The Second Sunday of Advent (Year B), December 6, 2020 (Mark 1:1-8)

This sermon was originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Setauket, New York.

“John the Baptist’ from the Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1515, by Matthias Grünewald (d. 1528), Unterlinden Museum. Public Domain.

Mark the Evangelist doesn’t waste any time jumping right into things in his Gospel this morning, does he?  He dives right in with Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus’ forerunner: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet….”  And then he leaps directly to its fulfillment in John the Baptist, who appears preaching in the wilderness.

    In Isaiah’s prophecy, Isaiah reports what God has revealed to him.  God says that He will send His “messenger before your face, who will prepare your way,” that is, who will prepare the way for the coming Messiah.  God’s messengers are often angels, but they are also prophets.  In the case of John, he is a prophet.  More precisely, he’s the last prophet.  The prophet to end all prophets.  His arrival was foretold by the prophet Isaiah seven hundred years before his birth.  Hear what Isaiah says of him in Isaiah 40:

      A voice cries: 
      “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;  
 make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
      Every valley shall be lifted up, 
      and every mountain and hill be made low; 
     the uneven ground shall become level, 
      and the rough places a plain. 
      And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, 
      and all flesh shall see it together, 
      for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

 John’s coming was not only foretold by Isaiah; he was also foretold by the prophet Malachi, too, some time in the 430s BC.  In fact, the prophecy of John’s arrival in Malachi constitutes the last words in the entire Old Testament.  Malachi says in the third chapter of his prophecy:

“Behold, I am sending My [a]messenger, and he will clear a way before Me. And the Lord, whom you are seeking, will suddenly come to His temple; [b]and the [c]messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of armies. (Malachi 3:1).

Furthermore, he calls John “Elijah” in Malachi 4, saying:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

It is these prophecies concerning John that his father, Zechariah, alludes to in his song in Luke 1 after he gives John his name.  We know this song as the Biblical canticle called the “Benedictus.” In the canticle, Zechariah says,

“And thou child shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest:
For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God:
Whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death:
To guide our feet into the way of peace.” (TLH p.38-39)

So John is the messenger and prophet of the Lord, heralding His coming.  He is like the vanguard of the Lord’s army, riding ahead to prepare those in the way for His arrival, foretelling the destruction that the Lord will bring, but also the reconciliation that the Lord will bring with Him when He comes.  All that is crooked will be made straight, all wrongs will be righted, all sins forgiven for those who are repentant.  So while John’s baptizing to wash penitent sinners is part of his calling, his main calling is to, as Isaiah prophesied, prepare the way of the Lord.  Thus, as some Christian traditions call him, John is the forerunner of Jesus, the one who “comes after” him “the sandals of whose feet [he is] not worthy to untie.”  St. John the Forerunner, who prepares the way for Jesus.  It has a nice ring to it.

So why do we need John the Forerunner?  What’s his purpose for us?  Couldn’t God have just sent Jesus without anyone softening up the crowd for him?  Why did God send this wild-looking man wearing a camel’s hair tunic and munching on locusts to make way for His promised Messiah?  As the last of the prophets, John marks a change from the previous prophets of God, who announced God’s judgment on the sinful peoples and preached God’s law to them.  With John the Gospel is his focus of his preaching.  As Luther writes, “The beginning of the eternal kingdom of Christ and the New Testament are coincident with the time of John the Baptist. And simultaneously the regime of Moses, of the prophets, the priests and the Levites are terminated” (Luther’s Works, AE 22:38).  John knows that the light of the world that he was sent to proclaim is not the law as Moses once proclaimed it.  The light John came to proclaim is Jesus the Christ.

And John points to Jesus because the people of his day had forgotten who the Messiah was supposed to be.  In the first century when John began his ministry in the country outside Jerusalem, many people had forgotten that the Messiah was coming, or at least that he would be the Messiah that Isaiah and others promised.  In some cases, people forgot the promise and fell away from faith, worshiping the gods of the pagan peoples with whom they lived, or embracing philosophies like stoicism or epicureanism that denied that God would come to save His people.   

