Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)
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.”
Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.
The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.
Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.
What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”
In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:
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.
Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.
When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.
Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.
It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.
Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.
God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:
“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.
It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.
As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.
This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.
And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.
The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.
In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.
Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.
They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.
I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.
All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.
Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.
For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.
“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”
Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.
The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?
Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.