by Rev. Doug Gray
1 gospel. Literally, good news. This line sums up the entire book of Mark, for Mark
will spend the rest of the book explaining who Jesus is, why He is the Christ
(lit., anointed one; the Hebrew word is Messiah), what it means for Him to be
the Son of God, and why all this is Good News. The word, gospel, is first used in
this way to describe the decrees of Caesar Augustus that would be sent far and
wide in the Roman Empire.
2–3 Isaiah and Malachi announced God’s promises for the people of Israel at least
400 years before John the Baptizer or Jesus was born. (See Isaiah 40:3 and
Malachi 3:1 for more context. Check out what’s around these prophecies to get
the full richness of what Mark wants us to know from these quotes.) Sometimes
God’s promises take time to come true. Many people do not live to see the big
promises come true, and yet they are faithful (Hebrews 11). How extraordinary that
we live in a time when we can experience the fruit of these promises for which the
Jews waited centuries. These verses strike both a note of hopeful expectation
and of urgent preparation. If Jesus is coming are we going to be ready in body
and soul, with straight paths for Him? If Jesus were to come today, would our
hearts and lives be ready to receive Him? desert. The word for desert or
wilderness calls to mind the way God guided the Hebrews after their escape from
Egypt. Each time a person enters the wilderness, they have intense encounters
with God that prepare them for major growth.
4–5 John was not a normal person. A true prophet, John combined a focused
life with a ministry to the broken and hurting. He offered a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins so that people could leave their old
ways and find a new relationship with God.
6 Locusts tend to be bitter, but substantive (crunchy too I understand). Wild
honey is sweet and because it’s wild, it comes directly from God’s providence
and carries the intimation of dependence on the wild, untamed God who serves it.
7 Despite John’s evident charisma and very successful ministry, he knows he is
not “the One.” John is the one who comes to prepare the way.
8 Just as John prepares the way for Jesus and recognizes the power
and precedence of Jesus, so too, the baptism of repentance prepares the way
for the Holy Spirit, and the greatness possible through a full and abundant life
in Jesus with the Holy Spirit.
9–11 These signs and wonders are straight out of the Old Testament. Many
people of Jesus’ day believed—as many do today—that the time of miracles
and revelation was past. Jesus’ Presence changes all that. We have a sense
that the End Times are beginning with Jesus baptism. God is Present in all Three
Persons at this event: The voice of God the Father, the obedience of Jesus
the Son, and the Spirit descending like a dove. God also speaks directly to
Jesus, announcing His love and pleasure in Jesus.
Anyone ever go on a family trip? What was one of your favorite places to go? When I was a kid, my family went on lots of road trips. With every trip I have ever gone on, the beginning of the trip had two stages: the promise and the preparation. Our passage today has these stages too.
When I was a child, trips always began late at night, either driving home from my grandparents or when my parents thought I was asleep. They would begin discussing the possibility of a trip—where we might go, what we might do, when it might take place. I would listen to Mom and Dad talk and hang on every word, afraid to speak and break the spell of exciting hope. I loved this part of the trip—the hope that something might happen was thrilling! The trip for our passage began centuries, even thousands of years before Jesus was born. Mark quotes Isaiah writing probably in the 500s before Christ, and Malachi writing 400 years before Christ.
2 “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
We learn about the promise of peace and soul-satisfaction, of power and justice, of a leader who would really care and open our eyes to who God really is. Amazing things would happen when this person came. In his introduction, Mark offers a teasing glimpse of Jesus when he writes, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Good News? What’s good news about Jesus? Christ? How do we know God chose Him for anything? Son of God? How do you know? What does that mean? I find most people can be seriously turned off by Christians…some followers of Jesus are in your face, bash you over the head and drag you off to their caves. I even saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, “Jesus save me from your followers.” Of course, this bumper sticker also hints that Jesus is a really interesting person—full of mystery and wisdom, outrageous welcome and baffling sacrifice. I find the real Jesus to be one of the most intriguing people ever. So I am excited about the possibility of journeying to a deeper understanding of one of the greatest people ever.
The second stage of any trip is preparation. What do you do to get ready to go out the door? When we are getting ready for a spiritual journey, we also need to prepare. In our passage for today, we see John preparing people for their spiritual journeys. If we want to travel with God, we are going to have get clean. We’re going to have to change the oil in our hearts. John is really honest about how this happens: we have to talk about what’s not working in our lives, what’s not right, where we need help. The other day I was working in our basement, not the cleanest section of our house. I was hauling trash, scrubbing floors, organizing, cleaning out, throwing out. By the time we were done, I was a sweaty, dusty, dirty, greasy mess. I wanted desperately to get clean. When we want to get clean, we shower. Do we step in our dirty clothes? No, first we strip down and get out of the dirty stuff. In the same way, we cannot get spiritually clean without stripping down our hearts and get out of the dirty, grimy ways of thinking and being. When we are done, we get fresh clothes, to begin anew, to be ready for new adventures of life.
What do we learn about Jesus from this mix? We learn that there was a lot of excitement before Jesus even got there—people were itching for God to do something amazing in their lives. We learn that Jesus was not into the pride or prestige factor. As good as Jesus was, He still prepared Himself for His journey by washing up. As amazing as Jesus was, He humbled Himself before His Father. In that humility, God speaks and says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Of all the things God could have said, those words are the ones I think we most need to hear right now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Nobel Prize speech,
“Every [person] lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live….This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual "lag" must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul.”
The soul grows beautiful and strong and hopeful only in the presence of love. So it is that we are at a time when we most need to hear God say to us, “You are my child, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” John says, “Perfect love casts out fear” and yet so many of us are fearful now. We see fear in anger, rage and frustration—fear that we cannot or will not get what we believe we need. To that fear in us, God says, “You are my child whom I love,” so that fear can unclench its fists, and we can open our hands to receive hope. We see fear in despair and addiction—fear that we will never get what we want, that life is hopeless and so we give up and give in. To that fear in us, God says, “You are my child whom I love,” so that fear can unclench its heart, and we can open our hearts to receive God’s deep delight in us. Why are we so buffeted now as a society? Are we focused so much on what we think and what we want to say that we do not take time to ask what God would want? Time and again, we need to let God’s words penetrate our hearts, “You are my child, whom I love.” We can always start our journey fresh.
As you came in, I hope you had the chance to pick up a small glass bead. It looks a bit like a drop of water beading up after a rain storm has washed the dirt of the world away. God has whispered promises to you, making your heart restless for God, all in preparation for today and the renewing of your journey. Today, God wants to wash the dirt of the world away from you as well. The promise of something better has pulled us here today—and the promise has been coming true. But before the promise can reach its fullness, we need to set aside the pride we may feel, that we have all the answers, that we are good enough all on our own and don’t need anyone’s help. Some of us need to set aside the darkness we may feel, that we don’t have any answers, that we aren’t good enough. Even Jesus needed John’s help to get clean. Hold the bead and look into it with me. Imagine the dirty areas of your life that you can’t ever seem to get clean enough. The living water of Jesus can wash it away so you can begin again. Imagine the needy, wounded areas of your life that you can’t ever seem to fix. The living water of Jesus can cleanse your wounds and begin the healing you’ve always wanted.
Presence — God rips open the heavens and says “I love you!” Sometimes the journey becomes is the point, not the destination.