Meditation on Mark 1:1-8
Second Sunday in Advent
Pastor Karen Crawford
Dec. 6, 2020
We decorated our home for Christmas this week. This may be the earliest we have ever decorated for Christmas!
You know how some people decorate their trees with color schemes or themes? That’s not me. I have an eclectic collection of ornaments, some that are older than I am and were hung on our Christmas tree when I was a child. Others are gifts from friends, family, and flocks over the years. And then there are all the personalized ornaments with names or dates—Baby’s First Christmas and all that. And then there are the ones my adult children made for our tree when they were little kids: the felt snowman missing its black felt hat; other ornaments with ribbons frayed, glitter rubbed off, googly eyes slightly askew, scratches, chips or dings.
I smiled as I hung these priceless treasures that bring back happy memories of loved ones, now grown—and still loved.
This is how I imagine God sees each one of us as we try to please and honor him and show our love with our gifts. No matter how you and I feel about ourselves, we are the Beloved Children of God, created in God’s image for love. I imagine God smiling whenever we offer all of ourselves, without holding back or hiding our weaknesses and imperfections: ribbons frayed, glitter rubbed off, googly eyes askew, chips, cracks and dings. When we come to the Lord in humility and vulnerability, desiring God and knowing our need for redemption, the Lord embraces and forgives us, heals us and makes us whole.
Today, on this Second Sunday in Advent, when we hear a voice crying to us in our wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, we light a candle for peace—a peace we long to have within ourselves and with one another. A peace with God we have now in Jesus Christ.
This kind of honesty, humility, and vulnerability that God wants from us is what John the Baptist models for us in today’s gospel in Mark. John reveals a heart wanting to serve and please God alone, at a risk to his own life. He models the boldness of speech that the Apostle Paul will speak of in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”
John fearlessly tells it like it is, like all the Old Testament prophets. His truth telling makes powerful enemies, including King Herod, to whom he says it isn’t lawful for him to have his brother’s wife. This will bring about his execution in chapter 6.
His clothing of camel’s hair and a leather belt is a reminder of the prophet Elijah, who not only dresses rough and plain, but is known to be hairy. The wilderness is a place where we God’s miracles of provision are experienced. While John survives on a diet of locusts and wild honey, the prophet Elijah is fed meat and bread by ravens on one occasion and by an angel of the Lord on another when the prophet is discouraged and exhausted, traveling 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb. The wilderness is where God feeds the Israelites manna from heaven and cross the Jordan River into the Land of the Promise. That same Jordan River is the one Elijah strikes with his cloak, parting the water so that he and Elisha cross on dry land. And in 2 Kings 2:11, “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” The Jordan River will be the place where John will baptize Jesus and the Spirit will descend on him like a dove.
The book of Mark begins with John appearing in the wilderness, suddenly, abruptly, with Mark’s language as rough and plain as the character of John himself. Mark is not everybody’s favorite gospel. In fact, there are much fewer commentaries written on Mark, compared to Matthew, Luke and John. But Mark, the briefest gospel, is probably the original gospel, with Matthew and Luke having read Mark and added their own details and embellishments, which we all appreciate. But one curious thing about Mark is the unique way he starts: “The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
The word gospel is an interesting word. Encyclopedia Brittanica says that it is “derived from the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning ‘good story,’ a rendering of the Latin evangelium and the Greek euangelion, meaning ‘good news’ or ‘good telling.’” Mark is saying, “I have wonderful news!” There’s no question of Mark’s faith—that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God. Gospel is one of Mark’s favorite words, using it at least 7 times in his book—3 in the first chapter alone.
So even though Mark starts with John appearing in the wilderness, the story—the whole story—is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God—and how this is good news for the world!
