“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, who 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 preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were flocking to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John wore a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. He was preaching: “Someone more powerful than I will come after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of His sandals. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8 HCSB)
It’s always best to start at the beginning. That was the advice Dorothy received as she began her journey towards Oz along the yellow brick road and that’s probably best for us, too. However, this is so much more than just the beginning of another story.
I love stories. I always have. I learned to read before I started school and I’m still a voracious reader. Give me a good book in a quiet room with a comfortable chair near a sunny spot or a warm fire and I’m all set. In fact, I’ve even learned to combine two of my favorite pastimes, fishing and reading. I simply include a book in my fishing pack and when the fish aren’t biting then a grassy knoll under a nice tree is a great way to spend a few hours while I wait for the fish to get hungry. I can’t think of a much better way to spend a nice day.
But Mark isn’t just telling us a nice story, he’s telling us the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” For most of us, the term gospel has become a associated with the “story” of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. We tend to associate it with a “narrative” story in chronological order as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. But “gospel” is more closely associated to an announcement by a king’s messenger. In fact, Mark’s wording is very similar to an announcement sent out regarding the Emperor Augustus’ birthday in 9 BC.
I grew up in the United States in the midst of what was called “the Cold War.” One of the things we learned to do in elementary school was to “drop and cover” in the event of an attack. We also became accustomed to the testing of the Emergency Broadcast System on a regular basis. An ear-piercing sound would play on our television sets and an announcer would tell us that the system was being tested and “if this had been an actual emergency” the sound we had just heard would have been followed by official news, information and instructions. The purpose of the sound was to get everyone’s attention so that we would listen to and then follow the “official” instructions because it was important for our health and safety. While this testing of the Emergency Broadcast System still happens, with much less frequency – thank goodness, I suspect it is now ignored by most folks.
Over time, the importance and urgency of the Emergency Broadcast System alert has simply lost its impact on most people I know. It is no longer urgent or important because, in my memory, it has never been used to alert us to an “actual” emergency. It is a bit like the story of the boy who cried wolf, right? However, there is a similar system that will get my attention and always makes me listen for instructions – the tornado siren. What’s the difference? Personal experience. I live in Oklahoma and we regularly face the threat AND the reality of tornadoes. While nuclear attacks were theoretical possibilities, they were never practical realities. But tornadoes aren’t just theoretical and possible, they are very real, very destructive and most Oklahomans have some type of personal experience with them.
Our personal experience affects our attitude towards and our willingness to follow important and potentially life-saving instructions – whether on our televisions, radios or even in our Bibles. But that doesn’t mean these announcements are any less important or life-saving. Notice, Mark tells us that this important “announcement” is regarding Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There are those who will conclude that Mark’s announcement isn’t worth their time or trouble and they’ll ignore it. But if they really stopped and listened, maybe they’d pick up on his excited anticipation. Maybe they’d realize that they’re about to experience something incredibly different. This announcement isn’t about some earthly king. This is about the Son of God! Stop! Pay attention! He’s coming, almost here!
Now, Mark goes back and pulls in Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. The quote is really a combination of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. It is a prophecy about preparation, about being ready for what God is about to do – He’s going to personally visit His people.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve just received a letter, but not just any letter. You just received a registered letter with the President’s official seal. You take it and you turn it over in your hand, you stare at the seal for a moment and then you look at the mailman with a stunned gaze. You ask, “This is a joke, right? This has to be a joke.” You carefully open the letter and read the first paragraph. He’s planning a visit to your town and wants to stop by your home for a personal visit. What? No way! You continue reading and the shock deepens because the President announces not only that he plans to visit your home, he’d also like to have dinner with you and your family. He assures you that he doesn’t expect anything fancy or extravagant, just a nice family dinner with you and your family.
What would you do? I know what I would do. Forget simple. Forget normal. I’m not going to just run the vacuum, dust a little and put away the plastic cups and get out our best “real glass” drinking glasses and add a place setting to the table. This is the President. This demands more, so much more!
That’s precisely Mark’s point! God is coming, we must get READY!
