(I pray that this may be a blessing to you this season.)
I’ll admit it. I went shopping the day after Thanksgiving. For the most part, I don’t get wrapped up in all the consumerism that has seemed to highjack the season. But I do enjoy giving gifts to my parents, so I decided to take advantage of the sales and go looking for a few things. I wasn’t really in any kind of hurry, so I just kept in mind the things I was looking for and watched as people hurried all around me. I saw customers annoyed and frustrated as they searched the racks and waited in lines, and felt sympathy for exhausted employees who were obviously making efforts to be friendly and patient. This is the day that sort of unofficially kicks off the Christmas season in the secular world, and yet I was surrounded by so much negativity. And that’s only the beginning. This is a season of stress for many people. Finding the right gifts, sending cards, baking dozens and dozens of cookies, preparing for a big family meal, going to parties. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rush. Or for others, maybe those who have lost a loved one, or who are struggling with addiction, or suffering from abuse or illness, this season just brings depression. It truly makes me sad to think that a season that should be filled with joyful anticipation is often consumed by anxiety or anger or depression.
We can be easily consumed by negative thoughts regarding all that is wrong in the world. We worry about the state of our economy. The price of gas. Having a steady income or being able to get good health care. A relative who is sick. A friend that we had a fight with. Whether someone we love loves us back. Whether we should invite someone to church. If the church will meet its budget. If the church is fulfilling its mission.
And yet, in this wilderness of worry, we hear a voice crying out, Prepare the way of the Lord! We have the promise of a Savior. We have hope. Because while we wait for the coming kingdom of God, we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit to share God’s love and do God’s work in the world.
As we heard in the reading, the Gospel of Mark does not begin with the birth story of Jesus. It begins with a man, John, telling people to get ready. This particular Gospel shares the perspective that we need to listen and be prepared. John prepared the people of that time through proclamation and baptism. He proclaimed repentance and forgiveness, and the people confessed and were baptized.
The Gospel of Mark ends similar to its beginning. Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the good news and to baptize the people.
And today, in the Church, the good news is proclaimed through the Word of God and through the sacraments of communion and baptism. We hear and experience this proclamation together as a gathered community in Christ, and we are sent out to proclaim the good news to the world. To call out into the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord! To proclaim that in the midst of frenzy there is peace, that in the midst of pain there is love, and in the midst of sorrow, hope.
Yesterday I went up to St. John’s in Summit to hear Bishop Hanson, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, speak about the Church. He told a story about a time when he was at a public library waiting to use a computer. At one computer sat a Jewish man, and at another was a Muslim woman. He knew their respective faiths because of what each was wearing: the Jewish man wore a yarmulke on his head and the Muslim woman had a large scarf covering her head. And he thought, when this man or woman turn around and look at me, how will they know that I am a Christian? His initial thought was that we need some Christian head gear. But as he thought further about it, he realized that as Christians, in our baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ forever, and that is all the head gear we need.
We are baptized in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit to join with John by proclaiming the good news and crying out into the world, Prepare the way of the Lord!