Prepare the Way
Both Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with long narratives about Jesus’ birth. And John starts even earlier at the very beginning of all creation. But Mark is not one to linger and so when he begins his Gospel he jumps right in.
In a first century world where the term ‘gospel’ usually meant good news about the empire, and where the title ‘Son of God’ usually referred to Caesar, Mark’s opening is immediately political and edgy to those with ears to hear. Mark uses the language of empire to tell a very different story. And he begins this story with the strange character of John the Baptist.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[f] water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit
In 2011, a group in the UK decided to decorate a roundabout in the city of Shoreham in West Sussex by installing six plastic sheep statues right in the middle. Pretty quickly they realized they had a problem when motorists began slowing down and calling to report escaped sheep. In order to avoid causing an accident in the roundabout, authorities then decided to paint the sheep bright green so that motorists would know that the sheep were fake. No surprise – this only added to the problem. Now motorists were slow and distracted wondering why the escaped sheep in the roundabout were green. Instead of removing the sheep at this point, officials decided to pen the sheep in with yellow emergency barricades so that motorists wouldn’t worry about the green plastic sheep wandering into the road. And again – the problem only got worse. Turns out, motorists were even more curious and concerned when they saw mutant green sheep penned in behind emergency barricades.
Weird things make us look. Our attention is drawn to the out-of-the-ordinary.
John the Baptist is a green sheep and we can’t help but look and wonder. Who is this odd character who prepares the way for Jesus? Who is this hairy prophet clad in camel’s hair, sunburned and skinny preaching in the desert? Should we be scared? He’s not exactly who you want invited to your Christmas party – partly because he eats bugs, but mostly because he seems a little bit too much like that street-corner preacher yelling at everyone to repent. Things would get uncomfortable real quick.
Yes, John the Baptist is a strange character. But at the same time – he’s actually not strange at all.
In the first century, John the Baptist would have shared the Judean wilderness with plenty of other religious overachievers. Communities of people who wanted to separate themselves from society. Individuals on their own spiritual journeys. In this wilderness we find various practices of baptism, fasting, and strange diets. The wilderness has always been understood as a place of spirituality, a place where the distractions of life are muted and God’s presence seems amplified. A place of trial and purification.
In this wilderness, John the Baptist’s strange diet and odd clothing were not just ways for him to be different and weird, ways to make us uncomfortable or grab our attention, but ways for John to survive only on what God provided for him in the tough desert-like terrain. An opportunity to demonstrate what it means to fully trust God for survival.
In this wilderness, John makes sense. And John makes sense especially when we listen to all the echoes of Hebrew Scripture bouncing off these first powerful verses of Mark’s gospel tying John to the long, long story of God’s faithfulness. Tying John to God’s long history of calling up strange prophets to call his people back, prophets to prepare our hearts for a new thing. Amid these echoes, John doesn’t seem strange at all.
We hear echoes of Exodus when God promised to go before his people through the desert, saying: See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
who will prepare your way
We hear echoes of the prophet Elijah, who made similar wardrobe choices with his camel hair clothing and leather belt.
But most obviously, John is at home in the echoes of Isaiah, quoted by Mark directly, speaking of ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
Here it is clear: John is that voice. This is that wilderness. God is doing a new thing rooted in old promises.
Second Isaiah speaks these words in the 40th chapter of Isaiah – right at the turning point from judgement to comfort. The tragedy of exile that Isaiah had warned about in the first half had come to pass, the day of darkness and destruction had happened, and now into their distress, God speaks words of comfort and hope - words of promise, words about a day when all shall be made right and God’s people will once again joyfully dwell together in safety.
When we encounter John the Baptist, rather than finding God’s people exiled in a foreign land we find them in their own land burdened by foreign occupation. A different kind of exile, but a context in which the promises of Isaiah struck a similar, powerful chord
This passage of promise and hope about a voice in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord drew first century Jewish faithful out into the desert to get on with this work of preparation.