In other cases, where people did not fall away from faith in God, it was common to expect a different kind of Messiah than that which God promised through Isaiah and Malachi.  Often, people forgot that the Messiah would be God Himself and instead hoped for a human Messiah, a warrior king who would subjugate the world and bring peace, through strength, to Israel.  There were many contenders for this title.  Past kings, like the Persian conqueror, Cyrus, had been chosen by God to execute His justice, so people waiting for the Messiah looked for him among the kings of their day, or in future kings.  They expected the Messiah to be somebody who would knock heads together, destroy evil doers, and conquer the world for God.  But this kind of Messiah, while he might kill people and break things, cannot kill death and he cannot break the hold of sin.  They forgot who God’s promised Messiah actually was.

And this was the problem: those who forgot the promise of the Messiah or decided not to trust in it ended up putting their trust in other things–other gods, themselves–and were left to their sins, which they could not escape from on their own.  Likewise, those who remembered the promise but applied it to the wrong people set themselves up to be misled and to lose heart when their misplaced hopes faltered or their chosen Messiah failed to deliver on his promises, all the while unaware that they, too, were sinners in need of forgiveness, not looking toward God and His promise for their salvation.  And those who held fast to the promise, who still remembered, needed encouragement to stay the course when surrounded by the naysayers and those who were confused or had thrown their lot in with the wrong Messiah.  It was for such a time as this that John was sent, to preach repentance to the people, to remind them of the coming day of the Lord, to incite them to turn to the God who is their savior, and to be cleansed for the forgiveness of their sins.  John pointed those who struggled in sin, pain, and fear to Christ, the one who came after him, whose sandal he was unfit to untie.  John was not the light, but Jesus was (and is), and John pointed them to Him.  In Him they could place all their trust.  He was the true Messiah.  He would end their suffering and oppression.  He would save them from their sins.  John served to remind and direct them to their savior, and to show them who the Messiah really was and is.

    As is often the case, people don’t really change, and we are also subject to the same doubts and confusion that the Jews of John’s day were.  While John’s mission was to preach the first coming of Christ to save His people from their sins, we now live with the promise of Christ’s second coming–He came and did what John said He would do!–and we have been waiting nearly 2000 years for His return.  It’s easy to lose sight of such a promise after 2000 years, and the world provides plenty of distractions.  You’ve heard the criticisms of naysayers before.  “It’s been 2000 years–Jesus isn’t coming back!”  (How can they be so sure?)  “Why do you cling to the religion of Bronze Age goat herders?”  (This is a real comment I read in an online discussion once.)   “There is no God–if He was real, we’d have known by now!  He’d have told us!” ([holds up Bible] He did!)

And some people have fallen for these criticisms and lost faith in Christ entirely, looking to themselves for guidance or indulging in activities that their former Christian faith knows to be sins, but doing them anyway either out of spite or out of the nihilistic belief that nothing really matters, so why not indulge your passions?  And when the promise of Christ is no longer central–when society deems God to be dead and acts as of He doesn’t exist–people choose to ignore their sins and live as if they don’t matter (and they do matter–this Wiccans are wrong!) or they find them to be all the more terrible, because the self becomes the savior.  Without the hope of Christ and His forgiveness, where is the hope for making things right?  Sin and its effects grow darker and more frightening.  When the sinful world distracts us and we no longer look to the promise of Christ–when we act as “functional” atheists, as if God doesn’t really matter in our lives–then despair overtakes us, and we are lost to our sins and our own vain attempts to save ourselves which are doomed to failure.  What is the remedy?

I want you all to look at the screens in the sanctuary if you can.  This is the central panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald sometime between 1512-1516.  Central to the painting is, of course, Jesus, crucified on the cross.  To His right are John the Apostle, Mary, His mother, and Mary Magdalene.  But to His left we see his cousin, John the Forerunner, pointing to Jesus.  John is saying what he says in Johns’ Gospel: “It is fitting for him to increase, I must decrease.”  He knows he is not important, but Jesus, the Light of the World, is.  And so he points to Him, and keeps pointing to Him, for all to see.  This is why John the Baptist is so important for us, especially at Advent, because he pointed the people of his day to Christ with his message of repentance and proclamation of the light of Christ, and he still has the same message for us, too.  John keeps pointing us to the Good News, that “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Indeed, Jesus has come, but John will keep pointing us to Jesus until He comes again.  And when He comes:

Every valley shall be lifted up, 
      and every mountain and hill be made low; 
      the uneven ground shall become level, 
      and the rough places a plain. 
      And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, 
      and all flesh shall see it together, 
      for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Amen!

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