A Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany (10/01/21): The Beginning of the Good News

The Beginning of the Good News
Mark 1: 4-11

John the Baptist appears in the wilderness. Something new is happening. Out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, John appears. His appearing has no context. There is no backstory. There is no build up. John does not fit into anything that is already happening. He is not the effect of some direct cause that anyone could see. Suddenly John is just there. And what is more, pretty soon everyone knows it. John is one of those people who everyone has heard about, but no one can quite remember when or how they heard. There was a time when John wasn’t there, but now he is. And no one is quite sure when of how it happened. He just appears.

That is not to say however that John is without precedent. John’s appearance, how he looks, tells everyone everything they might need to know about who he is and why he has come:
John was clothed in camels hair with a leather belt around his waist.
Seeing John everyone recalled a story; How long ago one of their kings had had an accident in his palace. He had fallen out of a window and lay injured on his bed convince he was going to die. How he had sent his servants to a nearby town, Ekron, to inquire of a god there if he was going to die. And how on their way they they were intercepted by:

A hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.
Who questioned why the king had sent them to inquire of the god in Ekron, as if there were no God in Israel. Who also informed them that their king’s injuries were indeed fatal. Everyone knew when they saw John that this is Elijah. John is the prophet, the prophet who has come to remind them that there is a God in Israel. Indeed he is the one who announces that the only true and living God is the God in Israel, and that they have an urgent need to respond.

His location too is a reminder. He appeared in the wilderness and he ate locusts and wild honey. In the memory of the people the wilderness was where they had come from. Their name for themselves, “Hebrews,” is a constant reminder of this and of what they had left behind. It means “crossed over.” They, or at least their ancestors, were the ones who crossed over the Jordan and entered the land which God had promised them. Here was Elijah calling them back to what they once were, to a time when their lives were more austere, to a lifestyle that was like surviving on only what a desert could provide. But calling them back to a time when God was very close to them, when God had intervened on their behalf, when God had guided and sustained them through many years of wandering and had delivered them into the land he had promised. John was calling them back from what they had become.
None of them could remember when it was that they had accepted the life they were now living. None of them could remember when it was that they had lost sight of God. None of them knew why it was they put up with the disillusionment and disappointment of this life, held down and held back by forces which they simply accepted as normal. But John’s appearance and his voice woke them up to what was missing in their lives and what needed to be done.

And the people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.
John calls them all to be ready. He calls to turn their lives around in so dramatic a way that it was like a completely fresh start, as if they were beginning again. He offers them the opportunity to mark this transformation with the sign that is offered to outsiders who wish to join God’s people, with baptism. John gives them the chance to start again as God’s people. All that has separated them from God can be set aside. It can be, because God is about to do something completely new!

John is not the main event! He has stirred the whole nation, and yet he is only a prelude. Just as wandering in the wilderness had only been preparation for life in the promised land, just as every prophet had only every pointed beyond and ahead of themselves, so too is John the Baptiser’s ministry. He appears in the wilderness only to make the people ready and to announce the one who is coming. This, everyone who saw John the Baptiser knows, is the role of Elijah, to announce the one who comes in the name of the Lord, to establish God’s kingdom. John is very clear about the contrast between himself and the one whom he precedes. As great as the social movement he has created is, as remarkable the awakening he has provoked is, as dramatic as the response he has prompted is, these are as noting compared to what is about to happen. John makes the contrast in the starkest terms he can find:
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.
For John the contrast is between the greatest and the least, between the master and his lowliest servants. The crowd standing beside the River Jordan, look down at their feet and wonder. How can this be? Who could be greater? Here is someone who prompted and entire nation to take off their own sandals and join him in the water of a river to wash away their past. Now he is telling them that he couldn’t kneel down in the dirt to take the sandals of the one who follows him. They have all submitted themselves to be immersed in the water of the river by him, but he tells them that the washing they will receive from the one who is coming will be in the Holy Spirit. What the one who comes will do will be like being blown away or like being consumed by fire!

Jesus receives the biggest build up in history. And then he walks into the scene virtually unnoticed:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan.
Had any in the crowd ever wondered; what it would be like if God turned up in person? What would it be like to actually encounter God? What would it be like to actually encounter God? Those who perhaps did have such thoughts probably quickly thrust them to one side. Meeting God must be a terrifying experience. How could anyone bear to be in such a presence. The sheer holiness of God would render even the best in us nothing. The glory of God would annihilate us. Even baptism, repentance, forgiveness of sins and a transformation of life don’t seem sufficient to make that a comfortable prospect. The coming of the Lord has always been pictured as a terrifying experience. The scene has always been imagined as the power of God meeting the power of the world and wiping it out. The day of the Lord has always been expected to be great and terrible.

Jesus slips into the crowd and joins them at the water’s edge. He unlaces his sandals and steps out of them and down into the Jordan. He approaches John, who places a hand behind Jesus’ head and the other on his chest. John sees just another one who has come to claim a place close to God, another one who responds to the urgent call that he has been making. John lowers him into the water, as one who identifies with the human condition and its separation from God. John lowers Jesus backwards under the water for a moment and then raises him up again.
The Day of the Lord as it turns out is not as anyone had expected. The power of God does not act the way everyone had assumed. When God comes in person to establish God’s reign he does not do it with the violence that had been anticipated. When God acts to save, God does so without destroying anyone who might be saved. God makes himself known without imposing himself by force on anyone. God becomes like us, and slips into the crowd, slips into human existence and human history, and from there begins the work of salvation.

Centuries before another prophet Isaiah had cried out in near despair:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. . .
Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism and sees just that:
He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him
John was not mistaken. The one who comes after him is immeasurably greater than he is. This is the beginning of the Good News. The prelude has finished. This is the main event. And its central character is this Jesus from Nazareth. The power of God is brought to bear on human life and human history in this humble fashion, as one who joins a crowd unnoticed, as one who identifies with the human separation from God, as one who joins us in our longing to know God. But he does so also as the unique revealer of God to us. The wondering about what God is like, or what it would be like to encounter God can cease. Here is the one in whom God is known, the one who restores us to God. Here is the one whose resemblance to us, and whose identification with us does not remove the other reality that is present in him. As the voice of God declares:
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
With that the preparation is complete. The Good News has begun.

The Beginning of the Good News by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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