Skillful listening – An Advent sermon on Mark 1;1-8


May the one who comes this Advent season guide us, teach us and be with us on our journey here on Earth, Amen 

One of the challenges I think we face in the 21st century is the skill of listening. And I call it a skill because in many ways we’ve forgotten what it means, and to some extent how to do it. Part of my ongoing discernment as I continue on the path of ordination has been learning that very skill. Too many times over the past few years I was the one who thought I knew the answer, I knew what I had to do and when to do it. A very wise person once told me, if you think you have it all planned out, you’d better think again if God’s involved, and he was right. When I finally figured out how to stop trying to plan the journey and I stopped talking and listed to God, I realized all this time he was talking to me, directing me, guiding me along on a journey he had planned for me all along, and that I needed to shut up for a second and sit in the passenger seat for a while and enjoy the ride…. bumps and all.

There’s many times I think we all get caught up in the bumps and speed of life, especially now around Advent and the Christmas season. We’ve been inundated since the beginning of November with ads and subliminal messages of “hurry up…’ ‘times a wasting…’ did you make your shopping lists for Black Friday? The joy of spending time at Thanksgiving with family gets pushed to the side as they strap a jet pack on our backs speeding us to the malls for Christmas shopping before the Turkey for Thanksgiving is even defrosted.

Because of all this pushing at us from all sides, we get all caught up in it. We sacrifice the few moments of peace and silence offered us and we stop listening. We get so wrapped up in our business that we refuse to ‘listen…’ listen to friends offering advise, offering consolation and support for us, even listening to our own hearts crying out for a moment of peace; and worse yet, we refuse to listen to God’s call to us. His call for us to come to him for comfort and strength.

Our readings this morning are all geared towards the skill of listening. There are numerous mentions of God sending messengers to the people of Israel asking them to listen…’ to hear the good tidings God offers. It took the Israelites years to figure this out…have we today figured it out and started to listen yet?

As Advent begins, we’re reminded that this is a season of preparation, similar to Lent, and to some degree a season of darkness. Yet it is also a season of hope and light. Advent starts as a season of darkness and that makes the holiday season loose some of its cheer. For us in New England, it’s observed when the days are at their shortest. Darkness surrounds us as we get up in the morning and it surrounds us when we get out from work or school in the evening. I find that I enjoy the darkness to some degree, I love that when darkness approaches invariably things slow down. You have more time to think, to meditate and pray. I enjoy doing Compline many nights, and I breath so much deeper when I start that familiar comforting phrase “ The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end”. Some people see darkness differently and I’m left to wonder sometimes, is it because we’re more comfortable considering our own brokenness and mortality than we are considering the coming of Christ? Is it another way in which we love the darkness — being in some way more comfortable with introspection? I’m an introspective person, but I’m also an eternal optimist, so I guess that’s why darkness doesn’t frighten me. Its a real part of our daily living, especially during this time of the year. But the darkness of the Advent season is not just about the physical darkness that gathers around us. There’s also a darkness that comes as a result of our separation from God. We see the effects of it everywhere in our world as wars continue, economies flush down the toilet, politicians look out for themselves and the divide between those who have and those who have not grows ever wider. We see it when those who have the power to do right are more interested in watching out for themselves than watching out for the good of all of God’s creation.

That’s a darkness to be concerned with, and I would imagine that everyone here knows this darkness on an individual level in some way as well. Some of us struggle to make ends meet each week, to find gainful employment. Some of us have experienced the darkness of losing a loved one who may have recently died or friends who have moved away. Maybe your health or that of a loved one isn’t the best right now. I’m reminded of our friend David Bresnahan, facing darkness from many of these angles. There are many things that remind us that the world is not perfect as God would have it to be, and during this season of the year we reflect on these reminders of the darkness that exists in our world. Yet out of darkness comes light, and hope and promise.

Some of the most beautiful images in our faith revolve around light and brightness…our scripture tells us the beginning of all things was darkness at the start of the book of Genesis, “Now the Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. We see images of the burning bush that speaks to Moses, the transfiguration of Jesus before Peter, James and John. When you look at some of the masterpieces of Renaissance painting, you see the images glowing, radiating warmth set against dark backgrounds In everything in life, there’s a beginning of darkness, and a starting point; even ‘birth…’ and then there is light.

Look back this morning at the people of Israel. Our first reading for today from Isaiah show us a season of Advent similar to ours today. The Israelite people were in the midst of a long period of darkness. God had given the children of Israel everything they needed; a land flowing with milk and honey. God protected them from those who would have killed them. God who brought their nation into existence and rescued them from slavery, and yet they repaid him with disobedience and rebelliousness.

First they created a Golden calf. Then they complained that manna from heaven was not good enough for them. Then they refused to accept the land God was giving them – complaining that the conditions were less than perfect. Then, once they occupied the land, they began worshipping other Gods. When God had made them wealthy, they didn’t care for the poor or look after the widows. They neglected the worship of praise and of service that is due to God. THEY DIDN’T LISTEN, and God punished them. He allowed them to be destroyed as a nation because of their disobedience and rebelliousness.  They were carried off into captivity and separated from the land they loved because of their sin.  When God was finished, there was not much left of their great nation. Their temple was destroyed and they were scattered to the winds. Their land was overtaken numerous times by Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria. Their rulers had been exiled, their food and livelihood a disaster because of the taxation that they were experiencing at the hands of foreign rulers. Life was hard and it seemed that God had turned away from them. They knew that they had sinned and broken their covenant with God, and they knew that the darkness around them was because of their own actions. It took quite a while for them to realize this, but they finally realized the error of their ways, and when they did, they were prepared to renew their relationship with God.

