This Sunday's Sermon
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 4TH
GREATER THAN JOHN
Mark 1: 1 – 8
I’d driven from Frederick, where I’d been serving as pastor of Grace Trinity Church, to Hagerstown. There was a member of that congregation – a quadriplegic – who lived with other disabled souls at Western Maryland Hospital Center. After having visited with him, I headed home by way of the main drag through downtown when, what to my wondering eyes did appear but… an evangelist! He occupied the southwest corner of City Square, which wasn’t hard to do since no one else wanted to claim a patch of searing hot concrete on such a stifling, humid summer afternoon. The preacher was dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and wearing a neck-tie. He was clutching a Bible and preachin’ at maximum volume. His face was beet-red – the blood vessels in his neck bulging – and he was drenched in perspiration. I remember thinking, at the time, that he was like a modern day John the Baptist: a voice shouting in the wilderness of Western Maryland – except that there was no one gathered ‘round to listen.
John the Baptist, in contrast, was like a rock star! "People thronged to him” is how one version of the Bible puts it. So who were they "thronging” to see and hear? Given what Gospel Mark relates of John’s wardrobe and supper menu, it’s obvious that he was a Jewish prophet; not unlike those of so long ago; and, indeed, it was a long time ago. The voice of a Jewish prophet had not been heard in the Holy Land for 400 years. Think on that! What was going on in this neighborhood 400 years ago? Well! It would be another 170-something years before George Washington travelled up the Potomac River Valley in search of a site for the nation’s capitol city – stopping to check out what would one-day become the town of Williamsport. As for Cavetown, in the year 1622… there was a cave, but no town. Settled villages and towns in Washington County wouldn’t exist until the next century. For goodness sake, the Pilgrims had just two years earlier set foot in the New World – with Jamestown, VA in 1622 being only 15 years young.
It goes without saying that a whole lot of history can happen in 400 years. Most of the history that happened in the Holy Land during the four centuries before John’s birth was NOT all that good! Oh there was one, short-lived season of independence for the Jewish population, commemorated nowadays by the festival of Hanukah. Yet for the most part, the Holy Land was fought over, occupied, and her people often brutalized by at least three different empires. By the time it was Rome’s turn to rule over them, the Jewish people were absolutely anxious for some good news; ready for some assurance that God had NOT abandoned them.
Now there were, in fact, some people who thought that John was MORE than a prophet. It’s why Gospel John felt it necessary to set folks straight when he wrote, right off the bat in chapter 1, that… "God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (verses 6-9). John was NOT God’s Messiah, as some folks had been supposing well into the 1st century A.D., but John WAS an incredibly important Messenger of the good news regarding the arrival of God’s Messiah King.
The Message that John announced was – plain and simple – a call for the people to change their lives: to turn from their self-absorbed ways of living and to turn to God’s Way of Life. The Biblical word for that kind of turning about is "repent.”
How that new Life in the Kingdom of God should appear isn’t specifically spelled out in Gospel Mark’s telling of John’s story. Do listen, however, to a line or two from Luke’s more detailed version of John’s preaching: John said, "Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” The crowds asked, "What should we do?” John replied, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry” (Luke 3:9-11). Like the prophets of old, John insisted that God’s desire was that God’s people do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their LORD.
Truth is, it annoys me when some Christian preachers and evangelists ignore the obvious by blasting as "social activism” that part of God’s Message as delivered by prophets – as though the Creator of the Universe doesn’t care about the plight of poor people and hungry children. Yet Mark’s Gospel clearly identifies John’s preaching as "the beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ.” It’s ALWAYS been God’s command that God’s people look out and care for the most vulnerable souls among them. That’s what makes the Good News both good and new!
On my way to a meeting in Sharpsburg some time ago, I spied a church sign announcing a Christmas message that "Jesus was born to save souls.” Well! Really?! Why, then, did Jesus give sight to blind people; why feed the crowd with a handful of loaves and fishes; why heal poor, sick, and disabled people – even raising dead children to new life? And why is it that the crucified Jesus would be raised up by God as a living, moving, resurrected BODY – and not a disembodied soul? Truth is, Jesus was born to save PEOPLE; whole people; BODY and soul people.