Before God arrives, He’s sending His point man – His messenger – to prepare the people for His arrival. Who is this messenger? He’s the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord; make His paths straight! We know him as John the Baptist or the Baptizer. After Mark tells us about the prophecies related to John’s coming, he then tells us about John – he came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He wore a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. It’s safe to say, John was little different. Actually, it’s probably an understatement to say he was a little different. He was a LOT different.
Let me take a moment and point out something that we will see again and again throughout our study in Mark’s gospel. Mark is relating details that are so specific they must be insights from an eyewitness, Simon Peter. We know that the gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four gospels. While there is debate as to the exact year it was written, there’s no doubt that it predates Matthew, Luke and John. Some scholars date it’s writing as early as 50 AD, but it appears to have been written from Rome and I suspect it was written in response to intensifying persecution and Simon Peter’s imprisonment and impending execution by Nero around 64-67 AD. So as we work our way through the text in the coming weeks and months, watch for those details that are specific enough to signal an eyewitness account.
There are two things here you need to notice: John’s association to “the wilderness” and his “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” We tend to look at his appearance and diet, camel’s hair garment with a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey, and conclude he’s really odd. While those things are certainly true, from a human perspective, it isn’t the focus of John’s life and it isn’t the key to his importance or how he’s truly different. John is in the wilderness, calling the people out to him and preaching a message of repentance signified by personal baptism. John is calling the people to experience a new “exodus” out of slavery to sin and away from wandering in the wilderness in preparation for God’s visitation and power-filled presence.
Yes, a new Exodus experience for the people of God. If you’ll recall, the first Exodus was in response to the people’s cry for deliverance from oppression in Egypt. God sent Moses to lead them out as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea (baptism) and into the wilderness where they would learn about disobedience, judgment, repentance, obedience and faith on their journey to the Promised Land. Moses would lead them through the wilderness but only Joshua could lead them into the land of promise. Now, John has come and brought them back into the wilderness to face their need for a new Exodus, their need for a baptism of repentance and to prepare them for a greater, more powerful leader who will truly lead them out of bondage to sin and baptize them with the Holy Spirit of God!
The time had finally arrived. It had been prophesied for centuries and anticipated for generations. The cry was still on their lips in emotion-filled, desperate prayers to Almighty God – Lord, fulfill your promise and send your anointed one, the Messiah – your Son. John’s message was one of preparation, get ready! He’s coming. Prepare your hearts, repent and be baptized as a sign of your desire to know Him, encounter Him, obey Him, to walk with Him and be His presence.
As baptists we often emphasize the importance of immersion in the rite of baptism, for good reason. The Greek term – baptizo – does mean to be completely covered or immersed and while it was often used in reference to water baptism by immersion that wasn’t its only use. It can also mean to be completely immersed in, overwhelmed by, overcome by and completely submitted to something or SOMEONE else. In this case, “I have baptized you with water, but HE will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John says, my baptism calls you to repentance and prepares you for His coming and His baptism – a baptism in God’s Holy Spirit.
John might have been different, but Jesus is revolutionary!
Let me close by simply relating what John said about Him and calling you to respond. “Someone more powerful than I will come after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of His sandals. I have baptized you with [just] water, but He will baptize you with [in] the Holy Spirit!” What you and I truly need is not water baptism, but baptism in God’s Spirit. All John did and all I can do is to point you to the ONE who can transform you through this Spirit baptism. He has come to lead you out of bondage to sin, through the wilderness of life and into the promised land of God’s eternal presence and love. Jesus isn’t just a good teacher who teaches and preaches we should love one another, He’s the very Son of God who gives life and fills you with Himself – His Holy Spirit. Anything less is an insufficient response to who He is and what He came to do. Water might wash off the external dirt but the Spirit cleanses the heart, soul and mind and brings life. Real life. Eternal life. Life as it is meant to be.
Now, you need to decide for yourself if Jesus is who John says He is – the Son of God who can transform you, give you life and baptize you in God’s Spirit.
“Look, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2b HCSB)