Journey Home for Christmas – Second Sunday of Advent
Mark 1:1-8. Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe
We are on a journey this Advent, a Journey Home for Christmas. Home is not a place on the map. Home is a place you want to live, a place where you feel safe, where you feel loved, where you feel forgiven and whole. Home is a place in God’s heart.
So, let’s go on this journey together. Today I want to take you to the banks of the Jordan River in Israel. The Jordan River flows out of the southwest corner of the Sea of Galilee and ends 85 miles later at the Dead Sea. In 1981 the Israeli Ministry of Tourism established a place in Israeli territory called Yardenit where pilgrims can visit the Jordan River to be baptized or to remember their baptism. We visited Yardenit in the fall of 2011. 400,000 pilgrims visit this place every year even though it is not the traditional place the gospels say that John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
The day we visited, there were a few hundred tourists at Yardenit. Many of them paid for the opportunity to change into a white robe and wade into the waters to be baptized. We watched as several were immersed under the water. It was obvious that for many, this was an emotional experience. Pilgrims journeyed there from all over the world, many seeking an experience to deepen their faith or grow closer to God. Perhaps some wanted a new beginning, a way to forget their past. As our group stood at the side of the river, I reached down into the waters and then traced the sign of the cross on their foreheads. “Ken, child of God, remember your baptism.” “Helen, child of God, remember your baptism.” It was an experience I will never forget. That journey to the Holy Land changed me. I can’t read the Bible now without seeing these places in my mind.
One of my favorite TV shows is on PBS called Rick Steves’ Europe. It’s a travel show. Rick Steves takes us on a half hour journey to various places in Europe. One of the reasons I like Rick so much is that he is an ELCA Lutheran based out of Seattle, Washington. Rick’s philosophy of travel is that it gets you out of your bubble and opens you up to new experiences, meeting new people and learning about different cultures. Travel can broaden your world view and give you a sense of empathy for other people. Instead of viewing the world only through the lense we are born with, travel helps us understand the world through the eyes of other races and cultures and religions. In doing that, we are changed.
Change is what John the Baptist was all about. In our gospel reading today, Mark tells us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” There is something interesting about the word repentance. In the Greek language, it literally means to change your mind or change your thinking. John the Baptist wants us to change our minds, change the way we see the world, to open hearts to God and our neighbor, to view our neighbor with more empathy and compassion. Prepare the way of the Lord into our hearts and communities. Get ready for that little baby to bring his “Peace on earth, good will to all.”
That’s what this journey is about this Advent. It is a journey to make room in our hearts for God to come. That journey changes us. It changes the way we think and the way we see the world. It changes how we view our neighbor. Advent teaches us to see things from God’s point of view, and not from the point of view of the tired, old, broken world we live in. God is coming. Get ready.
Many of you know Josh Ommen and the journey he has been on recently. His liver transplant was an answer to prayer and Josh has a new lease on life. A few days ago, Josh posted a video on Facebook of his baptism at the Heart Cry Cowboy Church in Arizona. As Josh stepped into the water tank, he was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Raised to walk in a new life,” a quote from Romans 6. It’s obvious that by being rebaptized, Josh wants a new start on life, a change in his journey. And God is going to be an important part of that journey for Josh.
Josh gave me permission to share that story. Like Josh we are all on a journey through life. Advent reminds us to make room for God to be a part of our journey. Advent reminds us to journey home for Christmas, home to the heart of God. Home is where we are loved and accepted, and where our neighbor is also loved and accepted and forgiven.
I want to take you back to the Jordan River. The waters of the Jordan River form much of the border between Israel and Jordan. One of the most precious resources in that part of the world is water. Water is in such high demand that little is left by the time the river reaches the Dead Sea. Conflicts erupt over access to water and how it is used. It is a sign of the uneasy relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Syria, Palestine and Jordan.
Along the banks of the Jordan River, just north of where it empties into the Dead Sea, archaeologists have rediscovered the original site of the baptism of Jesus. It was an exciting discovery made after the 1994 Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan. You can learn all about it at the Website: baptismsite.com. This is the authentic place where John the Baptist was preaching. But that place is in Jordanian territory, which is why most tourists to Israel don’t visit it. The Israel Tourism Ministry wants tourist dollars to stay in Israel. Tourism is a huge industry in that area, and if you can prove that you have a site mentioned in the Bible, you can attract all kinds of tourists and pilgrims. The Jordanian government has allowed several denominations to build churches there at the site in the hopes that tourists will come. Just recently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land completed a beautiful new church there to welcome pilgrims. I hope to visit there someday. It is sad that these holy places become part of the wider conflict between countries and peoples and religions.
John the Baptist stood on the banks of the River Jordan and preached his powerful sermon. Repent, change your mind, change your attitude, change your thinking about God and your neighbor. God is coming to bring his peace and justice, and we need to align our lives with God. That means peace and justice between Israeli and Palestinian, Arab and Christian and Jew, peace and justice between sexually harassed women and their abusers, peace and justice between races in our own country, peace and justice among family members and neighbors.
This Advent we are on a journey home for Christmas. Home is where God is, and God’s home is full of love and justice and peace. Jesus is coming. He will be born again into our broken world. Let us prepare the way of the Lord and welcome him into our hearts.
Journey Home for Christmas – Second Sunday of Advent