A sermon on Mark 1:1-15 by Richard Keith on Sunday 13 August 2023
If someone burst through the doors, ran down the aisle, took the collection money, and left, we’d all remember different things. Some of us would remember the thief’s face. Some would remember his clothes. Some would remember what he said or did. Extraordinary events like that leave different vivid impressions on our memory. That’s why court cases rely on the testimony of as many witnesses as possible.
The Bible provides us with four different witnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Two of them were eyewitnesses of his life. They saw and heard him for themselves. They tell the remarkable story of Jesus in different ways and from different angles, and they chose what events or stories to include or leave out to suit their overall message.
Only one Gospel includes the parable of the prodigal son. My favourite story ever. Only two Gospels include Jesus’ birth, one of the most important events in all history. Only three Gospels include the Last Supper, which we commemorate every month. But all four Gospels begin with the ministry of John the Baptist.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of John in God’s great plan. The whole Bible’s message turns on the hinge of his life and words. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets. And he is the first to bear direct personal testimony to Jesus as Lord. John the Baptist’s job in God’s grand scheme of things was to get the people ready for the coming of their Lord.
In Mark chapter 1 we see firstly that John’s ministry was rooted in the Old Testament and that his coming was foretold hundreds of years before. Verses 2 and 3 say,
It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ “
Isaiah had a message of comfort for the people of Israel in their exile. They had sinned against God. Their land had been devastated by war. Many of their leading people were carried away into slavery. Even those who returned and rebuilt the temple felt that life was smaller and second rate. And they suffered under the rule of foreign empires – Persia, Greece, and Rome. They must have been afraid that God was finished with them. That just like the generation of Noah was swept away by a flood, God had swept them away with the tides of history.
But just as the story of the flood ended with a rainbow, a symbol of hope, so the prophet Isaiah had a message of comfort to the lost sheep of Israel.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Israel had served her sentence. They had paid for their injustice and idolatry. They had abandoned the Lord but he had not abandoned them. And soon the time of blessing would return. For the Lord himself was coming. And he would lead his lost sheep home.
To get everything ready for his coming the Lord would send ahead of him his event coordinator. In April this year I officiated at a wedding at the chocolate and whiskey factory. And Emma is the young lady who works there as the events coordinator. It’s her job to make sure that everything is just right for the special occasion. At the wedding rehearsal she told me where I would be standing. She told me where the bride would come in. When the amplifier and speaker didn’t work at the rehearsal, Emma hired new ones from Wodonga for the wedding the next day. She made my job easier. And that was just part of her job to get everything ready for the coming of the bride and groom.
In the same way the Lord would send his messenger ahead of him who had one job: to get the people ready to receive him. To cry out in the desert,
Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
It’s not about building a literal road. It’s got nothing to do with digging through hills and laying pavement. It’s about straightening the crooked hearts of God’s lost sheep of Israel to align them to the will of God so that when the Lord came they were ready to receive him. This was John the Baptist’s job in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. To get everything read for the coming of Jesus.
It reminds us that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. But that the origin of Jesus’ life and deeds lie fair and square in the promises of the Old Testament. Jesus is the Lord who came to lead his lost sheep home that in God’s great plan also includes us in Israel’s blessing.
Are you ready to receive Jesus? Are you ready to welcome Jesus as Lord?
In Mark chapter 1 verse we see secondly that
John came baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Everything here – the location, the message, the action, and the purpose – was as essential as each of the ingredients in your mum’s famous sponge cake.
John came to the desert region. It was not just a long way from civilization, pointing to how far Israel’s heart was from their Lord. But it was by the Jordan river.
Now, our Murray river marks the boundary between Victoria and New South Wales, usually no obstacle at all unless there’s a pandemic. During COVID, however, the border was often shut and it felt like we were living in two different countries.
Well, the Jordan river marked the boundary of the Promised land of Canaan. It’s where Joshua led the Israelites to cross to take the land promised by God. John led the people of his day out to the extreme boundary of the promised land to show them that they were not just far from the Lord, they were on the outer. They were outside his blessing and needed to get wet in the river in order to reenter into the Lord’s blessing.
John preached a message of repentance.
Repent, he said, for the kingdom of God is near.
To repent is more than just feeling bad about what we’ve done. That’s regret. To repent is more that knowing that what we’ve done is wrong. That’s remorse. To repent is both those things and more. Yes, more. Because it must also include a commitment to change. To not do again the wrong we’ve done. And it includes throwing ourselves at the mercy of God in the hope of the forgiveness of sins and of a new beginning.
This tells us two things. Firstly, the call to repent is not motivated by a judgmental spirit. Judgmental people enjoy feeling outraged at the actions of others. Looking down at others, disapproving of their actions, makes them feel so superior. And judgmental people never believe that those beneath them can change.
