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|"In the Wilderness"
I suppose there may be skeptics, non-believers, who would chide those of us who ARE believers by asking us, “Why do you need FOUR gospels? Would not ONE suffice?”
And if someone were to ask YOU that, would you have an answer for them?
There are those who handle the “four-gospel problem”--and many do consider it a problem--by throwing them all together, by claiming that there really is only ONE gospel. So some folks try to get them all to fit together.
For myself, I think it is wonderful that we have four. We have four ways of looking at the life and teachings and messages of Christ; four ways of approaching the one in whom we believe.
We have the gospel according to Luke, a favorite at this time of year because it has the most detailed account of the birth of Jesus. Even many folks who don’t have much to do with the church or Christianity have heard of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels. And they’ve heard of Nazareth and Bethlehem and a child whose first bed was a manger in a stable.
In Luke we have a very tangible Jesus.
But at the other end of the spectrum, in the gospel according to John, we have none of this. Instead, we have a highly abstract Jesus. And this gospel begins, “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”
The gospel according to Matthew, probably written for Jewish readers, sets the stage for Jesus as the Messiah, has an angel visit Joseph to let him know what’s going on, but almost skips the birth to get to the visitation of the wise men and then tells the story of how Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of the infants. All we hear about the birth is that Joseph had no marital relations with Mary until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Finally, there is the gospel according to Mark. And, like John, it totally ignores the story of the birth.
Mark begins with this sentence fragment for its opening verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Now, because we have the other three gospels, we can do a lot of filling in the blanks here. We know why Jesus was so named; we know why he is called the Christ; we know his relationship with God. But we do NOT know any of this because Mark tells us.
Instead, Mark will focus on the Messianic nature of Jesus, his very reason for being. We will find out about Jesus in Mark through those who prophesied his coming. In this gospel, the first words we will hear about his life will be about his baptism.
I recall that in my childhood and youth I heard much about Jesus’ birth. And indeed, folks who have never opened a Bible can probably pass a quick quiz on the second chapter of Luke. But I do NOT recall hearing much about the prophecy that preceded Jesus.
Well, Mark seems to think that this is important.
He tells us, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”
Now, at this point, the prophet to whom Mark was really referring was Malachi. He gets to Isaiah in the next verse.
At THIS point, the response is to the opening verse of the third chapter of Malachi:
“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”
You’ve probably heard me preach on this before, but the very name “Malachi” means “my messenger.” And how fitting that this tiny prophetic book should be last in the Hebrew Scriptures before we turn another few pages in our Bibles and find the four gospels.
But these words are filled with so much mystery! Who IS the messenger? The messenger is not named. Was Isaiah the original messenger? Or was it Malachi? Or was it, as we will soon explore, John the Baptist? Or was it Jesus?
In any case, this messenger will not ONLY speak a message, but will also “prepare the way before me.”
Mark continues his reference to the messenger as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
And now, we’re hearing Isaiah, in the third verse of the fortieth chapter:
“A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Now, if you were to flip back and forth in your Bibles between Isaiah and Mark, you might notice that Mark loses something of Isaiah in the translation. But that’s all right. It does no damage. In fact, it might be a good thing.
In Isaiah, the prophet is not speaking of the voice being IN the wilderness but is speaking of the voice referring to the wilderness. And yet, one wonders: can prophesy ever come from a setting that is NOT wilderness.
It was wilderness through which the children of Israel traveled for forty years before they reached the promised land. It was in that wilderness that God gave them the law.
It is, indeed, in the wilderness that one prepares the way of the Lord. It is in the wilderness of our lives that we most truly find God.
Now, I know, or suppose, that at this time of year you do not want to hear about wilderness. You want warm, cuddly stuff, like babies in mangers. And we have cute little poems like the “Night before Christmas,” in which, for the children, “visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.”
Well, sorry folks, but Jesus came out of the wilderness.
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
And so we have Isaiah, and we have Malachi, and we have John, all messengers, all voices in the wilderness. But look at what John’s message is, and then tie this back to the first verse of this book.
John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And this book opens with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark will not provide me with a story of Jesus’ birth; but I’m pretty happy with what he HAS provided me. After all, what WAS and IS the good news?
I believe that John the baptist was attempting, as best HE could, to get folks a foretaste of it: the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
But let’s back up just a bit. To the wilderness. Remember what the voice cried in Isaiah? “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The words in Mark are “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
I would suggest to you first of all, that what John is proclaiming carries a completely different meaning in a context outside the wilderness, that it is only in the context of wilderness that we can truly appreciate the concepts of repentance and forgiveness.
But secondly, I believe that John understands that only in wilderness can he appreciate that he is preparing the way for God, for the Lord, for the Messiah. The wilderness is, as it should be, a humbling experience for him.
“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.”
Boy, don’t I wish I had press like that! It might read something like, “people from all of west central Missouri and all the people of Hickory County were going out to him.” No, on second thought, I do not wish I had press like that.
Some pastors do get press like that, and it goes to their heads. And then they become personality cults. Or they go on television. And they name their ministries after themselves. And they write books, and on the covers of the books, their names are in larger print than the titles of the books.
And they conduct revival services, and newspapers carry very large advertisements with their names in large print.
And sometimes--and I am not kidding about this--sometimes that same advertisement that carries that name in large print will leave OUT the name of Jesus Christ.
But ah! the temptation of it all! To become a great person! Even Jesus’ disciples had problems with that temptation. They squabbled over who should be sitting at Jesus’ right hand.
Well, John COULD have had that problem; but remember, John was in the wilderness. And I believe that John was INTENTIONALLY in the wilderness rather than in the city. And there was MORE that John was intentional about.
“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”
Obviously his tailor was not Giorgio Armani or Nino Cerutti or Hugo Boss. And he did not dine at 5-star restaurants. Actually, I often wonder what his twenty-first century counterpart might be like.
John LIVED a wilderness existence. Humility was built into his life. It was an integral part of it.
And I mention this here because I think it would be good if we could all understand how, in the birth narratives of Jesus, humility was built into HIS life. Jesus life began in wilderness. In the very nature of his birth--conceived by the Holy Spirit--his was a wilderness experience even in the womb. Joseph and Mary were engaged, but she was not SUPPOSED to be pregnant. More wilderness.
And how about that long ride when you’re nine months pregnant? Still more wilderness. And then, all the motels are full up. Can it get any worse?
Both Jesus and John were born into the wilderness, and they knew it. Jesus testified of John, in the seventh chapter of the gospel according to Luke, as he questions the crowds:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”
And John testifies of himself, in the seventh verse of the opening chapter of the gospel according to Mark:
“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.”
Now THAT is potent. “I am not worthy to kneel down before him.” “I am not worthy to do the slightest, most menial, task for him.”
And John does not wait for Jesus to arrive to take this humble position. He takes this position in anticipation of Jesus’ arrival.
“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This is a wonderful, feel-good time of year. And I almost feel like an Ebenezer Scrooge in casting warnings upon you. (Remember Charles Dickens’ Scrooge? Whose attitude toward Christmas was “Bah, Humbug!”)
Nevertheless, we do need to be warned. We need to be wary of being numbed to the deeper--even darker--meanings of Christmas.
Jesus and John DID bring their messages out of the wilderness. John intentionally sought the wilderness to bring his message to his people.
But out of this wilderness did come the good news of Jesus Christ, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the one who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Out of the wilderness came the love of God. Amen.
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