Can You Hear Me Now?

John the Baptist prepares the way for the Christ. But how? By proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

As a result people flocked to the Jordan River to confess and to be forgiven. They heard the call of John the Baptist and responded.

We are in Advent, the season of preparation for the advent of Christ. And how do we prepare? We also prepare by hearing John's call to confess and to be forgiven.

And like the Verizon guy on the TV commercial John moves around proclaiming, "God forgives," and asking can you hear me now?

Out of all the biblical figures we come to know throughout the year John the Baptist has to be given the superlative as the least likely to be invited to a party. After all, he is described in our Gospel today as a man who wore clothing made of camel's hair, and someone who ate locusts and wild honey.

Yet God, once again chooses someone whom the world sees an unlikely person to deliver his message. And this is a theme we see repeated throughout the Bible don't we?

John the Baptist came preparing the way. A man that knew his role as he candidly admitted, he was not the way, but rather the preparer of the way.

This is what Isaiah told us to do in today's Old Testament reading as well, "In the desert prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40: 3). Not too flattering an image of where we live is it?

Wilderness, desert, and yet, if we honestly examine our business practices, our sexual morals, life in our communities, or even calculate the millions of dollars spent on mind-altering drugs and alcohol, the words wilderness, and desert, don't seem to be too much of an over statement of our situation.

Maybe that's why John went into the desert to preach. He called people out of the cities, beckoned them to come out into the desert with him.

You'll remember the desert was the place where Israel had been called to after Egyptian slavery in the exodus. The wilderness was where Israel lost its way in the 40-year wandering. The wilderness is where many of us and our loved ones finally hear the call of God. The prophets had spoken of a time when Israel, separated and alienated from God because of sin and abandonment of faith, would be once again gathered and then united to God.

John is calling Israel back out into the wilderness, like a new exodus, a re-gathering of the scattered, despairing people.

But a people separated from God due to their sin cannot come back to God unless they are summoned, unless God is willing to forgive and receive the chosen people back.

Mark says that in John the Baptist this is happening, God is calling his people. Israel is being summoned back to God.

The way back that straight highway through the desert, comes about through confession and forgiveness. Thus John proclaims a baptism "of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

God forgives. Can you hear me now?

Advent is a time for us to be honest. Someone once asked me "how come we confess our sins every Sunday in worship, its so depressing. I want to praise God not confess my sins."

Well my response is how can we truly praise God when we have the weight of sin on our hearts. Confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness is a means to purify our hearts, if we are honestly confessing. How can we praise God when unresolved issues lay heavy on us?

It seems to me that to know that our sins are forgiven gives us even more reason to praise and thank God. This makes our worship experience more genuine, more meaningful, and spirit-filled.

A hallmark of Christianity is truth, and through acknowledging our deficiencies as humans, and receiving God's forgiveness, we then can look toward the future with hope. A future of unconditional love and eternal life.

And I'm not speaking of a far off future. I'm speaking of a future, which can be now if we confess and know we are forgiven.

God forgives. Can you hear me now?

Sometimes we complain that God seems far away from us. The truth is it's more accurate to say that we are far away from God. God is truth, and yet we often times live in deceit. God is light, yet we seem in many, many ways, to prefer darkness over light.

How can people like us, living in this wilderness, this desert we call home, how can we ever hope to come back to God?

Well God has come back to us. In the form of this unlikely prophet out in the wilderness, God comes to us saying, "I will forgive you. You can come home."

John is inviting us back into the wilderness to repent, to confront who we really are, to face the truth that we have fallen short, to remind us we need to confess our sins and to seek forgiveness from God almighty. Did you hear Mark's opening words in our Gospel reading? The gospel opens by saying "The beginning of the good news…" (Mark 1:1) John the Baptist, preaching baptism for the forgiveness of sins, is the beginning of the good news.

God forgives. Can you hear me now?

Later on, Jesus will demand much of us. He will teach us about the narrow way that leads to life, and the fact that we will stray from this way. Countless times we will forsake his way, we will disappoint, deceive, and deny him.

Now if this makes people feel bad, I don't apologize for that. This is the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts, the truth convicts, and hopefully the truth will stir us to action, action to confess and seek forgiveness. God forgives. Can you hear me now?

In case you haven't noticed, Christianity is a religion in which the sinners have all the advantages. Sinners can step on our feet fifty times and we're supposed to keep on smiling.

Sinners can talk bad about us every time we leave the room, and as Christians we are suppose to excuse them with no thought of getting even.

The burden is on us, because we have been forgiven ourselves, and God expects us to do unto others as he has done unto us.

