Summary: Advent gives us time to bear witness to Jesus
We gather on this the second Sunday of Advent with joyful expectations of another Christmas season with the sacred and secular traditions that Christmas brings. We can see the excitement in the faces of children who patiently wait for Christmas Day. It's harder for them to concentrate on their school work when their heads are filled with visions of gifts, goodies and surprises, and "sugar plums." Something wonderful is about to take place and we are going to be a part of it. It is exciting, not only for the children for us also. It often means family fun, feasting, and a beautiful time of wonder and miracles.
Then we hear the Gospel of Mark read today; there is certainly no joy or anticipation of excitement in this gospel. Most scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel to be recorded. It is thought that somewhere around 70 CE, the writers of Mark feared that those who were eye witnesses to the life and works of Christ would die before anyone prepared a written testimony about Christ’s life. So Mark wrote in a hurry, giving a bare-bones account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. In this first gospel there are no shepherds, no magi, and no theological reflections as in John. In fact, the Gospel of John does not even contain anything about John The Baptist baptizing Jesus. Mark, however, begins with Jesus’ baptism this way:
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 (Mark 1:1-2)
Now we have to understand a custom of the day to appreciate what this preparation of the way of the Lord really means. In ancient times, before a King visited any part of his realm, there was a messenger that was sent before him to prepare the way – to announce the King was coming. According to Mark, the people would have understood that John The Baptist was living in the wilderness like an Old Testament prophet; he wanted to prepare the hearts of the men and women of Israel for the new king.
John The Baptist, upon whom we focus today, is a very important figure in biblical history and message – one of the very few persons mentioned in all of the gospels. Other historical writings of the period speak about him as well. We know specifically that John The Baptist was a real person; and we know enough about his life to confirm that the biblical accounts in the four gospels, even if a mystical expansion of history, are rooted in fact.
We know that Jesus and John The Baptist were cousins, and about the same age; John The Baptist was older by a few months. But there are parallels in their lives, spelled out artfully in John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography. For example:
• They both experienced miraculous births (John from a woman way past child-bearing age and Jesus from a virgin)
• There was general publicizing and rejoicing at their births
• There are interesting aspects of their naming and circumcisions in the temple
• There was a public presentation and prophecy of destiny for both of them in their early years
• There was a description of their growth as young children into adulthood
• There was an ignoble, martyred death at the hands of worldly authorities.
Yet in every case, Crossan reminds us, Jesus is described as greater than John, and having primacy over him. It is logical for us to infer then, that to the biblical writers and historians, John The Baptist was an important historical figure, integral to explaining the story of Jesus.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River; an event that signaled the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John The Baptist had been preaching in the wilderness for years, wearing camel skins, never shaving, eating locust and honey – anything he could find in the wilderness. He was a recluse, to us he would seem a freak or insane. He preached throughout of repentance, and to make ready, make ready the way of the Lord, make his path straight. (Mark 1:3)
Announcing to all that the King was coming. By the time he baptized Jesus, hordes of people had come into the wilderness to listen to this bizarre and powerful preacher and most of them had been baptized by him, as a sign of repentance.
John The Baptist proclaimed that someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough simply to just wait for him to arrive. He called upon the people to be honest with themselves, to step back from their daily routines and prepare their hearts to receive the one whom God was sending, who would redeem them from their sin, and offer them new life. He challenged them to repent, and embrace the Son of God.