To ignore caring for poor, hungry bodies based on some silly notion that it’s only their soul that counts is a cop-out, at best, and a repudiation, at worst, of God’s Word to humanity. Do know, by the way, that Jesus of Nazareth preached the same sermon as John the Baptist: repent – turn around – for the Kingdom of God is at hand. That means turning away from fear, selfishness, and greed among other self-absorbed impulses. It means loving God more than anyone or anything else. It means loving, forgiving, and caring for all people of God’s creation, even as God loves, forgives, and cares for me and for you when we don’t necessarily deserve it.
Having said that John and Jesus preached the same Word on repentance and ministry to others, it’s likewise apparent that the two of them are very different in at least one important way. Here’s how THE MESSAGE paraphrases the conclusion of the morning Bible reading… As [John] preached he said, "The star in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will change your life. I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out."
John’s water baptism was a symbol, representing human life that’s been washed clean of sin and liberated for Life as God intended it. But are symbols able to wipe away remorse and regret? Can a symbol liberate us from the dark impulses and unsatisfied hungers within that hold us down and distance us from deep, true joy? Ah, but what if there’s something more powerful than symbols; something that CAN change a life from the inside out? Could there be real Power that transforms human hearts, minds, and souls?
Christ crucified and risen comes – even here and even now – offering that very Power and Divine Presence. When Jesus comes to dwell inside of us – when his Spirit fills us – we’re equipped to turn toward Godly service and self-sacrifice, praise and peacefulness. It’s by the Grace of Jesus Christ that we can turn – that we can repent – from an old, earthbound way of life toward a new beginning.
Another preacher, the late Fred Craddock, tells a story on repentance: "When I was pastoring in Tennessee there was a girl about seven years old who came to our church regularly – to Sunday School – and her parents let her stay for the worship service. They didn’t come. We had a circular drive at that church. It was built for people who let their children off and drove on… [Mom and Dad] had moved here from New Jersey with the chemical plant. He was upwardly mobile; they were both very ambitious; and they didn’t come to church… But on Saturday nights, the whole town knew of their parties. They gave parties, not for entertainment, but as part of the upwardly mobile thing. That determined who was invited – the right people, the one just above: finally, on up to the boss. And those parties were full of drinking and wild and vulgar things. Everybody knew. But there was a beautiful [little] girl every Sunday.”
"One Sunday morning, I looked out and she was there, and I thought, ‘Well, she’s with her friends,’ but there were Mom and Dad. And… at the close of the service, as is the custom at my church, came an invitation to discipleship. And Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad come down to the front. They confessed trust in Christ. Afterward, I said, ‘What prompted this?’ And they said, ‘Well, do you know about our parties?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I heard about your parties.’ They said, ‘well, we had one last night, and it got a little loud and it got a little rough. And there was too much drinking. And we waked our daughter, and she came downstairs; she was on the third step. And she saw that we were eating and drinking and she said, ‘Oh, can I give the blessing? God is great; God is good, let us thank him for our food. Good night everybody.’ She went back upstairs. ‘Oh My land, it’s time to go,’ [they said] – ‘We gotta be going. We’ve stayed way too long.’ Within two minutes the room was empty. Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad are picking up crumpled napkins and wasted and spilled peanuts and half-sandwiches and taking empty glasses on trays to the kitchen. And with two trays he and she meet beside the sink on either side, and they look at each other, and he expresses what both are thinking, ‘Where do we think we’re going?’ The moment of truth.”
The moment of truth, indeed! What’s the destiny toward which we aspire? To what – to WHOM – do you and I look for direction and assurance? Oh, there’s the man, John, preaching the importance of changing up our lives. But look again, and here comes the One whom John identifies as even greater than himself. In Jesus Christ is there Power from on High to change up our lives from the inside out; to change them in such a way that we’re assured of heaven’s forgiveness; to change them in such a way that we’re sure and certain of God’s unconditional love and Grace; to change them in such a way that God’s unconditional love and Grace become the perfect gifts that we can share with poor people, hungry people, people who are hurting, isolated, afraid, or wounded, and people who deceive themselves into thinking that they’ve got it made but who are nevertheless restless, bored, or unsatisfied.
If the Spirit of the Living Christ has been welcomed within and found continually at work transforming your heart, mind, body, and soul – then you will surely know that John’s Message really IS the beginning of God’s Good News.