Have you ever been so excited about something you've heard that you've insisted that whoever mentioned it drop everything to tell it to you from the beginning? So enthused that your heart races and you can think of nothing else, can't be satisfied until you've got the whole story up from the very first detail? A couple thousand years ago, a young man named Mark was so excited by the good news he was hearing from his mentor that I can easily imagine them sitting down after dinner one night, and Mark looks to Peter and imploringly asks, “Please tell it to me again, from the very beginning?” And so when he wrote a book based on all he'd learned from Peter, is it any wonder that Mark started from the very beginning of the good news (Mark 1:1)?
And where is the very beginning, as he wanted to tell it? Is it on a hill far away, where stood an old rugged cross? Is it with shepherds watching their flocks by night? No – it's with the words of a six-hundred-year-old book, the sermons of one of God's greatest spokesmen, Isaiah. And those words foretell a messenger leading the way in paving a straight road through a winding desert. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'” (Mark 1:2-3). In the context of Isaiah's prophecy, this isn't merely preparation for some king or leader. Isaiah's Hebrew is clear: In the midbar, the wilderness, you must prepare the way of Yahweh; in the arabah, the desert, you must make straight a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3). In this straightening, the valleys will be lifted up, the mountains and hills will be flattened out, the crooked things will get straightened out, the rough places will be made smooth – because Yahweh our God is coming to town (Isaiah 40:4). So this messenger's cry is for the lowly and humble to be lifted up; for the prideful to get down off their high horses; for the wicked and wayward to straighten up; for the rough-edged and unruly to become meek and obedient for God's arrival. And then, only then, would Yahweh's glory be made visible, and all people would see it together and understand the Word of God that would stand forever; they would hear the herald of good news preached to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:5, 8-9).
So before Mark introduces us to the visible glory of the LORD, the God who's on his way, he has to tell us about this messenger getting people ready in the desert. And that's a man named John, who bursts onto the scene as a public figure – not a great diplomat, not an urbane professor, not a general brandishing a sword, not a pampered man wrapped in purple robes, but just a voice shouting and rebuking, ringing over rocks and sand, from a mouth smeared with locust legs and honey-gobs, atop a slender body wearing Elijah's best hand-me-downs (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8).
That's pretty important, because up until then, there were two great ages of miracles in the history of Israel, times when miraculous signs were abundant because God was doing something new and radical. The first was the era of Moses and Joshua, when God set the people free, brought them through that very same wilderness, and led them into their promised rest through the Jordan River, which they'd cross to conquer the land and set up the kingdom of God on earth. And the second was the era of Elijah and Elisha, who worked great wonders for Gentile widows and who healed even Gentile generals like Naaman the Syrian through a sevenfold baptism in that same Jordan River (Luke 4:25-27). And here comes John – dressed like Elijah, baptizing in the Jordan like Elisha, looking into the land of Canaan with the kingdom on his mind like Joshua. And if God's doing something new, then maybe, just maybe, the third great age of miracles is on its way. Maybe Isaiah was right. Maybe John's here to get people ready for God's big visit.
So how do the people get ready to meet their God in the flesh? Through this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). That's the way that the valleys will be raised up, that's how the mountains will be brought down, that's how the crooked will be made straight, that's how the rough will be made smooth – so that they're ready to receive God. This is actually a pretty radical shift: a common Jewish view was that baptism for purity was needed for people as filthy as outsiders and foreigners, so they needed baptism, but that wasn't necessary for Jews, who were already on the inside, already chosen as part of God's people. Naaman might have needed a dip in the Jordan, but not the people who grew up listening to the Law and the Prophets, the people who bore Abraham's mark in their very flesh already.
John disagrees, and he disagrees like he probably did everything – loudly and sharply. Next to the holiness of Isaiah's God, even the best of the best in Israel are as unclean as Naaman in all his leprous repulsiveness. So, like Naaman, the people need a dip in the Jordan – not a mundane bath, not going for a swim, but a holy act to strip them of their former sinful lives. See, there is no hospitality to the Lord's advent without repentance and confession, without an admission of sin. The popular American distortion of the gospel was summed up decades ago by H. Richard Niebuhr, who quipped: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” And that's hardly good news.
That's why sin and repentance have to remain forever an integral part of the church's witness: not to harp on the negatives, but because those sins have to be cleared away for the sake of beholding God's glory and his holiness. Because God's glory is central, repentance is an essential corollary for any and all, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – not just tyrants and terrorists in the Middle East, not just cold-blooded guards standing watch over gas chambers in Nazi Germany, not just libertines in decadent twenty-first-century America, but all, even God's own chosen people. No one is immune. No one is set and can put thoughts of repentance behind them. To all people – including ourselves – we declare this message: yes, there's sin, plenty of it; but it can be repented, healed; now come meet your Maker in the waters and rise anew.
