The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Bearing Witness: Jordan as Rubicon
Just about fifty years before Jesus was born, Julius Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon river. The Rubicon was the border between the province in which General Caesar was allowed to lead his troops and the other side facing Rome, into which leading troops was treason. He crossed. “The die is cast” he was supposed to have said. That was the beginning. When it was over, Caesar was “emperor for life.” The Roman Republic was dead; the Roman Empire was born. Caesar was on his way to proclaiming himself god.
Just about a decade before Jesus was born, Caesar had a birthday and decided that everyone should celebrate. He had his messengers proclaim “good news” to all. Caesar’s “good news” gospel message celebrated his powerful control. If the emperors of the past were gods, Caesar was God’s Son: why would that gospel not be good news at the beginning of his imperial rule?
An Alternative to Caesar’s Gospel
But out in the marginalized provinces of Caesar’s empire, out in the wastelands of Palestine, another, alternative messenger carried quite a different proclamation; different “good news,” an alternative “gospel.” It made no mention of Caesar.
John the baptist was out there in the wilderness at another significant river, but it’s not the Rubicon. It’s the Jordan, the river that the ancient Israelites crossed to enter the promised land after their forty years of wilderness faithlessness. They crossed; it was a new beginning. Now at last they had become the people of the land.
John was dressed rough, like the famous prophet Elijah – and why not? Elijah was no stranger to wilderness. Wilderness is where you go to escape the wrath of the king you have just offended. Telling a king that his word is not the last word because God is king, as Elijah did, was never taken without offense.
So, John, in his prophet clothes, calls the people to come back out into the wilderness, back to the boundary river, because a new beginning must be prepared for. These are the first words of the Gospel of Mark:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Messiah [Christ], the Son of God.”
This kind of announcement is rather like crossing the Rubicon. If Caesar, or his local client king Herod, hears that someone else is being hailed as a “Messiah,” that is, an “anointed one,” in other words, a king, he will not take it without offense.
Preparation for a new beginning: cleaning the mess
The point of calling people back to that border-river, that beginning point is that there they will prepare themselves. Preparation is required. Like the preparation of a neglected, messy house is necessary before the birthday party guests arrive, there is a mess to be cleaned up before Messiah comes.
Our Mess Consensus
If there is anything that everybody agrees on today, it is that there is a mess that needs to be cleaned up. There is a mess in the Middle East, a mess in Europe,
a mess here in this country. Whether you listen to presidential candidate-hopefuls or to the “Occupy Wall Street” people, the one thing they all agree on is that we have a mess on our hands, and it needs to be cleaned up.
The mess doesn’t go away when the TV news is over. There is a mess inside the house we live in, in the family, in the heart. There’s a mess. Preparations are required.
So John calls for the mops to come out, the scrub brushes, the soap and the stain-remover. Specifically, he calls for confession, and repentance. The mess has to be admitted. He calls it sin. It needs a thorough cleansing.
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John calls the people to come to the Jordan, to the place they first entered the land, so that they can get into the water and do what you would expect a non-Jewish convert do when they first become a Jew: be baptized. Begin again.
Public Witness: baptism
It’s a bold, public move to make. Right there in front of everybody, you go into the water because you are tired of the mess. What you have been doing has not been working, and you want the stains washed away. You want a new beginning; to re-enter the land this time in a clean state; forgiven.
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.
Preparatory washing like this is necessary when there is a mess, especially because company is coming. The one who is coming, the one whom the “good news” gospel is all about, is someone even John does not consider himself worthy to be with – not even as a sandal-tying servant.
7 [John] 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.”
Advent beginnings for us
Every Advent we come to a new beginning. At least, it is a new calendar beginning. Advent starts the new year for the church. It can also be a new beginning
for us. But there are conditions. We have to be willing to go back to the starting point, back to first principles. Back to confessionally admitting that the mess has stained us, the mess is in us. Back to repentance: the mess must be dealt with. A house-cleaning is required to prepare the way for a new beginning.
The house cleaning begins at the point of our confession. We admit that the mess is in us.
We confess our pride – that we consider ourselves the exceptions.
We confess our greed – that no matter how much we have we always think we need more.
We confess our sloth – that it is simply easier for us not to get involved in addressing the suffering in our world.
We confess our wrath – because we feel so smug and superior when we are “good and mad” at someone.
We confess all the ways in which we are part of the mess and that the mess is in us.
Was it easy to leave respectable Jerusalem to go out into the wilderness in response to prophet-John’s call? I cannot believe that it was easy. But I believe that the people who experienced the cleansing of that baptismal bath, the catharsis of public repentance and the assurance of forgiveness must have borne witness to what had happened. Their witness encouraged others.
Hearing the Testimony of a Witness
We too, today, are able to do the hard work of preparing the way for Messiah by the hard work of repentance because we have witnesses around to encourage us. God continues to work in our day, in people’s messy lives, to bring new beginnings. It is right and good that in in Advent, we hear some witnesses who can speak of God’s work in their lives.
For several months I have planned that on the Sundays in Advent in worship, we would hear the eye-witness testimony of people among us, about how God has worked in their lives. The first person I asked to participate and who agreed, was Dick Weirich. As his illness progressed, we had to modify our plans. Eventually we decided that he would record his witness, and we would play the recording he made for all to hear. He was collecting his thoughts about what to say, but it was getting hard for him to write. He asked his daughter Pam to be his stenographer. Pam wrote down his words of witness, but before Dick could record them, the Lord called him home. So now we have Pam’s recorded voice, reading her father’s witness. Let us listen.
[Dick Weirich’s witness]
“Footprints in the Sand”
“One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints,
so I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
there has only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied,
“The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child,
is when I carried you.”
[Dick says] “I accepted Christ as my savior as a young boy. Throughout my life I attended church on a regular basis and knew the stories of Jesus and the Biblical truths as told in the gospel. As a husband and father there were many years that I worked hard to provide for our family and I was very supportive in the activities of my children. In my later years my relationship with God deepened, due in part to having more time to reflect on God’s role in my life as well as my role in God’s plan. The Kairos Prison Ministry, in which I was involved, was very special to me and I gained as much as I gave. With regard to praying, I considered it more like a continual conversation with God. As my impending passing approached, I could see clearly the message in the poem “Footprints in the Sand.” I felt that through all those years of the busyness of my life, and not just the troublesome times, that God truly had carried me. I could see how God had carried me my entire life and had brought me to the place where I was ready to go home. There was no doubt in my mind where I was going and who I would spend eternity with.”
Have you heard the voice calling you to prepare the way of the Lord this Advent? He is calling all of us. “Come” he says. “Prepare the way.” Let us admit the mess. Let us confess our complicity. Let us have a Jordan-crossing, Rubicon die-casting Advent of preparation, as we anticipate the coming of the anointed, the Messiah, the one true king: Jesus Christ.