John the Baptist brings News
2nd Sunday of Advent
Mark 1: 1-8
His name was John. People knew him locally as the Baptist. Some would say of him that he was a religious eccentric. Others less kind would dismiss him as being simply a bit of a nutcase. He definitely did not seem to be the kind of person who would win friends and influence people. He just somehow doesn’t seem to fit in with shepherds and wise men and the other characters that we traditionally associate with the Christmas story. Yet, this was God’s unlikely servant chosen to herald the spectacular events that would soon follow. A most unlikely promotions man to be sure, but God’s man nevertheless.
From the very beginning everything about John was unique. His mother Elizabeth was the elderly cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was in the golden years of her life and had never given birth to a child. You would think of her more in the category of great grandmother than mother. Yet, she and her aging husband Zacharias the Priest were the unlikely candidates to produce John the Baptist – because God had promised them a son, John. Being roughly the same age as Jesus and cousins, they may have grown up together and played together, yet as they reached adulthood they were different in so many ways. John had taken himself off into the desert. He lived like, and looked like a wild man, a hermit. He may have lived with a tribe such as the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, or he may have been alone with God. When the time was right he emerged from the desert with his message of repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.
He was a New Testament Prophet. Prophets are rarely attractive, gently spoken people. They are usually loud, strange, annoying, odd kind of people. John wore strange clothes – an animal skin, a strap of leather holding it to his body – and his diet was even stranger: locusts and honey. No doubt he didn’t smell too good either, living as he did in the wilderness with no hot running water or deodorant, so why would anyone want to pay attention to a man who looked like that?
One reason might be that the people were hungry for some good news. The people of Israel were oppressed by the Romans. Life was hard and there was no end in sight. They were in
dire need of the very thing that Isaiah talks about in the Old Testament: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem."
Just like the people in Isaiah’s time they too were God’s people; were hungry for relief from oppression, looking for something or someone that would give them relief.
Who did God send them? John, who looked and spoke and probably smelled like the person you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the bus. No one would have thought he was a divine messenger, but these were unusual times, so 'unusual' was just what was needed to get the people’s attention, and they flocked from all around to hear what he had to say, and to be baptized by him in the Jordan.
They were hungry for what he offered them, even if they didn’t completely understand it. This strange man had something to help them, he gave them hope again. They began to say:
Wasn’t he just like the old prophets had foretold? Was he “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!' ”
But just think about it for a minute.
Would we have listened to him? Would we have allowed such a man to escort us into the river, to lower us down into the brown and swirling waters and pray over us? My guess is probably not. Our needs, as real as they seem, or as harsh as they are, have not made us desperate enough to take that kind of risk.
In the first verse of Mark's gospel he writes: " The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ." We often hear the words 'good news'; it usually goes something like this: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.” Mark is really excited about the story he is going to tell and he uses these words very carefully. The word meaning 'good news' in his day was very different to our modern use of the words. In the Roman Empire, the term 'good news' was only used for propaganda about the Roman Emperor. The herald would walk the streets proclaiming:
“Good News: the Emperor has conquered Gaul!"
" Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping baby boy!" "Good News: the Emperor will call his son Claudius.”
So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are issuing a challenge to the ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his bravery in the simple act of writing those two words on a scroll – it could have got him arrested or killed.
Back to John and his diet, Mark records it for us so it must be important. We are told he ate locusts and wild honey. Locusts are the insects of the desert. If the land is not barren and leafless when they arrive, it will very soon be so. John's diet of locusts symbolizes barrenness. John was making a radical statement against his generation. The austerity of a diet of locusts shows his contempt for the life style and material trappings of his society.
John did not just live on locusts; he also lived on wild honey. John knew of the sweetness of God's grace and love. One of my favorite verses is from Psalm 34:8 “O Taste and see that the Lord is good.” God invites us to experience his grace and mercy. He calls us to sample his love by trusting in his will and plan for our lives.
John had been living in the wilderness. A totally barren place with rocks and caves. A place where the silence is deafening – but the place where he met with God. We all need a time in the desert – I am not suggesting we take off to the Gobi, or sign up for silent retreats or even a day of silence, but if we really want to prepare ourselves this Advent for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, then we need to find some way of spending time in the wilderness in God's presence, even if it's just ten minutes a day. Just ten minutes of waiting in silence, saying nothing, simply sitting in his presence with no requests just offering yourself to him. John the Baptist came to make the way ready for Jesus. His job was to make the rough places smooth, to make the paths straight. There is no telling what rough place we may have to smooth out, paths we might need to straighten out, rocks we may have to move, hills we may have to flatten, or the problems we may have to iron out. Only God knows. So if you can, get yourself into the wilderness by some means or other this Advent, and take the risk of coming face to face with God.
Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news? The bad news is there is still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s Kingdom seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can help to bring the wholeness of the Kingdom to those broken places. We are now the characters in the story that began: "The Beginning of the good news", and the good news is that the story isn’t over yet.