2nd Sunday in Advent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 1:1-8 Sermon
December 4, 2005
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
2 "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"
12 "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People"
4 "On Jordan's Banks The Baptist's Cry"
11 "O How Shall I Receive Thee"
“A ROAD THROUGH LIFE’S JUNGLE”
TEXT: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of he Lord, make his paths straight.” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
There’s an old joke about Tarzan and Jane, where Tarzan was coming home one evening. After he had swung into his tree house and tied up the vine, he plopped himself down in his easy chair with a very exhausted sigh. Jane looked at him and said, "Tarzan dear, what’s wrong?" Tarzan shook his head and sighed, "Jane, it's a jungle out there!"
I don't live in a tree house. I don't swing on a vine. But where I do live, I read the other day that the population density is anywhere from 250-300 people per square block. I see a lot of activity in my neighborhood alone. I don’t have to look out of my front door for very long to see a police cruiser rolling down the street. That’s life in a metropolitan city. And quite frequently I find myself thinking, "Man, it's a jungle out there!" I suspect that you would share that observation regardless of where you live.
There is terror in the shopping malls. If you watched any of the local newscasts on the day after Thanksgiving, you can appreciate this. Riots were breaking out in the Wal-Marts and Shopkos as people fought and clawed their way just to get their hands on one of the many bargains. It was almost like being on a survival mission in the jungle.
Of course it goes further than this. There’s madness on the freeways, and insanity in the media. We have the war in Iraq, and the trial of Saddam Hussein. The government has always seemed to be out of control. In fact, the Government Accounting Office reported back in the mid 1990’s that it was unable to audit the Internal Revenue Service because the financial records of the IRS were in total disarray; and then we heard about taxpayer abuse and IRS reform. Oh yes, it’s a jungle for sure.
The jungle-like quality of life extends to other areas as well. The complicated health insurance claim forms are enough to cause people recovering from illness to suffer relapses. The contradictory findings of medical science leave us wondering how caffeine, for example, can be good for you and bad for you at the same time. The controversies about salt, cholesterol, and fat make you want to run down to McDonald’s, and wolf down a hamburger, fries, and a shake just to soothe your anxiety.
The pressure gets to all of us after a while. Life today is a jungle-like wilderness that is on the one hand empty and lonely, while on the other hand it is filled with clear evidence of Satan’s activity. Life can be confusing, dangerous, tempting, and deadly. It offers both pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, hope and despair. The jungle of life bombards us with the "shoulds" and "oughts" of other people's expectations, along with our own self-imposed expectation that we will always choose wisely and correctly at every step along the way, which, of course, we don't. We can get lost in the jungle of life--so lost, in fact, that it’s almost like we no longer know where we came from or where we are going. We can even get to the point that we may even question exactly who we are.
It's a jungle out there for us today. But then it has been a jungle out there for people in every generation. The content of our anxiety may change from age to age, but the basic anxiety is there just beneath the surface. The anxiety is expressed in different ways over the centuries, but at the very center of it all is an innate fear of being lost from God amidst a world of sin and vice and competing demands.
The Gospel according to Mark opens with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
“Gospel,” which we usually say means “Good News” is the way the Greek word euangelion is translated. But the word in Greek has a much deeper meaning than merely "good news." Euangelion was often associated with the announcement of a victory that had been won in an important battle. The term sometimes appears in stories about great emperors and generals who defeated their foes and returned home in triumph.
We can see how appropriate it is that the word “Gospel” is linked with an announcement of victory. Because what follows this opening line in Mark is the story of how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, takes on Satan himself and all that he stands for in the jungle of life and wins. And yet in our human way of thinking, it is a strange way of winning, because it ends in Jesus' death on the cross. How can Jesus' death be a victory? How can being put to death at the hands of sinners in the jungle of life be declared triumphant? How can the birth of Jesus in a stable, and dying the death of a criminal be in any way considered victorious? These are the questions God would have us consider as we read Mark’s gospel.
In the eight verses of our text for today we hear the opening proclamation of Jesus' half-cousin, John the baptizer. Here we can see what the victory entails: road-building, the forgiveness of sins, and suffering and death.
