Lectionary Reflection: Mark 1: 1-8: The Real John the Baptist

How are we to understand John the Baptist?  The church and theologians have long focused on John, the person, and how he was a forerunner of Jesus, the Christ.  They focus on how he was a Nazarite, a Jewish holy man in the same tradition as Samson and others.  He dressed in camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and drank no wine or strong drink.  By appearance, he outwardly showed his dedication to God and used that platform to pull no punches in his words.  Indeed, he ticked off the Jewish political authorities to the point where he was arrested and ran afoul of a powerful, vindictive woman who had him beheaded.

All of this is used by the church to in a sense “prove” John’s credentials for the two things he said that the church finds important.  In the other gospels, at the baptism of Jesus, he is quoted as pointing to Jesus and saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”  In Mark and elsewhere he says, “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (NIV).

To be sure, he said a third thing, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  The church generally does not spend much time on this third thing, however, because great swaths of Christendom has no idea what the baptism of the Holy Spirit means… A subject worth looking into if you have a mind to do so…

But the thing I want to mention here is what John the Baptist did – what his ministry of preparation actually was.  It was baptism, yes, but specifically the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The people went out to him, confessing their sins and were baptized. 

You see, if we believe the promo about John, about who he was and what his mission was, “to prepare the way for the coming of Christ” then we need to understand that the way WE prepare for the coming of Jesus is by confessing our sins and repenting.

I find it both fortunate and unfortunate that this passage (and John’s work) tends to come up in the Advent season.  This is the season when we look forward to the coming of Christ, but not the mission and ministry of Jesus for which John was preparing the way.  We are looking forward to those lovely birth narratives, you know, shepherds, wise men, heavenly choirs, peace on earth and good will.  Who wants to hear about the filth and flaws and brokenness in which we all live and how – if we really want to prepare for the coming of Christ – we need to confess our sins and repent?

But that is the truth of it.  That is the witness of Scripture.  Preparing for the coming of Christ has nothing to do with decorating the house, Christmas songs on the radio, buying gifts and wrapping them, and on into the “season.”  All of those things may be fine and well.  I am saying nothing against those things.  I am just saying as far as God is concerned, the way to prepare for the coming of Christ is to fall down in tears of confession and repentance for our very existence is corrupt and ask God to baptize us in the Holy Spirit, which will have to be talked about in another, future post.  Now, preach and teach what you will… 

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