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Advent II B 2008

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Theme: Wild man in the wilderness

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, you sent many prophets to lead us in your ways; we often didn’t listen, but you persisted, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of the coming of Jesus Christ; may we always prepare our hearts for Jesus, learning the message of the wild man in the wilderness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I love receiving Christmas cards. I especially like Christmas cards with good Christian artwork on the cover. The lion with the lamb; the three wise men and the message, “Wise Men Still Seek Him;” the Madonna and child; or the star piercing the darkness over stable and manger; all are beautiful depictions of the Christmas story.

Again, I am positive that as a group we have all perused thousands of Christmas cards like these. Yet I do not recall ever receiving one with John the Baptist preaching in the desert. Do you? I can picture it in my mind: a card front marred by the dead, barren wilderness of Judea out by the Jordan River, with this animated, prophetic figure as the focal point. But I have never read one that even closely resembles such a scene. Have you?

John the Baptist is totally inappropriate for the way we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus as Matthew and Luke report that holy night many years ago. Mary, Joseph, angels, manger, shepherds, wise men; a child is born unto us. Glory to God in the highest! That is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the reason for the season. So we honor sweet, little Jesus boy, get warm fuzzies, and hug our family members. What does John the Baptist have do with Christmas?  For Mark, everything.

Instead of Bethlehem and choirs of angels, he begins the story of Jesus’ coming with a prophet blaring and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea. In so doing, he adds a new figure to the good news about the incarnation and coming of the Christ. It is John the Baptist. Throughout the centuries the church has recognized Mark’s unique contribution through its observance of Advent in preparation for the celebration of Christmas.

Mark’s gospel does not have any birth stories. It is highly likely that Mark was not familiar with any birth stories. Mark wants to get straight to the meat of the matter – the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ. For Mark, this begins with the ministry of John the Baptist who sets the stage for the beginning of the ministry of the Son of God.

But before Mark introduces John the Baptist, Mark quotes the prophets. He first quotes the prophet Malachi “The way of God will be prepared by a messenger.” Isaiah is then quoted about a voice in the wilderness calling for a way to be prepared for God’ coming. The wilderness is typically the desert in the Bible. The road is to be smooth and straight. I take that to mean that it should be so good a work as to honor God.

Isaiah’s words bring comfort to an Israel that is in exile in Babylon. Mark is talking not to exiles, but to a people who live under foreign occupation. The Malachi quote reminds Mark’s listeners that God is coming intervene, not to restore. The New Testament finds its roots in the Old Testament.

Mark then brings John the Baptist into the scene. The implication is that the very messenger and the very voice in the wilderness is that of John, who is conveniently already in the wilderness. John is preaching for people to change their lives – to turn back from the way they are leading their lives and instead to turn to God. If they do this, then their sins will be forgiven.

Word got out about what John was doing out in the middle of nowhere. Crowds of people flocked to hear John. John is a big deal. The people expressed remorse for their sins and so John baptized them in the Jordan River. Now the Jordan River Valley is not the wilderness. It is lush. But remember that the gospels are theological texts and not necessarily historically factual.

Next Mark describes John. He was a wild man in the wilderness. He wore a camel’s hair coat fastened with a belt. We are not told if John chose camel’s hair or if he had no choice. Of what we know about John, he likely chose to wear the very uncomfortable camel’s hair. John’s appearance reminds us of the prophet Elijah.

Food is scarce in the wilderness. Though I suspect people offered John food – he likely refused the offers. Instead, he ate locusts and wild honey. I assume that people didn’t try to hire John to rid them of their locust problems. What John didn’t eat might just stick to his honey covered chin. John loved being a wild man in the wilderness.

In addition to John’s call to repentance, he said that someone else is coming. This one is more powerful than John. Even though the people considered John to be a very holy man, John does not feel he is good enough to even do the slave’s job of untying the newcomer’s sandals. John baptizes with water. This newcomer will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus needs some prep work.

John is an ineffective leader. Who wants to follow someone who says that he or she is nothing and that a better person is yet to come? Would you vote for such a person? When we realize that we are servants of God, then what John says makes a lot of sense.

After Mark describes John the Baptist, we take note that John sounds like the voice and the messenger that Malachi and Isaiah are referring to. There is an analogy between the words of the prophets and of John the Baptist. John warns his listeners that they need to be spiritually and morally fit to stand in front of God, before God comes. We cannot understand Jesus’ ministry unless we understand the Old Testament.

What we hear in this passage is a call to humility. We never enter a job, a task, a function, whether it is in the church or in the world when someone, or more appropriately, some people prepare the way for us. There are always others who prepare our way. There is only one saviour in the world and in Advent we still wait. Waiting for a saviour is also an act of humility.

How are you preparing for Jesus? Is humility part of you preparation? Are you studying the Old Testament? Do you examine in what ways you participate in a servant ministry? Are we turning from our ways to God’s ways? We need not linger at a manger that has yet to arrive. A baby can be demanding. The adult Jesus is infinitely more demanding. Jesus will bring us the gift of the Holy Spirit to those of us who faithfully guide the church to this day.

Sue Monk Kidd, in one of her books, recalls her youth and how she would prepare for Christmas. In early December, she would sit by the wooden nativity set clustered under their Christmas tree and think over the last year of her life. She would think deeply about Christmas and the coming of Jesus.

She remembers, one time, visiting a monastery. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas. As she passed a monk walking outside, she greeted him with, "Merry Christmas." The monk's response caught her off guard a bit. "May Christ be born in you," he replied.

His words seemed strange and peculiar at the time. What did he mean, "May Christ be born in you?" At the time she was unsure of what he meant, but now all these years later, sitting beside the Christmas tree, she felt the impact of his words. She discovered that Advent is a time of spiritual preparation. It is also a time of transformation. It is “discovering our soul and letting Christ be born from the waiting heart.”

We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, thank you for the gift of John the Baptist for preparing all of us for the coming of your son; help us seek the meaning of Christ in our lives in this time of year when we busy ourselves with so many things, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Text: Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

1 The beginning of the good newsa of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.b

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,c

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,d

who will prepare your way;

3     the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’ ”

4 John the baptizer appearede in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you withf water; but he will baptize you withg the Holy Spirit.”



a  Or gospel

b  Other ancient authorities lack the Son of God

c  Other ancient authorities read in the prophets

d  Gk before your face

e  Other ancient authorities read John was baptizing

f  Or in

g  Or in

[1]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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