Scripture: Mark 1:1-8
Seven years ago Robert Zeigler was driving on narrow mountain roads around the remote Swiss town of Bergun. He was reliant on his GPS to get him there, and it told him to turn down a dirt road. Zeigler thought the road looked like little more than a trail, but he followed the directions. It turns out, it actually was a trail. . .intended for goats! He successfully navigated a SUV down this narrow mountain trail until the vehicle got stuck between trees. He had to be rescued by helicopter. Stories like that made me extremely hesitant to rely on GPS. However, GPS navigation has improved a considerable deal in just a short time. If you look up GPS horror stories then you will find a disturbing number of people driving into lakes, to the edges of drop offs, or for one group of Japanese tourists into the ocean. The one things that nearly all of these stories have in common though is their age. These stories are all eight to five years old. The technology has improved considerably. Six years ago, my wife considered subscribing to Onstar a necessity. This was a pre-installed GPS feature in the car, which required talking to a human operator, who would essentially look up directions on a computer and then route them to play over the car’s audio system. That was only five years ago, and today that system seems archaic. Today she uses a smart phone app, and quite honestly it is amazing how it works. We really are living in the future. If an accident happens up the road, the app can reroute a faster way around the back up and it is almost always right. She relies on the google maps app daily, but again it took me a lot longer to warm up to it. Up until fairly recently I would only use it as a backup. I would still rely on written directions. I would insist on studying a map before I went anywhere so I felt like I had a decent idea of where I was going. If the phone told me something different than what I thought I remembered, then I went with what I thought. Of course, the reality is more than once, I was wrong and the app was right. Today, I still prefer to look at a map to get a general idea but I am for more likely to trust google maps than I used to be.
If I am being honest, the biggest reason why I was so resistant to GPS systems was not because I just really love maps (which I do). It had to do with control. If I looked up and knew the directions, then I have control of where I am going and how I will get there. When I was in Atlanta this past Spring, I had to get from a suburb on the north side to the airport on the south side. The Interstate system had a three hour back up, and I would not make the flight if I did that. I was 100% dependent on my phone. It led me on a route that at times cut through neighborhoods, but it worked. The entire time though I was trusting an app. When it told me to turn left I did not where I was going, and I did not know what I was doing next until it gave me the next direction. Even though it was not very comfortable, this was a big growing experience for me. It truly was an exercise in trust and releasing control as I let something else give me direction. The church season of Advent that we now find ourselves in is meant to be one of expectation, it is one of looking to what is coming with joy. When we are staring into the unknown thought it can be hard to have joyful expectation. One of the gifts for the soul that Advent can give us is direction, but we have to be willing to trust those directions.
This morning’s scripture comes from the beginning of Mark, and it begins with a quote from Isiah that interestingly enough contains directions, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Mark tells us that John the Baptist appears to do just that. Mark also tells us that John was kind of a big deal. Mark uses a bit of hyperbole here and states that the all of Jerusalem went out see him, which literally is not the case. However, it drives the point that John has captured the attention of the people, and a number of them traveled to see him. We have to keep in mind that people could not just hop in the car and zip on over to him. There are a couple of sites proposed for where John baptized, the one with the longest history happens to also be the one closest to Jerusalem. However is still around a 30 mile walk, and most of that is through desert. Mark calls this stretch of land the wilderness. This was not a trip that people were making on a lark. At the very least it would have been a three day venture, and it would require provisions and planning in advance. Despite the effort, many people made the trek.
It is impossible to fully put ourselves in the mind of the first century Jew who traveled from Jerusalem to the Jordan River in order to see John the Baptist, but I have to wonder what motivated them. Why did people make the trek? I am sure for some it was curiosity. More than any figure in centuries, perhaps John fit the mold and had the aura of an old Testament style prophet. Perhaps they just wanted to see for themselves how true this was. However, I imagine for many others they sought at John because they were looking for direction in their life. John was offering a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This was something different. Baptism, a form of ceremonial washing, had been in Judaism for centuries. It was common practice to do a ceremonial bath as a way to signify washing uncleanliness away. However, that did not offer forgiveness. Perhaps in the baptism that John was offering, people saw a chance for a fresh start. They saw the way to rest and get their life going back in the right direction. If that is the case, I have to wonder if the people who came to John looking for direction were excited or disappointed. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but that was not all he preached. Verse seven of this morning’s scripture states this was also his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. “ People may have come to John looking to launch their life in a new direction, and John offered them directions to a new life.
