Good morning and welcome to Dishman Baptist Church. We are very blessed and thankful that you have taken the time to join us here this morning.
In the last 8 months I’ve introduced sermons in a variety of ways - I’ve quoted from poets, I’ve cited current affairs and I believe I’ve even quoted Lady Gaga although I don’t recall whether that was in the sermon or the introduction. Well this morning may be the single most unique and strange introduction yet. I say that to prepare you and then to say stick with me because I have a point.
The year was 1919. A young man slowly began to make his way onto the world stage. He was of average height at 5’9” and really not all that appealing to the eye but he had a charisma about him that was infectious. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica “With his charismatic personality and dynamic leadership, he attracted a devoted cadre of leaders, men whose names today live in infamy”. His ascension to leadership and his ideals eventually led to one of the greatest periods of bloodshed in modern times.
Many of you have figured out by now that the man I refer to is Adolph Hitler. Now here is why I would start off this sermon with such an utterly despicable example as that - throughout history men have been drawn to charismatic leaders who had the ability to touch the nerves of a nation and mobilize them to move in the direction in which he determined they should go. On the surface, our passage this morning seems to be about another such man. It has been estimated that when Mark refers to “the whole Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” that this would have amounted to approximately 300,000 people. That is some serious influence if given the right message and motivation to act. But what we’re going to find is that this passage presents to us an antithetical picture of leadership - and really so much more. And what we’ll find out by the end is that this passage isn’t really about John at all.
Please take your Bibles and turn with me to Mark 1 and we’ll be looking at verses 2-8 this morning.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight! John came baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. John wore a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
As I read in preparation for this sermon I came across the following anecdote. A home Bible study was working through this passage of Mark and were sharing what their thoughts were on what these verses mean. The first offered, “What this passage means to me is that everyone needs to be baptized, and I believe that it should be by immersion.” A second responded, “I think it means that everyone needs to be baptized by the Holy Spirit.” A third reacted honestly, “I am not exactly sure what I should be doing.” A fourth suggested that the passage meant that if one is to meet God, one needs to get away and commune with nature in the desert. This passage is about some of those things - there is an element to baptism both by water and the Holy Spirit - but these are really only bit players, secondary roles to the main point. What we will find is that Mark - in his characteristically brief style is using three methods to continue to fill out the message that he began in verse 1 that we looked at last week
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
He will point us to Christ through the lens of Old Testament prophecy or The Missive, through the person and ministry of John the Baptist or The Man and then finally through John’s preaching or The Message.
Mark 1:2-3; Malachi 3:1; Exodus 23:20; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14;
Mark seems to be contradicting himself and what he had written in verse 1 as he continues by saying “As it is written”. Contrary to the popular trend in modern Christianity to say that all of this information was simply passed on by word of mouth with very little appeal to authority Mark is immediately grounding his message in the authority of the Old Testament. As we seek to reach the lost and to instruct those we are working with inside the church we would do well to follow Mark’s model here and maintain our stance and instruction on the inerrant authority of the Word of God. It is both sufficient and efficient for the teaching and reproving of the scoffer and believer alike.
This citation by Mark is a bit unique though and it might appear to be confusing to our eyes as we read it. Many of you probably have notations in your Bibles that attribute the first part of this quote to the prophet Malachi in Malachi 3:1
“See, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple, the Messenger of the covenant you delight in—see, he is coming,” says the Lord of Armies.
Or in the assurances given to the Israelites in Exodus 23:20
“I am going to send an angel before you to protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared.
and Mark doesn’t actually get to a quote from Isaiah that we read in our Scripture reading this morning from Isaiah 40:3 until after these two verses are composited together. This isn’t a misprint nor a mistake in the text, it is a practice of ancient Jewish writers to only cite the most prominent source. Mark attributes this quotation to Isaiah much the same way that a memo produced from a committee bears only the name of the committee’s chairperson. All of the ideas that go in to the production of the statement may not have originated with the chairperson but the statement will bear his name. And so Mark attributes all of these statements to Isaiah and in so doing points his readers and us to the coming of John the Baptist, but only by extension.
The true semantic thrust of each of these statements - the true point is to point out that another will be coming. The messenger is only an introduction, the real point of Isaiah and Malachi’s statements here is to point to the One who will come afterwards. Look again at their statements with me
“See, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple, the Messenger of the covenant you delight in—see, he is coming,” says the Lord of Armies.
