Prepare the Way

Prepare the Way
Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,  as 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 wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.  John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

His name was John. People knew him as the Baptist. Some considered him a religious eccentric; others, less kind, dismissed him as a flake. He wasn’t a “how to win friends and influence people” kind of guy. He was forthright and in your face, not the kind of smooth, silver-tongued polished preacher one might expect to have been chosen to herald the news of the Messiah’s imminent arrival.

He somehow doesn't seem to fit in with shepherds and wise men and the other folks we traditionally associate with the Christmas story. But … John was God's servant who had been chosen to prepare the way for the wonderful Word he was privileged to share.

Brett Blair, commenting on this passage, reminds us that, from the very beginning, everything about John was unexpected and unique. His mother Elizabeth was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth, a woman of advanced years, conceived six months before Mary. And John was odd by most any appraisal. When he began his ministry, he lived in the desert solitude of Judea, in a rugged wilderness. His diet consisted of honey and wild locusts; he dressed in garments made of camel hair.

Scholars continue to debate the exact nature of his clothing. In his day, hair from the back and hump of the camel was woven into a harsh material and a softer cloth was produced from the finer hair taken from underneath the animal. Some have thought that John might have worn a garment made from the skin, but this would have been extraordinarily heavy. It’s also thought that what John wore might have been akin to the cloak of the Elijah, John’s forerunner, whose attire earned him the description, “hairy man.”

We do know that John constantly brooded over the scriptures, especially the prophetic ministry of Elijah, after whom he modeled his own ministry. John had an intimidating personality and treated everyone—regardless of his or her station in life—exactly the same. For that reason upper class folk rejected both him and his message (see Luke 7:29).

All that said, John gathered quite the following. He even drew about himself a substantial group of disciples. Some began to question whether he might the long expected Messiah, but John made it clear that he had been called to prepare the way for the One who would come to save the lost from their sins.

What drew people to John and his message? Beyond his unusual attire and bizarre food habits, there was about him a faith, a God-empowered message, and an anointing to bring a particular word to a particular people at a particular time.

John the Baptist did prepare that way, and, first, by living a godly life. In an age of corruption, John the Baptist appeared as a clean, bracing breath of mountain air. In his passionate embrace of goodness, he spoke out fearlessly against every form of evil and sin. When the religious leaders from Jerusalem turned up to hear him, he didn’t express delight at seeing them. He didn’t fawn over them. Instead he said, "O, you generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?!" John's devotion to His God was uncompromising and complete and the power of his godliness prepared the way for Jesus.

Eighteenth century economist and philosopher David Hume—who was an atheist—made a habit of visiting Haddington Parish Church in Scotland, pastored by the theologian John Brown, every year when he was in the area on vacation. On one occasion a man in his party referred to these visits when they met socially after the worship service. The friend of Hume laughingly said to him, "Of course you don't believe all that stuff the old man is saying, do you?"

And David Hume replied, "Perhaps not."

"Then why go?"

Hume answered, "Because he believes it."

And then Hume added, with a very serious undertone, "And I wish to God I did."

The world has no honest rebuttal for the godly life.

Some years ago a newspaper reporter was conducting an in depth study of a Roman Catholic order of nuns working in Paris. The hard bitten reporter was convinced that the good works, the loving philanthropy, the apparent tenderness of these women was just a cover for obtaining financial support for their institution.

He asked if he might accompany one of the nuns during a typical day. She took him down some of the most dilapidated streets he had ever seen. In the basement of one house was a man who was terminally ill. The reporter was accustomed to grim conditions but these made even him wince. The dirt and the smell were overpowering. Vermin scurried away as they approached. The sick man, who was lying on a bundle of rags, was indescribably dirty. He was trembling. His condition was the product of poverty, disease, alcohol, and drugs. The nun rolled up her sleeves picked up a bowl, filled it with water, and began to wash him. Suddenly the sick man jerked up. “Sister,” he whimpered, “I am frightened.”

The reporter said, “I stared in unbelief as I saw this refined, cultured woman take that filthy wreck of a man and hold him in her arms like a baby. Suddenly the hovel became heaven because love was there.”

