Mark 1:4-8

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.” Mark 1:4-8

If I told you that there were two young men standing at your front door, just about to ring your door bell, wearing short-sleeved white shirts and ties, their bicycles parked on your sidewalk, you would immediately have an emotional response to the possibility of their actually ringing the door bell. You already know a lot about who they are. You might welcome them. You might not.

That is one side of the power behind the uniforms people wear. The other side is how the uniform helps those guys do their jobs. All uniforms work that way.

Mark’s description of John immediately (there’s that word again) gives away his identity. John is a prophet. One who speaks for God. One who interprets the present time, not one who predicts the future. But why are throngs of people heading out to the wilderness to get what he has to offer?

I believe that all four of the gospels were written primarily to Jewish audiences, knowing that those audiences might also include “Jewish sympathizers”, or people with an interest in Jewish faith or Jewish community even though they hadn’t taken the plunge of baptism or circumcision. And I believe that Mark was written after the destruction and devastation of Jerusalem (67-70 CE) at the hands of the Roman army. That puts it in the early to mid 70’s.

Times of tragedy and change, changes either for good or ill, always prompt us toward spiritual questions. Why did this bad thing happen? Are the gods behind it? What will God do about it? Is it our fault? Is it something we did or failed to do? The new Taylor Swift song, written as she was thinking about her mother’s cancer, includes the line, “Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too.” I think that Mark was writing to a desperate community.

Why were the crowds streaming out to the wilderness? In part, they were recreating the story of Israel. The people of Israel in bondage in Egypt, called the cross the Red Sea, sent wandering in the wilderness, eventually finding a place in their Promised Land. That is their defining story. We also have a defining story as Americans, we just can’t agree about what it is. Is it the story that began in 1492, or 1619, or 1776? Because we can’t agree on our defining story, we don’t know what to do with ourselves today. But we’ll figure it out eventually. God never leaves God’s people in the wilderness forever.

So Mark tells us that the people went to the wilderness to be baptized by John – always the sign of death and new life. They sought forgiveness of their sins. They wanted a better future. They were willing to acknowledge that part of the answer to their spiritual questions was, “Yes, in lots of ways, you blew it. But God isn’t going to hold that against you.” That was great news, well worth a really long walk.

Then John says that there is still something better to come. Or better, someone better still to come.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, when all around us is shaking and quaking and all of the foundations of life seem to be crumbling away, we know that is where you stand ready to let us fall so that you can build something new in us. May we always welcome those voices that guide us to you, and may we live in the forgiveness of our misguided attempts to be gods unto ourselves. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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