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Second Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 40, 1 - 11
Mark 1, 1 - 8

Today is the Second Sunday in Advent.  Advent is the start of the Church's year.  This year is year 'B' in the new lectionary and concentrates on the Gospel of Mark.  Today, we heard the very first verses of Mark's Gospel.  The early Church ascribed Mark's Gospel to John Mark the son of a certain Mary of Jerusalem (Acts 12 v 12) and a cousin of Barnabas.  He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary tour.  Later Paul and Barnabas separated because Paul refused to have Mark on his second tour.  However, Paul and Mark are eventually reconciled (Colossians 4 v 10-11).  Early Church writers declare that Mark wrote his Gospel while in Rome as a disciple of Peter.  It is thought to date between AD 64 and AD 68 and it is often regarded as the earliest of the Gospels.  So, if that is true, we heard this morning the opening written verses of the New Testament.

So how does Mark start his Gospel?  He immediately locks it back to the Old Testament quoting from the prophet Isaiah "prepare the way of the Lord" the wonderful passage we heard in our Old Testament reading.  The passage which inspired the air "every valley shall be exalt ed" in Handel’s Messiah which is one of my favourite pieces of music.

Mark is unique among the 3 synoptic Gospel writers because there is no mention of Jesus’ birth.  He jumps straight in with John the Baptist and, if we read on, the baptism of Jesus.  As we lead on into Christmas, if we relied only on Mark's Gospel, it would be a Christmas without Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the stable, without the guiding star, the shepherds and even the wise men.  Christmas cards would show only robins and snowmen and there wouldn’t be any Nativity Plays that we all love to watch our children and grandchildren forgetting their lines in!

Last week, Liz and I went to watch out 6-year-old granddaughter in her school nativity play, in which she was one of the villagers.  As my daughter was doing the stage lighting, she asked me to record Sophie on my camcorder, which I readily agreed to do.  Unfortunately, I completely missed recording her saying her one line perfectly.  However, I was forgiven because last year, when she was one of the angels, my son-in-law recorded the whole play zoomed in on the wrong angel!

Why does Mark leave out the birth of Jesus?  It is possible that some of the Gospel was lost or perhaps Mark thought the ministry of Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Christ, was more important than the story of his birth.  I believe that would be very sad.  There is a lot of commercialism of Christmas, but we should not let it detract from the meaning of Christmas as the birth of "the promised Messiah - the saviour - not only of the Jews but of the whole world.”

I am as guilty as many others in saying Christmas is commercialised but now in Advent we have an opportunity to prepare for and reflect on what Christmas really means.  We can look at the Christmas lights in our high streets and shops and think of Jesus as the light of the world.  We can watch children opening their Advent Calendars and, as more and more windows open, we can share their excitement and, if we’re lucky, perhaps a small piece of chocolate, which seems to be an absolute requirement for Advent calendars nowadays!  In Church we can watch each week the lighting of the Advent candle and watch it burn down with anticipation and reflection as Christmas day draws nearer.

Fortunately, we do have the Christmas story told by Matthew and Luke and so even the most sceptical agnostic must at least know the Christmas story.  As Christians, we must protect this story against the modern trend to remove all mention of Christ from Christmas.  Soon it will just be Xmas and Father Christmas; sorry Father Xmas.  Perhaps we should replace the ‘X’ of Xmas with another letter not representing the cross.  How about father A-mas?

I am wandering; back to Mark's Gospel.  So why did Mark start his Gospel with John the Baptist?  I believe the answer is in this reading.  Mark records John the Baptist’s words:

"The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptised you with water, he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit". 

Matthew and Luke recorded similar words, but these words were in the third chapter of their Gospels, after the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood.  If Mark wants to show that the ministry of Jesus is more important than the story of his birth, could this have any relevance to us as Christians today?

To try to answer this, I want to elaborate on that saying from John the Baptist, “I have baptised you with water, he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit." 

Many non-Church people want their children baptised.  Poorly babies are baptised by nurses or midwives, if they are considered likely to die before a Priest can be called.  It is a kind of safety net, a passport to heaven (title hough what sins a new born baby could possibly have committed I don't know).  However, trusting the baby to God's care seems a logical thing to do.

I recently read a book called "birds without wings" by Louis de Bernieres, the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.  It is about a village in what is now Turkey but, which under the Ottoman Empire, was about half Christian and half Muslim.  After the First World War, all the Christians were forcibly evicted to Greece title hough they spoke only Turkish.  Ethnic cleansing on purely religious grounds. 

The reason for mentioning this is that the village had a Priest and an Imam.  All Christian babies were baptised by the Priest but, to be on the safe side, were also taken to the Imam for the Shahida (there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Messenger) to be pronounced over them.  Likewise, Muslim babies were taken to the Imam for The Shahida to be pronounced over them.  They were then taken to the Priest for a blessing!  I suppose you could call it taking no chances.

Baptism is important but, as John the Baptist says, it is only the first step.  The final step is to receive the Holy Spirit from Jesus himself.  Washing away sin and signing a baby or an adult with the cross in holy water is a great symbol of joining the Christian Church - the body of Christ here on earth.  But how do we convince people there is something much more wonderful - the Holy Spirit?  The Holy Spirit is not an easy concept.  I prefer the term Holy Spirit to Holy Ghost as the word ghost nowadays conjures up pictures of Nearly Headless Nick from the Harry Potter stories!

The Holy Spirit is God's presence with us all here today.  The Holy Spirit not only supports us in times of trouble and sadness, it also challenges us.  Without that challenge, I would be sitting in the congregation with you listening to someone else preach.  Perhaps you feel that would be a good idea but please doesn’t answer!! 

It reminds me of the daughter of a Minister who asked her mother "Why does Daddy pray to God before he preaches?”  Her mother replied, "He asks God to help him in his sermon" a cloud came over the little girls face and she said, "Why doesn't he then?"

We do all need God’s Holy Spirit.  It is a gift given to us all freely by God because he loves us all, whether saint or sinner, all we have to do is accept.  It is something very special and we should all listen to it, not only in times of trouble, but in times of joy and in times of quiet reflection.

You may be surprised where the Holy Spirit leads you.

Amen. 

Martin Simmonds
4th December 2005

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