The Second Sunday in Advent
Sermon Title: God’s Gracious Cry in the Wilderness (Mark 1:1-8)
Today, we truly begin at the beginning. Our text reads: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." And, yet, instead of saying anything about Jesus, it leads off speaking about the ministry of a strange man, who wore a camel's hair coat, ate locusts, and lived out in the middle of the wilderness. What gives? What, if anything, does all this have to with Jesus Christ?
It is believed by many Bible scholars that Mark's Gospel is written with a Roman audience in mind. The word "gospel" literally means “good news.” In the Roman world it was often employed to denote a written account of an important historical event for the world; that is, something that would have radical implications for the life of mankind. Often, this "gospel" was the record of the birth of some emperor.
It is not hard at all, then, to see why Mark chose the word "gospel" to refer to the document he was writing. After all, he was presenting to the world an account of the King of kings... Jesus Christ... The Son of God! What could possibly have greater import for the people of the world than to learn of the Good News that the Savior of sinners and the King of Heaven and Earth has come.
It might still be mystifying to us, however, as to why Mark felt compelled to lead off his gospel with such a vivid description of the strange "preacher man" named John? It is true John was a second cousin of Jesus. But still, should the retelling of John’s work and life be that essential to the Good News, The Gospel, of Jesus?
The answer is a most emphatic, “Yes!” John's very life and ministry was in itself part of God’s good news for sinners.
You see, John’s coming signaled an end to a long spiritual drought in Israel. For 400 years God had remained totally silent, sending no prophets to His people Israel. This was certainly an unusual and unhappy situation for God's Old Covenant people, who had always enjoyed a fresh word from God. Throughout her whole history, she had never before experienced such a silent treatment from God. His refusal to speak to His people was a sign of just how angry His was with them. They had wanted to go their own way instead of following His word through His prophets. As punishment, therefore, He let them go with no word from Him.
God’s silence was more than deafening, it was heart-wrenching. Just think about how hurt you feel when someone gives you the silent treatment because you have offended them or disappointed them in some way. Now, imagine that God no longer is willing to talk to you! By the time John arrived, whom God at long last sent to be His spokesman, the people's souls were truly thirsty for the LORD Himself and a fresh Word from Him. No doubt, they were questioning: "Has God forgotten us? Or worse, has He abandoned us? Are His promises still valid?"
Thanks be to God, John’s arrival was a clear sign that God's silence was over and He was about to act. Through His Old Covenant prophets, God had promised He would one day send His prophet in the spirit of Elijah to prepare the people for His own coming to them. In the person of John, God did just that. John's unique dress, ascetic lifestyle, and characteristic preaching of repentance were Elijah all over again. Like Elijah of old, John was the "voice crying in the wilderness" exhorting the people to prepare the way for the Lord, just as the prophets Isaiah and Malachi had long ago prophesied. God was keeping His promises. In John God was graciously calling people to preparedness for the Messiah’s advent (coming). John’s coming, therefore, was itself "good news." It signaled that the Lord Himself was not far behind! God wanted His people to be prepared through sincere repentance and faith that they might indeed meet the Holy One to their benefit.
And what a reaction this "voice crying in the wilderness of the Jordan" was having! Mark tells us that 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." Now that's what I call "effective preaching!" What 21st century "prophet," or pulpit preacher, would not like to have such results from his Sunday morning sermons!
What made John's preaching have such dramatic success? Was it his unorthodox and oddball style? Was it great oratory skill? Was it because his messages were "down to earth?" Was it because he told the people what they wanted to hear?
One thing is for certain, the great response of the people was not due to the fact that John’s preaching was uncontroversial or that he was simply trying to make his hearers feel good. John’s sermons were quite the opposite. He preached hard-hitting words of repentance. He boldly and directly exhorted the people to turn from their sinful lifestyles and to seek God’s forgiveness. He even fearlessly and publicly confronted the ruling Tetrarch, Herod, about his living in adultery! Herod had taken his own brother’s wife.
No, John's phenomenal success was due entirely to his message. After all, his sermons had come directly from Israel’s God and Redeemer, the very One who was using John to prepare the way for He Himself to come to His people. John was quite literally God's "angel," "messenger." It was John's mouth, but God's words.
There is simply nothing in the whole universe more powerful than God's Word. When God speaks things that are not come to be! Chaos becomes order. Seas part and divide in two. Springs of water gush forth from a solid rock wall of granite. Storms hush into silence. Blind men are given sight. Deaf men are made to hear. Dead men are brought back to life! Unbelievers become believers!
