Same story – different challenges

Text Mark 1:1-8

Same story – different challenges

One of the challenges during Advent and Christmas is hearing the familiar story we all know so well.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the story, but sometimes we sort of switch off – we’ve heard it all before – we want to hear something new. We all know the story. We’ve all seen the Christmas pageants and know the script.  We’ve seen the Nativity scenes with Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in a manger, the cow, donkey, the sheep and shepherds. It’s become almost too familiar.  And what is the old saying: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’”?

The season of Advent prepares the way to Christmas through the wilderness. Advent makes a straight path for Jesus – the path which is usually hindered by the busyness of shopping and food preparation and the organising of holidays. Every year has different challenges hindering our preparations for Christmas.  During this Advent season let this be a time of reflection and contemplation as we hear the good news of Jesus coming to us in the flesh. Let the gospel sink more deeply into our lives, let the story of Jesus’ birth speak to us differently this year. The story of Jesus may be familiar – it may be the same – but our lives are not the same so let us hear the story with eager ears.

But before we do, let us remember haw very different it was during COVID. For many, it was not the usual joyous march toward Christmas.  Everything might have been planned – parents were thinking about roles for their children – the play was organised and being rehearsed, the carols and readings were all worked out. But how to fit the usual crowds into one per 4 square metres and 1.5 metres apart? And how to account for any visitors that may turn up? It was anything but the straight path to Christmas that John the Baptist proclaimed-  for us there were many road blocks and potholes to be faced along the way.

During COVID all people were anxious and waiting in the wilderness of lockdowns. For many, Advent was a wilderness experience in lockdown. For many there was no clear path forward. It was a time of uncertainty, fear and grief. Christmas may have been the same familiar story but our lives were not. But while the harshness of wilderness may have confronted us during those times of church closure, the ageless truth remained the same and it is what got us through. When the angel announced to Mary and Joseph that Mary would give birth he said that this child would be called Immanuel – which means God is with us. And that kept us going, knowing that in the wilderness we were not alone.

The season of Advent reminds us that no matter where we are or what experiences we are going through that God is with us in Jesus. The wilderness is an uncomfortable place if we are alone. Peter was writing to a Christian community who were in the wilderness. They too needed reminding that the Christmas story was a story of hope in times of wilderness. The wilderness can seem like an eternity when you are alone but Peter reminds us that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day.

Peter was writing to a Christian community experiencing persecution at the hands of the ruling empire. They were looking for Jesus’ return and immediate relief from their suffering.  But God does not always act in our timeline.  A thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years to God.  And when we are suffering, the lonely nights can seem like an eternity in the wilderness but, as the Psalmist writes: ‘Weeping may last for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’

During Advent we are given a word of hope for the future while our present seems like wilderness. The prophet John the Baptist proclaimed in the wilderness a familiar message to a people who were in the wilderness themselves. Israel has been invaded by the Roman Empire and they had no king.  John pointed away from himself and toward someone greater to come. John pointed to a hopeful future by promising one who would come baptizing, not with mere water but with the eternal Holy Spirit. And we are to live out our hope by looking away from ourselves and our wilderness to one more powerful than us.

Our Advent message is that we are called to be a people that await the coming of the Lord in all circumstances.  We are always in waiting—through victory and defeat, triumph and loss. And as the church, we are to proclaim peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and joy to the world – all the messages of Christmas.

And that’s what Peter said also: “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation”. And it’s the patience of the Lord that creates the seeming slowness in times of wilderness – his patience of not wanting anyone to be lost forever.

So just as we are pointed by John to Christ, we point the world to the Christ, the one who is more powerful, more patient, and more loving. We point to the Christ, the one who is to come.

This Advent, many of us feel like we are still in the wilderness. But let us remember that all things here on earth are temporary. Let our lives be shaped by our hope in the truth that God is coming – that God has come in Jesus who is with us always. Amen.