Saturday, 9 December 2017

Mark 1.1-8 (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   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” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

My text this morning is written in Mark 1 and verse 3:

 “… the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’” 

Samuel Massey writes:

The message of Christ has raised up nations and brought them low, launched and defeated armies, started large social movements and destroyed others. Think of all that has been done in the name of Jesus Christ and how inconspicuously the Gospel begins according to Mark. Here we find none of the thunderous poetry used by John to describe the pre-existent Christ. We dream no dreams and no angels visit with us. Caesar Augustus and Herod seem pretty far away. No excuse here for Christmas trees or mob-ridden malls or long hours putting together services of lessons and carols--thank God! All Mark offers to us is John the Baptist, many people’s worst nightmare, smelling like a camel and calling people to change their ways.

Most people agree that the beginning of the Good News or Gospel of Jesus Christ has the ministry of John the Baptist as the starting point. The author of this wonderful record goes back to the Old Testament to show how John was the fulfilment of prophecy and he is correct in stating in the first instance that the message originally came from the prophet Isaiah. But the reference to the messenger in verse 2 does not in fact come from Isaiah, but from Malachi 3.1. Professor Charlie Moule explains: ‘The fact that the two quotations are both ascribed to Isaiah may mean that they occurred side by side under a single heading in some collection of prophecies.’ For me, it matters little; what does matter is that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of the prophetic hope for a saviour; a Messiah. In verses 2 and 3, therefore, we see how Mark reminds his readers that the true Messiah would have been announced by a forerunner, and that John the Baptist was the Elijah that the Jewish people would have been waiting for. He also stresses that the people heard the integrity of John’s announcement and his message that ‘... nothing less than a national repentance would constitute the expected Messianic preparation.’ (Nineham)

It is not impossible that John had been a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls community in Qumran; those dedicated people who spent time studying the scriptures and preparing themselves by austere and disciplined living. This community had used baptism as a rite of passage for those who wished to join the Jewish faith. Bathing or sprinkling with water was a widespread religious symbol for purification. Ezekiel had used sprinkling as a figurative expression for the moral cleansing of the nation by God.

John’s message included baptism. Mark also points out that when John explained his baptism he made it clear that it was a preparation, not to be compared with the action of the one who was coming – the ‘mightier one’. This was the one important thing that John did that was not part of Old Testament prophecy – he baptised – or so it would seem; but the way Mark presents this important historic episode, brings John’s baptism in line with the prophecies in the way he makes John baptising become part of his proclamation. The prophecies spoke of a messenger or ‘proclaimer’ – ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’.

John’s baptism was of significance and baptism with the Holy Spirit is of special significance. Moule explains that ‘... the Holy Spirit is God himself at work among his people, and it is possible for a person literally to have the Holy Spirit poured over him like water ... like a deluge, purifying, judging presence of God himself.’

In Acts 1.5 Jesus also refers to baptism with the Holy Spirit and in Romans 8.9 Paul claims that unless one has the Holy Spirit, they are not Christian. In Acts 2, the beginning of the Church is marked by the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel 2.28 ff.

John was dramatically portraying the great significance of his call to repentance. Those who responded to his call to moral reform submitted themselves to being dipped in the river as a sign of their response and commitment. But John called for much more than mere moral reform; he was preparing for something much greater.

We see, therefore, that Mark starts the story of Jesus long before his birth; it did not even begin with the appearance of John the Baptist preparing the way for his ministry, ‘... it began with the dreams of the prophets long ago, that is to say it began long, long ago in the mind of God.’ (Barclay) But this does not mean that John’s message is not vitally important as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord into the world and at the heart of this is the need for repentance.

Advent is a time of preparation – of getting ready – a time to return to God. It is a time when we need to be honest with ourselves and open our eyes to see the truth about who we are and how we are living. We need to be willing to see what we do not want to see; we need to be willing to admit to the sin that we have become so comfortable with, that we no longer see as a problem. This is the hardest part, because we do not like to think of ourselves as sinners and we like to think that we are always right.

