By: Jill Ver Steeg
We blow out the candle of confrontation and light the candle of peace.
Lectionary Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is Mark’s way of saying “Genesis.” This is the genesis of all things. Even as Genesis chapter one, verse one, took us out into the wastes of formless void and primordial chaos before God spoke and created a good world, so Mark chapter one takes us back to the wilderness, to the desert of a fallen world. This is where God will build the highway to salvation. Undoubtedly the good news of Jesus has to make its start here, a voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3). This is where the voice of hope has to cry out. The wilderness is that place where God meets people: a burning bush and a man named Moses; a maid servant named Hagar kicked out of her home and left for dead in the wilderness says of God, “You are the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13 NIV); a nation called Israel, homeless and hungry in the wilderness hears God lay down some rules for life; Saul, the murderer of Christ-followers, is blinded by a heavenly light and becomes Paul the evangelist during his wilderness stay. In the wilderness, John the Baptist puts people in the very presence of God. If we are going to be truly prepared to meet the Christ whose Advent this season is about, we must go to the wilderness.
It is in the wilderness where the good news of Jesus begins, not with the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, not with the angel Gabriel’s announcement to a woman named Mary in Luke’s Gospel, nor with the Word made flesh in John’s Gospel. He was dressed like someone right out of the Old Testament in garments made of camel’s hair and a leather belt. His food consisted of honey-dipped locusts, and he had long hair, not simply a ponytail with a neatly trimmed beard. No, he was a Nazarite, whose hair was never cut, whose beard never saw a trim. But apparently John the Baptist, who was the first person to welcome Christ when he leapt for joy upon recognizing him in his mother’s womb. And apparently this man could preach! The people came, all the Gospels say, from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem to hear John preach. Young and old, rich and poor, friends and enemies, the healthy and the sick walked—some for many miles—to hear John preach. He was the forerunner of Jesus and he was known as John the Baptist, the one about whom—before he was a glimmer in his aging parents’ eyes—the angel Gabriel foretold, “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16, 17).
With the Jordan River as his baptismal font, John proclaimed, “Repent! Confess your sins! Be baptized!” And like listening to your favorite bedtime story as a child and upon hearing the words, “the end,” you plead, “More, more, just one more time.” John’s preaching must have been absolutely riveting. The Messiah is coming! God’s Realm is at the door! Get ready! Exhilarating and persuasive it was. The crowds, in honest and transparent ways, confessed their sins and were baptized into new life, their bodies marked by the grace of God.
This is the genesis, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist is the opening act for the one coming on the main stage. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me” (Mark 1:7), thundered John. “I’m just the witness, a finger pointing, a voice proclaiming someone else.” John’s calling from God must have been so compelling, that like the prophet Jeremiah, it was a “fire shut up, in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9 NIV). The Messiah is coming; get ready; repent and confess your sins. Turn from your current ways of thinking and doing and change those ways. Turn from self to God. So we name our sins, own up to our human frailty, our inability to resist temptation for the Christ whose way John prepares. He is the one who desires a repentant heart. Repent and be forgiven. Forgiven. New birth. Clean heart. New spirit. New creation. Forgiven.
Can you feel it? Can you hear it? It is the silence as a child peers into the baptismal bowl. Pregnant and powerful. It is the moment you make eyes with a fawn in the empty woods. The moment just after John finishes his proclamation. It is peace. A peace prompted by the Holy Spirit, tailoring our hearts for the alterations only the Christ can bring. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the most momentous event in the history of the world. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is coming to save and to rule, to restore and to reconcile. But listen to this. If we long for Advent to create any traction in our lives, if we thirst for peace, we must journey to the wilderness with ears to hear John the Baptist. For if we are going to meet Jesus of Nazareth, if we ever going to escape the chaos of the world, we must move toward Christ by way of the wilderness.
Jill Ver Steeg
Rev. Jill Ver Steeg, DMin., is Director for Transformational Engagement with the Reformed Church in America.