READING: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
SERMON : "U Turns Allowed (and Needed)"
by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild
It can be hard for us to understand John the Baptist today
as hard for us now as it was for the people who gathered in the
wilderness to hear his words some 2000 years ago.
Few people then really comprehended what he meant when he declared
his mission was "to prepare the way of the Lord and make his
Fewer still could even begin to understand him when he said
"After me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie".
And among those who responded to his words "Repent and be baptized"
there must have been complete confusion when he declared
"I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you
with the Holy Spirit".
What was John about?
Why did he do what he did?
And what importance does he have for us today?
John the Baptist is the very voice of Advent -
the voice of the coming of the Lord Jesus to earth to intervene
in the relationship between God and ourselves.
What he said was not merely a word about Jesus,
it was the Gospel -
it was the beginning of the Good News for the world.
John and his message happened at the beginning of Jesus' ministry
on this earth,
and John, and his message, still are the beginning today for
all those who want to walk with Jesus,
for all those who want to find their way out of the
wilderness and into the promised land....
It is a fact, as the old Chinese proverb tells us, that a journey
of a thousand miles must begin with one step.
John came to point out what that step must be,
he pointed out that the way of the Lord must be prepared,
and that way is not simply a highway in the desert,
but rather it is a highway in our hearts,
a direction and a step that we must take,
if we are to be ready for Christ's coming.
In the Zen tradition of the far east this idea is expressed in a
story about a university professor who went to visit the great
master Nan-In one day.
Master he said - teach me what I need to know to have a happy life.
I have studied the sacred scriptures,
I have visited the greatest teachers in the land,
but I have not found the answer,
please - teach me the way.
At this point Nan-In served tea to his guest.
He poured his visitor's cup full
and then kept on pouring and pouring
so that the tea began to run over the rim of the cup
and across the table, and still he poured,
until tea was cascading upon the floor.
The professor watched this until he could not longer restrain
himself. "Its overfull, stop, no more will go in" he cried out.
"Like this cup", Nan-in said,
"you are full of your own opinions and speculations.
How can I show you the way unless you first empty your cup?"
How can we welcome Christ,
how can we enter the promised land with him,
if we have no room in our hearts for him,
if we are not prepared?
John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord,
not by building a highway in the wilderness of Judea,
but by preparing the hearts of all who were willing to
hear him and to repent.
John called to the people to hear his message
and to take action
so that they would be able to greet the Messiah,
and walk in his way.
Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, he cried out,
for after me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of
whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
What does the word repent mean?
Quite simply it means to "turn around"
to change direction,
to face a new way,
and to begin to walk on that way,
leaving the old way behind.
Much as the professor had to empty himself to learn the way of Zen,
so each of us must change direction if we are to truly see the Lord
and walk with him from the wilderness to the promised land.
The wilderness we are in, my friends, is contained in our hearts.
It is not what is outside that defines our wilderness
rather it is what is inside,
it is created by our actions,
and by our inactions.
But those things outside do have an influence and they can,
especially at certain times of year, point out to us just how
barren and how unfruitful our present way is.
At Christmas time we more easily detect the hazards of a life
unprepared for Christ Jesus,
we more easily see what we lack,
and more vividly experience our need for God,
for anything that will ease our burdens.
It can be such a lonely time.
A lonely time -
not only and not necessarily for those who are alone because
they are widows or single mothers,
but a lonely time for those who have no peace,
for those who have been deceived into thinking that they
can buy happiness for their families by purchasing ever
bigger and better gifts.
It can be a barren time,
a time without joy,
for those who think that somehow all that they need is
supposed to be found at the office party,
or in having just the perfect tree,
or the nicest decorations on the block.
Even for those of us who value the "good news" of Jesus Christ
this can be a time of year that reveals our need for a new way
of doing things,
a time of year that shows that we too need to repent, that
we too need to empty our cups so that they can be filled
with the water of life.