It is not uncommon for us to find ourselves looking for direction in our life. From time to time all of us are faced with life choices, big life choices. It is not uncommon when we are in those situations to seek divine guidance. It is not uncommon to stop and ask God for directions. Of course discerning those directions can be a bit tricky. There is a quote on preaching that is generally attributed to famed 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon that states, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” The idea is that any scripture from anywhere in the Bible needs to connect back to Jesus in any sermon worth its salt. That is sound preaching advice, but “make a beeline to the cross” is also sound directional advice. In this morning’s scripture, we are reminded to make straight the paths to the Lord, and John the Baptist points us straight towards Jesus. When we face uncertainty and decisions to make in our lives. One of the considerations we should heavily consider is which choice will bring us close to Christ; which choice will better enable us, transform us, or equip us to be his faithful disciple transforming the world?
This was a lesson that I learned fairly early on in my Christian walk, and it is a lesson that hindsight and experience has only deepened. I came to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior during my freshmen year of college, and at the very beginning of my sophomore year the opportunity to study abroad had opened up. The University of Evansville, where I attended, actually owns a campus in England called Harlaxton. I had essentially resigned myself that attending there was not in the cards. However, it all came together that I could do it the second semester of my sophomore year. What really added the cherry on top was that my then girlfriend (and now wife) was already planning on going that semester. I was ready to commit, when someone asked if “I had prayed about it?” Approaching prayer as a rubber stamp formality, I did. Doing this created a discontent. I had an overwhelming feeling in my heart and soul, that no, I was not supposed to go. I really wanted to, it truly was a once in a life time opportunity. I made these points in prayer to God, and I think I made them very convincingly, but the nagging sense that my direction did not involve spending a semester in England did not go away. I gave up what I wanted and went the direction that I felt God was leading me. I missed out on once in a life time opportunities to travel abroad and see Europe, but looking back I can see all that I gained because of that. It turns out that semester I stayed in Evansville instead of going to Europe was monumental in my faith development. During that semester I helped lead a bible study for the first time, I was appointed to the leadership team for a Christian campus group that I was part of, and I went on a mission trip to Mexico. Looking back I can see the seeds of faith that brought me to a place to answer a call to ministry took root during that semester.
The direction that brings us closer to Christ is always the right one that we should take in life. We should make a beeline to the cross, but there are a couple of things to consider. First, this morning’s scripture states “prepare the way for the Lord make straight paths for him.” A beeline is a straight path that goes right to where it is going, but a straight path is not always a level path. Choosing life choices that bring us closer to Christ may involve climbing obstacles and journeying into valleys. In the same way, Jesus once taught you can only enter God’s kingdom through the narrow gate. Following the straight and the narrow is not always easy, but it will always lead us to being more like Jesus as his true disciples.
The second consideration is how we seek direction from God. Taking things to God in prayer is a good start. This morning’s scripture also reveals some other avenues that direction comes from God. First, there is scripture. It is not an accident that the gospel starts off with quoting the prophet Isaiah. We believe that scripture is God breathed, and through God’s divine words they can still speak and lead us today. Also, God uses people to give us direction. Just like someone asking me “if I have prayed about it”, started me on the path to not studying abroad, God can use God’s people to speak into our lives. This is why it is such a good idea for us to have Christian friends and mentors who we share our lives with. God can work through them to help give us directions. However, this works two ways, because God can also use us to give direction and guidance to others.
The final consideration is how God gives us directions, because it works a lot like a GPS. A GPS gives us the optimal route to our destination, and we have to trust it to get us there. Often we will not know the turn we are going to take until we are a 1/4th mile away. This means we let go of our desire to be the one in control, to be the one who plots the course and makes all of the decisions. If we are going to seek God for direction, then we have to be willing to trust God. As Christians, the end destination we are all striving for is to be as Christ like as possible. We know where we should end up, but the straightest path to get there may not be the most obvious to us. We have to trust God as God leads us. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is like setting out on an adventure, we know where we are going but we are not sure how we are getting there.
Advent is a season of expectation, and very few things elicit more expectation than heading towards a destination we are excited about. May the direction of your life be a beeline to the cross. If you are off track, lost in the weeds, or you took a wrong turn somewhere back there then may you may trust God to give you the turn by turn directions to find that straight path. May we be willing to accept the gift of direction this advent. May we be willing to humbly submit ourselves before God and even if it means giving up control may we be willing to say “where you lead me Lord I will follow, where you lead me Lord I will go.”