Rev’d Jay Smith
Mark starts his Gospel–his written account of the life of Jesus–with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In those few words, he tells us what he is going to tell us. He is going to tell us good news. The good news is about Jesus Christ. Jesus is the name–Christ is his title–Christ means Messiah. So John says that he is going to tell us good news about Jesus the Messiah.
And then he tacks on the phrase, Son of God. He does that because he is writing for Gentiles, and Gentiles might not understand the word Messiah. They can understand Son of God. Actually the target audience of the Gospel of Mark is the Romans, hence there isn’t a long genealogy in the beginning because that would not have been important to the Romans. (cf Gospel of Matthew- written to the Jews. Hence the reason for long genealogy)
Mark says that he is going to tell us the beginning of the good news. Then he goes back to the Old Testament, which he quotes:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord!
Make his paths straight!'” (v. 3).
Mark gives that verse a new meaning. The voice crying out in the wilderness is now John the Baptist. John is preparing the way for the Lord–the Messiah–the Son of God. John is straightening out the kinks and the curves, getting people ready for the Messiah. Before Jesus says the first word or works the first miracle, people will be waiting to hear him. John is preparing the way for Jesus.
I am amazed that John would do that. He and Jesus were family, probably cousins. John was six months older than Jesus. Their mothers were friends. John and Jesus surely played together as children. It isn’t easy for kids who play together to recognise each other as great, but John and Jesus managed it–by the grace of God. God gave John and Jesus the ability to recognize each other’s greatness.
– As a man, John, who had become as popular as a rock star, said that he could not hold a candle to Jesus–wasn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ shoes.
– Later, Jesus said of John, “Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptiser” (Matthew 11)
John’s role in life was to prepare the way of the Lord–to make the pathways straight–to remove the bumps–to fill the potholes–to smooth the surface. How did he do that? How would you go about preparing people for the coming of the Lord?
John prepared people by “preaching the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” (v. 4). He called people to repent–to confess–to be baptised–so that God could forgive their sins. He called people to examine their lives to find all the dirt–all the unholiness–so that John might bathe them in baptismal water and wash the sludge down the river.
And the people came to the wilderness to hear John preach–to repent–to confess their sins–to go down into the River Jordan for baptism. They came by the thousands. They came in droves. Mark says that “all those of Jerusalem” came to John to be baptised (v. 5). All the people of Jerusalem!
Jerusalem! The big city! A place many people came to find excitement. People had come to Jerusalem, as they always come to big cities–for excitement! And sometimes they had found it.
Sometimes they also found things that they didn’t like. Sometimes they found themselves growing tough–coarse. Sometimes they found that they didn’t care much about other people anymore. Sometimes they found that nobody cared about them. It’s possible to be very lonely in a crowd, and many of these city people were lonely. (Personality style)
And so these people who had come to Jerusalem for excitement heard about a new excitement. There was a great prophet in the countryside, the first prophet in several centuries, and his preaching was changing lives. Everyone was talking about him! And so these people who had come to the city for excitement now went back to the countryside for excitement.
Jerusalem was the big city, but it was also the holy city! Some of the people had come to Jerusalem, not for excitement, but for the temple. The temple was magnificent–sited on top of the mountain–visible for miles around. Some of its exterior walls were covered with gold leaf. When the sun shone brightly, the reflection was blinding. Built to the glory of God, the temple reminded people of God’s blinding holiness. What a privilege to live in Jerusalem–the holy city–the place where God lived!
But not everything in Jerusalem was holy. You had to be careful, even in the holy city. There were streets where you dared not walk–people to whom you dared not talk–unholy pleasures–dangerous temptations. People even heard rumours of temple mischief–moneychangers gouging tourists. They had seen dark things that they had never expected to see in the holy city. Sometimes they found those dark things in their own hearts.
And so, when they heard that there was a prophet in the wilderness, preaching life-changing sermons–washing sins down the river–they went to hear him in droves. They “packed up their troubles in their old kit bag,” as the old song says, and marched down the road hoping that John would help them.
And help them he did! He called them to repent. We think of repentance as feeling guilty, but John’s repentance was much more. John’s repentance was learning to see life in a new way–to turn and face in a new direction–to bank on something greater than money–to find pleasure in something more lasting than sex. John invited people to give their lives to God–and to trust that God would bless them.