In our Gospel reading this morning these people saw the darkness of their world and in their own lives and it made the cry for something different. So some of them prepared.. they began to finally listen to Gods repeated calls to them. They prepared themselves to receive something new by seeking out this man John who was baptizing. Many ask to be baptized and they confessed their sins. With this act of preparation came hope; this baptizer tells them of one who is to come when he said: “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 baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Hearing this quote from the Gospel of Mark we understand John the Baptist listened, he understood his call; to prepare the way of the Lord – making his path straight. Knowing this allows us to understand that Mark and the followers of Jesus understood, and saw Jesus as the messiah sent by God to right the wrongs in the world.

It really would have been easier for God to just to finish them off and be done with them, and God does send them a message; a prophet to announce his judgement – his decision about them. He sends Isaiah and instructs him to speak to them. To ask them to listen. God acknowledges their preparation in this reading from Isaiah: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The Israelites saw the promise of hope in the darkness of their Advent season and used it to prepare themselves

This was great news to those who heard it. This is what they had been longing for – to be in the presence of the glory of the Lord again. When they had been their own nation, they were ruled by the leaders who they believed God had anointed, they felt blessed and protected. But that had gone away with the destruction of the Temple and the loss of their country. The people had been cut off from the glory of God, but God tells Isaiah to go, they’re finally listening; go and give good tidings to the people.

This message shows us that there is a real reason to prepare and to look for hope in our times of darkness. That there is Joy to be found. The season of Advent is a season of preparation – preparing us to receive God’s gift of the birth of Jesus, his Son. This is not a gift that we can receive lightly. It is a gift that has life-changing possibilities, but only if we are ready to listen, and understand our role. Isaiah wrote: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” In contrast to the shortness of our lives, and the constant change and upheaval of our short existence, God’s Word stands forever. His Word remains unchanged. People will pass away, troubles and hardships will come and go, prosperity also, but the comfort of His good news outlasts everything.

It’s the eternal word of comfort, peace, and hope. Of the light that comes from the darkness. Nothing we create will last forever. We have no guarantee, especially in these troubled times, whether our savings or investments will hold out, whether our jobs will remain safe, whether our health will hold out. All these and other concerns cloud our heads. We worry about the symptoms while the real illness of our sin of not listening to what God has to tell us remains untreated. We worry about all things outside our control, the very things that Jesus told us not to worry about. This Advent season we do need to prepare ourselves, to trust in the comfort of Christ’s coming, for he is that light from the darkness, the good tidings that came to Jerusalem

This is the comfort that we’re asked to listen for and hear; Christ’s promise of forgiveness and everlasting life, a proclamation of Good News.  As the Israelites experienced first hand, we too bleed the same, face the same health issues they did, feel the same effects of a troubled economy and bow to the fear of joblessness. We too wither and fall like the grass and flowers. But as Christians we have these words of comfort, the word of our God that is forever, and it prepares us. The season of Advent repeatedly reminds us to listen; and prepare ourselves for God’s coming again into our lives.

This Advent season we should take time to make some sense of the state of our world, and remember that ultimately it is in God’s hands, not all ours. We can only do part of the work. And with that realization, we’re able to have hope for the future – a hope that is shown in the Jesus baby of Christmas morning; a hope celebrated each time we eat the bread and drink the wine of Communion. Advent is a time to prepare, and reflect on the message of God’s coming – not in wrath to destroy the world but in love, to save all those who will listen to him. In this season of Advent the church, you and I, are called to prepare the way, to be the messengers of hope for people to listen to and in so doing, deepen our own understanding of God’s way in our own lives.

I am struck by the connection between Advent and Lent, both seasons of darkness, yet both periods of waiting that lead up to a joyful holiday that celebrates the life of Jesus in some way. Both require listening and preparation. I hope and pray that this season of Advent offers you time for both; not just preparation for holiday parties and Christmas shopping and present wrapping, but preparation to make time in your lives, time to listen, to open your hearts to God in a deeper way and to make time for awareness; to be aware of the people walking in darkness around you so that you can be the great light of hope that Christ calls you to be, and realize that yes, darkness is needed for light to shine. We are called to see the face of Christ in others, so shouldn’t they be able to see his face when the look at us? We don’t have to be great evangelists, great speakers, or great experts of the bible.  We don’t even have to be perfect.  We simply have to announce the good news and seek to live by that good news – and then get out of the way of others in their personal journey with God, to experience that same Joy.

This year look around and be that light for others; make space for God in your busy world. The Season of Advent is a season of darkness, and of preparation, and greater yet a season of hope – no one of them alone will do, only understanding all three together will allow us to appreciate God’s great gift given to us on Christmas Day. Not all the world will understand about the promise and hope we sing about this Advent season, but we can sure try and help them listen to our song!



I'm a priest in the Episcopal church who responded to the call when the voice said "who shall I send" This blog is a holding place for sermons past and present. These sermons are not necessarily in order by any particular date given.

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