Summary: A SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT: John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way, that we may receive and welcome Jesus the Christ
Mark 1:1-8 ‘Ready – or Not? #2’
In different ways, we all know the importance of signs and symbols. They point us in the right direction, give us instruction, and help us avoid making mistakes. We might be washing our clothes, and looking at the label inside to tell us what temperature to wash our favourite jumper at, and whether or not to iron it. We might be driving our car, and following road-signs that tell us what route to take, or whether or not we are allowed to park. If we DON’T follow instructions, the results can be annoying, like when our jumper goes out of shape or shrinks, or when we get lost in our car. Or it can be dangerous, like when we park on a roadside where we’re not allowed to park, or drive faster than the signs tell us we should. Signs and symbols are important to us in our lives. They help guide us, pointing us in the right direction.
In our lives of faith, signs and symbols are important too. Especially as we reflect upon God’s Word as we read our Bibles, we see how the Old Testament and the Gospels SHOW US WAYS by which God wants us to live our lives. And the writers of the same Gospel and Old Testament stories tell us about signs and symbols, which they warn us to stay alert to if we are not to miss something of great importance.
In just such a way begins the Gospel of Mark. Perhaps surprisingly for us, Mark makes no mention of the Christmas event, the birth of Jesus. In his Gospel, Mark makes no mention of the events leading-up to Jesus’ birth which Matthew, Luke and John between them tell us about – like the Annunciation and Mary’s meeting with her cousin, Elisabeth. Like the vision of the shepherds, and the long journey of the Magi from the East. No, Mark says nothing of the months of preparation (perhaps years in the case of the Magi); nothing of the fear and confusion of Mary and Joseph. Nothing of the wonder and great joy of the birth in such humble surroundings, and the baby boy attended by the poor shepherds and the mysterious Three, bearing precious gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh.
For Mark, there is no Christmas story. Instead he immediately introduces us to Jesus’ second cousin, John the Baptizer, and takes us back to the words of that great prophet Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”.
What Mark is impatient to relate to those that would hear his words, is that John the Baptist is heralding, pointing towards, the One who was greater than he. The One, he says, “Who is mightier than I, whom I am not worthy even to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals.” The One who will come to baptise with the Holy Spirit, even as John had baptised with water. John is pointing towards Jesus who, in turn, comes to gather together, and point people towards God and God’s Kingdom. John’s words and baptisms are signs, symbols, pointing us towards Jesus; Jesus came to live out his life and word as a sign to point us in the direction of God.
So, Mark introduces us, at the beginning of his Gospel, not to an event (the Christmas event) but to a person (John the Baptist), and this in an atmosphere of great anticipation and expectation. Mark introduces us to John the Baptist who instructs us to prepare for the arrival of the One who would come after him. The one whom the prophets of old awaited with such enthusiasm and sense of urgency. The one who was imminently expected, and who would change people’s lives. And there was no time to waste – there were many preparations to make.
For Jesus was ‘mightier’ and ‘stronger’ that John the Baptist. Mark stresses the POWER of Jesus, and he will show this in his Gospel through his reporting of the miracles Jesus performs. Signs, in themselves, that point towards the power of God, and God’s love for all people.
The coming One is so much greater than himself, John the Baptist says, that he is unworthy to do even the most menial task for him – to take off his sandals (not even a slave would be expected to perform such a task for their master). Yet this image is a sign that points forward to the greatness of God who, in Christ Jesus, would kneel at the feet of his friends and wash their feet, at their Last Supper together. The Last Supper before Jesus is handed over to their enemies, subject to a mock trial, humiliation, torture and, finally, rejected in favour of (that which would be as shocking to us today as) a terrorist, and condemned to the most brutal execution and painful death imaginable. All so that we could be restored to God, and have the opportunity to live in the fullness of God’s presence – here on earth, and in heaven.