Truth is a rare commodity, it seems...
From the advertisers who tell us that their products will make us happy, healthy, or sexy to the friend who soothingly says that that article of clothing doesn’t make us look fat...
From the bigot who claims, “I’m not prejudiced” to the politician who insists that the other guy is a crook...
Truth is often is short supply.
One reason for this is that truth isn't always the socially acceptable option.
During Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign for president, a reporter visited his mother Miss Lillian in Plains, Georgia. “Miss Lillian,” he said, “your son says that he will never lie to the American people. Has he ever lied?” Miss Lillian replied, “Oh, I suppose he might have sometimes told a little white lie.” When asked what might constitute 'a little white lie,' she responded, “You remember when you came in here and I told you that I was glad to see you?”
Miss Lillian told her little white lie because sometimes, maybe more often than we like to admit, we would rather be lied to than to be told the truth. The truth can hurt.
Especially when it tells us things about ourselves, our characters, our actions, or our lives that are less than moral or healthy or wise or Godly.
Today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 1:1-8, brings us face to face with John the Baptist. Even though John lived in New Testament times, he was, in a way, the last of the Old Testament prophets.
You see, the chief characteristic of a prophet wasn’t that they foretold the future, although their messages often contained such “prophecies.” The main thing a prophet did was tell the truth. Prophets told and sometimes acted out truth that God had revealed to them.
They shared God’s truth whether people wanted to hear it or not.
Many of the prophets over the centuries, for example, told Israel that it needed to turn back to God at the very moments when Israel was dividing its loyalties between God and various idols. (Just to cover all the bases.) This message of return to God was the last thing Israel wanted to hear when everything in their lives seemed to be working so well, when the GDP was high, when there was full employment, when their military seemed invincible.
They believed that their worldly success indicated that God was for them and that the prophets were wrong.
They couldn’t believe that a loving God would mind it if they mixed in a little self-reliance in with His calls for utter reliance on Him alone.
They couldn't imagine God being offended when they lied and cut corners to get ahead of those they saw as the undeserving people of their society or those from other countries, religions, and races that they encountered.
And they certainly would not have liked it when one of the prophets spoke God’s truth to their selfishness, idolatry, materialism, and injustice. Micah wrote: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8, ESV]
But there were other times when the truth of the prophets came like healing salve to wounded skin or like living water for thirsting souls.
For example, in the first two verses of today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Isaiah speaks to an Israel that had been conquered, seen its livelihood destroyed, witnessed its best and brightest sent into exile, all because it had arrogantly walked away from God.
Now, what was left of Israel had humbly turned back to God and through the prophet God said, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” [Isaiah 40:1-2]
Prophets always told God’s truth.
Prophets called people mired in sin and arrogance to repent, to repudiate their sin and turn back to God.
Prophets also called people who did repent to trust in God’s forgiveness and grace.
This is exactly the message of John the Baptist. Take a look at today’s Gospel lesson on page 699 of the sanctuary Bibles. Verse 1: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” This is the title that Mark gives the gospel.
I believe that Mark meant this sentence fragment to be the title of his book about Jesus. The story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are only the beginning of the Gospel, the good news, about Jesus. It's only when people come to faith in Christ and only after Jesus has returned to judge the living and the dead and to usher in the new creation, that the Gospel will be completed.
Verse 2: “...as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”--’a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’”
Because Isaiah was considered the more important of the Old Testament prophets, Mark only mentions Isaiah here. But part of what Mark quotes is also from Malachi. No matter, the point is that these Old Testament prophecies said that God was going to send a prophet to get things ready for the arrival of the Savior of the world.
That prophet--that messenger--they’re talking about would “prepare the way” for the Messiah.
Malachi said that this messenger would “make straight paths.” That’s road construction language. John appeared in the wilderness to be a bulldozer!
He came to build a freeway to give the world access to the Savior.
Through John’s ministry, all that might keep people from seeing and trusting in the Messiah--all their sin, cynicism, despair, and arrogance--was to be cleared away.
He would clearly speak the truth about what they needed to receive the Messiah’s favor--repentance and faith.
People would either accept that truth or they wouldn’t. But no one, after hearing John. could honestly say they didn’t know how to prepare for the coming, the advent, of the Messiah. Neither can we.
Verse 4: “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Mark is engaging in hyperbole here. He doesn’t mean that every house in Jerusalem and Judea was emptied. We know, for example, that the king who would eventually order John’s execution didn’t go out to hear John’s message. But he did hear about it. Which is what John got in trouble. Kings don’t always like to hear that they’re sinners in need of repentance and surrendering trust in God. Few people do.
What was it, though, that, despite the distastefulness of his message, attracted the crowds to John?
It wasn’t because of his dress or diet. Verse 6: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” Both his clothes and his food would have been considered weird ven back in first century Judea.
And it wasn’t because John thumped his chest and proclaimed how great he was. He didn’t promise that his message would make anybody wealthy or healthy or trouble free. Verse 7: “And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’”
John was pointing to Jesus.
At the very moment he did so, thousands of people were hanging on his every word.
He was the center of attention.
Some were even claiming that John himself was the Messiah. Heady stuff!
But John says, “I’m just a messenger. I'm an unworthy slave.”
In those days, tying and untying the straps of a great man’s sandals was the job of the lowliest of servants. John says that he wouldn’t even be worthy of doing that for the Messiah about to appear.
This is a truth about ourselves that we must all learn to accept.
And it’s harder for us to accept than it should be.
I know that it is for me.
It’s the very truth that the human race has resisted and chafed under since Adam and Eve bit into the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It’s this : God our creator is infinitely greater than we are and we must submit to His will, not the other way around.
In the Advent and Christmas seasons, we remember again how great God truly is.
But His greatness can't be measured by the means that this dying world uses.
Jesus' greatness is beyond worldly greatness. The Savior Who was so great that John couldn’t get a job as his slave, bore the full weight of our humanity, becoming a servant of the whole human race, washed the feet of His disciples, suffered the consequence of our sin by dying on a cross, then rose from the dead so that, despite our unworthiness, all who repent and entrust themselves to Him can live with God forever. It's a truth summarized in the Bible's most famous verse.
We know it by heart. But I'm not sure how much we take it to heart.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
This describes the great God worthy of our complete surrender!
Verse 8: [John said:] “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John’s baptism was a symbolic washing that repentant people underwent to demonstrate to God that they turned from sin and were ready for the Messiah to come into the world. In it, the person who was baptized was the main actor.
Later, Jesus instituted a completely different kind of Baptism. In Holy Baptism, God sends His Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Who moved over the waters in Genesis to bring the universe into being, and gives new life in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He does this to people who are utterly incapable of helping themselves or of making themselves right with God, whether they're brought to the baptismal waters as infants, teenagers, or adults. God is the main actor. We are the recipients of His gracious will to make us part of His new creation.
The Messiah, John the Baptist was saying, was coming to make people new, to make the whole creation new.
In Advent, we remind ourselves that the Messiah is coming again.
We need to be ready for that day.
We prepare ourselves in the same way that John’s preaching commended: We willingly confess our sins, turn from them, and trust the God we know in Jesus Christ to make us new.
Confessing sin means accepting hard truths about ourselves. We’re not always the good people we think we are or portray ourselves to be.
Trusting in Jesus means shelving all pretense of self-sufficiency. That wounds our pride.
But when, day by day, moment by moment, we repent and trust, we are ready to meet the Messiah, our God and King.
And that’s the truth about God and about us that will stand for all eternity. Amen