Advent 2 – Series B (December 7, 2014)
“The Beginning of the Gospel” (Mark 1:1-8)
If the picture on today’s cover had not identified the subject as John the Baptist, you may have thought it was one of the stars of Duck Dynasty. You know … those camouflage-wearing, bandanna wearing, duck-call moguls with the ZZ Top beards? The family featured in their own wildly popular reality show on the A&E Network?
As popular as they are, many “sophisticated” people probably think they are a little odd. Just consider the way they dress. The way they talk. And all that “religious” stuff that gets thrown in! I mean, they even dare to pray “in Jesus’ name” at the end of every episode! Imagine that!
People may have thought John the Baptist was a little odd. Just consider the way he dressed. The way he talked. And his talk was all “religious,” too. But John, of course, was more than just a faddish sensation. His fashion sense declared him to be a prophet “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) as the angel Gabriel explained to John’s father Zechariah. Back in the days of the kings of Israel and Judah, the prophet Elijah wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist and was a powerful preacher (2 Kings 1:8). The Scriptures foretold that Elijah would come before the appearing of the Messiah (Mal. 4:5). Jesus later declared that John was the fulfillment of that prophecy (Mark 9:13).
Don’t be surprised when the world thinks you are a little odd. The way you dress is probably not all that different. You certainly don’t wear camel hair and sport a Duck Dynasty beard. Is it the way you talk? Well, hopefully there is something about your language that sets you apart … and not just your lack of vulgarities and a habit of misusing the holy name of God. It’s your “religious” talk, too. Especially at this time of year, Advent and Christmas, you have all kinds of opportunities to talk about Christ. It’s built into the name of the holiday, after all. It’s the “Christ” Mass.
So as we approach Christmas, we begin at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel which begins: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." But other than his mention of Jesus as the Son of God in the first verse, Mark does not begin with the birth of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist. He skips right over the nativity narratives and “fast-forwards” to John’s appearance. And Mark makes it clear that John is the fulfillment of the prophesied “messenger” who would come to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Some might say that Mark got it wrong. The beginning of the Gospel should be Christmas. In fact, that’s what we should be talking about in December, not all this Advent stuff. But when it comes right down to it, the beginning of the Gospel was really in the Garden of Eden when God first promised to send a Savior after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit. And if you really think about it, the beginning of the Gospel was from all eternity. Jesus is the Lamb slain “before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). In his foreknowledge and omniscience, God already knew that he would have to send his Son to be our Savior. That should remove all doubt that your God is a gracious, loving God. The sacrifice of his Son for you was never Plan B. It was Plan A all along.
For Mark’s purposes, the beginning of the Gospel is the beginning of the public preaching of John the Baptist who prepared the way for the public ministry of Jesus. Think of it this way. For all the hoopla surrounding Christmas today, at the time of the birth of Jesus the meaning of his birth was not made known to all that many people. Yes, there were Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, shepherds and Wise Men. They knew the joy of Christmas. But there was no Christmas joy for the families in Bethlehem whose babies were killed by King Herod as he searched for the Child he thought was a threat to his throne. But with John the Baptist, things were ramped up. It was time for the public ministry of Jesus to begin. It was time for more people to learn about him and see him in action. But first, John had to prepare the way.
How did John prepare the way? To begin with, note his location. He was in the wilderness. The place of desolation. The place of loneliness. Away from that which might distract you from what it truly important. That’s why early Christian monks often built their monasteries in the desert. Spending time in the desert is a reminder to rely on God’s provision. It’s the place where grass quickly withers and flowers fade. It’s the place where people quickly wither and fade. It was also the place of testing for the people of Israel. They crossed the desert after the Exodus and entered the Canaan through the Jordan. Yahweh “brought a vine out of Egypt” and planted his people in the Promised Land. They crossed the desert once again after the Babylonian Exile and entered the land once again through the Jordan. And now here is John, at the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people were baptized. They confessed their sins and were incorporated into God’s forgiveness and looked forward in faith to the appearing of the Messiah. They were led through the Jordan once more, made ready to live as God’s repentant and expectant people.
John pointed people to the One who is greater than he. Later, Jesus said of John that among those born of women, no one is greater than John (Matt. 11:11). Therefore, this One coming after John must be something else! Someone extra special! In fact, John says that he only baptizes with water, but the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit. This One to come who sends the Spirit upon whom he baptizes must indeed be the Divine Son of God.
If the Lord is about to arrive on the scene, then confession is a good way to prepare. God himself – Yahweh, the Great I Am … Immanuel, God with us – would be in their very midst. The promised Messiah was coming to complete his mission to be our atoning sacrifice. When he appears, the proper thing to do is to repent and receive him by faith. Turn from your sins and trust in his forgiving grace. To be God’s own repentant and expectant people. And that is exactly what we are as we gather together. Jesus is present today in his Word. He is present sacramentally in the Holy Supper as he gives you his true body and true blood. And Jesus will one day come again like a thief – unexpectedly, surprisingly – when “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:10).
John came to clear the way to make the people ready to receive the Messiah, to remove any obstacles and roadblocks in hearts and lives that would keep people from meeting the Messiah. There are all sorts of obstacles and roadblocks which keep us from meeting the Messiah, which take us off the path of righteousness, which keep us in unbelief so that we do not receive the blessings and benefits of his arrival. The potholes of pride. The sinkholes of selfishness. The dead end of dishonesty. The floodwaters of flagrant immorality. Do you want those works exposed on the day of the Lord? “The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass” (Is. 40:7). The breath of the Lord speaks wrath over disobedience and unbelief, and you and I have no ability to remove those sinful obstacles from our path. Someone else must do it for us.
And the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark tells us how this is done. The way is cleared for you by a baptism of repentance into the forgiveness of sins … the forgiveness of all your sins won for you by Christ’s death on the cross and a baptism even greater than John's, one accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (Is. 40:8). The Word made flesh who was crucified for your sins and rose in victory now stands forever as your great high priest (Heb. 7:23-28 et. al.). Through the preached Word, the breath of the Lord blows upon you no longer in condemnation but in consolation with love and life eternal.
The beginning of the Gospel in your life occurred in your baptism and the preaching of God’s Word. The continuation of the Gospel in your life occurs in confession and absolution as you return to the Jordan River – that is, the promises given in your baptism – to live as God’s repentant and expectant people. The Gospel continues in your life through the gracious presence of Jesus as you eat and drink his body and blood with faith in those words “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”
Through this Word of the Gospel, you can stand forever before the Lord in his grace. You can stand before him at his Second Advent and be “found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet. 3:18).