Preached January 20, 2013
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We continue this morning with the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Epiphany itself having come on a Sunday this year. This is the season that focuses on making Christ known to the world. If you were to stop a man on the street tomorrow and tell him, “The Creator of the world is coming to visit you next month,” it is not very likely he would believe you. So it was in the first century Holy Land, despite the fact that the Jews had been awaiting the Messiah for centuries. To begin, they did not see Him as the Creator of the world, but rather as a sort of new Moses figure, one who would lead them into the eternal Kingdom of God, but still just an ordinary human figure, not the Son of God Himself. But they had waited and waited, and if you said he was coming next month, the reaction would likely be, “Oh yeah? Why now, after we have waited this long? How can you be so sure?” They waited, but with dampened expectations after having waited so very long.
When Jesus did come at last, it was necessary to announce His arrival quite clearly, in ways that everyone could see and be sure, if they were willing to accept the evidence, that it was indeed, the Messiah. Thus consider our Gospel lesson for today: Mark 1:2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Now we notice right away that St. Mark makes reference to “prophets,” that is plural. Who are these? The first is Isaiah 40:3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. The Isaiah quote probably comes from the latter half of the eighth century BC. The second is Malachi 3:1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. The Malachi quote comes from the first half of the fifth century BC, near the end of the prophetic period. While both of these statements would be familiar to most faithful Jews at the time of Christ, it is evident that they come from long ages before their own time, and consequently were calling to mind ideas from the dim past.
Isaiah had prophesied that the herald prophet would be the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, and as recorded in Mark 1:3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, we see that the Gospel words are almost an exact quotation for the words of Isaiah’s prophecy. This is not an accident, but rather shows the clear intent of the Gospel writer to identify St. John Baptist with the herald prophet that will precede the coming of the Messiah. The Malachi prophecy makes this role of the herald prophet preceding the Messiah even more explicit.
The next three verses of the Gospel lesson describe for us the ministry of St. John Baptist: Mark 1:4-6 4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; Notice first what an extraordinary person St John Baptist was in his own life. He lived a rather primitive life in the wilderness regions along the Jordan River. Although he was of the priestly tribe, and his father was in fact a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, John himself did not take advantage of the benefits due to him in this regard. He did not dress as a priest at all, but rather wore the skin of a camel, and a leather girdle rather than the fine girdle worn by the priests. Even his food was rather primitive, what today we might describe as “natural” in the sense that it was not cultivated at all. Rather it was taken straight from the ground, from the hive of a particular type of bee that lives in the ground, and also wild locust, an insect that he caught. All of this was understood, in the popular mind of the time, to mark St. John Baptist as an especially holy man, an ascetic who placed his life solely in God’s hands to provide his needs. This was a logical choice for the sort of man that would be chosen to serve as the herald prophet.
We see from the verses just read that St. John Baptist’s ministry consisted of preaching against sin and the need for repentance, and for those who did repent, he offered baptism in the Jordan. The work of the herald prophet is to make known the one who is coming, and St. John Baptist was evidently quite successful in this work, drawing large crowds of people out from Jerusalem and all the towns of Judea to come hear him preach on the banks of the Jordan. If no one had come out to hear him, he would have failed in his mission, but the fact that he attracted these crowds shows that he was indeed getting the word out as he was intended to do.
We know from elsewhere that St. John Baptist did not know exactly who the Messiah was, only that He was coming soon. This is evident in Mark 1:7-8 7 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. 8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. He is quite certain that the Messiah is at hand, that the Messiah is truly the One sent from God and long expected by the Jewish nation. He tells his hearers that the Messiah will do far more than what he has done for them, specifically bringing to them the Holy Ghost. We may stop to puzzle for a moment of this last statement. How does St. John Baptist know about the Holy Ghost? To the best of my knowledge, this is not an idea accepted within Judaism because it is associated with the Holy Trinity, so where did he get it? I have no idea, but we have his statement, clearly inspired by God Himself.
The next verse is just a bit terse! Mark 1:9 9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. If we look elsewhere for a more complete account of this event, we find Matthew 3:13-17 13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? 15 And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. 16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: 17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. It is clear that there is no contradiction between these accounts, but St. Mark has completely omitted the discussion between Jesus and St. John Baptist about who should be baptizing who. It is interesting that Jesus prevails, saying Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Jesus is saying that He must fulfill every righteous requirement of the Law as a man. Thus He had been circumcised, He kept all of the Jewish dietary laws, He kept all of the other Jewish ordinances so that He would be in all respects a fully righteous Jewish man for our sakes.
Returning to our Gospel text for the day, Mark 1:10-11 10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: 11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Again, there is full agreement between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. The event of the dove descending from Heaven and God Himself speaking aloud is one of those rather rare times when God chooses to show Himself directly to man; such an event is called a theophany. God speaking to Moses through the Burning Bush is another example of a theophany. In this case, God speaks to clearly identify Jesus Christ as His Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Messiah that He has sent to earth to be our Saviour. The Father speaks, addressing no one in particular but simply to all that are within hearing distance, and proclaims Jesus to be His Son, the Son who has pleased Him so well by accepting the burden of laying aside His divinity in order to assume our humanity to express the Father’s love for us. St. John Baptist has laid all the ground work over a period of years, and now the Father Himself says, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. We dare not ignore that announcement!
Thus we have the true Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, proclaimed as such by God the Father at the River Jordan where He has been baptized by St. John Baptist. It is a very public proclamation, for all present to see and hear. The proclamation goes on yet today by every believing Christian, as we spread the word of our Saviour to new people daily. There are few parts of the world where the name Jesus Christ is not known today, but there are many parts of the world where His word is not believed. Some of those places are on the other side of the world, but some of them are right here, in our own town. We need to be about the business of making Jesus Christ known to the world everywhere today, just as it began in the Jordan River those many years ago. The world needs to hear this saving word, not to save this world which is beyond redemption, but for the salvation of souls in the next world.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.