The reading from Mark’s Gospel on this second Sunday of Advent focuses on John the Baptist. It is a relatively short passage with only eight verses. However in this short passage there are so many golden threads running through it and I hope to pull these threads together in order to gain a greater understanding of what the scriptures are saying to each and every one of us.
The first thread which runs through the story is the thread of prophecy.
The first piece of information that Mark says about the ministry of John the Baptist is that it was prophesied in the Old Testament and Mark identifies Isaiah as the author of the prophecy in the book of Isaiah chapter forty verse three,
A voice of one calling:
“In the desert prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God”
John started his preaching in the desert of Judea and fulfils what is spoken about by the prophet Isaiah, when he refers to a voice crying in the wilderness.
People travelled from Jerusalem, all Judea and all the region of Jordan to hear this new prophet who was promised to them in the book of Malachi.
The next thread is the thread of geography
It is sometimes difficult to visualise the places where biblical events took place, especially in the changing geography of the Middle East. Let us imagine the Jordan valley and the Jordan River which stretches between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. According to the Christian faith the River Jordon is considered the third most holy site in the Holy Land because it is the site of one of the most important events of Jesus’ life, his baptism and the beginning of his ministry.
I was most fortunate to be able to visit the Holy Land last year, which seems such a long time ago. This experience allowed me to bring alive the places where John the Baptist and Jesus walked, talked and preached and I felt as if I was transported back in time to when these biblical events took place. In some way this has given me a greater humility and insight into understanding the difficult, long journey of about twenty/thirty miles people were willing to take in order to hear the message delivered by John the Baptist
The next thread is the man John the Baptist and his preaching
John appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, ” Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This call to repent was in response to the news that the Messiah was coming and people should prepare the way of the Lord by preparing themselves to receive Jesus Christ into their lives.
It is acknowledged that Mark’s Gospel is the earliest account of John and his work in commanding the Jews to exercise both righteousness to one another and piety to God and so come to baptism.
This was a very different path that John took and one which his parents may have found difficult to understand and not what they may have planned for him. They may have expected him to follow in the footsteps of his father, Zechariah, who was a priest.
He lived his life in the wilderness dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt round his waist, eating locusts and wild honey. This description of John in Mark’s Gospel reflects the description of Elijah in the second book of Kings in the Old Testament. This is not the only connection with Elijah, as Luke’s Gospel proclaims that John came in the “spirit and power of Elijah.”
The next thread is John the Baptist’s relationship with Jesus.
Jesus knew John as the son of a relative on his mother’s side of the family, Elizabeth’s son, and they would have spent time together as children. John always knew that his role was preparing the way for Jesus Christ and he was only the messenger or sometimes called the forerunner, proclaiming the beginning of the good news. ”After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”
As we weave the golden threads of this story we reflect on the words in the letter to the Hebrews “in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son”. The question for us today, is how does the thread which weaves from the Old Testament through the New Testament weave through our lives to the present day, especially in the season of advent. A time of preparing for the coming of the birth of Jesus Christ. John was assured that the Messiah was coming and we celebrate Advent with the same assurance that Jesus Christ comes, and comes to us here and now.
John’s words were challenging and not what his audience particularly wanted to hear as it made them examine themselves and the community in which they lived. We hear the cries of those in pain and suffering which is a challenge for us as Christians and a Christian family. We may be lost in our own wilderness and finding it difficult to find a way out of the desert. Through God’s love and words we will find comfort in knowing He will show us the path we must take in order to find light in our lives. We must be ready to answer his call to take part in His plan for us and others who are in need of light, hope and comfort.
As well as golden threads running through this passage there are many key themes for us to focus on in order to make sense of what the life of John and his message says to us. The two words worthy and repentance came to my mind.
John was prepared to adopt a truly different and difficult lifestyle from one that his parents would have chosen for him. He was prepared to answer the call from God in accepting his role in preparing the way for Jesus but did not feel worthy of untying Jesus’s scandals.
Do we always hear and respond to God’s call to do his work and be part of his plan? We may feel unable to respond as there are times in our lives when we doubt ourselves because of our faults and failings. We feel there are others more worthy to respond to God’s call. There are times when we don’t have the belief in ourselves that we deserve the love and gifts that God has bestowed upon us and our ability to use them.
In John’s teachings, we should find hope that whatever is holding us back from truly feeling worthy of answering the call, is that he taught us how to live a new way of life. That through repentance we always get another chance to start again and renew our relationship with God in order for us to feel worthy to do whatever He asks of us. Repentance is not about feeling guilty but about having a change of mind or direction. To look at things in a new and better way. We may fail at times but we endeavour to achieve that His will would be our will and that His words would be our words.
The other word I thought of was, wilderness
Thinking of John preaching in the wilderness must have been a very difficult place to start his ministry but it is very symbolic of the wilderness that families, communities and the wider world are seeking a way out of their present day wilderness.
I would like to share with you some of the lines from a prayer written by Andy Braunston a minister in Glasgow. The words of this prayer links with the reading in Mark’s Gospel and this will enrich and bring alive the message for us as we are faced with some of the challenges of the coming week.
Be with us in our world’s wilderness, as we long for meaning and value.
As we search for you without always knowing how, as we cry out for wholeness and healing.
Be with us in our hearts’ wilderness as we strive to hear your word,
Brought to us by prophets and outsiders, calling us to change.
Help us to accept your forgiveness, to be willing to change direction
And in you see our new beginning, living the Good News of the Gospel. Amen