The first point to notice is the subtle way that Mark changes this quotation. Malachi writes “See I am going to send my messenger and he will clear the way before Me.” A shortfall of many modern translations including the CSB is that they fail to capitalize all of the pronouns that relate to God and so we may miss the significance of what is being said here. Malachi is pointing out that the messenger will clear the way for the arrival of the Lord Himself.
Mark changes this in his rendition to “See I am sending my messenger ahead of You. He will prepare Your way.” In so doing Mark is emphasizing again Christ’s deity for his readers. They would have been well educated in the Old Testament prophecies and would immediately pick up on the change of reference from the Lord (me) to Christ (you). This is important to note because this messenger that would be sent would not simply herald the arrival of the human political king that all of Israel was expecting but that he would herald the very arrival of the Lord God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
Applying these two texts to the person of John the Baptist demonstrates the high estimation and significance of John’s arrival on the scene. The messenger in Exodus 23 was not a human messenger or Moses but instead was a divine guide sent by God to lead the people in the way that they should go. The messenger in Malachi has such a high and holy purpose to announce not simply the arrival of a king but of the Lord Himself that we would rightly expect one of the four angelic creatures that surround the throne proclaiming “holy, holy, holy” but instead what we are given is a mere man - who we will get to in more detail in a moment.
But we should also not miss the significance of the way which John has been sent to prepare - it has such significance that the way is the designation used during the early church for the movement that had been instituted.
Paul speaking to both the Jewish crowd in Acts 22
I persecuted this Way to the death, arresting and putting both men and women in jail,
and before Felix in Acts 24
But I admit this to you: I worship the God of my ancestors according to the Way, which they call a sect, believing everything that is in accordance with the law and written in the prophets.
referred to the faith as the way. But what was this way that John was preparing - in Mark the way of God is always going to be the way of Jesus to the cross. Mark’s entire Gospel will continuously move Christ inexorably toward the cross and his ultimate purpose in coming and all of the Gospel should be interpreted in this light. Even these two brief Old Testament statements that Mark chooses to include at the beginning of his Gospel are meant to point us as readers toward Christ’s ultimate mission.
Isaiah’s prophecy reinforces and builds on the truths already demonstrated by Malachi’s words. Look at them with me
A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Isaiah not only tells the readers that the messenger, the voice crying out, will make the way for the Lord again reinforcing Christ’s deity, but also tells them from where. He writes that there will be a voice crying out in the wilderness. Throughout Israel’s history the wilderness was always a place of repentance, reconciliation and grace between the Lord and His people. The inclusion of the wilderness here would immediately turn the minds of the readers to the Exodus and that momentous time of purging and purification of the nation of Israel before they could enter into the promised land and receive the inheritance that the Lord had promised to Abraham.
Mark’s inclusion of these two prophetic texts right at the beginning of his Gospel reinforces the historicity of the Gospel plan - that it wasn’t something that was a secondary path because the first way had failed. Instead it was always God’s intention to redeem His people this way and throughout the history of the nation He had been pointing people to the coming of the messenger who would herald the arrival of His Kingdom. And now that man had arrived - but not in the form that the people would have expected.
Mark 1:4-8; Luke 1:5; 1 Kings 19:4-6; 2 Kings 1:7-8; Luke 1:15-17; Malachi 4:5
There is just something about John the Baptist that is enigmatic. And yet he’s sort of a paradox as well. I’m going to try very hard during this series to strictly remain in the Gospel of Mark and to glean from his writing the message that he intends to convey but occasionally for context I may have to dig in to Luke or Matthew and such is the case here. The only information we have of John’s younger years is found in the Gospel of Luke. There we learn that his father Zechariah was a priest in the division of Abijah
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
and that his mother was among the daughters of Aaron. So he was born with a priestly pedigree. It is odd then that instead of serving in the Temple the way his father had that Mark, and the other Gospel writers, place John outside of the city of Jerusalem in the wilderness. Much like the motif of repentance and reconciliation is found in the wilderness, so we also find that God’s most effective leaders in the Bible come out of a time in the wilderness. Moses was in the wilderness when he happened upon the burning bush. David spent years in the wilderness running for his life from Saul. And here we have the emergence of John the Baptist coming, not as one would expect and even his birthright would have allowed him to, out of the wilderness.
I mean if there were a modern version of the story we might have gone out to John and said “come in to the Temple and serve like your dad did - you can have a much greater impact there. Don’t stand out here on the street corner or outside that abortion clinic or on that college campus and preach there’s no fruit there...”
