"Are You Heading in the Right Direction?"

2 Advent.B.20
Mark 1:1-8
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Mark, the author of today’s Gospel, always seems to be in something of a rush. He writes at a break-neck clip, motering his narrative along through the use of his favorite Greek adverb, euthus, meaning “immediately”. Everything in Mark’s gospel happens immediately, right now, fast. If Mark were driving a car, I don’t think he would be keen to pull over to admire a scenic view, let alone pause to allow a passenger the use of a rest stop.

Mark’s Gospel cuts to the chase. Here, there is no angelic visitation, no pregnant Mary or perplexed Joseph. There is no Gloria resounding from the heavens or Magi visiting from the East. What Mark gifts us with this Advent season is John the Baptist—that strident, oh-so-non-Christmassy figure, standing on the shores of the river Jordan telling us to get out there and get on the road—to make our way toward God and get moving!

The Rev. Delmer Chilton writes: “A few years ago a pastor friend told me of meeting God on the highway. He said that he and his wife were traveling North on an interstate when a semi truck began to top the crest of the hill ahead of them heading South. Above the cab, across the front of the trailer, were emblazoned the letters G -O –D.

Chilton’s friend’s mind began to whirl with questions and ideas: “What kind of music might God allow the truckers to play in the cab? Is it all Contemporary Christian, or can you pop in a little Rap or Country? Would God ever tolerate breaking the speed limit? And, if God did speed, would a State Trooper actually dare issue a ticket to God? As the truck drew closer, Chilton’s friend saw that the side of the trailer read “Guaranteed Overnight Delivery,” G-O-D. one final question flashed through his mind: If God is going south, what the heck am I doing heading north?”

Take a moment and imagine John the Baptist, larger than life, standing smack dab in the center of a highway with a large sign reading “Turn Around!” In truth, if you did so, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. The Gospel tells us that John’s ministry was to proclaim a baptism of repentance. The word “repent” means “turn around.” To repent is to male a 180 degree turn. Think of repentance, if you will, as a spiritual U-turn. Biblical Scholar Alan Richardson says, “In its New Testament usage (the word “repent”) implies much more than a mere “change of mind;” it involves a whole reorientation of the personality.”

What’s more, the call to repent comes with a sense of urgency. That sign telling you to “repent” or “turn around”, isn’t a suggestion. Think of it as a “Bridge out up ahead” type of sign. It means you’d be a fool to continue in the direction you’re currently headed—it means that you continue on only at your peril.

So, think of this, the Second Sunday of Advent, as John the Baptist’s call for you to check your internal GPS. Ask yourself, are you really headed where you need to go? Is God wanting you to head south, while you are bound and determined to go north? Have you taken an exit off the highway and are currently lost on some back road on your way to nowhere? Today is an opportunity to take stock, and to consider if you are in need of repentance—of turning around.

I suspect that we all are to some degree. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the true meaning of this season and are consumed with what we can’t have this particular Christmas—no parties, no gatherings, no shopping malls, no caroling. Maybe we’re focused on things which really don’t matter in the larger scheme of things? It could be that we’re worried and afraid, and have misplaced our joy. Perhaps grief and sorrow have dampened our ardor for God. Take a good look at your prayers. What is it for which you are hoping? In the midst of what we are asking from the Almighty, are we taking the time to listen and consider if, from a spiritual perspective, we are where God wants us to be, or not?

John the Baptist reminds us that it is important to keep asking ourselves the question, are we really headed where we need to go? Once, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had a conversation with a minister who was a fervent abolitionist and war supporter. He said “Mr. Lincoln, don’t you believe that God is on our side?” Lincoln replied, “I certainly hope so Sir. But a more important question would seem to be: Are we on God’s side?” In other words, whose map are we following?

If you pause to think about it, the Gospel message for today is immanently hopeful. John the Baptist, standing in the middle of the highway with a big U-turn sign in his hand; he’s not there to make you miserable. He’s not even there to slow you down. He’s there to get you back on track, to get you headed in the direction you really need to go. Imagine, what a blessing it is to realize that there is someone there to help you realize that whether you understood it or not, you’re lost—heading in the wrong direction—driving miles out of your way—or perhaps even headed into danger. John the Baptist is no Christmas killjoy. Far from it, he’s here to help us navigate to a place of peace and joy so that we can greet the Messiah; not simply when he arrives in a manger; but when he comes again in glory and with might.

So, take stock. Ask yourself, where are you really headed with your Advent preparations? What are you hoping for this Christmas? Is it simply a good time with family, the end of COVID when we can gather with friends once again, and plenty of presents under the tree? Is this really all that Christmas is about? Or might we be selling short the true hope of this holy time of year? John the Baptist, on this Second Sunday of Advent, is telling us that there is time to get ourselves on track. To take a serious look at ourselves and our world, to re-group and re-orient, and to head in the direction that God wants us to go, toward an expansive, hopeful place, that brings Good News and the promise of salvation, not simply to us, but to all people, in every place. Perhaps his question to us might be: What are you doing to make this happen? If our answer is “not much”, no doubt, he’d be there to tell us in clear and uncompromising terms: “Repent! Turn around! Get going in the right direction!” and move along the highway of our God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.