Imagine you are in Palestine. War is everywhere. You are surrounded by violence. The military leader who just got promoted to imperial dictator happens to be the same general who was responsible for destroying your village last year. Friends and family have scattered, and you aren’t sure what you should do next. Someone bumps into you on the street, and presses a pamphlet into your hands. For a moment, your eyes meet, and you are struck by two things: first, the intensity of this stranger’s gaze, and second, by the fact this intensity does not seem to be rooted in anger or fear, but … joy. You glance at the pamphlet in your hand, and read the title: “Good News.” You could use some good news. Is the war over? Has the dictator been overthrown? You find a safe place to open the pages, and you begin to read…
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ (Mark 1:1-8)
From what we can tell, Mark’s version of the story of Jesus was probably the earliest to be written. We aren’t sure where Mark was when he wrote it, but best guesses put him in Rome, or maybe Antioch. He could even have been writing from somewhere in Galilee, but that is less likely, because it’s clear Mark is writing to Gentiles. Specifically, he is writing to Gentile believers, followers of The Way.
We aren’t even sure who Mark is. Tradition claims this is the same John Mark we read about in the book of Acts, who traveled with Paul and Barnabas, spreading the good news throughout the Mediterranean and starting churches. But recent scholars aren’t so sure this is the same guy.
Whoever Mark is, the story he tells is full of urgency and colorful descriptions of the teachings and events of Jesus’ ministry. These events are not necessarily arranged in chronological order, as one would expect to find in a Greek or Roman biography of the time. Big chunks of the story are completely missing. There is no birth story, no wise men from the east, no young Jesus in the Temple.
Mark begins his story as abruptly as he will end it. Suddenly – and that is a word we will hear at least 40 times in this gospel – Jesus simply appears as a full-grown adult in the middle of the wilderness. But before Jesus can appear, someone has to prepare the way for him. So Mark begins his story, not with Mary and Joseph, but with a prophet, the first one anyone has heard in more than 300 years. Mark’s good news story begins with John the Baptizer.
To get to John, we have to go back to Isaiah’s prophecy we heard earlier today, in our Old Testament reading. And for that Old Testament’s prophecy to make sense, we have to know why Mark starts his story with Isaiah. The answer is right there in the first verse. Did you notice that first sentence doesn’t have a verb? That’s because it isn’t a sentence; it’s a title. Right out of the chute, Mark tells us this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark gets right to the point. This story is about the Son of God. From our vantage point, more than 2000 years later, this might not seem so startling, but for the people hearing Mark’s words for the first time, it was news indeed. And it was good news. In these first eight verses, Mark takes us through the past, present, and future of salvation history.
First, he looks back in time to the prophets Isaiah and Malachi, even as far back as Exodus. He looks back to a time when Israel was lost in the wilderness, hoping for deliverance. Then he draws his audience into his own present time, describing the wilderness ministry of John the Baptizer, whose call to repentance and call to baptism are one and the same thing.
By the eighth verse, John is pointing Mark’s listeners to the future, when One who follows him through the wilderness will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Mark connects the past, present, and future of this wilderness journey through the prophetic cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!”
Mark isn’t just telling his listeners to hop on the road grader and smooth out the bumps. He’s saying, “Build a whole new road through this wilderness! A new thing is about to happen among you. God himself is coming.” How will this road get built? Through the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Throughout Jewish history, repentance has happened in the wilderness. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, constantly being called to repent of their idolatry and rebellion against God. The prophets who preached repentance throughout the Old Testament did much of their preaching out in the wilderness. This connection between the wilderness and repenting, or turning away from sin, is not new with John.
But John’s baptism, as far as we can tell, was something new. The ritual washing for purification that was required of anyone entering the temple was nothing like this baptism John performed in the Jordan River.
“The River of Jordan is a natural border. It divides east and west, desert and fertile valleys, but it is more than a geographical marker. The prophet Elijah was not only fed by ravens near the river, but was also was taken up into heaven at the river Jordan. … Joshua led the Israelites to the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan. Naaman was cured of leprosy by dipping himself in the waters of the Jordan seven times.”
Naaman may have found the muddy water of the Jordan River unappealing, but no one seemed to object to John’s choice of the Jordan River as a baptistery. People flocked out to the wilderness to repent and be baptized.
Here’s the thing our English translations may not make very clear. When people came out to the wilderness, they didn’t confess their sins first, and then get baptized. And it wasn’t the baptism that caused them to then confess their sins. These people who flocked out to see and hear John were confessing and being baptized at the same time.
We think of baptism as a sign of responding to God’s saving grace already at work in our lives. It is a covenant that binds us into the life of Christ’s church after we have accepted God’s grace for ourselves, or on behalf of our children.
But John’s baptism was something different. The call to repent and the call to be baptized were the same invitation, and this invitation was urgent. “One is coming,” John announced. “I’m here to build the road for the one who will come after me. The road has to be straight. It has to be true. You are that road.”
Have you ever worked with concrete? When I was a little girl, I watched our next-door-neighbor pour a new concrete sidewalk from his back door to the garage. The sacks of dust stacked in the corner of the garage were heavy, and I didn’t really understand how they were going to become a sidewalk, until he got out the wheelbarrow and the garden hose, and started mixing the mud and spreading it into the wooden forms he had built. As he smoothed each square with his trowel, he explained that he had to work both slow and fast. I thought that was pretty strange, but he had my attention.
He went on to tel me that it was important to get all the mud into the forms quickly, before the concrete started to set, but it was just as important to work the trowel without hurrying, so that the finished sidewalk would be smooth and level. Then he asked me if I knew what the most important part of the concrete was. I pointed to the empty sack next to the wheelbarrow. No, he said. The key ingredient in this whole process was the water. Water was the variable that determined the consistency of the concrete. As the concrete dried and the water evaporated, that consistency would dictate whether the sidewalk crumbled or stood firm.
John’s call to baptism was a call to come down into the water, to be immersed completely so that all those sins being confessed could be washed away in the forgiveness of the One who would be coming soon, the very Son of God. “I baptize you with water,” John said, “but one comes after me who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Some of us have heard this story many times. It isn’t news to us any more. We forget just how amazing God’s grace really is. We think we know how the story ends, so we stop paying attention. But remember Mark’s title for this story? He didn’t call it “The Life Of The Son of God, From Start To Finish.” He didn’t call it “All You Need To Know About Jesus the Christ.” He called it, ‘The Beginning of the Good News.” He wasn’t just referring to the first few verses of his story. The whole book is called “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Through the voice of John the Baptizer, and all the prophets who went before him, Mark is calling us to turn away from whatever is keeping us out of the water. He’s calling us to dive into the river of God’s grace, to be forgiven of all our sins, and to be made whole. The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was written to be read aloud. This Good News was meant to be shared. And the story isn’t finished. As we share the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we also continue that story, by participating in it. Whenever we gather at this Table, whenever we remember the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the least of these, whenever we tell someone else of the way God has changed us, we continue the story, we proclaim the Good News that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God. Amen.
 Exodus 23:20; Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3