But here we have John who appears out in the wilderness. Before we get to what John was doing in the wilderness it’s intriguing to look at the two characteristics that Mark chooses to highlight about the person of John. Mark chooses his manner of dress and what he ate.
First what he ate, he subsisted on a diet of locusts and wild honey. It’s not hard to understand why that hasn’t caught on as one of the faddish diet plans that people try and dream up out of the Biblical text. There’s nothing attractive about that diet. Well maybe the honey is but locusts - even doused in honey don’t sound appetizing. But there is an important principle to be found in even these simple food choices. What we find in John is a man who is so completely sold out to God that he even trusts him for his daily sustenance.
He was eating locusts and wild honey. These are not the normal cultivated crops or even Ezekiel bread - I mean he had to cook it over dung but at least it was made out of wheat and barley and a few other ingredients. But John is left to eat locusts and wild honey. Have you ever tried to catch a grasshopper? They’re hard to catch - there is no way that John was herding around a bunch of grasshoppers keeping them for food. And the very term wild honey implies that he wasn’t keeping bees and harvesting the honey from organized hives. He was completely and totally dependent on God - the same way the Israelites were during their wilderness pilgrimage. And the same way that Elijah was when he ran away from Jezebel after the victory on Mount Carmel. In 1 Kings 19 we are told that he fled from Jezebel and sat down under a broom tree
but he went on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my fathers.” Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree. Suddenly, an angel touched him. The angel told him, “Get up and eat.” Then he looked, and there at his head was a loaf of bread baked over hot stones, and a jug of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again.
Twice under that tree the Lord provides food for him and he is sustained on a 40 day journey to Mount Horeb. The picture of John being sustained the same way as Elijah contributes to the overall picture that Mark gives of John as a type of Elijah.
He writes that John was clothed in camels hair and girded with a leather belt. Again a people as well versed in the Scriptures and taught to look for symbolism as Mark’s audience was would recognize the picture of Elijah given in 2 Kings 1:8
The king asked them, “What sort of man came up to meet you and spoke those words to you?” They replied, “A hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It’s Elijah the Tishbite.”
And of course this is what was promised regarding John - that he would go forth in the power of Elijah. Looking again to Luke, when Gabriel informed Zechariah that John would be born he used these words
For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.”
That he would be the fulfillment of another prophecy located in the book of Malachi
Look, I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
So John enters onto the scene not where he would have been expected, in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness - and this is an undefined location. Tradition tries to pinpoint the location of John’s baptism but all we really know is that it was somewhere along the Jordan river south of the Sea of Galilee. Mark’s decision not to include the location of John’s ministry suggests that the significance of the wilderness is theological (that it was a place of repentance) rather than geographical. Nor was he dressed as was the expectation for a religious leader of the day with long flowing robes with phylacteries and eating at the finest banquets. Instead he came in the humble garb of a prophet and ate what the Lord provided. And his message was also not what was expected by the people who were looking for the coming of Elijah.
Mark tells us two things about the message of John here and both of them point to his role in making straight the paths and announcing the coming of the Lord.
The first is that he came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was not a foreign concept to Judaism at the time - any Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion would have to demonstrate their fidelity by submitting both to circumcision but also to baptism. There were also baptism rituals that were taking place in the Essene settlement of Qumran around the same time that John was baptising on the river Jordan. Qumran may sound familiar as the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
But unlike these ritualistic, initiatory baptisms, John’s baptism was not a rite of initiation into a new community but instead served the purpose of cleansing of sins and turning back to God in expectation of the coming of the Messiah that John was a forerunner of. For John, and for us today, baptism was not an initiation into the Christian life but instead is the external demonstration of an internal reality of repentance and confession of sin.
And so this baptism that he proclaimed was something completely new on the religious landscape of ancient Israel. John’s baptism was also unique in that he immersed the faithful in water. In proselyte baptisms as well as those taking place in Qumran and ritual washings associated with Judaism the individual would immerse themselves rather than being immersed by another.
And one final distinction for John’s baptism versus the other acts (especially ritual cleansings) John’s baptism was a one time, unrepeatable act. This baptism for the forgiveness of sins only had to take place once.
Mark tells us that all of Judea and Jerusalem were going out to John to be baptized. This would seem to be a massive revival that would pave the way for the coming of the Messiah. Instead I think we should see the pragmatism of the day and the people’s willingness to latch on to whatever it might be that will give them a sort of bonus coverage with God. This baptism was something completely different than the sacrifices practiced in the Temple.
