Sunday 10th December 2017

Sermon on Mark 1. 1-11 Prepare the way of the Lord.

May I speak in the name of the Father and the Son and The Holy Spirit. Amen

On this second Sunday of Advent we are invited to look more closely at John the Baptist and how he was used by God to prepare the way for Jesus’ earthy ministry.

Mark writes about a Servant King and he starts his Gospel, like John, not with the birth of Jesus, as Matthew and Luke did, but with the words from Isaiah and Malachi who prophesy that there will be one who will prepare the way for the chosen King.

So John, the Baptiser, an interesting and wonderful man of God. To understand what the prophets say about him and to enter their world, it is important to remember that they lived in a mountainous and rugged terrain; there were no roads or highways. So when a King was going out to visit his people, he sent his men before him. They had to, quite literally, make an open way for the King. Boulders must be removed, vegetation must be tamed, and the way made passable and easy. There must be nothing to slow down the advancing party and there must no chance at all of the King’s horse or chariot slipping or falling because of an uneven road. All must be prepared so that the King can enter into his kingdom without hindrance. This was a physical reality which the people would have understood. And they saw their Messiah as a coming conquering King.

The king’s forerunners must also make the people aware of the coming event so that they can pay homage due and welcome their King with displays of love and loyalty.

John fulfilled both duties seen in the ancient forerunner; he was responsible for both the preparation and the proclamation. It was a task similar to the ancient prophets of the Old Testament and John was the last of his kind, a man filled with the Holy Spirit to speak for God. A man who strides the Old and New Testaments, and who broke 430 years of divine silence.

So let’s get to know this amazing character and how we can relate to him today. Although Mark starts his Gospel with John, we get most of our information about him from Luke. We learn about his parents, and that Gabriel announced his birth, just as he did Jesus’; we learn the type of man he would be, a man of rugged spirit like Elijah and that he will prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. We also read quite tenderly that “the little boy greatly loved God and when he grew up, he lived out in the wilderness and began his public ministry to Israel. We can read some of his preaching and we know that he was filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth.

So a character well worth our attention. He was a true Old Testament prophet in so many ways, but right there when the Messiah came. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit worked through chosen men of God, with a specific purpose for Israel but a time was coming when He would work through all people who believed in Jesus as their Saviour, Jew and Gentile, you and me. John was preparing people for a change which would see God empowering the lives of ordinary people in a way not known before.

One of the things I love so much about God and the way He deals with His people is that He uses the heart. He speaks of softening hard hearts, preparing hearts, indwelling men’s hearts; I find it such a beautiful imagery. We can give our hearts, harden our hearts, speak from our heart, it is so deeply personal.

When John prepares the way for Jesus, using the image of the roads, he is moving boulders of unbelief, rugged paths of sin or wilfulness, (you can think of all sorts of images,) but he is opening up our hearts in readiness to receive our Saviour, so nothing can impede His journey into our lives. It is a lovely image.

John’s baptism was unique, one of repentance and change, which would lead to sins being forgiven. Baptism was not a new idea, pagans baptised their converts for ritual cleansing and to symbolise new spiritual birth and the Jewish priests baptised Gentile converts to Judaism to ensure complete preparation.  These converts were called the God fearers! But the Jews in general followed the Levitical Laws of ritual washing and saw forgiveness of sins as part of the sacrificial rites of the Temple. So John was quite revolutionary for that day.

So what do we learn from John and how can we apply that to our own lives now in the 21st century? There will only ever be one John the Baptist. He was the Spirit anointed bridge from the Old Testament to the New. His preaching was the end of the Law and the beginning of the Promise.

The words of Jesus can help. Jesus said,
“Truly I tell you. Among those born of women, there has not risen any greater than John the Baptist.” “Yet whoever is least in the Kingdom of heaven, is greater than he.”   Wow!

But why wow? What makes us so very special and greater than John? That is such a statement. What was Jesus saying to us?

was great in so many ways we will never experience. But he died without seeing the fullness of God’s plan. John never lived to see His Lord fulfil the prophecies he preached about. He never witnessed the crucifixion or Resurrection of His Lord.

We are blessed with a fuller understanding of what Jesus did for us. We know of His life and mission in a way John never could. So what can we learn from what Jesus said.

We have the same Holy Spirit indwelling our hearts as John but our knowledge of God goes beyond His plan as John understood it, to a personal knowledge, a personal relationship of love and forgiveness, Son-ship and an involvement in the life of the Trinity which John would never have known. 

You can’t separate John from the Holy Spirit. John allowed the Holy Spirit full reign in his life, even to his death. When we are baptised, Jesus promised to give us His Spirit. Churches since the Reformation have given the Holy Spirit freedom from the sacraments. Where we got stuck, God gave a new understanding of His involvement in our lives. He is given on baptism, He is given on belief in Jesus because we cannot confess Jesus as Lord without Him. John was revolutionary and outstanding because he allowed the Holy Spirit to be His guide in everything He did and said. His life was given to God so completely. 

So for us, Jesus said the least of us is greater than John. Imagine what the Holy Spirit can do in us and through us, if we take Jesus at His word. We too can make roads straight and hindrance free by daily removal of the rubble of sin from our lives, we can leave such a clear open highway that we become channels of His gifts to others and cultivate the beautiful fruits of His Spirit in our own lives. It was a lovely image which the Lord gave to the ancient prophets, clearing a way, keeping it free of obstacles and keeping the King's journey one that is not impeded or difficult in any way.

 John shone in a dark world of sin and apostasy, is the world any different today? Is everyone open to God's word? Do people seek Him still or is the Way blocked by secularism, materialism, stress to meet tough deadlines, keeping up with world views of success? Are we too sidetracked by so many wonderful distractions? John went away from places which distract, and his words and presence alone drew people away from their busy lives into the wilderness where they could listen to God's message and respond with a clearer view.

Jesus calls us to make a way too. And He has given us His Holy Spirit.  We don't need to look outside ourselves for the way forward, you and I have all we need to serve our Lord. We don't need to feel distracted by the experiences of others, we can concentrate on our unique and God given gifts and allow Him to guide us through His plan for our lives. Such an amazing calling for each one of us. In our church we see so many gifts and there is a love here which is clear evidence of His presence with us. John will be enjoying his rewards with our Lord, we still have that opportunity to serve and to hear those words we have talked about before, "well done, good and faithful servant." And we might, in that moment, acknowledge John and say a silent thank you for his selfless, shining example of how to live a life filled with the Spirit of our God.