The gospel of Mark is the oldest of the 4 gospels; scholars agree it is almost certainly written by John Mark a close friend of Peter, and you will find him mentioned in Acts 10. He was the one who had an argument with Paul! The gospel was probably written on his travels in Italy around AD 60-70. It is a ‘no frills’ gospel, simple, a ‘to the point’ account concentrating more on what Jesus did, rather than what he said. It moves quickly and uses words like "immediately" and "and then" to create a feeling of movement and urgency. It is thought that most of his information would have come from his friendship with Peter as there is no evidence to show that Mark knew Jesus. (Although some think he was the young man who ran naked from the garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, there is no evidence to support this story.)
His gospel starts with an explosion of information. He doesn’t give any account of the birth of Jesus, but lands us straight into his baptism – after first introducing us to John the Baptist.
So having set the scene, enter John the Baptist stage left.
Immediately we get a visual introduction. John was certainly not making a fashion statement – he is wearing a camel hair robe with a leather thong around the waist, clothes traditionally worn by the poor. No dining out for him just catching a few locusts and a visit to the honeycomb for desert.
But John knew exactly what he was doing; he had been born for such a time as this. He looked and sounded exactly like the prophet Elijah who had also called the people of Israel to repentance many years before. His clothes and lifestyle were not an accident; they were his protest against the godlessness and materialism of his day – (I wonder what he would do today!) John is mentioned in the historical work of Titus Josephus, a Roman Jew born in Jerusalem in AD 37. He describes John as a man popular with the Jewish people and respected for his godliness and strong call to righteousness. Mark corroborates that view, telling us in verse 5, perhaps with slight hyperbole, or exaggeration, that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”.
They were going out to a place which was on the edge of the desert –this in itself was a symbol – as you will remember Israel’s disobedience as they had wondered there for 40 years, and like these people they too had a desire to have a fresh start with God.
John had been filled with the Holy Spirit from his mothers womb. Remember the story of Mary going to see Elizabeth, and the babe leapt in her womb.
He was a Nazarene totally committed to God, never touching strong drink and never cutting his hair. He lived a life of repentance and devotion to God. He was fearless in proclaiming his message: calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers. He told the tax collectors to be fair when asking for money and he told soldiers to be content with their lot.
So John’s life matched with his preaching – which is the first point this morning – how well do our words and life match up? Does our lifestyle bear out who we are in Christ?
John was the message to the people, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins and then baptising them. This was indeed something totally radical, Jews being baptised – which is why he got the nickname ‘baptiser’. Jews being baptised was unheard of. On the rare occasions someone from another race wished to become a convert to Judaism they would have to be baptised into the Jewish faith, but never a Jew.
So imagine the scene:
The Jews knew what they were coming out to the desert for. They were coming for a wilderness experience.
He sat them down, preached about sin, warning them about judgement, naming individual sins, calling for social justice, and repentance.
When they were convinced they joined the queue on the riverbank and then were publicly baptised.
Because we are familiar with the gospel accounts it is easy to miss the magnitude of this event. This was not a one day wonder but had been going for some time, day in and day out the same message. Hundreds of people possibly thousands came to John to be baptised during his ministry. Verse 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 – historians state that there were approximately 300,000 people living in that area at the time.
What an amazing gift John gave them by preaching about sin and judgment and offering them repentance. It is not such a popular topic today, where we tend to hear more of the benefits of receiving the good news and less about judgment and sin. But we still need such preaching today regardless of whether it is popular or not - we still need to receive the Holy Spirit when we have been wandering in the wilderness; we still need to be made aware of our sinful nature and our need to repent.
John told them he had drenched them with water which only washed them on the outside, but soon One would come who would drench them in the Holy Spirit, and this would be on the inside, for when we are filled with the Holy Spirit he permeates every part of us changing us from the inside out.
And then the day came – his cousin Jesus arrives at the river and John was given the greatest honour for his faithfulness – he was to baptise Jesus.
Why did Jesus needed to be baptized? Surely he was sinless and certainly did not need a baptism of repentance? He did it for us, to make a public identification with sinners – he made his commitment as the Servant-Saviour right there in the river and he would complete his commitment just three years later on the cross.
So Mark sets out his stall at the beginning of his gospel; painting a wonderful word picture of the Trinity: Jesus coming out of the water, the Holy Spirit resting upon him and the voice of God the Father – "this is my son."
This is not just a nice story that we can rush past and move on to more exciting things; but it is there to set us a huge challenge at the beginning of the Church Year:-
For we too are called to emulate John. To preach by our lifestyle the message of repentance and forgiveness.
Mark 1 4-10