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.”
The Christmas season for me is one of the greatest times of year. I love the music, the decorations, the excitement of the kids as their parents tell them they cannot get a toy right now because they hope Santa will bring it for them. I love the Christmas season, because it is the time we celebrate the coming of Jesus. For centuries the Hebrew people waited for the promised Messiah. If we were to really get detailed they had waited not only centuries but from the beginning of time. The first promise was to Eve, who was promised that a child from her line would crush the head of the serpent that tempted her.
As a pastor Christmas has taken on a deeper meaning for me. All of the Old Testament points to this event, and pretty much all of the New points back to it as well. All of scripture revolves around this message, the gospel message, the good news that God is with us. There is so much wrapped up in this package that it excites the heart, yet I often find myself just gazing at the scriptures when it comes to Christmas and Easter. It is difficult for me to write. Many of my friends in ministry find this odd about me. “Why is it difficult for you to write about the greatest narratives in our faith?” they ask me. The truth is these stories mean so much to me personally, they mean so much to our collective faith, they mean so much to the generations that will come after, that my words simply cannot fully express the feelings and emotions that are attached to them.
On a day nearly two thousand years ago, God came to mankind, not to condemn us, but to love us. He came not to judge but to teach us how to live life with him. He came not only to teach, but to provide the way for us to live that life, and he actually took my broken humanness onto himself, redeeming it in him so that I can stand before the Father in Christ. How can I express the awesome hope, joy, peace, love that is wrapped up in that message?
“In the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Mark begins his Gospel account. The fact that we have four Gospel accounts of Jesus, and each of those accounts differ to some degree, tells me that I am not the only one that has trouble expressing the greatness of what this gospel embodies. I imagine a, Mark, Luke, and John all after hours of praying and sitting with a pen in their hands wondered how they should start. Matthew and Luke decided to start with the history of Jesus. They began with the birth, which is actually an oddity in ancient biographies. John, who tries to express the divinity of Christ to the greatest detail begins not at the birth of Jesus but the birth of creation. Mark, takes the more common biographical approach of the era he begins with a prelude of Jesus’s ministry. That prelude includes Jesus’s cousin John.
This approach of Mark’s is just as important as the others, because it begins with the anticipation. This is what the season of Advent celebrates. The anticipation or the longing for God to redeem his world. That is the very same feelings that we currently live with today. The longing for our savior to redeem all things. Mark then quotes from Isaiah. The writings of the prophets are filled with this sort of longing. The prophets of old often declared the displeasure of God with the actions of his people, they proclaim judgement for those who do not return to God, and they leave us with the hope that God will not leave us completely but will redeem.
In the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ we have a proclamation that everything we longed for will be revealed to us through Jesus, the Son of God. And from there he jumps right in with the events leading up to the public declaration of Jesus’s ministry.
We often neglect to include John the Baptist in our rendering of the Christmas account because most of John’s work took place while Jesus was walking among mankind. But John is the symbol of Advent. His life and ministry were focused preparing Israel for the coming king. Every aspect of John’s life was devoted to proclaim the hope of the nations.
John appeared in the wilderness. After speaking of the sheep and the goats recently the wilderness attracted my attention this week. The wilderness is that vast area just outside our comfort zones. It is the place where beasts roam free, where fires often rage, where we don’t get cell phone reception. The wilderness that area that is uncivilized and terrifying. It was to the wilderness our first parents were sent out into when they were banished from the garden. It is the wilderness the scape goat of the Day of Attornment was released to wonder. Consider the wilderness for a moment. In the wilderness there are dangers everywhere. To survive one must have skills, because you cannot rely on others to help you out. Now many people enjoy the wilderness, they enjoy the solitude and the beauty. I actually enjoy a good hike myself. But there is always danger. One misstep on a mountain trail could cause a cascading rock slide, a twisted ankle could leave you stranded. Alone and in trouble. Something so minor, something that can happen anywhere when it occurs in the wilderness can have catastrophic consequences, this is why one should not hike alone or if you do let people know which direction you are going.
The wilderness can be beautiful but dangerous. It can be a refuge or a prison. In the spiritual wilderness we are each alone. For the most part we can each get by pretty good. There are many good people out there wondering in the wilderness. But one misstep happens and suddenly everything begins to go downhill. They are alone, there is no one to share the burden. John came from the wilderness. He came out of this dangerous unknown to the banks of the Jordan. He came to the boarder of civilization from the great beyond to prepare the way of the Lord.
John came from the symbolic land of sin preaching the need for repentance. The very place the scape goat carried the nation’s sins to is where John appeared from. He began to speak on the banks of the Jordan repent for the kingdom is near. This man came from the wilderness and he began to tell them the things they were doing. It is as if the goats spoke to him all those years, and they kept carrying the same message. The rich exploit the poor, the powerful exploit the weak, the religious exploit God for their personal gain. Here they are living there in the relative safety of their community yet they are acting as if they are alone out in the wilderness. God does not want us to be in the wilderness. It is not good for man to be alone we were made to be in community.
