Sermon text: Mark 1: 1-8
This week I attended an online workshop—it was a five hour Zoom meeting with 40 some pastors from around Pennsylvania. I’ll be honest with you, my expectations were low, but I was pleasantly surprised by our presenter. She was very knowledgeable, personable, polished, and dropped lots of little theological bread crumbs along the way. One of those bread crumbs was on the topic of inadequacy. The idea that we all fall short in our lives, that we all lack a quality or attribute when dealing with a situation in our lives. In those circumstances, how do we face our inadequacies? When we find ourselves falling short, how do we respond?
I may feel inadequate as a family member because I don’t call my sister often enough.
I may feel inadequate as a leader because I can’t move my people where I want them to go.
I may feel inadequate as a partner because I am divorced.
I may feel inadequate as a father of furry animals because I fall short at training my puppy.
I may feel inadequate as a child of God because I conflate my will with God’s will.
I may feel inadequate as a steward of this planet because I consume way too many fossil fuels and material goods in order to sustain my lifestyle.
I may feel inadequate as an evangelist because I can’t fully share my understanding of the God as I try to train and equip disciples.
And on and on I could go, depending on how brutal and truthful I want to be with myself, exposing the holes in my person, laying bear all of my faults and flaws. We all fall short of the ideals set by ourselves and others.
Right now, we’re all living with a lot of pressure points and we’re all finding our way through the typical muddled messes of life, but now everything is amplified by COVID. All of a sudden the things we took for granted, the roles we knew how to play, are marred by questions and doubts and shortcomings. Do we feel adequate as child, spouse, student, employee, friend, disciple, neighbor, citizen, and parent? And when we do fall short, how do we fill the gaps?
A voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his path.” At the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel we encounter John the Baptist, the prophetic enigma, dressed in camel’s hair, dieting on locusts and wild honey. He reads like some sideshow attraction, like South of the Border or the world’s largest ball of twine, and yet, the people are drawn to him. People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
As Jesus will later ask, what were the people going out to see? What captivated people about John?
When we feel inadequate, when we have holes in our lives, there’s a variety of ways people can try to fill the gaps. We may try to consume our way to fullness through retail therapy, in the wrapper of a candy bar, or at the bottom of a bottle. We may try to fill the gaps through unhealthy relationships, or try to escape into fantasy worlds, or work ourselves to the bone to prove our worth. We have a long list of coping mechanisms that we use to cover over the empty spaces. But at some point in life, in the midst of our failings, we try God.
In Jesus’ day the people turned to the God of Israel, just as we do today. However, the methods were different. If you wanted to fill the gap, if your living, your brokenness, your sin, caused you to fall short of where you wanted to be you made thing right by a simple transaction. You went to Jerusalem. You bought the appropriate sacrificial animal, and at the temple you offered it up to God as a burnt offering. As long as you had the coin you had the means to forgiveness and wholeness.
But in the wilderness a voice cries out. John the Baptist cries out, calling for people to come, to confess their shortcomings, to repent, to turn towards God, and to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. All of a sudden John is moving the needle and making forgiveness more accessible. No longer is atonement with God and with our neighbors a financial transaction sealed with fire and blood. Now it is a restoration secured with water and word. Now John is inviting people into a new life of commitment with God.
However, John also knows that he is only the messenger, he is not the messiah. John is the number two man in this story, the Scottie Pippin of the Gospel. He is unselfish. He puts the needs of his community ahead of his own ego and interests. For he offers a way to fill the gaps as he baptizes in the Jordan, but he also says “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John is telling us that God is up to something new. That in Jesus Christ we will experience a new method to overcome our inadequacies. We have transitioned from animal sacrifice to repentance and baptism with John, but in Jesus we will transition from prayers of repentance (which are still important) to simply receiving the gift of God’s grace. How often does Jesus heal in the gospels without a person asking or making repentance?
Through Jesus all of our gaps, all of our flaws, all of our inadequacies will be filled by the Holy Spirit. I’ll say that again because it’s important: through Jesus God will cover us over when we fall short. Never again will we have to flounder and wallow when we feel that we are lacking. Instead, God will fill us. God will repair us. God will complete us. Jesus will say, you are not inadequate, you are a child of God and you are loved.
John is proclaiming that in Jesus we are going to experience the love of God in a way that we’ve never imagined. In Jesus we will find answers for all of the problems that leave us feeling empty.
With this life changing promise in mind we are given a task. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight. In short we are all part of a road maintenance crew. We are employed by JDOT—the Jesus Department of Transportation. I know that is corny, but it’s the truth. John the Baptist wants us to create the straightest, smoothest road—a royal highway—for Jesus to travel as he comes to us.
As Pennsylvanians we know a thing or two about roads and highways—the good and the bad. I’ll ask you this: do you want Jesus to have to travel Alt 220 or I-99 to get to you? If you remember, you used to have to take 220 from Bald Eagle to Port Matilda in you wanted to travel to State College, or to Interstate 80. And man, was that an awful stretch of road. Two lanes. Winding, Hilly. You were always stuck behind a truck or some slow-moving vehicle. It was the worst. Is that the road you want Jesus to travel? Or do you want the section of I-99 that took its place? Four lanes, smoothly paved, fairly straight with wide sweeping curves. It’s well lit and you can travel 70 miles an hour. What will it be? A congested back country road or open highway? What road will Jesus have to travel?
Jesus is coming. He is coming and he’s bringing the power of the Holy Spirit, a power that will repair and cover our every flaw. We will be inadequate no more. We will be filled by God’s grace. So let us prepare the royal highway, the King of kings is near. AMEN