a prophetic word for precisely the same reason – so we will change and grow more lovely and open and compassionate and understanding, so we will grow into the beauty of the Lord our God.  Love and anger in harness of goodness are powerful forces in this world.  Without them offered by a parent or a really good teacher or a rare and great friend, we never grow.

            One more word about John.  Maybe it is so obvious I should not say it, but I will say it anyway.  John did not believe for a moment that it was all about him.  He was modest about his own place and his own purpose.  Did you hear what he said?  “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 sandal.”  I have no doubt that there were those people around John saying, “John, you are it!  You are everything we hoped anyone would be!  Do it all!”  John could not be seduced by ego or pride, instead John looked to the future with a humble heart, and he pointed to Jesus.  Karl Barth’s favorite piece of art is the Isenheim Altarpiece, that shows simply John the Baptist with an elongated finger pointing to Jesus on the cross.  Barth said, “More than anything else, that’s what I want to be, that’s what I want to do.”

            Do you remember what John said in the Gospel of John, when finally he encountered Jesus in the waters of the River Jordan?  He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world.”  John was waiting for the Savior, he was waiting for the Redeemer, the Messiah, the Word of God in flesh.  And in Jesus he found that One from of old for whom Isaiah looked as well.  One who would come with might, and yet One who would feed His flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs with His arms and carry them in His bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.  Let us wait for that One, that One who is full of truth and tenderness, who longs and waits for us to be everything out of love that God put it in you by grace to become.

                                                                                    Amen.

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