SERMON: Mark 1:1-8

SERMON: Mark 1:1-8

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Alice Lawhead on 10th December 2023

In October of 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War,  United States President Abraham Lincoln issued the first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, a decree that all Americans – at home, at sea, and abroad – should give thanks for the blessings of God.  From that declaration came one of the most beloved of American holidays, celebrated on a Thursday at the end of November, where family and friends gather together, to BE together, usually around a groaning table at which turkey is the main attraction, along with foods that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, such as sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, green bean casserole, scalloped corn and, of course, pumpkin pie.  No gifts, no cards – just a bounty of food and, of course, a lot of American football on television.  It’s almost perfect.

What is not as well known is that the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 was preceded by an earlier presidential decree.   In March of that year, Lincoln appointed a day of national Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer – when all Americans were requested to abstain from their ‘ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite at their several places of public worship’ to acknowledge their national sins, pray for pardon of those sins, and restore the country to peace and unity. 

The greatest U. S. president, said:  It is the duty of nations as well as men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.  He continued: We have forgotten God.  We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.

Needless to say, that day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer did not become a beloved national holiday.

So here we, the second Sunday of Advent, looking toward Christmas which, like American Thanksgiving, is a time of celebration and joy.  Which will, as we all know, end with a beautiful baby surrounded by his loving parents, shepherds and angels, lowing cattle and the ‘We Three Kings.’  Something like that! 

But none of that is recorded by Mark, in today’s Gospel reading.  He starts like this: 

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ 

So, Mark introduces his gospel by introducing Jesus.  Now, Jesus is his given name – his ‘Christian’ name, if you will – but he’s also the Christ or the Messiah, which means ‘anointed’.  Anointed, like Old Testament prophets and priests and kings, anointed like our own King Charles.  Destined for a special purpose and equipped for a special purpose.  

And he’s ‘the Son of God.’  For Gentiles, who are probably the main intended audience for this account of Jesus’ life, identifying him as ‘Christ’, or the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, doesn’t mean so much. But The Son of God is, well, The Son of God. 

Then Mark recalls the prophecy of Isaiah, as an introduction to Jesus by way of the messenger who comes ahead of him.  Who announces this imminent arrival.  Sort of like those e-mails you get when you order something online.  Your goods have been despatched!  Your goods are with our driver!  Your goods will be delivered today!

Then  Mark introduces us to John – Jesus’ second cousin – and places his ministry of baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, at the very beginning, and consequently at the very heart, of this Good News.  And repentance is where I’d like to pause this morning.

John didn’t invent baptism – there were and are similar rituals in the Jewish tradition, and indeed ritual cleansing figures in many religions. But John’s call to repentance and immersive baptism for the forgiveness of sins was distinctive, because it was tied to a person who was coming – soon – and a further baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that would follow.  But first:  repentance.

Now, John — wild as he was, dressed in camel hair and leather, eating bugs and honey – drew a crowd with this message.  People came from far and wide, the countryside and the city, to confess their sins and be washed clean in the Jordan River, in preparation for …. The Next Big Thing..

Do you ever wonder what you would have done?  What if there was a non-ordained minister of sorts, living in a caravan or maybe a yurt, near, say, Burford who was preaching and declaiming and dunking people in the Windrush River?  What if not only local people but Oxford residents – friends of yours – were going out there to publicly confess their wrong attitudes and actions, and dive into those chilly waters?  What if they came back and told you all about it, the effect it had on them, and how it was only a sign that something – someone – bigger was coming who was going to ramp the whole thing up a notch, enable those who had confessed and been baptised to obtain incredible and other-worldly power?  What would you do?

That question is only partly hypothetical.  As a thought experiment we MIGHT ask ourselves what would we do if we lived in first-century Palestine.  As a spiritual imperative we MUST ask ourselves what we are going to do about this matter of repentance. 

Because now – as then – it is patently obvious that something is wrong in the world.  Somehow this beautiful planet, this lovely environment with its rolling seasons and changing climates, its plants and animals, the stars above and the earth below has become degraded and fragile, has been thrown off-kilter, is beginning to stutter.

Somehow the people of the world, who out of enlightened self-interest, if for no other reason, should  be helping one another, cooperating, learning from one another, enjoying their common interests as well as unique differences – are at each others throats.  Fighting over political boundaries and political ideologies, maligning each other because of something as superficial as skin colour, as random as national boundaries, demeaning each other, enslaving each other, killing each other. 

Somehow, in our own families and neighbourhoods we have become selfish and critical, nursing grudges instead of loving and supporting one another.  We  are often exasperated and unkind to our nearest and dearest.  We are too quick to fight our own quarter, too slow to listen and try to understand.  Our relationships aren’t what they should be.

And somehow religion, too, that expression of our yearning to know and be known by our Creator, has turned toxic until we use it to justify all kinds of wickedness in the world. 

All this is standing between us and God, between us and the coming Good News.  And John’s call to repentance was needed then and it’s needed now.   There is Sin.  Not just sins – the things we’ve done wrong, that we confess each week – but  capital-S Sin:  our pride, our rebellion against God’s ways, our view that we are at the centre of things, not God. 

And an egocentric view of life, where everything revolves around us, is as wrong as the old geocentric model of the world, when it was believed that all the planets revolved around the earth. It isn’t true, and it doesn’t work.

That’s what needs to be acknowledged, confessed, and put right – the territory it occupies in our life needs to be vacated so that there is room for the Christchild, for the Kingdom of Heaven which is justice and love and peace and the eternal presence of God.    That’s why John the Baptist was preaching repentance, and baptising people to symbolise the washing away of their sins.  So that when Jesus arrived, they would be ready to receive him.

It has been said that the blessings of God are falling all around us, but they cannot be caught by hands that are clenched around their sin. 

Unless we repent of our sins, we won’t get the blessings of Christ’s arrival.  It will just be shopping and cooking and spending and watching TV.  Christmas will be a cultural holiday, a buying spree that began on Black Friday, and before.  A time to eat too much and gain weight.  And when the Christ child arrives, we won’t be ready.  We will wish we’d prepared.  We’ll wish we had celebrated Advent as a time of reflection on our sin, a time when we brought all our rebellion and weakness and foolishness and selfishness to God, asked him to put us right, asked him to forgive us and restore us to a complete relationship with Him. 

We will wish that before the time of joy and Thanksgiving, we had observed more deliberately that day of ‘Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer.’