Movies generally begin in a predictable way. First, a seemingly endless series of card identifying the various studios that collaborated to make the picture. Then opening credits along with the soundtrack main theme as the actors, producers, casting director, and director are all named before the film gets formally under way.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
December 6, 2020
Isaiah 40:1–11; Mark 1:1–8
Sometimes, as in the James Bond films, there’s a little scene before the opening credits, but the credits are still there, if delayed a bit.
And there are the films that skip opening credits altogether and just launch right into the action. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Gladiator, Schindler’s List, The Dark Knight, the Lord of the Rings films, and others are like this. The title might flash on the screen for a bit but it’s gone quickly and the action proceeds without interruption.
Mark’s Gospel is like that kind of movie. He starts off by saying “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and then launches right into the story. There’s not a lot of wind-up. And it just launches right in. In fact, there are even some scholars who debate whether the opening line “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is the title of the book or just its first sentence.
Even more unusual, as a story of the life of Jesus, it lacks any of the usual beginnings to the story.
There is no nativity scene. No shepherds. No wise men. No story of angels visiting Joseph and Mary. No annunciation. No Magnificat. No hymn of the Incarnation of the Word, as there is in John’s gospel.
Mark starts his gospel off quoting the prophet Isaiah—actually the quote comes from Malachi—“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you…” and then follows up with a quote that is actually from Isaiah, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
And so, adding to the unusual nature of Mark’s narrative, Jesus’ story begins not with Jesus, but with the messenger ahead of him.
II. THE MESSENGER
But who is this messenger?
Well, of course, we answer: it’s John the Baptist. Mark says as much by following the line “The voice of one calling out in the wilderness…” by saying “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness…” The connection is made clearly that the messenger ahead of Jesus is John the Baptist.
But is that really the case? A close examination of the text gives us a little pause. For the text that Mark is quoting is from Isaiah 40, which we read earlier. And the Hebrew version of that text is just a little different. Mark’s version says, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…” but the Hebrew says it a little differently:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Isaiah 40:3
In the original Hebrew, the voice is not crying out in the wilderness, it is in the wilderness that the way of the Lord is to be prepared. Indeed, this point is made clearly by the nature of Hebrew poetry, which often uses parallelism—that is, making the same point twice—and does here as well, by following up this statement with “…make straight in the desert a highway for our God” a restatement of the idea “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”
So, if Mark is trying to convince us that John is the messenger ahead of Jesus because he was in the wilderness, we may need a little more convincing.
For there’s another hurdle that has to be overcome, as well. In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was supposed to be preceded not by any random wilderness prophet, but by the prophet Elijah, who would return. It’s the reason that Jews leave a plate for Elijah at every Passover seder. Indeed, Mark seems to be aware of this expectation. And it’s the reason why Mark tells us that according to Jesus, John the Baptist was the messenger:
Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”Mark 9:11–13
In addition, Mark describes John wearing a leather belt and camel hair, which evokes a passage from 2 Kings:
“He said to them, “What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”2 Kings 1:7–8
So, Mark seems to be making it clear that John is this preparatory figure. John is Elijah. The one who comes before.
A. Putting John in his Place
Now, some scholars argue that this was just the gospel author’s way of putting John in his place: subordinate to Jesus. They would point out that at the same time as the early Christian movement there was a movement of supporters of John the Baptist. In fact, this movement continued on for a long time even after Jesus’ death.
In fact, you can notice that the more that time goes on in the early church, the more John is downplayed: in Mark’s gospel, the first one written, John baptizes Jesus and nothing is said about their interaction other than that “Jesus was baptized by John.” In Matthew, they have a brief exchange in which John says that it is he who should be getting baptized by Jesus. By the time we get to John’s gospel, the last one written, it never explicitly states that John baptized Jesus at all, and John is quoted as identifying Jesus and saying “Behold the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.”
In all three synoptic gospels, John is also sure to say that “one more powerful than I is coming after me” and that he is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the one who comes after him.
So, here we are at the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, and Mark starts us off with a story of John the Baptist as the “messenger ahead of you”—the one to herald the coming Messiah. Is Mark simplyassigning to John a subordinate role, or is he simply declaring John to be the Elijah figure because he knows he needs one?
Are we only being told about John in order to present him as subordinate to Jesus?