And if there ever was a time for the power of God's Word to be unleashed, it was in John's day. The masses were pitted in utter hopelessness under the subjugation of Rome and the spiritual tyranny of their own religious leaders. What hopes they did have were simply fanciful delusions that they would somehow save themselves from their enemies. They longed for an earthly king, who would free them from any foreign control and lead them to regain their long lost glory as a nation. Any concept of the Messiah, who would come to free them from spiritual bondage to sin and death, was beyond their grasp. They were not at all prepared to meet the true Christ, Whose kingdom would not be of this world. They needed to be made ready.
John was the "man" rightly fitted for the job. Through him God was miraculously building a highway for His Christ to bring salvation into people's lives. The silence of vanishing faith was being broken by confessions of sins and professions of faith. The dry, dusty, desert of people's lives was being made to blossom into repentance and faith through the forgiving waters of baptism. Mountains of pride and impenitence were being brought low with the cry for repentance and valleys of despair were being filled in with words of God's grace and forgiveness.
Perhaps we are in need of a fearless, straight-shooter, wild-eyed preacher, like John the Baptizer again! I’m afraid few in our world are any more prepared for Christ's second coming than Israel was for His first? Church attendance is waning all across our nation. Survey after survey reveals that one of the fastest growing segments of our population is the “Nones,” those who profess no religious affiliation. Most Americans consider ours a Christian nation, yet, for the most part we observe a Christmas that is totally void of Jesus Christ. Many insist on calling the time of Christmas “The Holidays” from the Old English “Holy Day” but there is little if anything holy about most peoples’ lives or observance.
The way for Christ to come has definitely been made crooked once again and jammed full of obstacles. Today, the chief obstacle is the golden calf of materialism. We tend to think nothing of spending $10, $50, $100 on lottery tickets or in a casino, looking for a "savior in the jackpot”, or of going into debt to buy our children that certain Christmas present that they don't actually need; but have an awful time shaking lose of any money to put in the offering plate or to donate to some worthy charity. .... Despite our ongoing war with radical Islam and our nation’s slip-slide into the abyss of immorality and hedonism, our no. 1 priority is “ making America Great Again” through tax cuts and a thriving business climate. … On the average many of us spend probably 10 times as much time "communing" with the air waves in front of the television or in cyberspace on “Face Book” or “Twitter” than we ever spend communing with our Savior by listening to His Word and dialoging with Him in prayer. ... And when we do manage to have some pangs of conscience over our materialism, we quickly give some of our leftovers to some needy cause, but then its back to our favorite charity, “me, myself and I. Where’s the remorse over our idolatry? Where is the repentant plea: "Oh, Lord, have mercy on me, a poor miserable sinner."
Thanks be to God, just as the Lord did not wait for Israel to repent before He broke the silence by sending John to point people the Lamb of God, so our gracious God has not waited for you and me to speak up in repentance either. Rather, He has taken the initiative to come to us. He continually breaks the silence by sending us His John’s, His faithful preachers of repentance; the holy prophets and apostles in His inscripturated Word and the pastors who preach rightly His Word. From them we hear not only that we must turn from our wickedness but that God has given us His Good Solution, a sacrificial lamb, The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. In the flesh of this One, who is Son of Mary and Son of God in one person, God has already brought His hard-hitting condemnation fully to bear for your and my idolatries, materialism, and all other sins.
In Jesus’ flesh all sin has already been atoned for. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is God’s very public announcement that your sins are fully paid for and now even death can not win out over you, who hold to Jesus Christ by faith.
Therefore, today, not tomorrow or the next day, is the moment under this banner of God’s grace to get prepared in repentance and faith! There is no time to lose, for soon the day of grace will end, as our Eternal Judge will come like a thief in the night. Now is the time to hear all over again the mighty thunder of God’s Law: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me! You can't serve both God and Mammon! The love of money leads men into ruin and eternal destruction. Repent and live! Turn in sincere repentance from your idolatries and adulteries.”
Now, is also the time to hear all anew again God’s saving Word of forgiveness for Jesus’ sake and to turn to the Word Made Flesh in sincere faith. For the One, greater than John... the One Who cleanses you by His Spirit .... the One, Who gave His life as atonement for your sins... has already come. Even now He extends His forgiveness to you through the "washing of regeneration" in Holy Baptism, through His Word of absolution spoken to you by the pastor, and in His Holy Supper with His Body and Blood. Even now, through these Means of Grace, He is graciously making His Way into your hearts and lives to lead you on the straight paths to eternal life .
God has broken His silence to prepare us. Loud and clear He is not only exhorting us to turn away from our idolatry and sin, but with His gracious cry to “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” He is calling us to sincere repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. May He move each of us to take advantage of every opportunity to hear His preaching and receive Him who comes to us with His body and blood that we might be truly prepared for His eternal kingdom. Amen.