And bless them God did. People in Jerusalem were startled when these pilgrims returned to Jerusalem with a glow on their faces and warmth in their hearts. It was obvious that something wonderful was happening in the wilderness, so the whole city turned out to see what was happening.
What was happening was that John was preparing people for Jesus. John, whose preaching positively crackled with energy–who drew great crowds from everywhere–who changed people’s lives right and left–this great man said:
“After me comes he who is mightier than I,
the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen.
I baptised you in water,
but he will baptise you in the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8).
John was saying that Jesus would immerse them in the power and the presence of God. If they think he was doing something good, they should just wait until they see Jesus!
John still helps us to prepare for Jesus. He calls us to do the same things that he called those people to do–to repent–to confess our sins–to be baptised–to receive forgiveness. He calls us to do those things, because they have the power to transform our lives.
Repent–confess–be baptised–receive forgiveness–it all starts with repentance. Repentance starts the ball rolling. Once we have repented, Christ can change our lives. Until we repent, nothing is possible.
Some Christians think of repentance as a one-time thing–like marriage. Get it right the first time, and you never have to do it again. I think of repentance as a many-time thing–like washing dishes.
– When will it no longer be necessary to wash dishes? It will be when we stop getting them dirty–when we stop eating! When will that be? It will be the day that our mortal lives are over.
– When will it no longer be necessary to repent? It will be when we stop doing bad things–when we stop going in the wrong direction! When will that be? It will be when the day that our mortal lives are over.
Biblical repentance, you see, is not wallowing in guilt! It is changing our minds–seeing things differently–getting a new vision of life–changing our direction–making a mid-course correction–going down a new path!
My work throughout the week is in counselling. I am head of Guidance at Rangitoto College. Part of my brief is working with students who need to change their behaviour in some way. Sometimes drastically. For some, the journey to change is a long and winding road that doubles back on itself many times before real progress is made. Sometimes a verbal undertaking to make change is all you get but when things become difficult, old ways come home to roost. I remember a student I worked with who at one stage was determined not to change. As a junior he was so close to being shown the door many times. As a senior he wanted to be a Peer Support Leader and I was really sceptical. In the training he was really good. He showed good leadership potential. He reflected quite deeply on issues we examined. More so than the girls. I was torn over giving him the chance or playing safe and was drawn more to the latter. After the training, he came to me and we had the most insightful session that I ever had with him. He showed me he had made change and was having success in overcoming the things that used to challenge him. He was the best PS leader I had ever trained.
It was that kind of repentance to which John called the people of Jerusalem–not just a feeling-bad kind of repentance, but a doing-good kind of repentance. He called people to acknowledge their sin–to confess it–to bring it to the baptismal waters–to wash it down the drain–and to get on with life.
And it is that kind of repentance to which Christ calls us. But he goes one step further. John said that Christ will baptise us with the Holy Spirit. Christ washes away our sins, and then he fills our empty spaces with God’s Spirit. He immerses us in God’s presence. He helps us to become new people–to become children of God.
Christ calls us to be baptised only once, but he calls us to repent whenever we find ourselves facing in the wrong direction and doing the wrong things. He calls us to bring him our sin, so that he might bring us his holiness.
There are some people here today who perhaps have never been baptised. To you, Christ says, repent–confess your sins–come to be baptised–receive the Holy Spirit–get started on a new life as Christ’s man/Christ’s woman. If you have not been baptised, hear that call today. No one is ever too old or too young. Talk to a priest or one of the clerical team.
There are other people here today who have been baptised, but who have wandered off in the wrong direction–who need to get their lives back on track again–who need Christ to restore them and to make them whole. If you are one of those people, hear Christ’s call to repentance today. Come back and sit at Christ’s feet. Make your life a life of prayer once again. Let Christ show you the way. Then set off in the direction that he will show you.
I would like to close this sermon today with a moment for silent prayer.
(Prayer to follow)
Lord Jesus, we come with heavy hearts, knowing how often we have failed you, and we ask your tolerance. We come with repentant hearts, and ask your forgiveness. We come with expectant hearts, praying that you will make us whole. We come with thankful hearts, knowing that you love us–and that you hear our prayers–and that you answer even better than we ask. Lord, cleanse us today from all that is unworthy, and fill us with your Spirit so that we might go forth from here both whole and holy–fully prepared for your coming. Amen.