This was an individual act of repentance rather than the necessity of having the priest perform a sacrifice on your behalf. This was new and, as evidenced by the continued sacrifices and the ultimate rejection of Jesus by many of these same people who were baptized by John, many who were baptized were just “hedging their bets” in a synthesizing of religious practices to ensure that when Messiah did come that they were safe. But this is not to say that there were not those who were genuinely converted.
John’s call to baptism was radical. Because baptism had up until that point been primarily associated with Gentiles seeking to become proselytes it forced the Jewish people to see themselves as outside the camp and requiring repentance of sins and baptism to be included in the Messianic Kingdom. John’s baptism was most importantly one of repentance of sins. Metanoia is the Greek word and it means a changing of the mind or the changing of direction.
But it’s not simply a change of mind - it is precipitated in ancient Greek thought by regret for the former mindset that was demonstrated. So this is not simply mental assent to being incorrect and having a change of mental attitude but instead involves emotions as well as behavioral aspects of our character. Writing to the Corinthian church Paul demonstrates this principle when he tells them that
I now rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death.
Repentance involves more than just the mind, it involves the whole person so that we can love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And it can only happen when we are baptized the way that John says that the Messiah will baptize His people.
John preached that another would come after him who was stronger than he was and that he was not worthy even to stoop down and loose his sandals. In ancient Israel this would be the job of a house slave so what John is saying here is that he is not even worthy to be the house slave of the One who would come after him. The one who Jesus refers to as the greatest of all men didn’t see himself as worthy to be a slave in the house of his Master.
John says that while he baptized the people with water, that the One who came after Him would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. This would again point to Christ’s deity as the One who was capable of baptizing with the Holy Spirit. It also speaks to the reality that, just as all believers are baptized with water so now, after Christ’s advent all believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit. It is not a specialized gift only given to the select few. Just as John’s baptism washed away the external dirt, the baptism of the Spirit washes away the internal vestiges of sin out of our lives. As Paul writes to Titus in Titus 3
he saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy—through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out his Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that, having been justified by his grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.
Unlike many modern, charismatic leaders, John’s mission was, as any good herald does, to point others from himself to the One who would come after him.
Mark demonstrates the same mission in the way he chooses to present John’s ministry in his Gospel. First he demonstrated the message of the prophets who foretold that the messenger would come - not for his own benefit but to clear the way for the Lord who would come after him. He did this by proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins and a cleansing of the hearts of those who would truly submit to the work of the Lord in their lives. This requires a recognition of the presence of sin that keeps us separated from God and the recognition that all of our external trappings and efforts to cleanse ourselves are incapable of succeeding. It involves a regret for our sin and a turning away from sin and a turning back to the God who loved us enough to send His Son to die for us.
Then Mark introduced us to the man who would proclaim this message - completely counter-culturally not only in our day but also in the day in which he preached. He came from a direction that was unexpected, in a manner that was unexpected with a message that was unexpected. And God continues to work through the same foolish means today to redeem sinners for Himself. Using what is foolish to shame the wise and to bring sinners to repentance and faith in Him.
And finally Mark demonstrates John’s mission - to point us to Christ so that we might see Him and recognize Him for who He is. That He is the Son of God who can baptize us with the Spirit, a baptism that we cannot accomplish for ourselves, effecting a cleansing and a regeneration of our internal being enabling us to have faith in Him and what He has done for us on the cross.
It is Him that we come to see. It is Him that we should be looking for and earnestly seeking out as we continue to study His Word with diligence and expectation.
If you’re here today and you’ve tried to “hedge your bets” thinking that you can place your faith in a lesser Jesus or a Jesus of your own making, but still also try and achieve salvation on your own this is an opportunity for you to see that the One who is greater has come and it is only through His redemptive work on the cross and in your life that you can be saved. Today is your day to repent and place your full faith in Him alone for salvation.
If you’re here and you’ve never placed your faith in Him in any fashion and you’re still trying to achieve your salvation on your own - through the baptism of good works - recognize today that it is futile, that you can never be good enough and repent right where you are. Call out to Him and receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the washing of your internal being from the sins that plague you and separate you from God. As we sing our last song if you need to talk with someone quietly go to the back of the room, there will be several men willing to talk with you about salvation and what it means to repent and place your faith and trust in Him.