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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I noticed Janna sending out birthday cards this past week to a few of her friends and my relatives. I am no longer responsible for buying the cards in our family. Apparently I am a bit like Erma Bombeck. “I bought my Christmas cards last January- unfortunately, now I just can’t find them.” One of Janna’s birthday cards a few years ago caught my fancy. It was a picture of girl with a backpack standing alone on a road splitting in two directions with two road signs. The one road sign reads, “Your life ahead,” and the other sign states, “Options no longer available.” And inside, the poignant wish, “Happy Birthday- I hope it’s a good day anyway.” It was funny, perhaps because it was so true. There are times in life where there seem to be no choices, and you find yourself on life’s journey burdened by missteps, missed opportunities and mistakes.
Of course, there are many reasons that you may feel that your options in life are limited. Perhaps, you’re not feeling encouraged. You wish that there would be someone who would recognize your work. An anonymous note thanking you for your efforts on the fundraising committee; a word of encouragement spoken to you by a teacher on the way out class about the time you’ve spent working with the your child. You wish your children would thank you and hug you for the new festive clothes they wore at their holiday concert. It would be wonderful and could put a lilt into your step, a smile to your face and a chuckle to your heart.
Perhaps, you’re feeling stressed and stretched. You’ve reached the sandwich generation. You are stretched between the exhausting job of tending to your children while also dealing with parents who are suffering health problems or slipped into a form of Alzheimer’s. Throw in an unsteady job situation and a spouse who’s dealing with a similar set of parental problems, and you’ve got the perfect starting block for a long exhausting race along a road where options are no longer available or at best limited.
Perhaps, you’re carrying the burdens of the past. Misjudgments and mistakes continue to haunt you. You would like to begin the journey again from that starting point before the options were no longer available. Unfortunately, for you, life is nothing more than a time of transition. But life’s journey doesn’t have to be like that.
St. Mark’s gospel opens to just such a human experience. The voice of John the Baptist echoes the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. The people of the Israel were held exile in Babylon. They had lived there for 70 years. The old songs and traditions were being forgotten. Children were falling away from the faith. The elders had grown old and the road signs back to Israel read, “Options no longer available.” And yet we are told by St. Mark that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. A savior is coming. But in order for him to find you, you need to prepare a way.
The 18th century Methodist hymn-writer John Wesley captured the hope and promise of the Savior Jesus’ coming in his familiar Advent hymn. “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set thy people free; From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in thee.” If this is what you are longing for this Christmas, a release from the missteps, missed opportunities, misgivings and mistakes of life; if you are longing for a release from your fears and sins, a reason to rejoice again, than this St. Mark’s message of Jesus coming just for you.
Let me offer you today two convictions drawn from Wesley’s beloved hymn and St. Mark’s gospel. First, for those who prepare the way, you need not fear the past, and, Second, for those who prepare the way, you need not fear the present, for the long-expected Jesus has options even for you.
First of all, you need not fear the past. We would all like happy endings to our Christmas stories. We would all like to forget the hardships of the past year. I am reminded of the young first-grader who thought he could change the Christmas story by changing one line in the gospel. The Sunday School had been preparing for the Christmas pageant for months. The songs had been memorized. And when Joseph came to the inn and asked if there was room, the little first-grade boy playing the innkeeper replied, “You’re lucky. We just had a cancellation.” We would love to change the past, to forget our misjudgments and mistakes, and to change it all with a simple word or phrase, but most of the time, I’m afraid, it is not possible.
The long-expected Jesus, however, offers another possibility, another option if you will. Jesus brings peace to the anxious heart. God in all his wisdom knows that an uncontrolled life spent fretting over the past is an unhappy life, and so he brings the gift of forgiveness. Instead of worrying endlessly about your flaws and failings, he invites you to forgive and forget, and to move on, if you will simply prepare the way for him to enter in. That is the beginning of good news of Jesus Christ.
But in the words of John the Baptist, St Mark, also challenges you to live and act differently for the journey ahead. God knows that you need a real change of heart if you are to reach your destination successfully. So what changes are necessary for you so that long-expected Jesus may draw near? Or to put it more directly: What are you doing that keeps God at arm’s length from you? For some, it is working too hard. For others, it is too much ambition. For some, it is too much greed. For others, it is a negative attitude and outlook. St. Mark invites us to prepare ourselves, so that Jesus can enter in and redirect and transform our pasts into a productive and healthy life. So do not fear the past, prepare the way, and rejoice, “the long expected Jesus- from our fears and sins will release us.”
Secondly, the long-expected Jesus brings hope and encouragement for the present, for what you can and cannot see. Of course, that is the most difficult challenge before us. After all, preparing the way takes time and energy. We all prepare for Christmas in some way. Preparing the strings of lights for the tree, shopping for the Christmas party, driving and waiting for the kids at extra rehearsals, scurrying through the malls for the gifts or spending hours on the computer trying to evaluate possible gift. We all have our favorite and not so favorite ways of preparing for the Christmas season. Although, as a man I can state honestly, men are basically in denial about Christmas preparation while women generally think ahead. If you doubt this, go to Mill’s Fleet Farm or the Mall at noon on Christmas Eve and see who is searching for a gift with a look of panic on their face.
But what about preparing your faith for Christmas? We don’t always recognize that belief is a choice. We feel more like the passenger on a long flight, who was asked if he would like to have dinner. “What are my choices?” the passenger asked. “Yes or no,” the flight attendant replied. Sometimes, the act of believing is just as simple, but you must practice.
As John Wesley was sailing from England across the Atlantic Ocean to American colonies, he was terrified by a violent storm. He noticed however that some people aboard the wildly tossing ship, German speaking Moravians were calm and confident during the storm. They were singing hymns and praying. They trusted in God’s providential care. Wesley was impressed, but confessed that he didn’t have such a faith. One of the Moravian passengers said, “It is a simple secret. Act as if you do have such faith, and in time, faith of that character will take hold of you.” Perhaps it was this experience that inspired Wesley to write the words, “From our fears and sins release us.”
Now this may seem a bit simplistic. Rather like the greeting card, “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make the effort worthwhile.” But my friends, preparation for the long-expected Jesus takes time and energy. It takes time to dedicate to prayer and reflection. It takes energy to relax and mediate. Suzanne Guthrie, an episcopal priest, writes in her Advent devotional. Without preparation, “without the soul’s journey in tandem with Mary and Joseph, will I even notice the Divine interrupting my ordinary life? How will I discern that gentle star rising above the horizon obscured by holiday glitter? If I do not enter deeply, how shallow will my transformative journey be toward Galilee, Jerusalem, the cross, the empty tomb, Emmaus, and the ends of the earth?” Belief, you see, is a choice. But it takes practice.
Wesley’s long-expected offer of Jesus’ salvation and rest begins now. The new possibilities and options for you begin now. That is the Good News of Jesus Christ that St. Marked longed to share. God’s wonder and salvation begin when you prepare yourself to walk with Jesus as your daily companion. Yes, from fear and sin, he will release you and his hope and encouragement he will bring to those stretches of road where you will need it most. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.