In many ways we all are in a wilderness at this time of year,
a wilderness not of rocks and sand and thirst,
but a wilderness that is just as desolate and which keeps us
feeling spiritually dry.
Busyness is a feature of that desert,
continual rounds of shopping and meetings and partying,
busyness exhausts us physically and emotionally.
Noise assaults us
- from the din of the Large Malls to the incessant carols and
tunes and advertisements blaring
- from speakers in the middle of our cities and on our own
We are pressured to be happy, to be full of cheer,
to enjoy ourselves, even when we are too tired,
or wrapped up in a private and important grief.
We feel compelled to spend money we do not have charging up great
debts so that our families and friends can have toys and gadgets
that they do not really need.
We are buffeted by appeals for this and that charity,
and we are asked to work harder and longer, so that we might -
as if it was possible in our absence - make our family
We are in a wilderness alright,
a wilderness both within and without,
and we need the way of the Lord to be made ready in our
midst so that we can emerge from that wilderness
and come to the place where there is rest,
the place of hope, joy, peace, and love,
the place where our God resides.
Some ways we might prepare the way in our own lives, and in the
lives of others, are suggested by Roy Bonisteel in a column in the
United Church Observer some years back.
These things constitute a kind of turning around in how many
of us go through Advent and Christmas,
a kind of repentance as it were.
Roy suggests that instead of doing more things during Advent
and Christmas, we might do less.
that we might gear down, and relax a little more.
These precious Christmas days are too precious to spend
marching to other people's tunes. It is a month to say NO.
No to meetings that I can just as well put off until
No to invitations that I will resent when the date arrives,
No to demands that take me away from home.
When I say NO to these things this allows me to say YES to
Yes to trying out that new Christmas punch or cookie recipe
Yes to writing newsy letters to neglected friends and relatives
Yes to sharing Christmas stories and singing the beautiful
songs of the season with the children in my life.
Yes to playing with my grandchildren and cuddling up to my
Our Moderator's Advent Letter in 1990, suggested some similar
things. Among other things, the moderator suggests the following:
I will speak a word of encouragement and support to a fellow
worker, a family member, a neighbour, a stranger whose actions
touch my life.
I will invite a stranger to dinner - or someone I know is
I will read the scriptures and pray for my church and my world.
I will let go of some activity so that I will have more time
for my family, my church home, and my friends.
I will meditate each day on God's generosity and his call to
live by his love.
the repentance that most of us need,
the turning around that most of us require,
is not a hard thing,
but it is a change of attitude toward life, and toward the things
we think important now.
Repentance is not about beating ones breast and saying
what a miserable sinner one has been,
repentance is not saying I'm sorry over and over again,
repentance is doing things in a new way,
a way that gives life both to yourself and others.
a way that allows Christ to enter more deeply into your hearts.
We here today do know something more about John the Baptist than
did the people who first heard him 2000 years ago,
we do know that the one who followed, the one that he called
people to prepare for, was the Lord of Life,
a man who bestowed health and wholeness on all who were
ready for him.
John's words to us - are still important.
John calls us to the new life revealed in Jesus,
and he reminds us that if we are to have that life,
we must do just a little more than want it,
we must prepare ourselves for it,by changing our direction,
by doing certain things differently than we have done them before.
To repent is to recognize that the old ways in which we have
travelled lead us nowhere, and then to turn around, and to ask for
God's forgiveness and help, and to start walking in the way that
leads us to the light.
Repentance is a beginning that is blessed by God
a beginning that we need to make each day, one day at a time.
As we turn to face the son, our lives are warmed,
his light shines on our path,
and as we walk forward from the place we were,
we find our paths are made straight,
the valleys in our way are raised up,
the mountains and hills made low,
the rough places are levelled,
and the rugged places become a plain,
for our God walks with us.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
her sin has been paid for. AMEN
copyright - Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 1996 - 2005
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.