December 10, 2017

A Straight Path to the Beginning of the Good News – December 10, 2017

Passage: Mark 1:1-8

Bible Text: Mark 1:1-8 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” One would expect that following an opening line like that would be something dramatic. There would be celestial lights, choirs of heavenly angels appearing to shepherds on a lonely hillside, wise men following the light of a distant star. That’s how Matthew and Luke picture the beginning. John tells of a pre-existent Word of God that was the light of all people, the true light shining in the midst of darkness, that the darkness would never be able to overcome. “The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (John 1:14)

One would expect that “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” would lead at least to a Christmas Show or to a gala like we had here last night with songs and celebration, lights and choirs. But no. As Mark tells the story “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” leads to a wild-eyed ascetic, a hairy man dressed in camel’s hair, standing knee deep in the muddy river shouting at the top of his lungs, “REPENT!”  John the Baptist’s message of repentance turn out to be the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.

John calls out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” God is coming and we need to change our hearts and lives in order to get ready to meet him. In the Gospel of Luke several people ask John what they must do. John answered:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Even (the despised) tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extract money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)

Mark tells us that the essential lead-up to the very life of God, the essential lead up to God’s Son, is to look at our own paths, straighten them out from all their crooked ways and that God then will use those straightened paths to make a new beginning.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to an inspiring book on Tape, A Path Appears by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, first published in 2014. The book is about creating pathways to do good. So it was a natural connection for me this week to equate the various paths to doing good highlighted in this book, to the path John the Baptist said we needed to make to meet the Messiah. In their introduction they quote Lu Xun, a 1921 Chinese Essayist, “Hope is like a path in the countryside; originally there is nothing. But as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.”

They begin with the story of Rachel Beckwith, a little girl who set up an online giving page for her 9th birthday asking people to donate to build a well through Charity Waters to provide water for poor communities in Africa. She was disappointed to fall $80 short of her $300 goal. Shortly after her birthday an accident in a car where she was a passenger put her into a coma. Family members and friends started contributing to her fundraising page, hoping reports of the page’s growing success would speed her recovery. Word got out and the page went viral. Thousands of people contributed in $9 increments. Her loved ones hoped that she could hear through her coma when her fundraising page surpassed the previous largest amount when Justin Beaver asked people to contribute to build a well for his birthday. Sadly, Rachel’s condition didn’t improve and she died. Contributions continued to pour in by people inspired by a little girl who wanted to help others on her birthday. Over $1.2 million dollars was raised on Rachel’s page building 143 wells and providing clean water for over 37,000 people in Ethiopia.

Scott Harrison found that he did better at night-life and partying than he did at New York University in the late 1990’s. In fact he made a business of it. He became a night-club promotor. Clubs and name-brand drinks would pay him to promote their products. He had a following of some 20,000 people who sought his nightlife recommendations. He fully embraced the wild partying life for himself as well. By his late 20’s he realized that his life was empty and he was the most selfish, hedonistic person he knew. He decided to take his life in a 180 degree about face and try to do good for others. He volunteered for a full-time volunteer position on Mercy Ships in Africa as a photo-journalist, where he worked for 2-years. One of the projects he worked on was to document the huge difference made in the health and well-being of a village by drilling a well and providing clean water.

On his 31st birthday Scott decided to use his promotional talent and night club contacts to throw a birthday party for himself for $20 a ticket and to donate all the proceeds to build a well. He raised $15,000. Soon after he founded Charity Waters, which now has over 1 million subscribers worldwide, has raised over $210 million, allowing over 6 million people in 24 countries world-wide to have access to clean water. He has inspired people like 9-year old Rachel Beckwith and countless others. In doing so Scott also returned to the Bible and rediscovered his faith in God.

I think this is the kind of path that John the Baptist was talking about. A Path Appears covers research showing that people who give to others, who regularly volunteer and who practice their faith in meaningful ways, live longer, have better health and are happier and more fulfilled than those who do not. Bill Gates, whose Bill and Linda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest players in the fight to eliminate preventable disease, speaks of the responsibility and joy any of us would feel if we were able to save just one person’s life.   Multiply that by the joy of being able to save not just one life but millions of lives.

What kind of path needs to appear in my life, in your life, in our parish’s life to enable us to serve others in new and effective ways? How can we take greater joy in serving others, in loving the people of the world whom Jesus came to save? That’s the kind of straight path that John the Baptist said leads to the Messiah. Of course at the same time we need to turn away from all those false paths that lead only to our own entertainment and self-indulgence.

It strikes me that Times Magazine Person of the Year, recognizing “the Silence Breakers, women and men behind the hashtag “#me too,” who have come forward to publically report their painful stories of being assaulted or touched inappropriately or forced into actions against their will, could be another kind of straight pathway for the Messiah to come.   These people have broken the silence protecting powerful men in media from suffering any consequence for sexual abuse and assault. And because of their coming forward many powerful men have been forced out of their positions.

My prayer is that the “# me too” movement will not only be a day of reckoning for some of those who abused others, but more importantly may be a path to real change and honest conversation in our society. Such a path could lead us into standards of mutual respect, to an end of tolerating sexual predation, a safeguarding of people’s right to be treated with dignity. It could lead to a new examination of how we sexualize just about everything in our society – idolizing lust while not providing clear, safe guidelines for people to treat one another. No wonder people grow up confused about sex. This is also the kind of change I think that John the Baptist was pointing to when he called for people to make straight the way for the Messiah to come.

What needs to change in our country and the world for the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, to come with healing in his wings? Never, since I was a young child in the midst of the cold war with the Soviet Union, have I felt the world and our nation to be in a more dangerous place. Tensions are high, hatred, racism and religious intolerance are growing. Sometimes it feels like we’re all caught up in a conflagration, much like the fires burning in Southern California that are fueled by Santa Anna winds. We need to keep working for straight paths that cut through the misunderstandings and political entrenchments to real dialogue and understanding.

What change does John the Baptist’s call to create a straight path, a way to meet God in changed lives, is needed in you and me? It may be uncomfortable. It may lead to my opening my eyes more to the needs of others. It may demand some change of behavior. It may invite me to take on new disciplines. Today as we confess our sins before God and our neighbor I invite you to ask God to show you a new straight path that can lead to repentance. What is the path he has for you?

On the second Sunday of Advent the curtain lifts on the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God and it doesn’t reveal what we’d expect. The beginning of the good news of Jesus love breaking forth in our world turns out to be a change of heart in you and me. That beginning is a new path that leads to God’s love.


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