Once Upon a Time

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 6, 2020

Mark 1: 1-8

Once upon a time, there was the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It was in a world that desperately needed people who told the truth. 

The world needs people who tell the truth. But our world is not kind to people who tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

Where are the truth tellers – the prophets in our world?  

A prophet gets to the heart of the matter. Too close often for comfort. Often times we might agree with the prophet, but we like our comfort too. And so too keep our comfort, we go along with silencing the voice of truth. 

Once upon a time there were people who spoke the truth. We called them prophets. We knew that what they said was true because they weren’t in it for the money. We knew that what they said was true because they would rather die than tell a lie. 

The prophet Nathan told King David a story about a greedy rich man who when guests were coming to dine, rather than taking a lamb from his flock of thousands, went to his poor neighbor and took his children’s pet lamb and slaughtered it in front of them while saying, “this will make a fine feast.” 

David was livid. “That man deserves to die!” he proclaimed with the authority of a king. The prophet said, “You are that man.” And at that moment, the king knew truth. 

We knew that what the prophets said was true, because they didn’t always tell us what we wanted to hear. They made it inconvenient for us to carry on with our illusions. They weren’t trying to be popular. And they weren’t.

When they became unbearable, we drove them away. We even killed them. But their words had a way of coming back to haunt us. We remembered that as strange and apart from the crowd they stood, they were always one of us. They were always for us. 

When John the Baptist appeared, we knew that once again a prophet was among us. He lived in the wilderness. Out there where a person’s heart and soul were put to the test. He knew what it took to survive. He wore animal skins. He had a sweet tooth, but it was for locusts dipped in honey. He fit the mold. 

At first we gave him hardly a thought. Travelers would tell of a man in the wilderness with a small band of followers who had an uncanny ability to understand life and the longings of the human heart and soul. They said he spoke of God in a way that made the ancient myths seem relevant and present in the here and now. 

Curious, we went to see for ourselves. We found him camped by the Jordan River. When John spoke of God, there was something about his words that made God seem imminent, as if something big was about to happen. We felt like he was Elijah, come back to show us the way. Though we hadn’t thought much before of there even being a way, or if there were what it mattered, John showed us that there was, and it did matter. It seemed important then for us to find it. 

We knew he spoke true. The Pharisees found that out as well. They sent a committee to examine him. They had a list of questions for him and if he passed the test, then they would allow his work to continue. That would involve him joining their council, paying the enrollment fees and keeping up with his dues. But only if he passed the test. 

Their first question was, “Tell us where you went to school and what degrees you hold.” His answer was, “You snakes. You think just because Abraham is your ancestor that you speak for God? If God wanted more children of Abraham, then he could make them out of a camel turd if he wanted to.” 

He got to them alright. They threw their list of questions away and asked, “What should we do?” John said simply, “You need to be as clean on the inside as you are on the outside. God is not to be found in the rules and regulations you follow. God is found in your heart and soul.” Some of them said, “Yeah, right.” But by the end of the day some of them were wading into the water to be baptized. As John poured the water on them he would say, “Let this be to you a sign that as the water washes the surface, the Spirit of God has washed your soul.”

Even tax collectors went to see him. Outcasts and pariahs of the people; collaborators with the Romans who if souls were lost, theirs were far gone. “What should we do?” they asked. John told them, “Don’t collect more than is legal.” 

“That’s it? Just do our jobs?” 

“That’s it,” said the prophet. “Just do your jobs. Don’t take more from people than what they owe. Don’t become part of the system that gouges a pound of flesh out of the poor. Don’t buy into the myth that more money is going to make you happy. Don’t be a part of something that keeps people down. Be a part of something that sets people free. Just do your job.” By the end of the day, even some of the tax collectors were wading into the water. 

Some of them wanted to know, “How much do we owe you?” and John answered, “You don’t owe me a thing, because you can’t put a price on what God gives you.” 

There were even soldiers drawn into the circle of John’s truth. A patrol was sent to check on the crowds. Hard men with a hard job. They did their talking with their swords and their hearts were as calloused as the hands that held their weapons. 

“Do you think there’s a chance for us?” they asked John. “What are we supposed to do?” John said to them, “Just be honest in what you do. Don’t take money from people. Don’t go along with injustice. A soldier’s life is a hard life but live within your means.” 

“That’s it?” they said. “That’s it,” said the prophet. By the end of the day some of the soldiers were wading into the water. Hard men who discovered for the first time in their life that the love of God could find a place in even their heart and soul. 

It was only natural that we began to wonder about John. Maybe he was more than just Elijah come back to inspire us. Maybe John was the one, the long-awaited messenger; dare we even say it, the Messiah? Who knows, we wondered. If anyone would know the answer to that mystery, it would be John himself. He would never claim the title for himself, but we knew if we asked him, he would tell us the truth. 

And so we did. One day the crowds were gathered at the river. John arrived and someone from the crowd called out, “Are you the Messiah?” The question hung in the air. John’s steely gaze scanned the crowd. 

“No,” he said, “I am not the Messiah.” You could feel the disappointment sweep through the crowd like a wave, but before it crashed John went on, “But I will tell you this and hear me well. The Messiah is coming. His kingdom is so close you can almost reach out your hand and touch it. Everything I have said to you is to prepare you for his appearance. Turn away from your sins and be baptized is so that when the Messiah comes, you will be ready to receive him.”

“I am just God’s messenger,” John said. “The Messiah is God’s message. I don’t consider myself worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. All I’ve done is baptize you with water. It’s a sign of what God will do in your heart and soul. When the Messiah comes, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

What truth would John the Baptist speak today? 

What would he say to the corporations and the politicians – to the religions – to the powers that be that uphold the status quo at the expense of human beings? 

John the Baptist would be as politically correct today as he was back when he first came on the scene, which is to say not at all. 

At the end of the day we watched and waited. We wanted to receive the gift of God when God was ready to give it. A Savior who could give us God in our own heart and soul. Already God seemed closer than ever before. Something was about to happen. We wanted to be there when it did. The Messiah was coming. Once upon a time was here and now. Amen.

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