If God is willing to stay with us in spite of our meanness, our weaknesses, and our stubborn self-righteousness, then who are we to hold these same things against someone else.

It's better for us to confess our own sins than to keep track of others sins, only it tends to be harder to stay focused on our own shortcomings.

It's a whole lot easier to keep track of others shortcomings, especially when they are hurtful to us.

I wonder what would happen if we took all the energy we spend on tracking others sins and used that energy to correct our own deficiencies.

Staying angry with others is how we protect ourselves. Refusing to forgive others is not only how we punish others; it's also how we keep others for getting close enough to hurt us again.

And you know what, often times this works; only there is a side effect. It's called bitterness, and it can do terrible things to the human body and the soul.

Bitterness can eat away at you until there is nothing left but a shell, a shell of a person not knowing what to do next. I know this can happen; I've experienced it myself.

But there is another way. Know that none of our sin is able to defeat the beginning of the good news in Mark. And the beginning of the good news is this.

For us, for those who dwell in the land of darkness, light has come. God has sent John the Baptist to us to proclaim the way back home.

God forgives. Can you hear me now?

This way, the good news, has two steps. The first is simple honesty: it's acknowledging that we sin, we fall short of the glory of God, we stray, we lie, we don't know how to save ourselves by ourselves. This is repentance, the simple, yet honest admission that in our sin we need to be forgiven.

The second step is related to the first: God forgives. God in Christ will have much to say to us in the remaining good news of Mark. But isn't it interesting that the very first thing that God has to say to us, the first sermon in the gospel of Mark, is forgiveness.

We can be washed, we can be cleansed, and we can be born again. We can start over, fresh, like a newborn baby.

God forgives. Can you hear me now?

Many years ago in India, a group of men traveling through desolate countryside found a seriously wounded man lying beside the road. They carried him to the Christian mission hospital some distance away and asked the missionary physician who met them at the door if a bed was available for the man. The physician looked at the injured man and immediately noticed that he was an Afghan, and a member of a warring tribe. "Bring him in," he said. "For him we have a bed."

When the physician examined the man, he found that an attacker had seriously injured his eye and the man's sight was imperiled. The man was desperate with fear and rage, pleading with the doctor to restore his sight so that he could find his attacker and exact retribution.

"I want revenge," he screamed. "I want to kill him. After that I don't care whether I am blind the rest of my life or not!"

The doctor told the man that he was in a Christian hospital that Jesus had come to show us how to love and forgive others, even to love and forgive our enemies.

The man listened but was unmoved. He told the doctor that Jesus' words about forgiveness and love were nice, but meaninglessness. Revenge was the only goal, vengeance the only reality.

The doctor rose from his bedside, saying that he needed to attend to other patients. He promised to return that evening to tell the man a story, a story about a person who took revenge.

When he returned that evening, the doctor began his story. Long ago, he recounted, the British government had sent a man to serve as envoy to Afghanistan, but as he traveled to his new post, he was attacked on the road by a hostile tribe. He was accused of espionage and thrown into a shabby makeshift prison.

There was only one other prisoner, and the men suffered through their ordeal together. They were poorly clothed, badly fed, and mistreated cruelly by the guards.

Their only comfort was a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, which had been given to the envoy as a farewell gift by his sister in England. She had inscribed her name along with a message of good will on the first page.

This book served the men not only as a source of their prayers but also as a diary, a place to record their daily experiences.

The margins of the prayer book became a journal of their anguish and their faith.

Those two prisoners were never heard from again. Their families and friends waited for news that never came; they simply vanished without a word, leaving those who loved them in uncertain grief. Over 20 years later, a man browsing through a second-hand bookstore found the prayer book. How it got there, no one knows. But after reading some of the journal entries in the margin, he recognized its value and set off to locate the sister whose name was in the front of the book. And after some time the man did find her.

With deep heartache the sister read each entry. When she came to the last one, she noted that it was in a different handwriting. It said simply that the two prisoners had been taken from their cell, publicly flogged and then were forced to dig there own graves before being executed.

At that moment she knew what she must do. Her brother had died a cruel death at the hand of torturers in a run-down Afghan jail, and this injustice must be repaid. She must exact revenge…but Christian revenge.

She was not wealthy, the doctor continued, but she marshaled all the money she could and sent it to the mission hospital. Her instructions were that the money was to be used to keep a bed free at all times for a sick or wounded Afghan.

This was to be her revenge for her brother's torture at the hand of the Afghans and his death in their country.

The wounded man was quiet, silenced by this story of such strange revenge. "My friend, " said the doctor, "you are now lying in that bed. Your care is her revenge."

God forgives! Can you hear me now? Amen

Read other messages by Pastor Wade