John Prepares the Way for Christ
Focal Passage: Mark 1:1-8
Background Text: Mark 1:1-8; John 1:19-28
Purpose Statement: To acknowledge how God offers a new start to the world and to our lives
Key Verse: “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8).
You may recall hearing the song that opens the musical Godspell, which premiered in early 1970. In it, the shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet used by ancient Jews, blows to call the people to attention, and then we hear the first piercing tones, which are the same as Matthew 3:3: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The phrase is repeated over and over as the music grows and the actors begin to gather, joining in singing the song. I wish it were that easy to get new members into a church!
The first verses of Mark’s Gospel confront us with a powerful statement: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah” (Mark 1:1-2). Mark chose to spend no time telling the story of Jesus’ birth in his Gospel, instead rushing headlong into good news by quoting from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s original message announced freedom for Jews held in exile. Here, Mark claimed these words to announce the coming of the Messiah, the new beginning of the good news for this generation and generations to come.
As we quickly move into the Gospel of Mark, keep in mind the profound and utterly life-changing and world-changing events that happened in first-century Palestine, events that claim us and our world 20 centuries later. This good news of what is and what is coming call us to prepare the way of the Lord, maybe even singing a song as we do.
Sending the Messenger
I was in ninth grade, gangly, uncoordinated, and sort of a nerdy brainiac who was terribly shy around girls; but I also wished every day that I had a girlfriend. One day as I was waiting for the bus, a small contingent of girls approached with what appeared to be a serious mission. The spokesperson for the group asked me, “Do you like Mary?” (The name has been changed to protect the innocent.) Mary was cute, with long hair and a captivating smile, and was in most of my classes, although we had never spoken a word to each other before. Still, among the 20-30 girls I had selected in my mind as appropriate girlfriends, she was definitely near the top of the list.
At that moment in my life, I was so glad that I had watched hundreds of dramatic movies and read loads of books about adventure and romance. This had prepared me for such a time. I responded to the contingent of Mary’s lieutenants: “I think I would only tell that to Mary!” It came out well. The girls were suitably impressed and retreated, I was sure, to inform the now object of my attention. When I got on the bus, Mary was sitting alone. Shaking and sweating, I sat down beside her, and for the 30-minute bus ride, I said absolutely nothing to her, nor even looked at her until I got up to leave, and said, “Bye.”
Messengers play a critical role in our life together. They convey the intention of another and offer a word of insight, but they often offer a word of invitation. Throughout the Bible, we see that God used messengers of all sorts to bring a holy word to human beings. The word angel in Greek means “messenger,” and angels certainly played an important role in delivering news. But God also often used prophets to share divine intentions with leaders or even an entire people. In fact, much of Scripture follows the pattern of delivering and receiving news from God.
The messenger in today’s text is John the Baptist (Mark 1:4). Luke’s Gospel records that he was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a miracle child born of aged parents. “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth,” the angel told his father before John was born. “He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. . . . He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:15-16, 17). That’s just what he did.
John claimed the prophecy of Isaiah, and in the Judean wilderness outside of Jerusalem, he called to the people to prepare: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). The Lord is coming! God’s kingdom is coming! God is doing a new thing and offering a new start to this world and to you! Prepare the way of the Lord!
We’ll look more carefully at John’s message and the people’s response, but for now, consider how you might have reacted to seeing and hearing a man in the wilderness calling out and making such a statement about God. Did he mean that following the law of Moses wasn’t enough anymore? Was he calling people to make changes in their lives? It sure seemed so.
Frankly, anytime someone enters our lives unannounced or uninvited and begins to lay claim to a possible change in who we are and what we do, it requires us to make a decision. When the call doesn’t seem to have urgency, or it doesn’t pertain to us, we can simply reject it and go on with our lives. However, when the call is urgent, we often will change our lives, at least for a time, and abide by the urgency or the importance of the call.
Beyond those concerning physical safety, what calls have you received that urged you to change, to turn around, or to respond in some way?
What difference does it make as to who the messenger is when we receive such a message?
A New Reality
One of the top ten greatest days in human history was June 13, 1981, my wedding day! Besides the gifts, the great tasting cake, and the chance to wear a tux, why get married? Why bother with the cost and effort just to affirm what we already knew to be true, that we loved each other and were committed for life to each other? The reason, frankly, is that the wedding ceremony did indeed change everything. Yes, we were in love and committed, but to stand in a holy place and before God to speak the words, “I take you . . . ,” was our best possible response to the invitation to make something permanent that was before that moment only a hoped-for intention.
