Sermon

Mark 1:4-11

Each year the Sunday Lectionary concentrates on a different Gospel and this year we’ll be reading Mark.  He doesn’t give us any stories about Stables, Shepherds or Wise Men to introduce us to Jesus, instead he starts his Gospel like this:

‘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” ’ 

Mark then continues with the account of John the Baptist - which we’ve just heard - he obviously believes that this strange man is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy and that Jesus is therefore the Lord for whom John prepares the way.
I find it apt that John appears in the wilderness, as this seems the perfect metaphor for the people of Israel who were being crushed under Roman rule.  During earlier occupations and exiles, God had continued to speak to the nation through the Prophets, but God had now been ‘on silent’ since Micah around 400 years earlier.  The people gathering around John probably felt as lost as their ancestors, who’d wandered around in the wilderness for 40 years after escaping from Egypt.
So it’s no wonder that crowds flock to hear John’s teaching and that they’re open to the idea of repentance, since heartfelt repentance had precipitated God’s rescue of them in the past.  (Perhaps there’s something for us to learn here today!) 
John’s outlandish diet of locusts and honey would also have brought to mind God’s promise to those Israelites escaping from Egypt - the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey - the Promised Land which could only be reached by crossing the River Jordan.  
Those people who flocked to see John would have had some kind of expectation that entering the waters of the Jordan once again would lead to the blessings of God and a state of freedom. 
This of course is what Baptism continues to offer us today.
Whereas we’ve become more focused on individual repentance the people of Israel traditionally had a more communal mind-set.  For instance when Solomon dedicates the Temple he says to God: ‘When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy but turn again to you, confess your name, pray, and plead with you in this house, then hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your people Israel, and bring them again to the land that you gave to their ancestors. (1 Kings 8:33)
So when John offers a personal act of repentance and baptism  ‘for the forgiveness of sin’, it’s a new idea.   
Let’s stand in the shoes of those crowds at the Jordan and imagine how it felt.  Imagine being asked to look into the darkest parts of yourself and then being invited to honestly and humbly lay it all out before God in the full confidence that you would immediately experience His forgiveness through the new sacrament of Baptism. 
This is the offer that remains open to everyone today.   
I wonder why real confession is so hard for us to do?  
Maybe we don’t really take God at his word.  We don’t really accept his message of love – delivered in the person of Jesus.  We can’t believe in a love that’s not earned or deserved and is totally unconditional.  
Because we’re proud we struggle to accept God’s grace; we don’t want to believe that salvation isn’t within our control; that we can never earn our way into a restored relationship with God.  
Accepting God’s gift of Jesus requires humility, and giving up all ideas of self-sufficiency and agency and replacing them with the acknowledgement that we depend on God for our every breath.  
What’s lovely about John the Baptist is that he displays his own humble attitude so clearly.  He could have let the fact that people were pouring out to see him ‘go to his head’ but instead he continually refocuses the attention of the crowd onto Jesus, explaining that he’s simply the forerunner; the warm up act. 
Nevertheless John’s humility drew the attention of many people.  I wonder what kind of testimony to God we give by our own attitude?  I wonder if it repels or attracts people to the good news?
John explains how he can only baptise with water for the washing away of sins, whilst Jesus offers something much greater ‘he will baptize … with the Holy Spirit.’
I didn’t include the Old Testament reading set for today but it was the opening verses of Genesis which says: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.   Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’
Can you imagine being told that you were about to be baptised with the same Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation?  We’ve had over 2000 years to get used to the idea but I still find it mind blowing!
In the past this Spirit had inspired the speech of prophets and the craftwork of artisans who worked on the tabernacle, it even provided Samson with his special strength – but now this Spirit is going to be available to all baptised believers.  This is how the living presence of God will be dispersed throughout the world. Baptised believers will replace the need for the Temple in Jerusalem – which is presumably why God allows it to be destroyed in 70 CE (or AD!)
So I challenge you with the same words that St Paul spoke to the early Christians in Corinth:  ‘Do you … know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’  (1 Corinthians 3:16)
Do you live as if this is a fact? 
I suspect that we’re cognisant of this sometimes and not at others.  I wonder if our lives would be different if we disciplined ourselves to keep this in mind? My guess is we’d at least be more mindful of what we do with our bodies.  I think we’d also be more inclined to wait for the counsel of ‘the still small voice’ thus avoiding poor decision-making.  We’d probably listen better and speak less but our words would be richer and wiser.
Going back to Genesis, we find the story of Adam and Eve.  Before they eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge they feel at one with each other and God.  After eating the apple they become self-aware and self-conscious – especially of their differences - and they try to hide from God.  Whilst many Christians don’t believe this story to be historically true, they do believe it holds spiritual truth – that on some level we’re like Adam and Eve: cut off from oneness with God, creation and each other. 
We often think of our lives in terms of our job, our relationships, our prospects and our interests, but really our life is about our consciousness of these things.  It’s not so much about what happens to us but about how we perceive what happens to us. 
One way of looking at the story of the Garden of Eden is to see it as describing how our consciousness is damaged – by us becoming overly self-conscious - too ego aware. How can we lose that self-consciousness, that focus on the ego or the ‘false self’?
I believe that if we took a little time each day to quieten our minds and remind ourselves that we are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit, and that our true self is found only in God, it would have a restorative effect on our relationship with God and with others.  (Our daily walk might be the perfect time to do this.)
I’m going to end with some of Jesus’ words recorded in John’s Gospel as they seem to sum up what I’ve said today. 
‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid… You have already been cleansed* … Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me…apart from me you can do nothing.’ (snippets from John 14.27-15.6)

 

 

 

 

 

 


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