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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Hope

If I have hope, I can make another day. Yet, there are times when all the challenges makes one wonder if it is all worth it.

I remember meeting some inner city young men in New Orleans who had lost all hope. They moved zombie-like from one place to the next. The lights had gone out in their eyes. They were already among the living dead.

That is what we can become without hope. Notice how the apostle Paul speaks of hope:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:1–5 NIV)

We often think of hope as the natural state of things—and so it should be. However, Paul treats hope as it if is a virtue that one develops. Though Paul is confident that Christians are justified—made right before God, he also speaks of suffering and perseverance as precursors to hope.

We both rejoice in the hope of the glory of God and our sufferings. The hope of God’s glory points to our future union with God while sufferings describes some of our present realities. However, in the space between glory and sufferings, God is at work shaping us into virtuous people. According to this text, God’s formula for character development follows this path:

Suffering >>> Perseverance >>> Character >>> Hope

There is some logic to this, even if it not a route any of us would choose naturally. There is something about suffering that makes us more aware of our finite nature and that we need God. Perseverance, or getting through a tough time, increases our awareness of God and that with God’s help we can survive. This confidence in God shows in the way we carry ourselves as people of integrity—having remained true against the odds. Through this process, then, God grows hope within us.

Ultimately, hope involves a connection to the Holy Spirit through whom God pours his love into our lives. Where the Holy Spirit is, there is always hope.

David: Anointed for God’s Mission

David is one of the most beloved characters in the Bible and that is as it should be, since his name in Hebrew is “beloved.” While David is a heroic character, his life began in a rather lackluster way: he was the youngest child in a family of shepherds.

When the prophet Samuel came to anoint David as the next king of Israel, David did not know he was suppose to be at the meeting. Samuel looked over seven of David’s older brothers. God chose none of them.

Finally, the prophet asked if there were any other sons, and there was, but he was only a boy and he was in the field taking care of sheep. Once David arrived, Samuel anointed him with oil.

This practice of anointing grew out of the practice of anointing a priest on his new appointment. Samuel continued this practice as a way to appoint kings. A more important association: to be anointed with oil became a way of participating with God in anointing the new king with God’s Holy Spirit (See 1 Samuel 16:13).

God’s Spirit empowered David his whole life, but God’s presence did not exempt him from the hard realities of living. David would spend his early years as the anointed king running from his previous mentor and current king Saul. Once David became king, it would take him years to consolidate his kingdom. David’s life was full of challenges with the women he loved, the children he had, and political enemies both within and without.

Out of these lived realities come many of the most moving psalms in the Bible.

Yet none of these ongoing challenges could separate David from the love of God. However, his own action nearly did. One day, when he should have been leading, he saw her. He called for her. He slept with her. He killed her husband to cover his own sin. It felt as if God had left him.

During this time he wrote, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

There are certainly times in our life when we need to pray for the same.