First Reading Isaiah 40:1-11
Second Reading 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Gospel Reading Mark 1:1-8
Sermon: “An Unusual Pairing”
We all know the old joke: ‘Waiter! What’s this fly doing in my soup? Why sir, I believe its the backstroke!’ We don’t expect to be served a nice, flavorful warm bowl of soup with a fly in it, matter of fact we resent it. So it might be with this morning’s readings, Just when we are getting ready for a beautiful Christmas season with a nice cute little baby, friendly animals, worshipful shepherds and soft candlelight, here comes John the Baptist, striding onto the stage, looking very much like one of those old Testament Prophets and declaring that people need to repent, turn to God and be baptized. One might be forgiven for asking: ‘Preacher, what’s John the Baptist doing in my Christmas play?’ Of course the preacher, will unapologetically reply that he belongs there. He is there to announce the coming of the Messiah just as much as the angels in the sky over Bethleham or the wise men from the east. Luke weaves his birth narrative right in alongside that of Jesus. Matter of fact, it turns out there are ever distantly related.
Jesus and John the Baptist might seem an unusual pairing, but only at first glance. They actually preach the same gospel – the same Good News – “Repent of your sins and believe the good news! The kingdom of God is Near!” One seems severe and the other gracious – one is distant and preaches in the wilderness. The other is found among the crowds in the city and the green places. But the messages is the same and the God they both proclaim is one. Two sides of the same coin: Heads – we are sinners and estranged from God. Tails – God reaches into this world in a most unexpected way to call us back, to redeem us and make us Children of God. Repent, The Kingdom of God has come near; We are lost but a Savior has come. These things do actually go together quite well when we look at it properly and humbly.
Jesus and John the Baptist – are definitely an unusual pair: some folks are able to accept that they need a savior, others see unable to make that admission. Luke tells of them this way later in his gospel (Luke 7:29-35 NLT)  When they heard this, all the people-even the tax collectors-agreed that God’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John.  But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism.  “To what can I compare the people of this generation?” Jesus asked. “How can I describe them?  They are like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends, ‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t weep.’  For John the Baptist didn’t spend his time eating bread or drinking wine, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’  The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’  But wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it.”
Those strange, yet wonderful words from Psalm 85 come to mind here. We read them as the Advent candles were lit this morning. Hear them again and listen carefully to God’s message: (Psalm 85:8-11 NLT) “…listen carefully to what God the LORD is saying, for he speaks peace to his faithful people. But let them not return to their foolish ways. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, so our land will be filled with his glory. Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed! Truth springs up from the earth, and righteousness smiles down from heaven.
The Psalmist speaks both a warning “let them not return to there foolish ways” – a poetic way of saying repent, and of a wonderful, tender meeting between things that are sometimes in tension with each other – “Unfailing Love and truth meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven”. God’s attributes of eternal and unfailing Love and Righteousness come down from heaven and our responses of Faithfulness and Peace come up from the earth. What a beautiful picture of the ideal relationship between God and his people. We long for such a time and for such a relationship. But we also know that they often seem beyond our reach. These words are not just for us to savor like wonderful food at a Holiday feast and then push back from the table, no, they are for us to continue to chew on, to understand and with God’s help, to live out.
If we are honest with each other for a moment here, we realize that implicit in these unusual pairings of Truth and Love, of Righteousness and Peace is the acknowledgement of the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. The truth is that we cannot save ourselves. If we are to belong to God, then it is God who must make it possible. As we probe deeper, we are also brought face to face with another uncomfortable truth. God does not save us with cheap sentimentality. But with the costly grace bought for us by the blood of Emmanuel – God with us. God himself, in the person of Jesus the Christ, came into this world in human flesh to rescue sinners – that’s you and me dear friends, and that is what it means when we hear Truth and unfailing love have met. By the grace of Jesus, God’s own son and our redeemer, we have been bought into a righteous standing with God so that we might have peace with God.
So with that in mind, now hear the words of the Angels: “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” Glory to God indeed! God has come to save us. This is the message of Isaiah and John the Baptist too:
Isaiah writes of this time and tells us: (Isaiah 40:3-5,9-11 NLT)
 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the LORD! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God!  Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places.  Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The LORD has spoken!”  O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!”  Yes, the Sovereign LORD is coming in power. He will rule with a powerful arm. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.  He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.”
(Mark 1:7-8 NLT) “John announced: “Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am-so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”
Advent is a time to hear the promises of God spoken again and again; To let them become part of us. But we can’t just do only that. We need to find our own voice to join those of Isaiah and the angels – to speak words of comfort and welcome to any who feel separated or abandoned by God – to tell them that God is coming, God will arrive in gentle power to reconcile and forgive, to bless and guide. As Isaiah promises “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
He is coming – let us prepare the way! While we Wait in Hope