Summary: Listening and responding to the LORD’s voices crying in the wilderness.
Sermon for Advent II, Yr B Dec 8, 2002 Isa 40:3-5; Mk 1:1-8; 2 Pet 3:9 & 15a
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The Christian playwright and novelist, Henry Scholberg, tells the following story.
They were proud of their church. “Proud as punch!” they always said. “Every Saint Lutheran Church is the finest church in the whole province,” Rev. Carton declared on more than one occasion, and he didn’t need prompting to declare it.
But Rev. Carton died suddenly, and that was that. He had been pastor of the flock longer than anyone could remember. When he “passed on” at the age of 87, there was no pastor available to preside over his funeral so the church council elected President Roberts to say a few appropriate words by the grave side.
Among those at the cemetery was a Black man, Willi Brown. He had hopped off the freight train as it rambled through town. He approached President Roberts after the service and said to him:
“So you lost your pastor, huh?”
“Yes, my friend. What’s it to you?”
“I’m a preacher, and I believe the Lord kicked me off that train just so I could come and take over Pastor Carton’s flock.”
“How can you be a preacher? You’re a hobo.”
“Don’t knock me till you’ve heard me, President Roberts.”
“I’ll have to take it up with the church council.”
True to his word, President Roberts brought up the matter of Willi Brown at the church council meeting. He was Willi’s best advocate with an overpowering argument: “We don’t have any choice. There’s nobody around or available who can preach. Let’s see how he does on Sunday and go from there.”
Willi gave a fine sermon that first Sunday and was the council offered him to stay on. But the sermons he gave in each succeeding Sunday were more and more disturbing. He was bringing a message of repentance and that, next to his shabby appearance, led to a great deal of criticism. They offered to buy him “a real nice suit,” but he said, “It doesn’t matter what a man wears if his soul isn’t in tatters. Did John the baptizer or Jesus go around in a real nice suit?” It was not long before Willi’s colour also became a point of issue and people started using the N-word. For many in this rural town it was their first encounter with anyone of colour. Church attendance dropped off sharply and suddenly. Vern the grocer claimed that Willi “just ain’t comfortin’ the way Rev. Carton was.”
Finally, the time came for Willi’s last sermon. “I’m leaving you,” he said, “because I’ve done my work. I guess I disturbed a few folks so I want you all to think of me as John the baptizer, a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for one greater than me. And how will you know him? He will come like a thief in the night, and you will know him not.”
Willi stepped down from the pulpit and walked head held high down the aisle and out of the church. They never saw him again. 1
Repentance, stop sinning, turn around, go in a new direction, leave the old destructive ways behind you; return to the Lord; that’s the message of the prophet Isaiah predicting John the baptizer’s ministry; that’s the message of John the baptizer himself, Mark tells us, as he fulfills the ancient prophecy of Isaiah; and that’s also the message of our second lesson today as well, reminding us of God’s love and patience towards us all; giving us time and opportunities to repent.
Who really wants to be confronted with a message of repentance? I know as a preacher, I don’t find it easy to preach the call to repentance, and I suspect for most, if not all of you, you’d rather not hear the message of repentance. Nonetheless, this is Advent and Advent is a season of repentance; of preparing the way of the Lord’s coming; of making us ready for the Lord when he comes for us.
The message and call to repentance is and likely always has been: “a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” It is and likely always has been a message very difficult to accept. A message that is quite confrontational, painfully honest and truthful, requiring major changes of heart, mind, soul and everyday living. A message that usually goes against the grain, revealing our shortcomings and their consequences for ourselves, others and the church and society as a whole.
So today, our scripture passages appeal to us to consider the voices in the wilderness today. Do we hear them? Do we accept their message? The people of faith who more and more suffer persecution for merely being Christians. The people of faith who in far too many nations face hostility, torture and even death because their greatest crime is being a follower of Jesus. Voices in the wilderness.