One of the most well-known groups drawn out into the wilderness were the Essenes. A group we know had a large presence around the Dead Sea where we find scrolls that highlight Isaiah 40 as a sort of mission statement for their work. Out in the wilderness, the Essenes prepared the way of the Lord as they lived in communes of celibate males, had no private property, generally only interacted with others from the group, they followed very strict rules and lived in a constant state of ritual purity. New members spent years on probation before they were allowed to join communal meals – and were given nothing more than a loincloth and a hatchet to survive with. Anyone want to sign up??
John is often grouped with these Essenes, but there are differences worth paying attention to. John seems to have been on his own – we don’t see him living in a community. He wears camel hair and leather rather than the telltale white garments the Essenes were known for. But even more importantly, John doesn’t quite fit because he’s out preaching and interacting with all the people from the countryside – not just with other ritually pure members of the commune. He brings his message to all the people arriving by the droves to hear his message and receive his baptism of repentance before they are sent on their way. John doesn’t require the ones he baptizes to then join him in the wilderness, to go sell all they own and live in a cave after taking vows of poverty and celibacy. He’s not trying to start a commune in the desert, he’s preparing the masses for a new thing in Jesus Christ – and preparation for that good news happens right where you are - in your heart, in your life.
And according to John’s message – this work of preparation has a whole lot to do with repentance.
In the past couple weeks we’ve seen plenty of examples of what repentance does not look like. Day after day seem filled with men accused of abusing their power against women making shallow apologies while dancing around the acceptance of responsibility. We are far more used to seeing regret rather than repentance. Regret for messing up. Regret for letting people down. Regret for getting caught. But not true repentance. Repentance which shows a changed heart, a changed mind, a changed life.
John the Baptist took this repentance business very seriously. And he invites us to do the same.
In fact, in both Luke and Matthew, we find stories of John even turning people away from his baptism because their lives didn’t demonstrate the fruit of true repentance – changed hearts, minds, and lives.
Now, in the Presbyterian church, we baptize infants precisely because God welcomes us before we’ve done anything to deserve it, so if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable with what seem like legalistic prerequisites before receiving God’s grace, you’re asking a good question…
But before you hear this call to repentance as a requirement to get your life together before you can deserve God’s grace, before you meet John the Baptist and think you’ll never be good enough to enter God’s presence, it’s important to consider the nature of repentance. Repentance is not about turning your life around and living perfectly. Repentance is confessing the fact that despite your best efforts, you have not and you cannot. Repentance is a matter of the heart, it’s being honest about who you are and a deep recognition of your need for God’s grace. As one pastor describes it, “true repentance involves surrender more than it involves self-improvement”.
And this surrender of repentance prepares room for Jesus Christ. It makes space for a new thing. When we can let go of the grip we have on all the lies the world tells us about who we are and who we need to be, when we can stop juggling all the things we think we need to be powerful, important, or valuable, when we finally confess these as lies and let go of them - then our hands will be open, free, and prepared to receive the gift of Jesus Christ. Grace given to us right where we are. There is so much freedom and good news tied to this repentance!
As Presbyterian pastor Craig Barnes writes: “Joy cannot be analyzed, strategized, or explained. It can only be entered, and the portal into joy is confessing the truth: we are not whole. No one has to pretend.”
No one has to pretend. Repentance invites us to be honest. John the Baptist invites us to confess the truth about our lives and find that in doing so, we prepare the way for Jesus Christ, the one who was and is and is to come.
Repentance clears out the lies we fill our lives with. Repentance requires us to make space out of the busyness and noise we use to distract ourselves from our brokenness.
And when we take John seriously this Advent season, perhaps we’ll find that in the silence we fear, we might hear a new word, In the darkness we usually avoid, we might see a new light, In the stillness we usually fill with busyness, we might sense a new movement of the Holy Spirit. In the repentance we often run away from, we might find a new way in the wilderness through Jesus Christ.