We also need to make confession to those whom we have wronged. This too is hard, because it is so out of fashion and so many people are out of the habit of doing it. But there is absolutely no point in us apologising to God until we have first apologised to the people we have offended – as Barclay suggests: ‘The human barriers need to be removed before the divine barrier can be removed. When we have done what it is humanly possible to do; then we can make our confession to God. It is only when we confess that we have sinned that God can give us those lovely words: “You are forgiven!”’

But there is another side to this – and important side – and also very difficult. So often these days people feel offended and the person who causes the offence knows nothing about it, because they never intended to cause any hurt at all! People can be over sensitive sometimes and it is not impossible that they might also have no right to be offended. We must never forget that an integral part of Christian love is that we are not easily offended; we are not touchy, over-sensitive people. So, when we do feel offended we need to ask the first and most important question: “Am I justified in feeling offended or am I being touchy?” because if it is true that we ought not to be, then it is we that need to come before God and seek forgiveness; and it is best that the other person concerned knows nothing about it all.

But is must also be a time when we reflect on the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, implanted there at our baptism and springing into life when we came to faith; it is this Spirit that gives us the courage to do the difficult things, and also fill us with God’s pure love and forgiveness, leading to a deep sense of inner peace and joy.

These are difficult, and big challenges, but central to practical Christian living.

This passage stands apart from the rest of the Gospel as a sort of curtain raiser in which the reader is introduced to the context, so that when the curtain goes up in verse 14, they will already know who the lead character is and can understand the significance of the message they are about to receive.

This makes clear that Mark wrote his Gospel from a particular standpoint, i.e. that he accepted the traditional Jewish position of a Messianic hope; so he wrote about Jesus not from biographical or psychological interest, because he believed rather, that in the life of Jesus, the Jewish hope had found fulfilment. He believed that, in Jesus, God had begun his ‘... final intervention in history, the first, but decisive stage in the overthrow of the powers of evil and the establishment of God’s Sovran rule.’ (Nineham)

And because of the revelation of this central fact in the history of humankind was to be explained, it could transform people’s lives. The same is true for us this Advent and Christmas. The advent of Jesus means that there can always be more to our lives, more in our lives. There is yet another opportunity for the Holy Spirit to deal with the sin in our lives. But we need to admit that it is there, want to do something about it and then open our hearts to the transforming love of God in the Holy Spirit. John said to the people of his generation and I believe the message is as true today as it was then:

   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. Amen.

Break Free From the Scrooge Syndrome

Each year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, a great number of people find delight in the marvellous story written by Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. There is something in the story that lures us back to it year after year; we never seem to grow tired of hearing its message. The main character in the story is a surly old man named Scrooge, who lives a miserly existence. He sees no benefit in being generous with the poor, or even providing a living wage to dedicated workers. He clutches onto his money and despises the thought of parting with any of it. But it is not only his money that Scrooge withholds from others, it is his entire being. He withholds love and kindness, he withholds warmth and friendship. Then, one night, Scrooge undergoes a profound crisis. He sees himself through the eyes of others. He has a vivid vision of his past; and then his present. But what is most frightful to him - what shakes him to the core of his being - is when he is granted the opportunity of a lifetime. He is allowed to witness his future. But his future proves to be so dark and frightening, that it prompts within him a dramatic change. He undergoes a radical transformation and becomes an entirely new person. Rather than being cold and indifferent to people, he becomes generous and compassionate.

It is a heart-warming story. But more than that, it is a hopeful story. It provides us with the hope that we too can make needed changes in our lives. We can break free from the ruts we have burrowed, and the negative behaviours we have cultivated. We can become kind and compassionate, humble and hospitable, joyful and generous.

I have never read anything which suggests this, but I wonder if the story of John the Baptist influenced Dickens and served as an impetus in his creation of A Christmas Carol?

No comments:

Post a Comment