This is the second week of our series in the book of Mark. Mark begins his account with the words, the beginning. This is an echo of the first words in Genesis.
“For Mark the introduction of Jesus is no less momentous than the creation of the world, for in Jesus a new creation is at hand.”
“In Mark’s understanding, therefore, the gospel is more than a set of truths, or even a set of beliefs. It is a person, “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
– James Edwards
Let’s read Mark 1:1-8.
Mark begins his history, not with Jesus, but with another who will prepare the way for Jesus. This preparation was a unique event in history with a unique purpose. It can also be seen as a general pattern for the revelation of Jesus throughout history.
God prepares the way for people to meet Jesus through his messengers. In John we see a messenger who lived an authentic life, preached a complete message and was content with a limited purpose.
1. An Authentic Life
Mark’s history is abrupt. In this gospel John appeared out of nowhere.
The Greek words ἐγένετο Ἰωάνης, are translated directly as ‘became John”.
The word is “used of a person’s appearance on the stage of history. . . the verb is used here to show that the appearance of the Baptist was not a mere event in history, but an epoch, ushering in a new regime or dispensation of God’s dealings with mankind.” (Kenneth Wuest)
The language fits Mark’s style, highlighting the excitement and the unexpected nature of all that is taking place.
Mark gives us a glimpse of what it must have felt like for Peter to follow Jesus in those days: non-stop action and one surprise after the next.
Just when you think you understand Jesus, he does something so completely unexpected and causes you to rethink everything.
For the Jewish people of those days, John was a complete surprise.
They had not heard from a prophet for 400 years. Prophets were history. The Jewish religion had settled into a system, managed by men. It was not ready for the prophet who appeared in the wilderness.
This guy walked out of the desert like a figure from history. The description of John sounds like something out of Kings.
“He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.”
– 2 Kings 1:8
He came crying out. There are two words Mark could have used here. Kaleo means to cry out for a purpose. Boao means to cry out as a manifestation of feeling.
“The One shouting out was God. John was his mouthpiece.” Behind John’s voice was the “infinite longing of the God of Israel for his chosen people. The heart of God was in that message, full of pathos and love and entreaty.” (Edwards)
His shout was a proclamation. The word proclaim means to herald. “ a messenger vested with public authority who conveyed the official messages of kings, magistrates, princes, military commanders, or who gave a public summons or demand.” “He acted as one, making a public proclamation of the news of the advent of the Messiah with such formality, gravity and authority as must be listened to and obeyed.” (Wuest)
He lived his message. Philipp Brooks: “Truth through personality is our description of real preaching. The truth must come through the person, not merely over his lips . . . It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”
What was it like?
I imagine it involved weeping. George Whitefield the great preacher was once heckled for crying during a message. This was his response: “You blame me for weeping, but how can I help it when you will not weep for yourselves, though your immortal souls are on the verge of destruction?”
There is unbelievable power in authenticity.
“A strangely fascinating power is exerted by those who are utterly sincere. Such believers attract unbelievers, as with the case of David Hume, the eighteenth-century British deistic philosopher who rejected historic Christianity. A friend once met him hurrying along a London street and asked him where he was going. Hume replied that he was going to hear George Whitefield preach. ‘But surely,’ his friend asked in astonishment, ‘you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?’ ‘No, I don’t,’ answered Hume, ‘but he does.’ -John Stott
‘Why do these people come to listen to Billy Graham,’ I asked myself, ‘when they don’t come to listen to us?’ Now I am sure that many answers could have been justly given to that question. But the answer I kept giving myself was this: ‘There is an incontrovertible sincerity about that young American evangelist. Even his fiercest critics all concede that he is sincere. I really believe he is the first transparently sincere Christian preacher many of these people have ever heard.’
Christian, you may not have all the answers. You may feel small and insignificant. Do not underestimate the power of a simple, authentic expression of the Christian life.
Countless souls have been awakened to Jesus through the simple witness of an authentic Christian. Your consistent, genuine faith can prepare the way for Jesus.
Through John’s authentic witness, whole cities were affected. Scholars estimate that somewhere around 300,000 people heard him preach.
John’s proclamation was a preparation.
The concept of preparation for a royal visit was familiar in the ancient world as it is today.
The plot of the most recent Downtown Abbey production centers around the announcement that King George and Queen Mary will be visiting their home in Yorkshire. It’s enough excitement to craft a screenplay around.
The visit of a British royal has captivated the imaginations of communities around the world for hundreds of years.
When a notice is received that the Queen is coming, months of planning begin. Requirements are sent to the host, specifying what type of foods to serve and to avoid, specifications for housing arrangements and security provisions. Planning delegations make advance trips to ensure plans are understood and preparations are satisfactory. The Queen arrives with over 30 in an entourage. In some cases, like the 1961 visit to India, new roads are built and renovations are carried out along the royal route.
With that in mind, I want you to think about the visit of Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Kings. What would his arrival look like? What preparations would be required? What delegations would be sent to prepare the way, what ceremonies would be involved?
Do you see the surprise?
One man, in the wilderness, wearing homemade clothing and eating bugs. This is the herald of the King of Kings. No one was prepared for this.
Why the wilderness?
He didn’t go to church. He didn’t preach at a synagogue, or in the temple square. When God moves in power old customs are often too restricting.