IV. THE TEXT AND PROOF TEXT
Now, sometimes the way the passage from Mark’s gospel comes off—and often the way it and similar passages are used—is as a proof-text. That is, it’s a text picked to back up a claim of theology or of belief.
In this case, it might appear that Mark is simply making his case that Jesus is, in fact, the long-awaited Jewish messiah.
Here is a passage from Isaiah 40:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”Isaiah 40:3–5
And it echoes other passages in the Hebrew Bible, especially that passage from 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.”Malachi 3:1
And this combined with the expectation of Elijah and the identification of John with Elijah it’s almost as if it’s being teed up to make an argument for Jesus’ messiahship: See! The messiah is supposed to have a forerunner and here’s John the Baptist, whom everyone accepts as a prophet, and he is the forerunner to Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is the Messiah!
But I don’t think Mark is doing that. I don’t think Mark is trying to convince himself or us that Jesus is the messiah because John is his forerunner. Mark’s starting place is his belief that Jesus is the messiah. Given his faith that Jesus is the Messiah, he attempts to interpret another popular figure from Jesus’ day, John the Baptist, in light of who he believes Jesus to be. If Jesus is the Messiah, then who was John? Oh, he must have been Jesus’ forerunner, the anticipatory prophet, the “messenger ahead of him” that the prophets foretold. Mark’s interpretation of John is an extension of Mark’s interpretation of Jesus.
V. PREPARING THE WAY
So, to answer my earlier question, is the messenger described by the prophets, the messenger who would come ahead of the Messiah, the one who would call us to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, the one who comes ahead of Jesus John the Baptist after all? If not, who else could it be?
I do think John the Baptist is a messenger ahead of Jesus. He was calling people to repentance and amendment of life in preparation for the coming Kingdom, the one we as Christians believe Jesus is inaugurating in our midst.
In fact, there are a number of ways that John serves as a forerunner for Jesus: his ministry of repentance foreshadows Jesus’ own. He too is arrested by unjust authority. He too dies at the hands of unjust authority. John truly does go before Jesus, the messenger ahead of him.
But there is another messenger, another preparatory figure perhaps even more important figure that we often overlook. We are that messenger ahead.
We are the ones called to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. We are the ones called to prepare a way for Christ in the world.
People can take tours of the Holy Land. They’ll take you to Nazareth, to Bethlehem, to Calvary, to the Garden. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, the path Christ took to the Cross. But if people are going to encounter Christ, really encounter Christ, they are going to do it through us.
John the Baptist may well have been the first messenger ahead of Christ, but he was not the last. This is something we are all called to be. Preparing the way is what we are all called to do.
When we welcome those whom no one else welcomes, we are messengers ahead of Christ and prepare the way.
When we create communities of inclusiveness and genuine love, we are messengers ahead of Christ and prepare the way.
When we give a voice to the voiceless and speak truth to power, we are messengers ahead of Christ and prepare the way.
When we offer comfort to the needy, bring healing to the afflicted, we are messengers ahead of Christ and prepare the way.
When we speak out for justice and challenge human power for the sake of the least of these, we are messengers ahead of Christ and prepare the way.
When we dedicate our lives to a self-sacrificial love, a love that gives freely of itself to one another, we are messengers ahead of Christ and prepare the way.
When we allow our lives to be transformed by the love and grace God has so freely shared with us, and share that love and grace with others for the transformation of their lives, we are messengers ahead of Christ and prepare the way.
Mark begins his gospel in an unusual way—not with stories of Jesus’ conception and birth. Not with visitations, but with the story of a messenger who goes before Jesus. But, in reality, that should not be terribly surprising. For all stories of Jesus begin with a forerunner, with a messenger who prepares the way before.
If people today encounter Christ it is because we here will have prepared the way. We will have been the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” If this coming Christmas, people encounter Christ, it will not be in the holiday shopping rush. It will not be in the Christmas parties, even were such parties permitted during a pandemic. Not in the Christmas music at the mall. Not in the Christmas specials on TV. It will not even be in the worship services on Christmas eve, full of carols and pageantry. If this coming Christmas, people encounter Christ, it will be because we were the messengers that went ahead of him and prepared the way.
Isaiah 40:1-11 • Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Mark 1:1-8 • 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.”