Joe Neville

Isaiah 40:1-11

Mark 1:1-8



Ready or Not


Let's talk of John the Baptist, as the lectionary text suggests we do, for the Second Sunday in Advent. He'd hardly head your Christmas party guest list and I guess if he strolled into one of our holiday parties, we would be mighty uncomfortable! First, there's that outfit–camel's hair and a leather belt…not exactly festive attire. Then there's that weird diet he's on–locusts and wild honey. Not exactly my choices for a holiday snack.  Parties are supposed to be fun events–and John the Baptist is not your fun kind of guy.

But if he is not fun–John is important.  For 400 years before his birth there had been no prophet in the land of Israel. Scripture reminds us, "There was no voice, nor any that answered."  The life of the average Israelite was pretty miserable as the skies above remained silent.  But, with John's emergence from the wilderness, the sound of the prophetic voice was again heard in the land.  No wonder the people began to come to him: "Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region around Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river, confessing their sins."

Think of those who came down to the river, shopkeepers and farmers, religious leaders and simple folk, the well-behaved and the desperate, doubters and the faithful, people by the thousands poured forth to be baptized and to confess their desire to begin again. Even in the darkest of times, or perhaps because of the darkness of those times, something deep down in the spirit of those people reminded them that judgment is inescapable, especially when times are terrible and there is no hope.

Last week we talked about the paradoxical truth at Advent. Today, we are reminded of the Advent truth again: no darkness, no light; no denunciation, no annunciation, no confession, no beginning again.

Why did all those people come to the water? Were they ready to be baptized and did they realize what that might mean for them? John was preaching repentance and confession of sins, were they ready to begin again? How did Jesus find himself with all the others, standing on the shore of the Jordan that day? Was he ready for the ministry after his baptism? Was he ready for the world that was in urgent need of a savior?

Perhaps the only person in the story who was ready for the coming of God in this new age was John the Baptist. John had an uncanny sense of the call of God. Remember that he had just come from a long stay alone in the wilderness; most likely the only voices John had heard for a long time were his own and God's. John heard the voice: "Go!"  I wonder if he was ready to go?  John listened to voices in wind and desert. He knew he was called forth into the emergency of the human condition–the desperation of the people of Israel. His readiness came in willingness to move forward from the desert into life. Most of us are not ready for the perpetual emergency of human life. We boldly think we have control over our destinies and we enjoy making rock solid plans on which to build our lives. Some of us love to think in terms of long-range planning and 3-5 year strategic plans, but life is what happens when we are busy with other plans! Think for a moment of the plans you made for your life–25 years ago, 10 years ago, even last year…has your life turned out the way you planned?

Mine hasn't!

How can we get ready for this life? How can we learn to bear our failures, live with our successes, suffer our losses, embrace happiness, prepare the way for grace, give ourselves to wonder, or sustain hope in this world in which we live?

How can we get ready for what is ahead?

Are we ever ready? We like to think we have control of ourselves and of the world and what it will be; but, the truth is we do not have any control at all.

Here we are 4 weeks to the beginning of yet another new year. This is a world where cloning is becoming common place, a world where a face can be reattached on another human being, a world where stem cell research is discovering ways to manufacture cells in the human body to be sent out to make what ever the body needs–designer cells.  We live in a world where our polar ice cap is now melting and the ozone layer of protection is disappearing; a world where weapons technology is very big business.  We live in a time and a place where all this is happening at a rapid pace and, as yet, there are no laws, no wisdom, no developed ethics to help us sort out our role and our stance in all this–we think we have control over life–and then we remember this is the world.

The Gospel calls us forward, ready or not. We are compelled to move forward just as the thousands came down to the water to be baptized and begin again. They came out of the deep places of suffering, despair, loss and a sense of hopelessness about their world. They came down to the river with a shudder of hope and a relentless longing to find a way in the darkness. The people came to John to begin again, to be forgiven, to be reconverted, not only from what they were, but to be moved toward something–whatever hope they could claim in God.

Jesus came to the water too. He was compelled to move into a ministry and a life he was not really prepared for, as he moved into a world which was not ready for him. It was not ready to hear the good news. Why would the ministry of Jesus be so difficult?  The answer is because that world, as is this one, was not ready to face redemption through love.

We come to the table of the feast of life today. Once a month we gather round this table to celebrate our human family and to remember the story of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection. His story is our story.  Today, we come with a confession: we are not ready for what is to come!  This is not an accusation; nor are we wimping out.  We can confess we are not ready because God says; I will come to you, ready or not. At this table we find our hope in the God of the ancient Israelites who chose to believe that God would comfort them and they would receive double for all their pain and sorrow. At this table, we find the hope of Mary, who ready or not, had to bring her baby into a world where the rich were greedy and the nations were crazed with power. At this table we can place our fears of all the things for which we are not ready and all our hope for what will come. We know–alone–we are not ready to deal with terrorism, violence, without war, poverty, designer cell research; not ready for a world where profits come before people. Alone, we cannot enter into this land, this world.

John the Baptist baptized the best way he knew–with cleansing, healing water. But he knew that it wouldn't completely do what needed to be done.

He saw ahead–promised baptism by the one who was coming who was greater than he could ever be–Baptism with Spirit.

Are we ready for that baptism?

Ready or Not! Here it comes!