Dec. 10, 2023 Mark 1:1-8 A Good Place To Start

The Gospel Lesson today is one of the most interesting Advent / Christmas lessons in all of scripture. I say that because - did you notice that something seems to be missing? There is no mention of Christmas in this Gospel. Mark mentions neither the miraculous conception nor the birth of Jesus. And yet, this lesson is entirely appropriate for Advent and Christmas. Let’s find out why.

Let me set a backdrop that will help us to better understand our Gospel lesson. First, we need to understand that Mark is writing to people who were in distress. It is believed that Mark was writing to believers in Rome who were under persecution. This means that the message had to be short, sweet and to the point. Mark begins his Gospel with the words, “This is the beginning of the Good News – the Gospel – about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (v. 1) Mark doesn’t mince words. He wants to get across that which is most important to people who are in distress. And that is – don’t despair. I have Good News to share. Jesus Christ, the Son of God has come. But even in distress, people struggle to accept the message. Good news is good news – but even the most wonderful news fails to find receptive hearts. It’s much like today. Believers have a wonderful message for everybody: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” (2 Corinthians 5:19a) Wow! What a wonderful message of acceptance and love! But the message fails to gain traction in a world that is sometimes skeptical, sometimes distracted and sometimes just plain unbelieving.   Mark tells them that he’s not making up the Good News. He points them to the words penned by one of God’s most powerful and well-known prophets. Mark tells them: “The prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare the way for you. A voice cries out in the desert: Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!’ ” (vv. 2-3)

In quoting Isaiah’s prophecy, Mark demonstrates how John the Baptist’s ministry was a critical sign – given by God - to indicate that the Good News of Jesus Christ was real. He’s giving proof that the Good News that he is writing about is faithful to the prophetic scriptures given by God to his people.

Let’s talk about John the Baptist for a bit. Mark writes: “John the Baptizer was in the desert telling people about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. John was dressed in clothes made from camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” (vv. 4-6)

I want us to see three things about John the Baptist.

The first thing that I want us to notice is that he didn’t quite fit in. Starting out the story of the Good News with John the Baptist is a bit strange. Everything about John the Baptist is odd. Here was a guy who looked strange. He didn’t dress himself in the latest fashion. He wore clothes made of camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist to hold his outfit together. In fact, he was quite a contrast to the religious leaders who dressed in flowing robes.

He ate strange food – grasshoppers and the honey that he could scrounge out of beehives that he found in the desert wilderness. Nothing about John seems to fit with the version of Christmas that we celebrate today. Who in the world would ever think of a character like John the Baptist being a Christmas symbol.

Here’s the second thing that I’d like for us to see about John. He lived in the desert wilderness. His ministry area was not the temple nor was it a fine sanctuary. Even though Jesus refers to him later on as the greatest of all prophets, John the Baptist lives pretty much in the wild. His ministry required people to go out to where he was preaching. It was uncomfortable for them. John the Baptist was a strange looking man. He ate strange things. He didn’t fit in. He lived out in the wild. And yet, this is the personage with whom Mark decides to start the Gospel lesson. I wonder why?

The book of James states: What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (Jam 4:14b). Our time here in this world is fleeting. This world isn’t our real home. Life here is a short journey for every single one of us. In effect, we are living in a wilderness. This life is considered as a journey through a desert as we wait to get to heaven.

This time of year stresses and strains in relationships and finances burden so many of us. We are tempted to think that happiness depends on lots and lots of packages under a big, big tree and find that - no - happiness isn’t found in those things. Our walk through this life - this vale of tears - is a wandering in the wilderness.

The third thing that I want us to see is that John came preaching a message. “[John] announced, ‘The one who comes after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to bend down and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” (vv. 7-8)

John calls people to repent. He calls us to look at our wanderings from God. He says to us, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Those who are in the wilderness you and me, are challenged by John to confess our sin.

We are challenged to put our trust in God.

We are challenged to take our eyes off the things of this world.

We are challenged to live in our baptismal covenant.

John challenges us to identify our lives and our hopes and our visions with the living God.

John’s whole focus and purpose was to point us to the One who was coming. He points us to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. And as he points to Jesus, we see the shadow of a cross and a tomb to be occupied only for 3 days.

John was sent by God to make sure that we didn’t miss Jesus. As crazy and illogical and irrational as it seems – John came to point us to the news that the poor son of a Jewish Carpenter was, in fact, the Son of God. He came to tell us that his name was Jesus – He saves. John came to tell us that the Jesus Christ is the only hope for those who wander in the wilderness - that’s us beloved. It doesn’t make sense. But it is God’s Word and God’s promise.

Maybe he understands that the people who will be reading his words – us – live in a wilderness.

Maybe John the Baptist isn’t so strange after all.

Maybe his dress allows him to relate to those of us who also live in the wilderness.

Maybe his wilderness life allows us to focus our whole attention on the One to Whom John was pointing – Jesus – and not on John.

Maybe those of us who are wandering and struggling - can hear this message better from someone who looks like us and lives like us - John the Baptist. Hmmm, maybe the voice of one calling in the wilderness - is not such a bad place to start talking about Christmas after all.   Amen!