By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 6, 2020
Mark 1:1–8 (ESV)
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John and Mark both start their gospel account with a similar theme. In the beginning. And both accounts place the beginning several years before the actual birth of Jesus. In John he takes the beginning to the very creation of the world, while Mark’s account takes it around seven hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus. I have found this to be interesting. Not only because it shows us that prophecy is at work, but because it shows that we never know what our future or the future of our decedents might be.
The oracle of Isaiah began prior to the exile to Babylon, so like most apocalyptic literature it has layers of meaning. There were layers that concerned near history as well as layers that concerned prophetic descriptions of things in the deeper future. Those areas of deeper future meaning people wrestled with just as we wrestle with apocalyptic literature today. What does this mean? How does it really apply? Or was Isaiah just some crazy loon? It was only after the exile that people began to really appreciate the prophetic utterance of Isaiah. Prior to that many disregarded him, labeling him as a lunatic. Why would they do such a thing? In their opinion things were going great. Why would we question our future when everything you look at seems to be better than you could imagine?
Things can always change. That is one of the concrete rules of life along with death and taxes, things will always change. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a curse when we are living in comfort because that can change. People have often wondered why the extremely wealthy people in this world worry about their finances. The simple fact is that things can change. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos may be some of the wealthiest people in the world, but the greatest portion of their wealth is a figment of their imagination. I say this because no matter what they want to do they cannot have instant access to their wealth. They like us all only have immediate access to what we have right here in our pockets.
Have you ever really thought of that? If the internet went down the right now even the richest people in the world would be bound just like us. I say this because we often think that thing will be better if I only had. The reality is all we need is already available to us.
Things can always change. At times, these changes are for the better and at other times we perceive that the change is a disaster. We fear change because of the uncertainty, even if we are anticipating the change, even when we are praying for the change there is an ounce of dread because we do not know what will happen.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ is one of those things filled with a holy anxiety. From the dawn of human history there were stories. Weird stories that were difficult to grasp at the time. Right in the book of Genesis we can find the first prophecy about Jesus. God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”
Imagine hearing that for the very first time. Eve had yet to have any children, and we hear about her offspring will basically be at war with serpents. Yet the wording is strange, offspring is plural but the second phrase is singular. For generations, this story was passed down and through the years everyone began to wonder what it might mean. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is shrouded in mystery.
Mark takes us to the era of the kingdoms; exile is looming in the future and there is more mystery. A messenger will come to prepare the way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Again, let us consider this from a perspective of those that might have first heard this. A messenger will come to prepare the way. This part is not that mysterious there have been judges, prophets, and priest throughout the history of the people of Israel. All these people were messengers placed in a particular time and place to lead the people in the ways of the Lord. The part that is intriguing to me is the phrase the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
The wilderness is a place of mystery and chaos. It is a place of danger. The wilderness is the areas of land that are not suited for agriculture, so it is barren, untamed, and isolated. The ancient people of Israel were agrarian. They were used to rural settings, but there were still places you just did not go. Those places were the wilderness.
We still hear stories of the wilderness. Most of the Disney movies that we have grown to love are based on stories that were originally written to warn people of the wilderness. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, even the Little Mermaid and Frozen all have themes dealing with the dangers and potential rewards of venturing into those unknown wilds. It is from those deep, dark, dangerous, and somewhat frightening places a messenger will come crying out to the people of the known civilized communities to make way for the lord.
It is from the unknown places, the mysterious places, that we will find God working. Just beyond our comfort zone. Just beyond what we know is where faith is found. This is that holy anticipation of advent. With each step of the generations, there is more knowledge and more mystery. Beginning with our first parents and on through the ages, we have heard stories that are mysterious and seen wonders that we investigated. We ventured out into the unknown as we sought to discover and uncover the mystery.
I wonder, how long did the burning bush Moses encountered God at stand there burning before Moses was compelled to investigate? How many bushes did God set ablaze in the four hundred and thirty years of slavery before Moses decided to take the chance of getting close to the mysterious bush? Was it just the one or was Moses the one because he took a chance? We may never fully know.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness. Out of that mystery, out of the cloud of unknowing, out of the dark journey God is preparing a path. Will we walk it?
Last year I spoke a great deal about John the Baptist. I will not go as deep into his life as I did then, but I do want to remind you of who he was. John was the son of a priest. His father served as one of the highest-ranking priests inside the holy place within the temple. And it in this holy place where the birth of John was foretold. John was a miracle and everyone knew it. John would have been offered the greatest opportunities because everyone knew he was destined for greatness. Yet John did not choose the known path in his life, instead he went to the wilderness. Something within John caused him to look at the world around him, the world that he knows, and compelled him to seek the mystery. He went out to those isolated places, and when he returned, he presented a message that shook his nation to its foundation.
He came out of the wilderness and he began to baptize people. He proclaimed that this baptism was of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We hear this story every year, sometimes multiple times a year, but do we fully grasp the magnitude of the message? John was pulling people away from the temple, the very place his birth was proclaimed. He was saying that forgiveness was not found in that temple of stone but somewhere else. For generations forgiveness was found in a transaction, the offering of an animal in the place of an individual. John taught that forgiveness was not in that transaction but in the turning toward or returning to God. It is not a legal transaction but a change of lifestyle, which he symbolized through baptism.
We often get caught up in the ritual of baptism, we trade the transaction of the temple sacrifice for the transaction of water, but the term is derived from the dyeing of fabrics. When the fabric is plunged into the dye and becomes saturated with the liquid it is forever changed. It takes on a different color, and the fabric now has a different purpose.
John came out from the wilderness proclaiming repentance or turning from one lifestyle to another. He symbolized that change through the rite of baptism, but there is still a mystery. This compelling voice crying from the wilderness says that there is one coming after him who even he is not fit to untie the straps of his sandals. John baptizes with water, but that one will saturate with the very Spirit of God.
John said these things when worship at the temple was at its peak. People from every corner of the known world were coming to offer sacrifices at the temple dedicated to the God of Israel. John knew the temple he knew the draw and the power of that temple. He knew the comfort and peace that it offered, yet he proclaimed change. The people were already anticipating change, but the change they anticipated did not resemble the words John spoke. They were waiting for a king, a prophet, or a priest. They were not expecting a complete change in how they lived their lives.
We live in uncertain times. Change is all around us. Who would have thought last year that we would have lived through what we experienced this year? We were just beginning to learn about covid-19 around this time last year, and not one of us would have known what to expect. We have experienced a great deal of change in one year, yet here we are.
How do we face the mysteries of the future? How do we embrace change? This season we celebrate that mystery. We often forget that the advent of Jesus took everyone by surprise. Even though the people of the first century knew the prophecies, they even knew the very town he would be born in, they did not expect how God would fulfill His word. And as we wait in holy anticipation, we too look at our lives there is the revealed knowledge and clouds of unknowing. And we must choose where to walk. We must choose where to place our faith. Will we trust that God will direct our path, or will we trust in ourselves? It is those that trust God that find true life. It is those that embrace the mystery before them that discover the treasures within. It is to those that walk by faith that realize that God has been with them all along the way, even through darkness.
Let us embrace that unknown future. Let us be saturated with the very spirit of God. Let us today love God in our worship, embrace the spirit in our prayers, and live the love of Christ as we walk into that mysterious unknown ministering and encouraging those around us. What we do today may spark change in the lives of people generations from now. Will we take the chance to be a voice in the wilderness?