And John was not without his popularity; he was not an exercise in futility. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” to be baptized by him through the confession of their sins (Mark 1:5). The other Gospels flesh this out. Matthew adds that John saw even “many Pharisees and Sadducees coming” – for what? To gawk? To grimace and scowl and intimidate? “Many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism” (Matthew 3:7). But did they grasp that they needed to repent of their sins? Could they really confess that and mean it?
The whole project of the Pharisees was practically founded on the idea that they, and they alone, were living a holy life, mirroring the purity of God's temple in the midst of the mundane world by building fences around God's Law for the safety and security of everyone. Could they admit they'd trampled God's fences? Could they admit that they were as impure as the people of the land? I hope some did, just like plenty of Pharisees and priests became Christians after Jesus rose from the dead (Acts 6:7; 15:5), but I reckon most didn't listen to John, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). No wonder John calls them a “brood of vipers” – one of the harshest insults available, which in modern language would be unfit for many of the ears here – and tells them not to fall back on being descendants of Abraham (Matthew 3:9). Descent from Abraham is nothing; what matters is repentance and a repentant lifestyle. A one-time act doesn't cut it. This baptism is for repentance that yields actual forgiveness, and such repentance is to have lasting consequences.
So John insists that the time for judgment is coming, when the stakes will be high: if God is coming for a visit, even the Pharisees – maybe especially the Pharisees – need to know that “the ax is lying at the root of the tree” (Matthew 3:10), just like in Isaiah 10 with Assyria: “Behold, the Lord, the LORD of Hosts, shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled. And he shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one” (Isaiah 10:33-34). If the ax is at the root of the tree, and its wielder is looking for fruit, then don't let your ridiculous pride keep you barren! Instead, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Once-and-done salvation, on demand and without demands, isn't on the table – not for the Pharisees, not for the needy crowds, not for you and not for me. We “have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5), we “are being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18), and we “will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Forgiveness has no prerequisites – John doesn't say, “Bear fruit that earns forgiveness,” as if we ever could – but this salvation does require fruit worthy of repentance to follow in its wake.
In the wake of this confrontation, the crowds who hear it are in a frenzy: “What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10). What does a repentant life look like? What does it look like to be baptized and then walk the baptismal walk? How does a life look when it's been forgiven? How can we be ready to “see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6)? What kind of fruits are worthy of repentance? “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). That's what John said. That's what a repentant life looks like: mercy, charity, sharing. When tax collectors were baptized, John didn't tell them to leave their jobs, but just to collect no more than the law said – and hiking up taxes was the main way tax collectors got rich at everyone else's expense (Luke 3:12-13). What about the soldiers serving in Roman auxiliaries, the people collaborating with the foreign power keeping the Jews oppressed? What should they do? Should they quit the army because military service is evil, like some today also think? Should they quit the army out of loyalty to Israel? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
On all three fronts, John says that the clearest way to see a repentant life is how you treat others in terms of the power and goods that you have. In a repentant life, you'll wield authority righteously. You don't have to give up authority, you don't have to leave your job at the IRS or the Armed Forces. But, says John, you do have to give up any self-serving use of that power. Even if it's normalized by society, you still have to forsake anything that enriches you or pleases you at the expense of others. If the cost of your prosperity is the loss of others, then your prosperity is incompatible with repentance. And if the cost of your property rights is the lack of others, then your property rights are incompatible with repentance. Having John peering over your shoulder as you read your bank statements would seldom be a pleasant experience – but repentance demands that we elevate it above our property rights, our prosperity, our comfort.
If you have two sofas, and someone across town needs one, send one over. If you have more clothes in your closet than need to be there, turn them over to those who need them. If your refrigerator is stocked beyond what your family needs to get by, call up the food bank and bring your excess down. If your bank account is fuller than you need from day to day or month to month, and you know that someone down the road or in Lancaster or across the world is struggling to find the essentials to live – and whether we want to know it or not, it's true for untold millions – then to keep those funds for yourself, suggests John, is not repentance. It's the rough and crooked life of greed and fear, a life on the wrong side of baptism, a life with an ax at your roots – and that's the much more fearsome thing. Oh, we think we don't have so much – but the per capita income in Salisbury Township will get you into the top 10.2% of the world's population. Broaden it to the per capita income in Lancaster County, that'll get you into the richest 5%. Whatever we've got, we've got more than just 'two'. What could be so dire as to come face-to-face with God, with our overstuffed wallets and our luxurious houses, and to see the empty bellies – and, what's more, empty hearts – we could have filled?
