Sunday, December 07, 2008


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 7, 2008

Year B: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
(2 Peter 3:8-15a)
Mark 1: 1-8


On this second Sunday of Advent we are reintroduced to John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark – which most scholars think is the earliest of the four gospels, and is certainly the most barebones.

Truthfully, Mark isn’t very interested in John the Baptizer, as he calls him. Mark is really only interested in telling us about the life, ministry and meaning of Jesus Christ. So, Mark begins his gospel with the seemingly simple words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

This may be the beginning of the good news, but Mark is clear that the good news of Jesus Christ is what people had been awaiting for centuries. And so, in his gospel Mark immediately looks back into the Hebrew Scriptures and quotes from the prophet Isaiah. Actually, to be accurate, Mark includes verses from the Prophet Malachi and the Book of Exodus, along with Isaiah.

With a few quick quotes Mark economically reminds us that for centuries God had inspired prophets to call for repentance, and to point ahead to the Holy One who was to come.

And then Mark quickly introduces John the Baptist, not with much back story, but simply as the last in this long line of prophets: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Like so many of the prophets before him, John calls for repentance.

And like so many of the prophets before him John points ahead to the Holy One, the Messiah, who was to come. John says to the people, this baptism with water that I’m giving you is nothing compared with what the Messiah will give you – baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Now at this point, even for those of us who take Advent seriously, it’s tempting to get ahead of ourselves – to jump ahead to Christmas and the birth of the Messiah who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. After all, let’s be honest, we know what happens next. We know the rest of the story – we know Jesus has already come and lived among us. We know the birth, we know the teaching, we know the death, and we know the resurrection. We know all this. But since Advent really is a season to be mindful, to pay attention, we need to resist the temptation to skip ahead to Christmas.

So, since we’re not going to skip ahead, what might John the Baptist have to say for us today? What might John the Baptist have to say to us – to people who know the rest of the story, to people who already know Jesus, to people who have already been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit?

John’s message is as timely for us as it was for the people of the First Century who came to be baptized in the River Jordan. We are called to repentance. And we are called to live in a way that our very lives point to Jesus – the messiah who has already come and continues to live among us.

In the gospels, it’s the Greek word metanoia that is translated as repentance. But metanoia means more than just repentance, it means changing one’s mind. That’s an expression we use a lot more than repentance, isn’t it? In fact, we’ve probably cheapened it a little bit with overuse. In fact, I’m sure you’ve heard people say things like, “You know, I changed my mind and decided to buy that beautiful basket at the 10,000 Villages fair after all”?

But, when you think of it, really changing your mind is something very deep, isn’t it? To change our mind means to radically revise the way see the world, to radically reorder our priorities.

Maybe instead of “change of mind” we should say something that we don’t say quite as often, something that sounds deeper. Maybe we should say “change of heart’.

That’s what the prophets called for. That’s what John the Baptist was preaching to those people who came to him for baptism He was calling them to change their minds, to change their hearts. When they came up out of the water they were to be radically changed, to be transformed - to have a change of heart. They – and we – are called to have a change of heart so that our very lives point to Jesus, the Holy One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t know, maybe all this talk of metanoia - all this talk of a change of heart - sounds a little pie-in-the-sky. But, actually, if we allow God in to change our hearts, if we allow our lives to point to Jesus, then the consequences are very concrete and practical.

Here’s a quote attributed to Pedro Arrupe, who was the leader of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983. I think he powerfully sums up the powerful effects of metanoia, the powerful effects of a change of heart. He says:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Now, that’s metanoia, that’s a change of heart. That’s what John the Baptist was talking about out in the wilderness and that’s the message for us today. Open ourselves up to metanoia, open ourselves to a change of heart, allow our very lives to point to Jesus.

In her sermon last week, Lauren noted that the Church is counter-cultural. While the rest of society has long-since moved on to Christmas, we insist on this quiet time of prayer and mindfulness, Advent.

And if we continue to open ourselves up to change of heart then we will become more and more counter-cultural.

Let’s think about the so-called Christmas season. This is a time of year when our culture whips us into such frenzy with talk about “Black Friday” that 2,000 ordinary people could gather in the early morning hours outside a Wal-Mart on Long Island and, when the doors opened (at 5:00AM), horrifically trample a Wal-Mart employee to death.

Now, you and I may not have been waiting outside of Wal-Mart in the early morning, but, let’s be honest, most of us do get caught up in the materialistic frenzy of this “season.” That’s the message of the culture we live in: buy more, get the bargain, and don’t worry about the consequences. Just get it – and then you’ll be happy.

If we are to have metanoia, a change of heart, then we are going to be counter-cultural. There’s a group that was started about four years ago called “The Advent Conspiracy.” On their website they describe a conspiracy that stands up to our culture with four parts: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.

Now that’s counter-cultural! Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. That’s really opening ourselves up to a change of heart.

So what would an “advent conspiracy” look like around here? What would metanoia look like around here? What would a change of heart look like around here? How could we live so our lives point to Jesus?

Well, if we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, then church will be a top priority – being here for worship, inviting others to join us, giving to the church in a way that’s a real sacrifice.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, maybe instead of buying some unimaginative Christmas gift, after this service we’ll fill out one of the outreach gift certificates and give a gift to a worthy cause in honor of one of our friends or relatives – a gift far better than any sweater.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, the “Food for Friends” barrel right over there in the chapel will be overflowing week after week and Kit Cone will get tired of making the trip to Dover to deliver our donations.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, then every line on our soup kitchen sign-up sheet will be filled and Marge Paul will wonder what is she going to do with all this food and all these volunteers.

That’s what a change of heart looks like.

And 2000 years ago on the banks of the River Jordan, John the Baptist called on the people to metanoia, to repent, to have a change of heart. And all these years later, you and I who have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit are also called to have metanoia, to repent, to have a change of heart. We are called to make our very lives point to Jesus.

How we answer that call will decide everything.