Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

“Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! This morning, on the 10th Day of December, in the year of our Lord, 1520, Dr. Martin Luther will deliver to the town square in this city of Wittenberg the papal bull condemning all his writings and commence to burn it to the ground.”

Now, did that surprise you? Did you find that announcement unexpected?  Well, that event actually did occur on this day in 1520. Luther did burn that proclamation condemning his works. But probably no town crier announced it ahead of time, although I did my best to sound as if one did. Neither did I look the part. I wasn’t wearing a blue, three-cornered hat or a red coat or white breeches. Another thing lacking was a proper bell. I used to have one. It was given to me by a member of a church I once served—to help me, whenever necessary, to get people’s attention. But at some point it disappeared. I miss it. It could still come in handy.

The purpose of this town-crier routine was to surprise you, give you a jolt, to get your attention in a way you’re not accustomed to. That is actually how the Gospel of Mark begins. Hardly any advanced notice: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God….‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…’” It’s so unlike the other gospels, which lay a certain amount of groundwork before moving into the message of John of Baptist.

In Matthew we see first a genealogy of Jesus going all the way back to Abraham. Then comes the account of Joseph the carpenter deciding to stay with Mary after he learns she’s with child. Luke, on the other hand, begins with an angel visiting the husband of Elizabeth—Mary’s cousin—telling him that in their old age they will have a baby boy. The same angel appears then to Mary with the news she will have the Christ Child, followed by the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. Even the Gospel of John first lays out—in a very calm way—just who Jesus is.

But is there anything that sounds calm in the beginning of Mark? No at all! Cutting to the chase, he gets right into it. Whether we’re ready or not, we are immediately confronted by a rough-looking fellow in the middle of the wilderness. Known not for his social graces, he gets right to the point. He’s blunt, and he’s bold.

You know, sometimes I like that kind of person. Usually, I prefer interacting with someone who’s polite, diplomatic. But other times, I appreciate someone who doesn’t beat around the bush, who comes right out and says what he or she means. I may not necessarily like that in-your-face style, but at least I know where I stand. I don’t have to guess what’s going on. I don’t have to interpret every word he or she says. What I see and hear is what I get, and that can be refreshing.

As in Mark, we see the exactly same kind of boldness, the same kind of immediacy, in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:

            A voice cries out:

                “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,

                        make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

            Every valley shall be lifted up,

                        and every mountain and hill be made low;

            the uneven ground shall become level,

                        and the rough places a plain.

            Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed…”

The father of Deborah’s best friend in college was an engineer for a large highway construction company. He would spend months, even years in the planning stages of major projects, taking into account things like…

·         Determining types of soil,

·         Purchasing land from those living along the proposed route,

·         Estimating costs of all the material and labor.

·         And establishing a time frame as well.

To say the least, building highways is no simple matter. Can you imagine what the passage in Isaiah would sound like if it included all those factors? All those conditions? It would sound silly, wouldn’t it? By the same token, based on today’s passage, that process would look like something entirely different. Without any advanced notice, a manager of a crew with a handful of bulldozers and other earth-moving machines getting up one morning and going straight out to an unmarked place:

·         Immediately digging out hills.

·         Filling up low spots.

·         Dynamiting rocks that are in the way.

·         Working around the clock, until the entire project is done.

For all the unexpected, rough-and-tumble style in today’s passages, that’s not the only thing we read. It’s not the only thing we hear. We also see in it hope expressed in a different way, in a  gentleness way. Again, in Isaiah:

            Comfort, comfort, O my people,

                        says your God.

            Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…

 

            [God] will feed his flock like a shepherd;

            he will gather the lambs in his arms,

            and carry them in his bosom…

God knows what fragile creatures we can be—even like “flower[s]of the field [that would all fade should] the breath of the LORD [blow upon us]…”

So there are at least two sides of God that we can experience: the all-powerful divine being—who acts in ways that are sudden and overwhelming. But also the gentle shepherd who reassures us, who protects us. I wonder sometimes whether John the Baptist also had to him at least two sides—not only that rough, in-your-face exterior, but also on the inside a deeply sensitive soul.

I once had a supervisor like that—during some of my training in chaplaincy work. He was a very direct kind of person. If I or anyone else in the group wasn’t being particularly up front about something, he would immediately call us out on it. He had what you could call a tough-love approach. But, by the same token—when any of us would most need it—he’d be the first to listen to our doubts and lack of confidence and give us the shot in the arm that we needed.

Beginning with Thanksgiving, we have again found ourselves in a time of year marked by joy and merry-making. Once more we hear Christmas music on the radio in shopping malls (the latter, at least, for those of us who do not yet doing all our shopping online!). We admire beautifully decorated houses and front lawns. And once in a while, we still see those fluffy reindeer antlers on top of cars and red “noses” on the grills. So even in the busyness of it all—hectic schedules, long shopping lists, heavy traffic—we still see people enjoying the season.

Of course, that’s not how it is for everyone—not by a long shot. I think about those for whom this Christmas will be a very difficult one—probably a lot like their Thanksgiving Day was. Victims…

·         of hurricanes and floods.

·         of mass shootings.

·         of record-breaking wildfires—some still raging even at this very moment.

There also are those who for a long time have suffered from a lack of food, clothing, or shelter. And there are those who have, through illness, lost a loved one. The list goes on. If anything, in a broken world we constantly need to know God’s presence is among us.

One way we receive that hope, that promise is in the image of that straight, level road in the wilderness. That whatever clutter, whatever obstacles lie in our path God will someday push out, will sweep away. So that our journey may become lighter and our destination clearer. God will do that in ways that seem sudden and unsettling. Like using a half-naked, wild man in the desert, with a good, strong voice and a compelling message. And sometimes, as in the image of a shepherd, God will use ways that are so gentle, so quiet, so unassuming we may hardly notice them at all. Amen.