Sermon Sunday 10 December 2017 A Man in the Desert Martin Baker
Our reading today starts the Gospel of Mark. There is no mention of what we would call the Christmas story; there is no link here with King David or other Old Testament figures. And as we go through the Gospel of Mark we find that there is need to explain some Jewish or Hebrew terms or history to the reader. So scholars think that Mark was most likely written for Gentile Christians who didn’t know either their Jewish history or what we would call the Old Testament. These gentile Christian were possibly living in Rome 30 years or so after the death of Jesus.
So we get straight into the story of Jesus as an adult. And we meet John the Baptist. He is a really interesting figure that we often hear about particularly at this time of the year when we think about preparing for the coming of Jesus.
What do we know about him?
John’s mother was Elizabeth and she was related to Jesus’ mother Mary. John and Jesus were born within 6 months of each other, so they were a similar age.
John may well have been a member of a community called the Nazarites. They were a community of people who followed vows found in Chapter 6 of the Book of Numbers. And this group vowed never to cut their hair or to drink alcohol or touch any kind of dead body.
John was very much a wilderness figure.
He was raised in the wilderness (Luke 1:80), was called by God in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), preached in the wilderness (Mark 1:4), and was most likely imprisoned and died in the wilderness at Machaerus (Josephus, Ant. xviii 5.2).
His imprisonment and death were the result of his rebuke of Herod (who was the local puppet king for the Romans) for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias, who schemed successfully to have John, beheaded (6:16-29).
John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Messiah—to make his paths straight (1:3). He did this by preaching in the wilderness, where he attracted great crowds, by calling people to repentance, by baptizing, and by heralding the one who was to come.
John had disciples of his own during his lifetime, and a number of these disciples maintained their devotion to John long after John’s death.
So let hear John’s message again:
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
Who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Let us pray
So our message starts this morning with “The beginning of the Good News” The “Beginning” (Greek: Arche).
We pass over this word easily. But the Greek word for beginning, arche was an important philosophical concept. We get the word archetype from it. It is a word used to describe the foundation or the first principle of all things.
Remember how Genesis, the first book of the Bible starts. “In the beginning.”
Genesis describes the beginning of all creation, this Gospel describes the salvation work of Jesus Christ— it’s a culmination of God’s work, but also a beginning.
So let’s go back. For some of us it might be some time back. For others less. In 3 months’ time I will have been here 3 years. I can still remember what that beginning was like. The excitement the sense of possibility. What’s this going to be like?
I would guess that every one of us here has been excited by the experience of beginning. Maybe the start of a journey, or learning a new language or skill. Maybe you meet someone and you began to imagine where that relationship might take you. You put in time of course, but you start to invest imagination, and hope. You invest something important of yourself. Part of who you are. Where might this lead you?
So right at the start the Gospel is telling us something really important. That a beginning right now today is possible. A new foundation.
We hear of all these people coming to hear John’s message in the desert.
They had all left behind something. All of them. The reason they were there were to make a new beginning. Right at the start of the Gospel we are being told that it is never too late. This new creation, this new beginning is possible.
The beginning we are told of the Good News. What is the nature of the news we listen to?
I often wonder what it is within us that seem to make us so attuned to bad news.
I’ll give you an example. We heard last week good research indicating that child poverty in New Zealand was finally on the decline. And then the very next day we had a barrage of political and social commenters expressing doubt about those figures, amidst a tide of cynicism and blame. But worse, the news about the reduction in child poverty, was the only item of good news on my news feed for that day.
And yet we are surrounded by acts of such goodness, courage, self-sacrifice, generosity and love.
The hundreds of gifts given and donated this week, the celebrations with our families the joy of children. And that’s in just our small part of the world alone.
So why do we wake up to news that gives us a sense that the world is in a never ending state of crisis?
So listen here. The beginning of the Good News.
And remember back to the first creation story. In the beginning. And then at each stage in creation God sees that the word is good. And here this morning we are being told the beginning of the good news.
So right at the start of Mark we are being told that the foundational of all things, the founding principle of all creation is Good news.
This word Good News It’s a translation of a Greek work ‘euagelion’. Originally it was a technical military word, speaking about victory in battle. But it seems that the early Christian community took this word over as theirs. The begging based on Good News. And this good news is the kind of news you long to hear, good news like this fills the future with a sense of real hope and possibility. Something real has happened.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness”
John would go to the wilderness to proclaim his message. Why not go to the city, where people live? The wilderness has special meaning to the Jewish people. It was to the freedom of the wilderness that God led them from their slavery in Egypt. It was in the wilderness that they became a nation.
So they come out to this desert and John calls upon them to repent. The Greek word, metanoia, means a change of mind or direction. , The wilderness, the desert, is where you discover what means to live in this new way. John’s location in the wilderness identifies him, not only with the ancient Jewish stories of salvation and freedom, but also with the freshness that makes it possible for people to repent and to rid themselves of their sins.
In the desert, you discover that this thing called sin is not so much a bad thing, but a waste of your time thing. Not one thing you’ve done wrong but a life moving in the wrong direction.
I’ve mentioned many times how fortunate Sandy and I have a place on Great Barrier. It has enabled us to move out of the routine of work and the demands of everyday living. It’s not easy sometimes, but the importance physically but also spiritually to take time away. To break with the routines and demands. Important things happen in the wilderness. I think we all need to find some way of setting time aside.
Here we have today John the Baptist.
He is one whose very presence embodies the message that a remarkable and startling change is about to take place. He wears clothes in camel’s hair. Leather belt around his waist eating locusts and wild honey. We have more detail here about his dress and eating habits than anyone else in the whole bible. The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.
Prepare the way of the Lord. That’s John Message. So important because at the moment we say that there is something worth getting ready for something worth preparing for.
As we listen to this message today from camel coat wearing John the Baptists, as we think about he Christian posture of preparing of repentance of openness to the good news and of judgement. There are some simple things I believe we need to be saying. `
A new begging is possible. A life based on Good news. Promises so powerful that they end up changing the ways we see things, even the directions our lives have bene takin up to this point.
Our grief our fear the worship of false Gods. Coming to an end. We have listened to the bad news about ourselves, our situation, our world for too long.
Christmas is a time for children. The Children of God. The Children of that very special foolishness and naivety which is part of being Christian children. The contagious and transforming hope as we proclaim and live out our expectation of Christ's birth. AMEN
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