He was overwhelmed by the goodness he saw.

The world has no rebuttal to the godly life. The only appropriate answer is to try to find the secret of it, to imitate it, and to hope others will come to know it themselves. That's how John prepared. He lived a godly life. Is God preparing the way this Advent through the influence of your life?

Secondly, John the Baptist prepared the way by challenging people's sins. One of the towering marks of this age is the absence of guilt. Not many people would deny that fact. Some are pleased that guilt has been dethroned; others see it as a sorry sign of the times. The absence of guilt in today's society makes it very difficult to talk about sin and the need for repentance. If there is no feeling of guilt, then the need for repentance is greatly minimized if not altogether eliminated.

For many, the word “repentance” is a word that belongs to another day. It is equated with sackcloth and ashes and mourners’ benches. Some see repentance as something we do only if we get caught. But repentance is far more than simply blurting out an “I'm sorry” if we get caught lying or cheating. Repentance is more than the turning over of a new leaf. Repentance is a turning around. When we repent, we go in a new direction.

John the Baptist wanted those who heard him to turn in a new direction, to turn their lives toward the Messiah. Don't get stuck in the notion that repentance means continually feeling sorry and miserable. No. Repentance means you have stopped doing what is wrong and are now determined to do what is right. True repentance confronts sin.

John the Baptist had the courage to challenge sin wherever he found it. In our passage from Mark, we learn that King Herod had seduced his brother's wife and taken her to live with him. Although the people were outraged, their religious leaders were silent. They had to tread carefully; Herod could respond with violence when provoked. But this wild preacher from the wilderness did not consider his own safety. He had eyes only for God. With an outspoken courage, he denounced the king and, because of this, he was arrested. He would eventually be put to death but he stood for what was right and was determined to live in ways that would honor his Lord.

There is a story told about one of Verdi's operas. He was young and this particular work had been produced in a hurry. Verdi knew that it was not his best. It was performed for the first time in Florence and at the end the enthusiastic—yet undiscriminating audience—went into quite unwarranted raptures and cheered the composer.

But Verdi paid little heed. He had eyes for only one man. He looked to the box where one man sat. The adoration of the crowd would not compensate for the lack of this man's approval. The man was the great composer Rossini and he was not smiling.
Much is wrong with our world. We can all make a list: the increase in violence and dishonesty; the lack of integrity in public life; the slow slide of the church into adopting the ways of the world; our descent into sexual immorality. Who is willing to be the watchman who sounds the alarm? Who will call people back to God in repentance? Who will have eyes only for the Lord, not seeking the approval of the crowds? Who?

This Advent we salute the forerunner who prepared the way by challenging the people's sins. He was not after the popular vote. He had eyes only for God. Are we ready to share his work and mission?

Third, John the Baptist prepared the way by pointing to Christ. John—in the desert—stood in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. In his fiery messages, he had no time for peripheral matters. He was not willing to splash about in the shallows.

Superficial people came from Jerusalem to see him. They were intrigued by this strange phenomenon of a wild man preaching repentance. Frivolous things such as his dress, his diet and his fierce declamatory oratory fascinated them. They wanted to interview him and then tell all their friends about their remarkable experience. “Who are you?” they asked. His answer was curt: “I am not the Christ.” “Are you Elijah?” “No!” “Then who are you?” they persisted. John's answer ought to be the ultimate goal of every person who would share the Word of God: “I am a voice.”

Don't listen to my accent. Don't look at my clothes. Don't comment on my preaching style. Don't search my biographical details for my university and seminary pedigrees. Just listen to what I am saying. I am a voice.

And it was John's crowning glory that he saw something: this wild man from the wilderness saw into the heart of his nation and into the mind of his God. This insight he left for his generation and the generations that would follow. "Behold,” he cried as he saw Jesus approaching the river, "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There is no greater privilege given to any one of us on this side of heaven than to point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

This Advent we can prepare the way of the Lord by pointing others to the Christ. Will you do that?

Featured photograph: Icon of John the Baptist, 1686.

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