We have taken each day since then to reaffirm that permanence, and I’m fully aware that for some people, the vow and the relationship can certainly die. For us, however, it created a new reality. At that moment, we were married to each other, before God, as a response to our love and a response to the call to live holy lives together before God.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that “John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Mark 1:4). John was a true evangelist, sharing the impending future of God’s kingdom and Messiah coming to be among them. Many people heard John’s proclamation and answered the call with yes. They wanted to repent and to live new lives with new beginnings. That’s why John baptized.
In one sense, John’s baptism of the people made no difference. Physically, nothing changed. However, this was not simply some physical adjustment that the people of Judah were taking on, like going to the chiropractor or having a hip replaced. John’s baptism was a powerful, spiritually transforming moment for the people.
When someone answered the call to repent, to ask for forgiveness of their sins, and to begin to live a new life, the physical act of baptism represented the spiritual act of dying to the old life and rising to the newly changed heart and life. Just as our wedding practically changed nothing, the spiritual power of that moment for our lives did indeed change forever the path and the relationship of our life together. So it was with baptism.
While Mark doesn’t give us an exact number who responded to John’s message, he does say that “everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins” (verse 5).
Can you imagine the powerful sense of God’s Spirit in that region? What people once saw as important and as the guiding force in their lives was no longer important because they had started their lives anew. They began living a new reality.
Did that remain the case for everyone? We can’t know. We can’t know if some went through the motions and were baptized with no change of heart. But for those who took the baptism seriously, it’s exciting to wonder how that act changed not only their own lives but the lives of everyone around them. God’s love and our faith in God produces incredible fruit in this world that needs so desperately to know love, justice, and peace.
When have you felt the need to change your life? When have you been given the opportunity to experience a new beginning?
Some of us were baptized as babies, and we were brought into the family of faith at that time. Later, we were able to confirm and affirm our faith and take our place among the community of believers. We don’t need to be baptized a second time or a third. God has already claimed us. But we can experience times of repentance and recommitment, trusting that God will allow us to begin again, to restart, and to know the love of God that indeed will never let us go.
What would it mean for you to recommit yourself to God at this point in your life?
With two full-sized sons and one fun-sized petite wife at home, the ritual of the opening of difficult jars often falls to me. Cheri will try and fail, and then each of the sons in turn will grab the jar and try to twist the lid and fail. Finally, they will ask the old guy to see if he can open it. One secret my dad taught me was to work on having a strong grip.
I also learned that, when opening a jar, most people give up too quickly because it hurts. So I will take the jar, tap the lid on the counter, slap the bottom of the jar, and then twist. And sure enough, the sound of the victory pop follows, and I hand the newly opened jar back to a son and just smile.
Physical strength is a wonderful thing, but the spiritual strength we embody is even more powerful. We discover it when we make sure we don’t quit too soon.
John must have looked like a wild man. He “wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). but he must have exuded power and the sense of being in charge of the situation. He was the “voice shouting in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’” (verse 3.) Still, he was quick to say that he was not “the one.” “One stronger than I am is coming after me! I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals,” he announced (verse 7). Quite a powerful image, as well as a prediction. John, of course, was describing the coming of the Messiah, which he believed was a moment away.
The Messiah was the answer to the cry of the Jews—and in fact the whole world—for a new kingdom not based on Roman rule or even the Temple law and sacrifice. This Messiah would bring justice, peace, and love to each person. His power, John explained, is seen in the baptism he offers. Recall that John’s baptism was a symbol of changed hearts and lives and a desire that God forgive sins.
The “one stronger” who was coming would not simply invite people to change but would also usher in the very kingdom of God on earth. And “he will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (verse 8). As the followers of John became soaking wet with the water of hoped-for repentance, those who come into God’s kingdom through the act of the Messiah are enveloped and renewed in life through the very Spirit of God that pours into them and that makes all things new.
Each day, we can start anew because of Christ’s power and love for us and in us. Filled with the Holy Spirit, our lives can show this world the love of God and the hope that is ours in Christ.
What change does God want to bring into your life? What do you need to do for God to make that change in you?
Lord of my life, fill me with your Spirit, and use me to prepare the way for you in the hearts of those who need to know you; in Jesus’ name. Amen.