Mark 1:1–8 (NRSV)
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
(Mt 3:1–12; Lk 3:1–20; Jn 1:19–28)
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
There is much to celebrate during this season. It is the time where we look with anticipation to the hope we have in Jesus. We look back and reflect on the time prior to his birth where the ancients were hoping for the advent or the arrival of their anointed one, and we look to the future where we, like they were, are waiting for the arrival of Christ’s Second Advent. There is real emotion involved in these seasons of faith, there is a yearning even a desperation that our faith will become sight, yet we wait.
It is not that difficult to imagine the feelings of the people in ancient days, the desires of the faithful to see and experience the arrival of their long awaited messiah. For centuries they had heard stories of this mighty king to come, a king that would be greater than King David, the King that even their great king would call Lord. We feel those same emotions as we look forward to the end of days. When will it happen, will I be ready, will I experience it, will I even notice, are all questions that run through our minds. This is why this passage is so important to remember during this Advent season.
What exactly was John the Baptist? John is probably one of the most enigmatic figures in all of scripture, not the most mysterious because Ezekiel laying on his side was pretty mysterious especially when he turned over and laid on his other side. John the Baptist is a man that did things differently, his approach was different, his style was unique, yet he is so important. This unique style was foreseen by the prophets of old to the point that they recorded it in their testimonies:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John’s purpose was to prepare the way. Why exactly would we need to prepare the way when everyone was in a state of anticipation?
This goes to the very heart of the Gospel, and what it really means. This week I have struggled with this passage, I have thought of many different directions I thought I should take in presenting this, I even thought I had the perfect idea, but the Spirit changed my directions. The reason being is that those great ideas were my ideas, my thoughts, what I wanted to do. I was in the process way too much and I was forgetting the most important aspect that it is not about me. This is why they needed John, and why we need John in the advent season. John’s most famous quote is, “He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30). He must increase.
This concept is powerful, because it is the exact opposite of the religious superpowers. Every church wants to grow in number and increase, every seminary wants increased enrollment, every leader wants an increase in their influence, these ideas of increase are not something that is new to religion. But that is not what John is telling us. John came to prepare the way for something different, a call to repentance.
There has been a struggle from the very beginning of humanity, a struggle we still fight to this day. It was a struggle that first started with two people and a crafty serpent. The struggle is which course I will take. The serpent tempted our first parents with the possibility to become equal with God, to have the knowledge of good and evil, and to be able to chart their own destiny instead of relying only on the word of God. As a result sin entered the world, through one simple choice of eating. Sin is an interesting concept, we each have a definition of what sin is. Actually the more accurate statement is that we each have examples of what sin is because the definition is very difficult to pin down, but I will make an attempt. Sin is anything that hinders or causes us to step away from God. Sin can be anything and everything. Sin is a course of life.
A course of life. I want us to think of that for a moment, a course of life, a way of life. That is the very meaning of John’s mission, to prepare the way. The term “way” is a term that has many meaning but one that stood out to me the most as I was in prayer and study is that this term was used to describe the course or pathways of a river. It was also used to describe a journey, and a lifestyle. I found each of those definitions remarkable. Each of those definitions point to an idea of movement something that is not stationary but constantly moving toward goal. A river begins small, a small spring or a simple drip from melting snow in a crevice on a mountain, but the course moves gradually more drops come together and more crevices building into a stream, more streams come together to form a river, and rivers come together to form massive waterways that can carry that single drop of water and everything surrounding it to the sea.
If that is the course, sin disrupts it. The term damnation is something that disrupts the flow or the course of water. Sin is damning it hinders the course of that single drop of water as it make its way to the sea. Does that mean that it will never make it? Not necessarily.
John came to prepare the way. The term prepare is also interesting, it means to make ready, suitable, or to equip in advance for a particular purpose. John came to prepare the way among a people group that was very religious and faithful. Think about that for a moment. They were not ready, suitable, or equipped for the messiah even though they had been living in a state of anticipation for Him. The religious establishment was at its peak, the worship of the God of Israel was the richest religion in the entire empire. The Temple of God was the greatest house of worship human eyes had seen and yet these people were not ready to for the messiah. Not only were the people of Israel more faithful than probably any other time in their history but they were actually converting non Jewish people to their faith that is why there was a court for Gentiles at the temple, it was for the God fearers that had not fully converted. Yet they were not prepared.
They were not prepared because they were increasing instead of God. They were focused on the wrong journey, and damning the course. John cried out in the wilderness for repentance and called people to be baptized as a sign of forgiveness of sin. As a symbol of reentering the course of the river of life that would take them into the land of promise. And John said that he only baptizes with water but the one after him would baptize with the very Spirit of God.
There is a lot to think about. Are we ready? Are we equipped? Are we prepared for the advent of our Lord? These are very tough questions that I hope we will wrestle with as we walk the courses of our lives this week. But the interesting thing about this struggle is that we have a community that will help us stay on course, and we have history and traditions that can guide us as well. Last week began to use the Christmas tree as an illustration for the hope we have in Christ as we wait in this advent anticipation. The evergreen tree gives us hope in the everlasting love and strength of God, the ability Christ has to redeem all people, and the victory we can have in Christ through the darkest days. But none of us just have a tree in our homes to celebrate Christmas, we each hang ornaments on the branches. Even these can teach us something about the hope we have in Christ and help us prepare for his return. The first ornaments to be placed on the trees were apples. These were used in the middles ages first during nativity pageants that spoke of the hope we have in Christ. These pageants began with the story of the fall of mankind. The priests would hang apples on the tree to represent the fruit that Adam and Eve ate ushering sin into humanity. These paradise trees and the fruity ornaments then represented the need for and the victory of Christ over sin, taking what once damned us, what once distracted us from the courses of God and then using that very thing to redirect us to himself again.
Sin detracts attention away from God, the Spirit redirects the attention back to him. Sin takes us off the pathway, but the Spirit guides us back. We seek to increase, but the Spirit diminishes our egos so that He can increase. The ornaments on the tree represent the sin that Christ has redeemed, they represent the grace that God has provided through Jesus. Jesus is the pathway, Jesus is the course, Jesus is the way, and He is calling us to enter into the flow of the Spirit so that we can be carried to goal.
As we enter into this time of holy expectancy consider the courses of our life. Are we being damned or are we flowing free? Are we damning or are we preparing the way of the Lord? Consider the Christmas tree before us consider your lifestyle and the ways we live out our lives, are they shining balls highlighting everlasting love, or are they the fruit leading ourselves off course?