First of all, Jesus' victory over the jungle-like wilderness of this world is possible because God has built a road directly through the wilderness. Mark quotes Isaiah 40, 4 when he announces the preparation of the way of the Lord. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
This road in the wilderness of sin is not only the way in which God comes to his people; it is also the way in which the people have access to God. The road runs both ways.
What exactly is this road that is being built?
The road is Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God, and our Saviour. He is the means by which God enters the jungle of our world and our lives. He is the access route from God to us and from us to God. The branches, the vines, and the predators in the jungle of life which held us captive are now bulldozed to one side. This is because Jesus has been victorious over Satan, death, and hell. The confusion and lack of direction which have trapped unbelievers for centuries are now overcome.
There is no wilderness so harsh, so desolate, or so forbidding, that God cannot penetrate it through his Son Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in Romans 8, 38-39, “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The second element in the euangelion, the announcement of victory, is the forgiveness of sins which John the baptizer preached about, and which Jesus completes. God is not merely coming to us. He is coming with a purpose. And that purpose is the forgiveness of sins. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh (or as we say in confirmation class, the “unholy 3”) lead us into sins of commission and sins of omission, or the things we both do and don’t do which are sinful.
The ease with which we neglect our neighbor while seeking to serve ourselves alienates us from neighbor and eventually from God. The panic we face in the jungle of life tricks us into saying ungracious words and doing harmful deeds even to those we love the most. Life in the jungle is fraught with sin. And Jesus Christ is God's way of getting through to us with the victorious news that our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God.
The third element in the euangelion, the announcement of victory, is that all of this is accomplished through Jesus' suffering and death. The Hebrew scripture states that without bloodshed there is no forgiveness. And now we Christians find that Scripture fulfilled, not in words printed on the pages of a book, but in the deeds whereby Jesus lived the perfect life that sinful people couldn’t lead, and then to die to pay for all the sins of the world.
The theme of Jesus' suffering and death appears in our text for today, although it is not entirely obvious at first. It occurs in the last verse when John the baptizer says of Jesus, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
When we hear the phrase "baptism with the Holy Spirit," we think of Pentecostals whose enthusiasm for the Third Person of the Trinity brings them to a type of ecstasy and causes them to speak in tongues. But there is no evidence anywhere in the Bible that Jesus ever administered that sort of baptism or caused that sort of thing to happen.
On the contrary, when Jesus speaks of baptism in Mark's gospel, he associates it with his suffering and death. In Romans 6, 4 Paul puts it well: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
The victory announcement called the euangelion is grounded in baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. And baptism by the Holy Spirit is nothing less than being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.
Tarzan and John the baptizer were both right. It is a jungle out there. But now in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that promised Messiah, a road has been built to provide open access between God and his people. Now in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of sins for all who believe. Now there is direction and hope for all who are lost have lost in the jungle of life. And now in Jesus Christ faithfulness to God is disclosed as a firm belief in the Saviour who came to earth in the most humble surroundings and who laid down His life for the sake of the whole world.
Euangelion is the Greek word from which we get the English word evangelical. This is part of our name as a congregation: Mighty Fortress Evangelical Lutheran Church. Normally the term evangelical is understood as a reference to the fact that we are gospel-centered; that is, focused on the good news of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. But evangelical does not just mean good news in general. It means good news of a victory that has been won and is being won for each of us in the jungle-like wilderness of life. The gospel, which is Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell, means forgiveness of our sins through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This we have purely by God’s grace through faith alone.
Our mission as the church is to acknowledge the good news of this victory and then spread that news throughout the world. We build roads into every sector of life. We carry the light of forgiveness wherever we go. Certainly we won’t always have a smooth road ahead of us. Life isn’t going to be easy for us, especially if we are faithful Christians.
But whatever obstacle Satan puts ahead of us, and regardless how much of a jungle we seem to encounter on our road, we have the absolute assurance that the road to our Heavenly Father is paved and clear through Jesus. The hills and valleys have been leveled off, and we shall always see God’s salvation.