John proclaimed this message, and along with it he provided something to symbolize the conversion or the transition from death in the wilderness and life together in community. He came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Notice the wording of that, “a baptism of repentance.” I read this passage in several various translations in most cases it is translated a baptism, although the King James Version translates it as the baptism. There can be different interpretations garnered from this by that one variation. By using the word “a” it implies that there are other baptisms, where the word “the” is exclusive. As a Quaker I like a better than the. That prompted me to dig deeper to understand what this baptism John used could mean. Of course, baptism is a ceremonial bathing, and it is not exclusive to any one religion. Ritual cleaning is something that is common in the Jewish faith and is still practiced today. Ritual cleansing is important to Islam as well, they ceremonially wash before their prayers. Baptism can also mean, “to cause a religious experience.” John proclaimed a religious experience of repentance, which prepared the way for Jesus. He caused people to question their actions and the motives, and moved them into a place where they could listen and potentially see the coming kingdom of Christ. Coming out of the wilderness and plunging people in the waters of the Jordan, which divided the land of exile and promise.
But there is even more wrapped in this person that embodies the themes of Advent. He lived an odd lifestyle. He ate locus and wild honey and he wore camel’s hair and a leather belt. Have you ever imagined an image of John? There is much scholarly speculation as to the significance of all this. The first and most common theme is that John dressed in the garments of a prophet. If we were to look into the history of Israel we would find that the description of Elijah’s clothing was very similar, 2 Kings says that Elijah wore a garment of hair with a leather belt.
There is a second theme that seems to be repeated as well. The camel, which is truly a remarkable animal, incredibly adapted for the desert environment with its ability to go days without water, feet that protect themselves from the harsh heats of the desert sands, fat stores in its hump to allow it to survive without food for several days, and eyelids and nostrils that protect it from blowing sands. This animal was a symbol of wealth in many ancient accounts, but in regard to the Jewish faith it is an unclean animal. This means it is an animal that cannot be eaten. Because of this designation many believe that the wearing of camel’s hair was a symbolic representation that not only was John preparing the way for the Messiah to the people of Israel but was opening the coming kingdom to the Gentiles as well. We can see this to some degree with the interactions that John has while he teaches. He tells the soldiers to be content with their wages and not to extort money from the people.
Many even say that the reasoning for describing John’s clothing is due to the fact of John’s simple lifestyle. Saying that John did not purchase clothing but made the garment himself. And this life of poverty was in stark contrast to the lifestyle of the religious leaders of the day. The religious leaders were said to have taken great pride in the fringes on their clothing, and the dye of the cloth. Some believe that the parable Jesus spoke about the rich man and Lazarus was actually a description of a religious leader because of the purple robes the rich man wore. Which many believe was the special blue dye that can only be found in one sea slug found only in the Mediterranean Sea.
If you have not already begun picturing John in your minds do so. This man is clothed in a coarse hair garment, possibly cut and sewn with an amateur’s hand. And he is eating locus and honey. Yes, bugs and honey. The locus is actually considered a clean animal, something that is lawful to eat. Yet this insect is also attached to the plagues of Egypt. This prophet of God is eating the food of a curse. This skinny malnourished man in rags is standing in the Jordan plunging people in the depths while shouting Repent for the kingdom of God is near. And people throughout Judea come out to see him.
But John does not get wrapped up in the praise. He says very plainly that a more powerful person will becoming soon, one who John is not even worthy to tie the thong of his sandals. That is a powerful statement. Here is this man dressed as the most well-respected prophet of Israel., the prophet that did not face death but was escorted to heaven on a fiery chariot. This man who was a prophet after years of divine silence, who boldly shouted to even the Roman Soldiers to repent. Yet there is another one yet to come who is so powerful that John is not even worthy to touch his foot. Let those words simmer. This man that devoted his entire life to God is not worthy. John provides a religious experience using water, but the one that is to come will plunge you and cleanse you with the holy spirit. John is saying that everything that he is doing is really nothing. I baptize you with water, it just water, a powerful symbol, but a symbol just the same. The one to come, the anticipated one, will provide the reality symbolized in the ritual. John cleans the outside, while Jesus changes the heart.
All too often we wonder out in the wilderness. We wonder without any clear motive or direction. We try our best to survive by living a good life. But even a prophet of God is not good enough on their own. We wonder and trip, we send rocks crashing down all around us as we struggle to keep on our feet. When the spirit is calling us to take the plunge and allow Christ to redeem. So often we settle for the religious experience saying to ourselves this is enough, but our religious practices only hold power if they are connected to Jesus, the Son of God. John was doing everything right, yet even he was not worthy and was wondering alone. As we enter into this time of open worship, let us consider our life as a whole. Are we settling for an experience, or are we striving for the reality of life with God? Are we setting everything to the side to prepare the way for others or are we lost and wondering ourselves?