The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8 ESV)
The Gospel writer Mark tells us where he’s starting – at the beginning. We’ve heard such comments in other books – in Genesis 1:1 ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. In John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. And such statements are not surprising if we seek to find the First Cause – as when children repeatedly ask, “And where did that come from?”. Because none of us were there at the beginning we then take our philosophical, scientific, and theological views back with us for the answers – which is why there are so many versions of the beginnings around.
Christianity looks back at beginnings and asks “Of what?”. If it’s in the realm of creation then the answer is God. If it’s in the realm of misery, pain, suffering, disease, death – then the answer is human beings. This means that there is a mystery in our beginnings of how a perfect world could be wrecked if God did not wreck it and still is God. And if it’s in the realm of rescue – salvation – help with all that misery, pain, suffering, disease, and death – good news to that question that points the guilty finger at human beings – then Mark picks up the story with Isaiah, John the Baptist, a wilderness, baptisms, and repentance – where he sets the stage for the one who is to come – more powerful than John, the greatest prophet of all (Matthew 11:11) who is as a slave to the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.
The beginning of the Gospel of Mark only makes sense if the context of other beginnings are known. Old Testament contexts and personal contexts brought crowds out to the wilderness to hear John’s preaching and be baptised by him whereby the rumble of the temple’s destruction had begun. The temple, the place of sacrifice was the place for forgiveness of sins but the prophets and again the honest human heart knew full well how the system could be played and the ritual mechanised and the forgiveness fake because there was no repentance. Here, away from the temple, John preaches – don’t think of this so much as a sermon but more of a making known, revealing, informing, maybe shouting, arguing at times even, communicating – telling a story – a message – – another is coming – the Lord, the Son of God is coming – be ready – be prepared.
John’s message cuts at the heart of human pride and self sufficiency and even despair – and straightens the twists and turns of both heart and conscience – and brings the realisation to people that they are trapped in their sin and really do require forgiveness. It is not a matter of the boss coming as with the t-shirt caption ‘Jesus is coming … look busy’ expecting to hoodwink him into think we’re ok. It’s not a matter of being terrified by the prospect so that we run and hide. It’s a realisation that there is personal accountability for our lives and God has actually provided a way to help us. This help which turns us is called repentance.
It remains the same today even though John the Baptist has gone and Jesus has walked onto the world stage. Our beginnings with Jesus are contextual – individual – but whether as adults or teenagers or infants – they are either baptism with the Holy Spirit or Jesus has been made known to us in words – sermons, teachings, songs, discussions, debates, formal, informal.
If baptism was first then the words followed as the children grow up to learn what God has done for them – as they are taught by parents and congregations what a relationship with Jesus is all about – repentance and forgiveness – worship and service – as this is modelled in front of them by parents and congregations and the Holy Spirit works through the means of grace so that there is growth in Christ.
If the words come first and Jesus is made known then the baptism follows and the person receives personally and in an undisputed way – externally given and attested (the water was on you – God’s triune name was spoken over you) – the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, eternal life, salvation, and faith – and the relationship then continues through repentance and forgiveness – worship and service in the congregation.
John the Baptist’s baptism is not Christian baptism but its importance is something to note. Today all spiritual conversations and interactions either are leading to baptism or are building on baptism.
Sadly in many cases baptism has become the religious mechanised action that is part insurance – part magic – part history – part tradition – but is not really a living reality – a new birth that daily affects life everyday afterwards.
In our world where spiritual things are deemed to be private matters, it is almost regarded as bad manners to enquire, encourage, challenge people about their spiritual relationships – at least with those outside of the family – and even within the family at times. Fearing the label of insensitivity or intolerance we say little or nothing – trapped often by the idea that to witness we have to preach and that is the pastor’s job. But preaching in the New Testament has more of the idea of making known, announcing something (good news, victory) as well as proclaiming and that is something all disciples of Jesus can do – telling what Jesus has done for us all. If we concentrate on that message of what Jesus has done – and recognising the apt moment of speaking it when it will be heard – as the context for any message, invitation, comment, and longer chat – then the person will have heard what is always the best starting point, the beginning – God and his grace.
Paul wrote to Timothy:
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel …”. (2 Timothy 1:8-10 ESV)
John the Baptist’s work concluded when Jesus came onto the scene – into the Jordan – and appeared as a sinner repenting of his sins. This wasn’t the way John thought it would go – how can he untie the sandals underwater anyway? Nevertheless Jesus began the final phase of the rescue plan set in motion before the beginning of time and when he rose victorious from the dead, he sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to draw, encourage, enlighten, and sanctify people into the church, his body on Earth.
This work continues through Word and sacraments and we have the privilege of living and sharing in this new life – of having new beginnings each day – all because of Jesus.
- Mark 1:1 - 8