Secondly, the purpose of the call to repent is to bring about a real change of heart that leads to forgiveness. To genuine reconciliation with our maker and creator and to true and lasting peace with our neighbour. I mean, what are we without forgiveness? Just poor, lonely, miserable wretches, trapped in an endless cycle of sinning and being sinned against. Unable to admit our responsibility. Unable to escape either from what we have done or from what others have done to us.
Admitting our mistakes and forgiving others is painful. Like removing a splinter from our finger. But it’s not as painful as doing nothing about it.
John preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What is keeping you from really, truly repenting of your past mistakes? Not just regretting their terrible consequences. Not just feeling bad about yourself or about what you’ve said or done. But really, truly committing yourself to lasting change by the power of God in the hope of forgiveness.
The acted symbol of repentance, of this commitment to change, was baptism. Old style. John plunged his willing hearers in the waters of the Jordan. It is a washing, a cleansing, a wiping away of the deeds of the past so they no longer cling to us and have power over our future. But it is also a ritual death and rebirth. The person who comes out of the water is not meant to be the same person who went into the water. They’ve been reborn, made new in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Or at least what John did was a symbol, a ritual of that transformation. His main job, however, was to get the people ready for the Lord who would actually bring about that radical change. John said to them,
I baptize you with water, but the one coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
This reminds us that although we call him John the Baptist, his baptizing work was just a side project. A means to an end. His true purpose through his call to repentance and its response in baptism was to get the people ready for the coming of the Lord. John said,
After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
Now you have to admit that John was a powerful man. No one could go about wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey who was weak or ineffectual. John was clearly a person who could make anyone else feel inadequate. But his message to the people was that someone was coming who was even more powerful. Someone for whom John was not worthy to even serve as the most lowly slave. The one who has to bend down and take off the sandals from his master’s dirty feet.
What John did out in that desert looks and feels real. Old style baptism. So real that even today tourists still go to the Jordan river to have the same experience. But it was just a ritual, a pale imitation of what the one coming after John would do. He would come in the power of God’s holy and creative Spirit, God’s own life giving breath. And with that Spirit he would make straight what is crooked in our life. He would heal what was been hurt and damaged. He would make right what has gone wrong. And he would restore the hearts that have strayed from the purpose of their creator.
Because water can’t save you. You can get sprinkled in church. You can take a dip in the Murray. You can fly to Israel and have the most profound of all experiences in the Holy Land itself. But water can’t save you. Only Jesus can.
Because it was Jesus who came out to John and like all the other mother’s sons he was baptized in the river. And as Jesus was coming up out of the water,
he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven. You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
Here we see the Father and the Son and the Spirit working as usual as the perfect team. And from this moment we see the Spirit directing Jesus life, leading his steps, revealing his destiny and purpose, inspiring his words and empowering his miracles. With the spirit he healed the sick, giving sight to the blind, making the lame to walk, straightening and strengthening the crooked hands and raising the dead. By the Spirit Jesus was comforted in his distress and given courage to walk the path to the cross.
And the gift of the risen Lord Jesus to those who repent and entrust their lives to him, is the same Holy Spirit. By ministers and pastors and priests we may be baptised with water. But Jesus’ work for us is to flood our lives with his life giving and healing Holy Spirit. Don’t believe those who tell you that you have to speak in tongues to prove that you have God’s Spirit. Believe me when I tell you that it is not fair for Jesus to ask you to change unless he also gives you the power to change.
Because that’s what Jesus did. He went from his baptism by the leading of the Spirit for a time of testing in the wilderness. And when John was put in prison, the Spirit prompted Jesus to begin his public work. And what was Jesus’ message? He said,
The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!
John the Baptist’s job was to get the people ready for the coming of the Lord. The Lord Jesus’ job was to get us ready for the coming of his kingdom. It is good news, with an exclamation mark too. It is gospel. It is the fulfilment of all of God’s purposes for his creation. The end of the kingdom of darkness. The triumph of his life over death and of his love over hate, and of hope over despair. And it is good news for us that we are included, invited like welcome guests to God’s party. You’d be mad to knock back the invitation. And all you need to do to receive it is to repent and believe it.
It doesn’t mean feeling bad about yourself or beating yourself up. It doesn’t mean drowning in your own self-hatred or feelings of inadequacy. It means making a commitment to change by the power of the Spirit, believing in God’s mercy to us in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.
It isn’t easy. It takes courage to admit the truth to yourself. It means letting go of the pride and self-pity and resentment that is stopping you from being happy. And it will lead to a life of learning from Jesus and of putting his teaching into practice. It will mean treating other people with the same kindness and mercy and love that God has treated you. It is the single bravest thing you will ever do in your life.
It isn’t easy. But believe me, it is a lot easier than not doing it.