A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 10, 2017 (II Advent, Year B)
If you’ve ever been to the opera, you know that they always begin with an overture. The anticipation first begins to build as you are shown to your seat by the tuxedoed usher. You take out your opera glasses, flip through the libretto, and settle in for the show. Suddenly the lights dim and the orchestra, which you can’t see because they’re in a pit below the stage, starts to play.
The overture often hints at the various musical themes to come and helps set the stage for the drama that will soon unfold. Backstage it signals the singers to take their places so that, at the conclusion of the overture, as the curtain opens, the action may begin.
In the four accounts of Jesus’ life that make up the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John there are different approaches to what might be thought of as literary overtures. Luke opens with the beautiful and familiar birth narrative — we’ll hear from Luke on Christmas Eve with Mary and Joseph, the manger, and swaddling clothes all playing prominent roles. Matthew begins with a genealogy as Jesus’ birth is put into a wider context that highlights his royal Davidic lineage. And on Christmas Day we’ll hear John’s poetic prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
In the opening of Mark’s gospel, which we hear this morning, there is no overture. There is no flowery language to set the scene or allow readers to settle into their seats. The curtain is ripped open and, ready or not, the action begins.
The start of Mark’s gospel is abrupt and jarring and immediate. It sets the tone for the frenzied, urgency of his unfolding narrative. And we are reminded that there is an inherent urgency to the life of faith. Who dares stand idle when there is so much work to be done? There’s no time for complacency when the kingdom of God is at hand; there’s no time to dawdle when people are lost and suffering; there’s no time to delay when our very salvation is at stake.
And as the curtain is torn open, we encounter John the Baptist. Rather than the dulcet tones of an aria, we hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is the perfect character for such an abrupt opening. John reminds us, in his inimitable way, that the life of faith is not just about pious thoughts, fancy robes, and needlepoint kneelers. It is about action. Immediate action. John the Baptist cuts through all the saccharine, sentimental sweetness of the secular season to remind us that there is work to do. Urgent work.
In the first chapter alone Mark uses the word “immediately,” euthus in Greek, eleven times. And the word appears throughout the fast-paced 16 chapters of his gospel. The action moves rapidly from one scene to the next and all we can do is hold on for dear life as Mark takes us on a full tilt journey through Jesus’ life and ministry.
So, what’s the rush? What’s wrong with sitting back, taking a deep breath, and soaking in God’s abiding presence? Well, nothing of course; slowing down is an important spiritual discipline, something to be cultivated over time. But for Mark, the fast pace highlights the importance of Jesus’ message, the short earthly window with which he had to share it, and the urgency for the reader — that’s you and me — to accept it and act upon it
Now it’s true that there are a lot of “immediatelys” in our lives this time of year. So just hearing the word may raise our collective anxiety level. As December unfolds, we race from one thing to the next. If Mark was writing down a record of our lives he would be sticking “immediatelys” in-between everything we had to get done — the Christmas shopping, the cards, the tree, the parties, the trips to the post office and grocery store. We are basically all living the Gospel of Mark! Well, sort of. We have the frenzy and the immediacy part down. But what about the meaning? Is the urgency focused on something beyond ourselves or are we just feeling harried and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd?
The thing is, urgency must be balanced with contemplation. Usually, I encourage people to find space for silence, to take a break from the pace and volume of daily life, and to savor time spent in prayer. But today, I’m encouraging you to embrace the immediacy of this season — not in order to cause you more stress. You have plenty of that, I’m sure. Not in order to add to your to-do list. You don’t need any more tasks. But in a way that, I promise, will cause you more joy. Because adding a sense of urgency to your faith life always brings you closer to Jesus.
A few years ago, a friend gave me a t-shirt that reads, “Look Busy, Jesus is Coming.” I don’t where it too often since, well, I’m not sure what the proper venue would be. Mowing the lawn, maybe? And while it’s meant to be humorous, there is some underlying truth. Not in looking busy but in doing the hard work of preparation for Jesus’ return. This is where spiritual immediacy comes in.
Because this immediacy I’m talking about isn’t simply something else to do. It becomes our identity as Christians living out our faith in a sometimes dark and distressing world. So when we see injustice, we are called to immediately rectify it; when we encounter sinfulness in our selves, we are called to immediately confess it; when we get complacent in our worship, we are called to immediately get down on our knees. It is an immediacy of serving God and neighbor, which is the very heart of what we do. There is immediacy in feeding and clothing and visiting and welcoming the lost and the least among us. And there is immediacy in building up our relationship with the one for whom we wait with such expectant and hopeful hearts this Advent season.
Mark’s writing style reminds us that Jesus came into the world to, among other things, light a spiritual fire under each one of us. We could all use a few of Mark’s “immediatelys” when it comes to our relationship with Jesus. We could all use some more urgency in our faith lives; something to give us a little kick, something to shake us out of our comfort zones. That’s what John the Baptist helps us to do. The immediacy is all about preparation for the good news that is soon to enter, once again, into our midst. If Advent is the overture to Incarnation, the themes of hope and joy — in all their immediacy — continue to resound.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017