Then Came John

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015: Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:9   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The rhythm of the larger context (Mark 1:1–15) of this text on John the Baptist is

Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel

The centerpiece of the text is the Holy Spirit and though Mark rarely says another thing about the Holy Spirit in his Gospel, he begins he Gospel with the confirmation that Jesus is not only baptized (immersed) in the Holy Spirit but, more so, Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Later in this context, Jesus is the one who is “cast out” by the Holy Spirit into the second desert of our text.

On one side of Holy Spirit is John and on the other Jesus. And though Jesus is certainly more important, John gets some attention in the text. Later in chapter five of the Gospel, Mark  gives an extended account of John’s martyrdom but that story belongs to another time.

Back to our text. The NRSV quoted above states that John “appeared.” Not a bad way to translate the Greek “came” or “became” (ἐγένετο). In literary terms, Johns arrival is not unanticipated. Mark had previously quoted a blended text from Isaiah, Exodus, and Malachi to prepare the reader/listener for the one who would herald the way of the Lord as the voice in the wilderness (desert). Then John came in the wilderness . . . to prepare the way of the Lord.

John’s clothing and life style mark him out to be a prophet, or at least, someone claiming to be a prophet. He wore the same clothing that the ancient prophet Elijah had (2 Kings 1:8) and like prophets of old, he depended on what God provided for his food, locust and wild honey. But more exceptional than this clothing was his message.

From the beginning John preached that what God was doing was not about him. It was instead about the one that would come later. That one would be more powerful and so prestigious that John saw himself as unworthy even to be the slave that would remove his master’s sandals.

Yet the central contrast between John and the one to come was that John came baptizing people for the forgiveness of the sins in water–not an unimportant job, to be sure. His job description was clear: prepare the way of the Lord. His task was to get the people ready for the one to come. And this he did. However, he notes, that the one to come would do more than baptize the people in water as John had done, the one to come would baptize them in/with/by (the Greek can do all these, so pick one) the Holy Spirit. Through this one to come the people would experience the very presence of God in deep ways. They would be plunged into the Holy Spirit

Just before John leaves our text he has one more job to do. He baptizes Jesus. Even after that, I’m sure John would still say he was unworthy of such an honor.

John then is a model for our ministry today. Our job remains pointing to the one who was to come and the one who came.

John did his work, then came Jesus.

We do our work in the hope that Jesus will come again, now and for the last time.

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