2nd Sunday in Advent
December 10, 2017
“A Weird Beginning; A Strong Ending”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us this is today’s Gospel Lesson which are the opening verses from St. Mark’s Gospel as just previously read.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
To start out with, I want you to take a pop quiz. So as not to stress anyone out, you’re not getting graded or anything, so don’t worry. I am going to present you with a list of pop culture phrases; each one comes from a TV show, a song, or from literature. Try to name the source of each. Okay, here we go. 1. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 2. “Is that your final answer?” 3. Just do it. 4. “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” And finally 5. “Start spreading the news I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it.”
How did you do? The first phrase was from the Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities.” The second phrase is from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The third is the marketing slogan for Nike. The fourth phrase was from the old Superman TV shows and the fifth reference was the opening lines from the song “New York, New York.”
Odds are you could identify most of those phrases, if not all of them. That’s because these phrases permeate our culture; they go beyond their original audience and influence a much wider audience. For the phrases that you knew, didn’t it
generate an emotion or a piece of familiar music or a short flash of a mental image? I’ll bet it did!
I told you that to tell you this. If you were a resident of 1st century Palestine, the content of Mark 1:1-8, our Gospel lesson for today, would have had the same kind of effect. Today we look back and SO MUCH of the impact of this text is just lost on us. As readers separated by thousands of years from the original context of this event it comes across to us as weird or unusual. Clothes made of camel’s hair? Eating locusts and wild honey? Gross! And why are all those people going out to see and hear this one called John the Baptizer (1:4)? Here is why. Just as each one of us is steeped in American culture, the Jews of Jesus’ day knew the Hebrew Scriptures. And what was going on out there in that weird desert scene actually triggered A LOT for those who were there.
John the Baptist’s clothing, environment, and diet caught the people’s attention. Maybe it just seems weird to us, but to the Jews in that region it meant something completely different. John wearing clothing made of camel’s hair isn’t weird or a way of showing his self-induced suffering for God’s sake. People who know the Old Testament scriptures know that God’s prophets wear clothes like this! In 2 Kings 1:8 we are told that Elijah, that great prophet of God, wore clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt. Zechariah 13:4 reminds people that prophets wear clothing made out of hair. John the Baptist isn’t causing himself to suffer for God’s sake; he is wearing what a chosen prophet of God wears…and the people knew that.
In addition, he was out in the wilderness baptizing people and telling them they needed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4). Well, that just seems weird, right? I mean, if God really had a serious prophetic message that needed to be heard, wouldn’t He use means to ensure that it spread as far and as fast as possible? If you were given that kind of message, wouldn’t you approach television producers or contact SiriusXM or find a 13-year-old to explain social media to us? You certainly wouldn’t wander out on Highway 72 east way out past Myakka River State Park and just start preaching, would you? Yet that is essentially what John the Baptist did. He did not go to the heart of Israel in Jerusalem or the epicenter of civilization at that time in Rome. Instead he stood in the Judean wilderness…and the people came to him! Walking from Jerusalem to the Jordan River is about 20 miles. That’s like walking from Sarasota to Venice to see what is going on down there. Worse yet, the return trip home to Jerusalem would have been 20 miles back, but uphill as well – 3000 feet uphill. Why would thousands of people walk to this weird scene? Because John had tapped into two powerful themes of Jewish thought: salvation comes from the wilderness and the return of Elijah.
Because of Old Testament prophecies, the Jews believed that Elijah would return prior to the coming of the promised Messiah and deliver the people of God in a new exodus; a journey that would start in the wilderness and end in the Promised Land just as it had for their ancestors under Moses. So here was John the Baptist in the wilderness looking like and sounding like Elijah: saying the right things and having the right look to indicate the end of Jewish oppression under the Romans.
Some thought John was the fulfillment of the coming of Elijah, but John the Baptist puts a spin on the expectation; he introduces a radical change. “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs 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” (1:7-8). Baptism? How will Baptism end their suffering? How will Baptism kick the Romans out of their country? That was not the kind of Messiah that people wanted. They wanted results, not to get in the river; they wanted war and not to get wet.
Indeed, that is still not the Jesus that people want. They want a Jesus who will make everything okay for their relationships, for their pocketbooks, and for their careers. They don’t want a Savior who says things like “Repent and believe the good news” (1:15). To repent is to recognize one’s sinfulness and the need of forgiveness before God. That’s not what people want. They don’t want to have to admit their guilt; that they’ve done anything wrong. They would like Christmas, without the guilt-giving Christ thank you very much.
John’s baptisms, though they seemed weird, pointed to a more solid ending. They pointed towards One who would come and bring the Holy Spirit. The questions of our past are resolved and our forgiveness is sure through repentance, forgiveness, and faith – gifts given through Baptism! And the object of our Baptismal faith is the One whom John the Baptist pointed to – the Savior Christ the Lord.
In the waters of our Baptisms we are given forgiveness of our sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. But those don’t just come through some water. Those blessings were bought at a price – the body and blood of Jesus, whom John the Baptist openly called The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Christ, through His perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection has won full forgiveness and salvation for the whole human race. Those gifts are distributed to us through Baptism; they are a means by which God’s grace is given to us. In your own Baptism God called you by name to be His. Whether your baptism occurred 75 years ago or 75 months ago or 75 days ago, it was and remains a significant event in your life to be remembered on a daily basis!
What John the Baptist was doing out in the Judean wilderness may look weird to us, but it was anything but to those who went to him. For what John the Baptist pointed to was not weird, but a rock-solid ending for the people of God. It is a future that was purchased for you by Christ.