A voice in the wilderness

Good morning, Friends!

Things are definitely starting to rev up this week! It feels as if each week, we’re moving faster and faster towards Christmas. Our lives are so full of busyness, that we need this time to quiet our hearts and prepare ourselves. It’s as if in the midst of all the noise and all the holiday specials, the parties and the fun, we need to remember whose birthday it really is.

When Jesus was born, many people were truly seeking. They were waiting, hoping, praying for a Savior. There were plenty of people who were just looking out for number one, just like today. But there were also people who wanted change in the world. They wanted less violence, and more peace. They wanted truth, and justice. They wanted to turn their own lives around. And they wanted society to be truly different.

That’s what today’s scripture is about. A people who were waiting, and ready to listen. A people who were hungry for God, and who knew the difference between a real and a phony messiah. They knew in their hearts that things needed to be different. So they listened when the opportunity came.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.

Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8

We don’t know very much about John the Baptist. He was a cousin of Jesus. Or, to be more accurate, John’s mother, Elizabeth, was a cousin of Jesus’ mother, Mary.

So, John was a cousin of Jesus, and in some ways John was kind of a rival of Jesus. At least, some people saw John and Jesus as competitors.

John didn’t see it that way. John saw his role as one of preparation for the Messiah, and he gladly gave up first place when Jesus came on the scene.

One thing I’d like you to notice about today’s reading. John is using a kind of a memory trick in it. John quotes a verse from the Old Testament, from the prophet Isaiah. And by quoting it, John expects the people who were listening to remember the rest of the quote right away.

For example, if I were to say, “Joy to the world”, everyone here would automatically think, “the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!” You complete the rest of the song.

Or if I say, “Our Father,” many people would go on and say, “Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” and so on. We know it so well that just quoting the first line kind of triggers our memory for the rest of the prayer.

John the Baptist was doing the same thing when he spoke in today’s Scripture reading. When he repeated the first line of a quotation from Isaiah, it would trigger the memory of the rest of the quotation, since all the people listening knew it by heart.

Since we probably don’t know Isaiah that well, I’d like to read you the rest of the quotation, which John’s hearers would immediately have remembered.

“A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord!
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked places will be made straight, and the rough places plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. . .

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get you up into a high mountain; lift up your voice with strength, lift it up, be not afraid; say to all the cities, ‘Behold your God!’
He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
He will gather the lambs in his arms,

He will carry them close, and gently lead those that are with young. . .

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable;

He gives power to the faint, and strength to those who have no strength. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Isaiah 40

All this, and more was in the mind of John the Baptist, and in the minds of the people who were listening to him.

If you want to look it up for yourself, it’s in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, and everyone who was there knew that John was talking about the coming Christ.

The gospel of Mark and the gospel of John have one thing in common. They both begin very abruptly.

Matthew’s gospel starts with a long, long genealogy of Jesus. Luke starts with a long story about the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself. But John and Mark start with no decorations and no wind-up.

John starts by describing who Christ is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; the Word was there from the beginning with God. All things were made through the Word, and nothing was made without the Word. In the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. And the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. . .”

That’s how John’s gospel starts, by talking about Christ. Then John goes on immediately to talk about John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He wasn’t the light himself, but he bore witness to the light. The light was in the world, and the world was made through the light, but the world did not receive it. He came to his own home, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God. . .”

John the Baptist is the witness. He’s the one who says, “I see the Christ! He’s coming! Look! He’s here! He’s been around from the beginning, from before the beginning, and he’s among us now!”

Mark’s gospel has the same lack of introduction. It’s less poetic and it’s more blunt:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Then there’s that quotation from Isaiah that I read earlier, which triggered the memory of everyone who was listening. Isaiah talked about preparing the way of the Lord. He talked about moving mountains and fixing the ruts and washboards.

Isaiah talked about God’s glory and about sharing that glory with the whole world. He talked about Christ as the shepherd, who cares for us all. And he talked about the strength that God gives to everyone who waits for him.
All this was part of John’s message.

What else did John the Baptist say? We actually know very little about him. Compared with Jesus, we have very few of John’s actual words on record. Here is a summary of what John said, from all the sources we have:

“Whoever has two coats, share with him who has none; and let him who has food, do the same. . .” That actually sounds a lot like what Jesus said, doesn’t it?

“Don’t say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones around you to raise up a new generation of children to Abraham. . .”

You see, people back then thought that because they were descendants of those old people in the Bible, that God would automatically look out for them. They were God’s chosen people. No matter what happened, they would come out on top.

But that’s not true. We can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t say, “Oh, we’re all right, our parents went to church.” Or we can’t say, “Oh, those early Friends knew it all and we’ve got their books out in the library. . .”

John was saying that God can replace us, if we aren’t faithful. But let’s go back to John’s words again.

“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees – every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water as a sign of you turning your lives around, but the one who comes after me is mightier than I am. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. . .”

John knew what he was talking about. He had that Spirit, and he knew about fire. John was martyred for openly criticizing King Herod for his complete immorality and for Herod’s political shenanigans and corruption which were leading the whole country to disaster.

The Holy Spirit led John to witness that. And it cost him his life. That’s what baptism is about, John said – not water, but the Holy Spirit, and witnessing to the truth.

As Jesus put it, John was a prophet, and he was more than a prophet. John pointed clearly to the evil of his society, and he told people to turn their lives around. John recognized Christ and he pointed people away from himself, and towards Jesus.

John was an exceptional person. He was somehow more than life-size. People said that John was the great prophet Elijah, returned from the dead.

It’s clear that John occupies an important place in the gospel. A question that ought to rise in your mind is, “So what? Why is John the Baptist important to us now, in our day, and why is he so important that he’s got a special place in Advent?”

John the Baptist is important, because he pointed to the Christ that no one else recognized. John was the first to say, “He’s here among us!”

Everyone else was looking for a politician to save them, or a general, or a king. John saw a king whose kingdom was totally different. If you remember what we read from Isaiah this morning, John saw a leader who was a shepherd and a servant. John saw a king who would take on the suffering of his people, and free them from slavery to their brokenness.

John the Baptist is important to us, because his message is still true. “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight, get ready, turn your lives around. . .”

If Christ comes into this world, and into our hearts, it will happen because we have done what John the Baptist said. And like John, we will meet Christ in places we don’t expect.

We aren’t supposed to just listen to this. We are called to be prophets in our own generation. We’re called to talk about God coming into our world. We’re called to tell people that God’s kingdom is very near, close to us all the time.

Like John, we’re called to tell people about turning their lives around, about being forgiven and getting a fresh start. People who do this will find new strength beyond their imagining. They will walk without falling, and fly like eagles.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

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