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a sermon based on Mark 1:1-8
by Rev. Rick Thompson

     Isn’t it striking how Mark begins his gospel?

     There’s no angel Gabriel, no Mary and Joseph, no shepherds or chorus of heavenly angels, no frazzled, overwhelmed innkeeper turning away the holy family, as we have in Luke’s Gospel.

     There’s no Joseph getting messages from God in his dreams, and no wise ones from the East following a star, like we have in Matthew. 

      And there’s none of the soaring language of the Gospel of John about the Word existing from the beginning, and co-creating with the Father, and then becoming flesh and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth, revealing the Father’s glory.

     Mark gives us none of that.  He simply declares, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

     Mark announces this is a beginning, declares it will be good news, and makes it clear the good news has to do with Jesus.

     And, the next thing we know, we’re not at a manger—we’re out in the wilderness.  We’re out in the wilderness, and we’re listening to a stern, urgent, wild-eyed prophet, wearing the strange dress and eating the bizarre diet of the ancient prophet Elijah, and proclaiming that God’s about to do something new.  There’s that voice in the wilderness, urging people to repent and be baptized, insisting that Messiah is coming any day, and calling upon them to get ready for what God is doing!

     A voice in the wilderness.

     The owner of that voice, John the Baptist, was living in a wilderness time.

     The people of God, the Jews, had waited a long time—a really loooooong time—for God to do something to deliver them.  It had been centuries since Isaiah reported the people’s cry—we heard it last week: “O Lord, why don’t you rip open the heavens and come down and save us!”  Centuries later, they were still waiting for God to show up, and their world was a mess.  Politically, religiously, economically, it was a mess: they were living under the harsh rod of Roman oppression, and their faith was fragmented into factions, and most of the people were poor.  It felt like a wilderness, a frightening, terrifying, death-dealing wilderness.

     And, if anything, it was worse by the time Mark wrote his gospel—perhaps 35 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  There was now an armed rebellion against Roman rule going on—a rebellion that would be crushed, and would end with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  Those Jews who had become followers of Jesus were waiting for their Lord to return, and he seemed to be taking his sweet time about it, while they continued suffering under the Romans.  There was fear, and uncertainty, and chaos, and death.

     They were living in a wilderness time.

     A time, perhaps, like ours?

     Oh, yes, here in the suburbs, even in a time of high anxiety about the economy, most of us are pretty comfortable and safe.  Often our biggest worry is how in the world we’re going to get all of the day’s tasks done, get the children where they need to go, and get a halfway-decent night’s sleep.  Most of us don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or where we will sleep tonight.  We’re pretty comfortable, aren’t we?  Aren’t we?

     So what’s all this talk about wilderness?

     Could it be that underneath our comfortable lives, there is the same kind of emptiness, the same fear and uncertainty, the same chaos, as people experienced when John the Baptist came on the scene, and when Mark wrote his gospel?

     You know, that anxiety about the meaning and purpose of it all.  That longing for God, who sometimes seems so far away.  That restlessness with a world where there is so much injustice, and so little peace.  That weariness, as we make the same old preparations for yet another Christmas, and we know in our soul that, once again, all our frantic scrambling to get ready, all our baking and decorating, all our feasting with families and friends, and all our hours in worship will not fill that emptiness inside, and we’ll be more than ready to put it all away again on the 26th of December.

     In a sermon on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a woman who got so tired of preparing for Christmas each year that she added a large closet with a door to her den.  Inside the closet, she set up a fully decorated artificial Christmas tree and, when the season arrives, she just opens the door.  When the season is over, she closes the door again.

     But, Taylor cautions, “John the Baptist simply will not put up with that.  Before the woman knows it, he will plant an axe in that door and send wood chips flying all over the place.”[i]

     John, after all, is the voice crying out in the wilderness, announcing that God is going to turn everything upside-down, especially our tired, old way of muddling through life.  That prophet with strange diet and dress shouted his messaged not in the center of power, not in Jerusalem, but out in the wilderness.  He attracted people who were looking for something more in their lives—meaning, perhaps, or truth, or justice, or a fuller, richer life, even if it would be a less comfortable and cozy life.

     His message was bold and straightforward: “Prepare the way of the Lord!  Repent, and be baptized, for the forgiveness of sins.  One more powerful than I is coming.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”

     Many were convinced that this was the word from God they had been waiting for!  They were stirred up to believe that God’s promises were still valid, that God was about to do something spectacular, that Messiah was knocking at the door!

     And do you suppose that, just like way back then, God is up to something new--today? 

     Do you suppose there’s still a voice to be heard, out in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord!  Repent, and know that your sins are forgiven!”

     Now, perhaps we don’t like that word.  It sounds so harsh.  In this age when language is not supposed to offend anyone, when we’re supposed to feel good about ourselves and all we’ve accomplished, when Christmas is nothing—in the eyes of the world—but yet another excuse to indulge ourselves, when we want to act as if we are our own gods and don’t need to answer to anyone, there’s a voice, shouting out in the wilderness, “Repent!”

     Repent!  Turn around!  It’s a harsh word, but it’s a good word.  It reminds us to get on the right pathway, to walk the Lord’s way and not our own!  Just as we clean and beautify our homes for Christmas guests, we need to use this season of Advent to ask God to clean our hearts as we await the heavenly guest—Jesus the Christ, the Son of God!  We need to return to God, to listen to God’s voice, to plead for God’s forgiveness, and open ourselves up to doing God’s will! 

     And if the world seems like a barren, death-dealing wilderness, this could well be the problem: we’ve been so focused on listening to our own voice, fulfilling our own desires, that we have failed to listen for the voice of God!

     “Repent!” shouts that voice in the wilderness.

     It may sound like an offensive voice.  Like John the Baptist, the late President Harry S Truman sometimes offended people with his plain, straight talk.  For that reason, he earned the nickname—pardon my language my language, please—“Give ‘Em Hell Harry!”  When asked about that once, Truman replied, “I don’t give them hell.  I just tell the truth, and they think it’s hell!”[ii]

     The voice in the wilderness cries out, “Repent!”, and we think it’s hell.  But, really, it’s an invitation to heaven.  It’s an invitation to get on board with the wonderful, new thing God is doing in the world.  It’s an invitation to prepare for the coming of Christ and, when he comes, to know the luxurious, lavish forgiveness he offers!

     Noted preacher Fred Craddock likens it to “a third grader, trying so hard to finish his arithmetic test while there’s still time, and all the while the teacher is fussing, ‘Hurry up, children!’.  When the third grader erases a mistake, making a big black mark and tearing the paper, he starts to cry.  He’s convinced he’s failed, and then the teacher comes over, and the boy is terrified—and the teacher gives him a new sheet of paper and says, ‘It’s OK, why don’t you try again’!”[iii]

     “Repent!”  cries that voice in the wilderness.  “Why don’t you try again!  Because God is doing something new!  In Christ, God is doing something new.  And what is that?  Well, he’s coming to this earth.  He’s coming!  He’s coming with urgency, and determination, and fierce power, and terrible might!”

     Yes, Christ is coming—and when he comes, he intends to forgive your sins.

     Do you hear that voice?  Do you hear that voice, crying in the wilderness of this world?

     In fact, now that John the Baptist is long dead and gone, will you and I and all of God’s people be that voice—that voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare!  Christ is coming!  Repent, because God is not going to quit, God is not going to stop—until  he’s forgiven every last one of your sins!”


[i]   Source unknown.

[ii]  Quoted in Willimon, Pulpit Resource, October/November/December, 1999, p. 42.

[iii] Source unknown