Isaiah 40, Mark 1:1-8
December 2, 2018
This year, I’m doing something I haven’t done for a while. I’m going back to the three traditional “themes” for the Advent Season. The there themes are: the anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the prophecies surrounding it, which is the one we think about the most; the events that took place at the beginning of his earthly ministry; and the anticipation of his coming again, that which is often called the second Advent. (We heard a little of that in the lighting of our Advent Wreath this morning.)
Those are the three traditional themes, or subjects, of the Advent season. And today we are looking at the second of those themes. We are looking at what happened at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And we’ll see that even that theme has a place in the prophecies. Because Jesus’ earthly ministry begins with the ministry of this man we know as John the Baptist. And as we read from the prophecy of Isaiah, we find that John was foretold as part of the picture of the coming Messiah.
And I would remind you that John has an entire book in the Old Testament devoted to him. The last book, the book of Malachi, is about the Messenger – the Messenger who would come before the Messiah. The word “Malachi” literally means “My Messenger.” John was the “man sent from God to bear witness to the light,” as John the Gospel writer told us about in his first chapter.
So this today is about that “voice crying in the wilderness.” It is about the Messenger who heralded the coming of the Messiah. It is about a man who was seen as being so important, by the people of his time, that, “There went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan.” (Matthew 3:5)
John drew huge crowds! That’s the picture here! The people of Israel hadn’t seen a real “prophet” in many, many years, and they thought John was one! And actually, according to Isaiah and Malachi, he was! And they flocked to hear him speak! In fact, one problem in that time was that it was hard for the people to see the higher importance of Jesus!
They thought John was that important! That’s why there are little passages here and there, addressing that. In John’s Gospel, we read, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light,” (John 1:8) Later in that same Gospel, we find John himself saying about Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” (John 3:30) John was seen by all the Gospel writers to be a person of great importance!
I want to remind you something else about John. The Old Testament tradition is that the Prophet Elijah would return to herald the coming of the Messiah. To this day, the Jewish people still set a place at their Passover table for Elijah! And at one point, they ceremonially open the door to see if Elijah has come! Throw that into the mix of John’s story. And then add to it Jesus’ own words about John from Matthew’s Gospel, “If you are willing to accept it,” he said, “he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:14)
So there you have it! That’s the importance of John the Baptist! He is a very big part of the story of Jesus and the beginning of his earthly ministry. John is the “voice crying in the wilderness,” as Isaiah told his. He came to “prepare the way of the Lord!”
Funny thing, though. (And I mean “funny ironic” not “funny ha-ha”) Over the years, there has developed a sort of colloquial expression about that phrase, “A voice in the wilderness!” It has become an expression that speaks of someone who feels their words are not being heard. They might say, “I’m trying to get people to listen to me, but I feel like a voice in the wilderness.” (Anybody ever heard that?) And that’s ironic in this case, because these are words that may not have been heard (or heeded) at the time, but they have been long remembered ever since, as the importance of John has grown over the years!
It’s like something I once heard about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was said that there is great irony in some of the words he spoke that day. He said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…” And that’s ironic, because those are some of the greatest and most iconic words in American history, and they are some of the most often memorized words ever! The world did note, and it has long remembered Lincoln’s words that day.
And so here we have the words of John! And we need to see his words as important! His story is so important that Mark chose to begin his Gospel here – here “in the wilderness!” Mark gives us no birth stories, no prophecies, no account of King Herod, no Wise Men, or camels, or donkeys! Just “A voice in the wilderness.” Mark begins his Gospel with Jesus’ ministry, and he saw John’s ministry as the beginning of that!
And behold… it wasn’t all inspiration and glory! We don’t have Matthew’s words here. But here they are! “When John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance! And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees! Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10)
Needless to say, John was not a favorite of the Pharisees and Sadducees!!! And if you think about it, in John, we can see the metaphoric words of Isaiah coming true!
“Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain”
Think about the cataclysmic forces that are being described there! Mountains leveled, valleys filled, rough places smoothed out. Think about the earthquake this past week in Alaska. There was a lot of destruction! And that’s a very mountainous region! Imagine an earthquake large enough to make level all of that!
That’s the metaphor Isaiah is using here to describe the importance of John and his message about the Messiah!! And I keep using that word “Important.” Maybe ewe need to use another word here, too! We need to use the word “serious!” Because sometimes I think the problem with our faith is not that we don’t believe, as much as it is that we don’t take it seriously enough. Am I right? John isn’t telling people nice, encouraging, uplifting things. This man is serious! Are we?
There are many different things in our world that are calling for our attention – our serious attention. Or maybe not our serious attention, but enough of our attention that they leave no room for the serious stuff!
Don’t let the Christmas season do that do you! Isaiah and John would tell you what is really important! As you go through this season, listen to the “voice in the wilderness.” Don’t let that voice for you be one that is not heeded. Take John seriously! See the big picture! Know the power of what was happening in those days, and know that power today. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken!”
Eternal God, help us to see the scope and the magnitude of your kingdom. Help us to focus on the Messiah who has come and is coming. Help us to see the power and the glory this Advent Season. For this we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.