December 10, 2017 – Second Sunday of Advent/Mark 1:1-8
One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Upstate of South Carolina is that one minute you can be driving through an urban mix of stores, factories, and houses, and the next minute you can find yourself in the country, cows grazing along the edge of the road, kudzu covering everything in sight.
But true wilderness – that is something that we have less and less of, at least in our part of the country. True wilderness is an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region, and we just don’t have much of that left. But there is another kind of wilderness – a wilderness of the spirit – that I suspect most of us have experienced. When someone dear to us dies, we journey through the wilderness. When our hearts are hurt by insensitive words or deliberate affront, we journey through the wilderness. When, on life’s walk, our work or our family life or our spirits become lost, we journey through the wilderness. Those wilderness places are not places we seek out, not places we want to experience; yet, when we have passed through the wilderness and emerged on the other side, we somehow find ourselves better for the journey.
When I read about John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness, I wonder how it was that he came to be surrounded by people. Mark tells us that people from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem went out to see him. He was a sight to behold, certainly, with his camel’s hair clothing and leather belt, and his dietary habits no doubt prompted talk, too. Wild honey is one thing, but not too many people subsist on locusts.
Yet, there in the wilderness, John called out to the people who gathered around him, offering in the midst of the wilderness a profound gift that spoke to the hearts of the people. John called people into the wilderness, where he proclaimed a baptism of repentance and announced that someone else would come after him – someone who would be more powerful; someone who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
As with Elijah before him – and Jesus, the one who would follow – John preached in a wilderness space that allowed God to prepare the people for their promised salvation. The wilderness was both a time and place where the people could experience the rigorous discipline of God. Into this wilderness, John announced, God would send a Messiah, a Savior. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he cried out. “Make his paths straight.”
The way of the Lord would lead through that wilderness. After all, it was through the wilderness that God had led his people out of Egypt and into Zion. “When Jesus calls people to follow him, it is on this way of self-denial that leads to the cross.”[i] Calling the people to discipleship, Jesus calls them “to follow behind him in the path he himself walked.”[ii]
“For Mark, John is like the voice that announces comfort to the exiles in Babylon.”[iii] John was very clear on his mission, his place in God’s story. The one to come after him would bring power. The one to follow him would baptize with the Holy Spirit of God, which would comfort and empower God’s people. Just a messenger, John fulfilled his calling to prepare the way – to make people ready, to cultivate their hearts so that they would truly hear the one who would follow.
John preached the importance, the need, to wait. “Waiting for the savior is humbling. It forces us to admit that the world does not operate on our schedule. And by waiting for the savior, we have to admit the obvious: that he is not here yet. If he is not here yet, that pretty much rules out the possibility that the savior is one of us.”[iv]
John the baptizer had no illusions that he was the one for whom all had been waiting. He made no claim to be the promised Messiah, but speaking with a “joyous urgency” he called the people to repent, to receive God’s gift of reconciliation, to experience a baptism symbolic of that forgiveness while holding onto the hope of a new baptism to come. A new baptism that would usher in the promised salvation. A baptism that would initiate the power of God’s own Holy Spirit.
In the inhospitable wilderness, living on what the land provided him, wearing what he could make from what he found around him, John prepared a way. He called to those who would listen “to turn around, accept the greater baptism offered by a risen Lord, and thus experience his coming as a powerful, personal advent.”[v] Even now, as we yearn for something new, something real, something true, he calls to us. He reminds us that, in our own baptism, we have been engrafted into the family of God. Our baptism reflects God’s present claim on us. Our baptism reminds us that we are worthy and capable just as we are. And John also models the waiting that prepares people to receive the good news that Jesus Christ will come again. Can you hear him? “See the bread; see the cup,” he tells us. “He has come. And he will come again.”
[i] M. Eugene Boring, New Testament Library: Mark, 37
[ii] Ibid., 38
[iii] Christopher R. Hutson, Feasting on the Word B/1, 46
[iv] Lillian Daniel, Feasting on the Word B/1, 48
[v] Lamar Williamson Jr., Interpretation: Mark, 33