I'm just reporting what John said. Too often, when we hear of the plight of others, we instinctively think to take care of our 'own' first, our own close neighbors, our own countrymen, our own kind, our own 'race'. John never said to focus first on the poor of your own tribe. John never said to focus on the 'deserving poor' either. John said to share with anyone who has a need. It doesn't matter if they're from the tribe of Benjamin or the tribe of Naphtali. It doesn't matter if they live close-by in Jericho or far away in a little village in Samaria. It doesn't matter if they're the neighbors who take us out to lunch or the neighbors who break our windows. It doesn't matter if they're American or Ugandan or Syrian or Iraqi. We live in a global neighborhood – “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). If you know about a real need, and it's within your power to meet it, then meet it – period, end of sentence. Who, where – those are irrelevant pronouns. Confession, repentance, self-divestment, mercy, generosity – those are relevant nouns, because there the good news begins.
And John doesn't stop there at those admittedly hard words. As his hearers make a smooth, straight, and level road, they all need to know that John is not the be-all and end-all of God's work. He's a messenger, a herald. His job is to make preparations. His message is about being ready for someone greater to come. And so he has the honesty to say that a mightier figure is on his way, someone vastly greater than John. John's the greatest the world's ever seen – “among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John” (Matthew 11:11; cf. Luke 7:28) – and yet compared to the one coming, he's less than a household servant. Next to the one who's on the way, even kneeling to untie his shoes is an honor all out of proportion with John's station (Mark 1:7). John's the herald, this one is the Heralded. John brings water, but this one brings the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).
It's no easy thing to step down. It's no easy thing to point away from ourselves to someone else. In a way, we all yearn to be the center; when we narrate the story of our life to ourselves, we're typically the hero of the tale, the protagonist. It takes a man or woman of profound courage to hand over the reins and be content with watching someone else ride off into the sunset. But that's the kind of man John was – greater than Noah, greater than Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, greater than Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and all the kings and priests and prophets – and he had the courage to point away, away from himself and toward the Son of God. And so we of the kingdom are called to have John's arms: pointing away from ourselves and toward the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
Mark tells the story at a quick clip, moving recklessly from one thing to the next. In those days, there was a man who came from a little Galilean village called Nazareth. His name, Mark tells us, is Jesus – and Mark already clued us in that Jesus is the center of the good news. Jesus takes a dip in the Jordan, baptized by John (Mark 1:9) – John, who wasn't even worthy to handle Jesus' shoelaces – and in that moment, the skies rip open, the Spirit of God flies down (Mark 1:10), and the Father's voice booms throughout the desert, thundering a recognition that Jesus, his Son, is the apple of his eye (Mark 1:11). Here is the glory of the LORD! Here is our God, the eternal Word clothed in flesh like ours, which withers like grass, fades like flowers (cf. Isaiah 40:6-8).
The Spirit anoints him, marking him as the Messiah; the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, the desert (Mark 1:12). For forty days, he lived beneath the hot sun with the sparse wildlife in the empty and barren places where Israel bowed to the golden calf – facing the same conditions and the same Tempter (Mark 1:13), would Jesus give in to temptation like the ancestors of Joseph and Mary did long before? In the desert, a whole generation wandered, lost in their sin and disobedience, for forty years, and an angry God kept them from his rest, locked them out of the kingdom (Psalm 95:8-11). Would Jesus miss out on the kingdom he came to bring? Would he gain the world and lose the very soul of God in the process? Would his fruit fall short of what John announced to the crowds – would he live a self-serving life of using his power for his own gain of food, of instant popularity, of kingship and acclaim? As if there were any doubt: turning again and again to his Father's voice, he shut Satan down and sent him running. Pointing to the words of God found in Numbers and Deuteronomy, Jesus availed himself only of the same resources that the Israelites themselves had, resources we have today – and even at the end of his rope, he stood strong (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). “Submit yourselves, therefore, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
As John's ministry closed, Jesus returned to his homeland, the familiar Galilean countryside he'd called home for three decades (Mark 1:14). But now, anointed and filled by the Spirit and recharged by the angels' service after his great victory over the Tempter, Jesus came, not as a disciple of the imprisoned John, not as Joseph's apprentice, not as an up-and-coming carpenter, but as a voice: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent! And believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15). And so “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” (Luke 4:14), and after being driven out of his home village of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), he “left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea” (Matthew 4:13) – and “from that time, Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Matthew 4:17).
What's the good news? What was Jesus saying? The kingdom is coming! What's the kingdom? The kingdom is the world being arranged in order, with God ruling it; the kingdom is people responding to God's call on their lives, living according to his holy love. The time of wicked powers is drawing to a close, Jesus declares, and God is shattering the world open to make his glory known! Words of comfort to God's faithful people, “that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:2), that the “Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him” as he establishes his kingdom in a new way; and “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:10-11). “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Psalm 95:7) That's the message of the kingdom, a message of Jesus and about Jesus, and our message too, which we teach with arms pointing to him and repentant hands held open in mercy. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” (Isaiah 40:21). Yes – yes, it has. Praise God!