Did you notice that Mark tells us very little about John, well, beyond his clothes and diet, his baptizing, and a few sentences of his message? If you want to know more about him, you have to read Luke, who begins his gospel with the story of John’s parents, Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth, his wife, a descendant of Aaron. They are a childless couple, “getting on in years” when Elizabeth miraculously conceived. John will be “great in the sight of the Lord,” says an angel to Zechariah in 1:15. “He must never drink wine or strong drink.” Though he doesn’t baptize with the Holy Spirit, John, even before his birth, is filled with the Spirit. “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God,” said the angel to Zechariah. “With the Spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteousness, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
John the Baptist is a kind of Rock Star living in the wilderness around the Jordan River. Some say that the reason crowds followed John is because no one else would welcome them quite the same way and give them hope. His appeal was universal; people came from all over and all walks of life. The whole Judean countryside and the city dwellers of Jerusalem came to hear John’s message and be baptized by immersion in the muddy river. In a time of political unrest, Roman oppression, and corruption in their religious institution, they are longing for CHANGE. And they want to meet God and be made ready to live in an intimate relationship with Him, something not open to the common people before, only the religious elite. And yet, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had always wanted an intimate relationship with His Children and be the only one they worshiped and loved.
Here in the wilderness, John is doing something no one else has done before; a new kind of “baptism” of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Before, baptism in First Century Judaism was a ritual, along with circumcision, for Gentile converts to Judaism, but without all the spiritual significance that came with Christian baptism. John’s baptism IS a sign of a promise of new beginnings, of the grace and mercy of God that will be revealed through the Coming One and the power of the Holy Spirit that His followers will receive.
Mark emphasizes the welcome, leaving out John’s comments that Matthew and Luke include to those who come without a sincere desire to turn from sin and change their selfish ways. In Matthew 3:7, John sees “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing.” He says to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” John asks the same question in Luke and demands they prove their change of heart by producing fruit in keeping with repentance.
John tells the anxious crowds in Luke that to bear good fruit means caring and sharing with others in need. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Soldiers are told not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and be satisfied with their wages. Even tax collectors come to be baptized! The people are “filled with expectation” and wonder whether John might be the Messiah.
In Mark, like the other gospels, John doesn’t pretend to be someone he’s not. He doesn’t say, “Look at me.” He points away from himself—to the Lord.
“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;” he says. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”
Friends, in this season of waiting and watching, hoping for our Lord’s return, we hear the voice of the one crying to us now in our wilderness to turn back to God. Just as we are. All of ourselves. In our weakness and imperfection. In our vulnerability. Come back as people who know their need for a Savior, to be redeemed from our sins.
This is a God who loves us in a way we can’t understand because we struggle to love ourselves. We see the flaws– ribbons frayed, glitter rubbed off, googly eyes askew, chips, cracks and dings. We become obsessed with our own unworthiness. Discouraged when things don’t go the way we want them to go. When hopes and dreams aren’t fulfilled. When we have persistent struggles. All the while, God sees us as Beloved Children, a priceless treasure for which He gave His only Son so that we may live with Him eternally.
“Prepare the way of the Lord!” The voice crying from the wilderness beckons our gaze upward– to look upon the face of our Messiah, the one who is coming and is COME. But also, to look around. Bear the fruit of repentance; care for others, share with those in need.
Today is a new beginning. For all who have embraced the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, yesterday is gone. Our sins have been washed clean in the waters of baptism, where Christ claimed us as His own and the Spirit came to dwell within us.
Look upon the One who sees us for who we really are, and not only that, but who we will become, when the Spirit’s work is complete.
Light a candle for peace—with God, ourselves, and one another.
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for sending us the Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords, our Emmanuel, who is both with us now and coming soon. Lord, we know we need to change. We need to prepare the way of the Lord by coming to you, approaching the throne of grace, confessing our sins, confessing our need for your redemption. We come to you now, just as we are. In all our weakness and frailty. In our vulnerability. We come in love and trust, hope and faith, knowing that you are a God of love who wants to embrace, heal and restore us, make us whole. In the name of your precious Son we pray. Amen.