Mark 1:1-8 “Prepare the way of the Lord”
For the next two Sundays, John the Baptist takes center stage. With his message of expectation and repentance, John is a key figure in our understanding of the Season of Advent. He plays an important role in all four Gospels, with Mark’s story beginning, not with Jesus, but with John.
John the baptizer had a successful ministry in his own right with his own disciples. Yet he clearly understood that his primary call was to “prepare the way” for the One to come, who was greater than he. Mark begins his story of the “good news of Jesus Christ” with the prophets of Israel and passages from Hebrew scripture which announce God’s coming, preceded by a messenger to prepare the way.
John is depicted as the last of the prophets in the tradition of Hebrew scripture, living as he does in the wilderness of Judea east of Jerusalem, wearing camel hair and living on locusts and honey. John’s attire was reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, whose return was expected to precede the coming of God’s reign. In fact, some saw him as the new Elijah.
But the beginning of Mark’s gospel points not to the prophets but to John himself. John bursts on the scene creating new excitement, stirring hearts, and gathering “all Judea and Jerusalem” to the Jordan River, to hear his message of repentance. John’s popularity and influence made an impact on political and religious leaders as well as the common people.
How do we account for John’s influence? The curious came, of course, because he was a striking and unusual figure; and the nostalgic came because he reminded them of Elijah and stirred their longing for the good old days when the voices of the prophets were heard in the land. John was a man who lived his message and because of that, people listened.
But even more important to the power of his ministry were the two major themes of his preaching: the Messiah is at the door, and repentance is essential to prepare to receive him. He gave his listeners hope and he gave them a way to enter into that hope.
He told men and women that his baptism drenched them with water, but the One coming after him would drench them in the Holy Spirit. And while water would cleanse the body, the Holy Spirit would cleanse a person’s heart and soul. They listened to him because he pointed not to himself, but to the One whom we all need.
John’s message of forgiveness and the approach of the Messiah was not without demands. The message that the Jews had been preaching to the pagan world for centuries, the call to repentance and submission to the rites of cleansing required of Gentiles, is now addressed to them: repent of the arrogant assumption that you alone are favored; that you are exempt from the moral demands that you place on others; that being better than your worst neighbor is sufficient for your salvation.
As Advent pilgrims on the way to the manger, we must pass through the desert where John is preaching. Are we listening? Can we hear the voice of the prophets crying in the desert areas of our lives? Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. Abandon your clever ways of maintaining the illusion of innocence? Repent. Be honest, come clean. Unload the fruitless and harmful patterns of behavior in your life.
Repentance begins with recognizing our need of change and renewal. What could be better news than this offer to repent, to confess our shortcomings, to be cleansed and forgiven?
Do you hear the voice of Christ speaking through the words of Isaiah and John?
“Prepare a place for me in the wilderness and desert areas of your heart, that I may gather you in my arms and carry you in my bosom, and lead you through the trials and tribulations of your journey through life – to me.”
This is the Advent hope of John the Baptist’s message.
Resources: Fred Craddock, et al, 1987; Synthesis, 2014, 2017.