That was the case in the 1700s with the ministry of Whitefield and the Wesley brothers. When they were filled with the Holy Spirit and burdened to preach, the churches couldn’t handle their passion. They couldn’t handle the audience. So these men went out of the city and into the fields.
“When God does a new thing in the world, and most needs his people to testify to it and interpret it, too often he finds them resisting, resenting and even opposing it for being not precisely what they had hoped for, or still worse, being too disturbing of their long established ways.” -Donald English
Sometimes we have to got out of the routines of life, we have to step out of the city, in order to meet with God.
Some of you need to meet with God. You have questions that need answers. You have spirits that need renewal. Perhaps the best thing you could do is to get some time away.
2. A Complete Message
As a preacher I sometimes feel the pressure to adjust my message to avoid offending people.
There’s a reason people like Joel Osteen fill stadiums and sell millions of books. Their message is pure positivity. You won’t here a word that causes offense or challenges your views. It’s easy to fill a room and gain popularity by telling people what they want to hear and proclaiming an easy message of prosperity.
John’s message was a message of repentance for sin.
He called out the sins of his audience, even when that audience was the King of Judah.
He preached the love of God and he preached the holiness of God. He preached grace and he preached judgment. He preached wrath and mercy. In a world of sin and injustice you cannot have one with the other.
John the Baptist was one in a long line of bold witnesses in the history of the church: John Knox,
Hugh Latimer was another. He preached a message that offended King Henry VIII and was summoned to return the next week, make an apology and give a more accommodating message.
This is how his next message began:
“Hugh Latimer, do you know before whom you art this day to speak? To the high and mighty monarch, the King’s most excellent majesty, who can take away your life if you offend; therefore take heed that you speak not a word that may displease! And then consider well, Hugh, dost you not know where you come from; upon whose message you art sent? Even by the great and mighty God! Who is all present! and Who beholds all your ways! and Who is able to cast your soul into hell! Therefore take care that you deliver your message faithfully.”
He then preached the same sermon, with more passion.
Henry VIII was convicted and let the preacher go on his way. Latimer outlived Henry and his son, but when Mary took over, she sentenced him to execution along with his friend Nicholas Ridley. As they were tied to the stake to be burned, Latimer turned to Ridley: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
How does someone develop that kind of boldness? I think the secret is in our passage.
Mark gives us two vantage points:
From the human vantage point, John’s life and ministry were completely unexpected.
From the vantage point of God, John’s appearance rolled out precisely according to plan.
Verse 2 is a quotation from two places.
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
These were written 500 years before John.
From God’s vantage point there are no surprises.
Sometimes we read the Scriptures and see the development from garden to sin to curse to cross as a process of God responding to unplanned events. We read that way because that’s how we operate.
But that’s not how the Bible presents it’s history.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please.’
The gospel was God’s plan all along. God’s response to sin, sending Christ was not an emergency response. It was foreseen and predestined. God has a plan from the beginning. It was not an afterthought, it was not a revision upon review of unforeseen developments. God does not modify his plans to adjust to surprises.
God is never surprised. Nothing can take God surprise. No one can interrupt his plans.
The life of John, the coming of Jesus, your life, my life and all of human history is the unfolding of God’s plan.
Max Lucado wrote that “most people suffer from small thoughts about God.” Isn’t that true.
We suffer anxiety and fear and regret, because our thoughts about God are too small.
Listen to Isaiah 40, which Mark quotes, and let this revelation of God sink in.
25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
27 Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Are you afraid of the future? Are you experiencing anxiety? God has already seen it all. He knows where your checks will be coming from next year. He knows whether or not you will be married and who your spouse will be. He knows the day you will die. He knows exactly how and when the next trial will come into your life and he knows how he will sustain you through it and when it will end. Knowing the sovereign wisdom, power and goodness of the God of the Bible can ease the suffering of your anxiety and fear and fill you with peace and hope.
When our thoughts about God rise to the revelation given us in the Scriptures, we will find a boldness that is unshakeable.
Let’s not shrink back from the complete message of Christ. Let’s be faithful to him and do the next right thing and he will sort it out.
3. A Limited Purpose
Jesus said something interesting about John in Matthew 11.
I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.
None greater. He was great in the eyes of Jesus. If anyone had an important and significant life, it was John. Yet look at his ministry. He had a public ministry for a period of months, maybe a year or two. And after that, he was set aside. He was imprisoned and executed.
John’s ministry served a limited purpose. He understood that.
“He must become greater; I must become less.”
There is freedom in recognizing our limitations.
You don’t carry the world on your shoulders.
Even John the Baptist, greatest among men, served a limited purpose.
I’ll end with an observation from pastor R. Kent Hughes:
“we live in an age where to begin, continue and complete things is a dominating passion. Being ‘in control of affairs’ is taken as a sign of achievement. The Christian knows better than that The gospel is meant to make us truly ‘broad-minded’, viewing the whole of life against the canvas of God’s eternal plans for his world. . . In that wider sweep of God’s purposes we learn to play our limited – yet vital -part. History is his. The universe is his. The mission of the world is his. We are most fulfilled not when we seek fulfilment [in creating and starring in our own stories] but when we seek to find our proper place in his never ending purposes for this world.”
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown