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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

What I Am Learning:

The Romans had been there for about 80 years. The land no longer belonged to the people. The religious leaders were a wholly owned subsidiary of the Romans. For many people the daily struggle to survive was all they could manage.

Despair was strengthening its icy reign.

Some believed the only option was to collaborate with the Romans. (Chief Priests and Sadducees)

Others retreated to the wilderness seeking purity. (Essenes)

Some plotted for a revolt, practicing with the knives of assassins and plotting a war. (Zealots)

Others said that if they could all just get right with God on all 613 laws, then God would turn the Romans out of Palestine. The poor were to blame for all of this. (Pharisees)

John the Baptist, probably a part of the Essene community, saw that none of these approaches was enough. All of them were flawed in some deep way. The People of Israel were torn and scattered among these various approaches, which is just the way the Romans liked it.

John wore a garment of camel’s hair, reminding people of Elijah (1 Kings 1:8) the prophet. It was widely believed that Elijah would come back to prepare things for the messiah. John fills this role well.

John went out to the birth waters of the People of Israel in the land, and said that all of them would need to change direction. They would need to repent.

Mark opens his passage with a quote from Isaiah 40. The reference would have been unmistakable: Just as they had experienced Exile and slavery in Babylon, now they were experiencing Exile and slavery in the Roman occupation. Just as God provided a way home back to Israel, God would now provide a way for freedom at home. John was preparing this highway to freedom. But not just freedom, but also a highway to faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham and Sarah—to be a blessing to all nations.

John was calling them to begin a long journey toward freedom and faithfulness that would culminate in following the one more powerful than he, who would baptize with the Holy Wind of God—once again breathing life and love into a people of dry bones (Ezekiel 37).

A lot of people came from the countryside and from Jerusalem. They had gotten sick of the way things were, tired of their despair. John called them from the kingdom of despair to take part in the in-breaking of God’s hope for the world. Their baptism made them a part of a movement of change.

There is much despair in us and around us today. We are aware that there is so much that needs to change. We long for the change but often lack imagination for where to start or how such change can happen. There is so much that divides us: racism, global climate change, the growing wealth gap, militant extremism, the list goes on and on.

The kingdom of despair reigns once more.

The wind is blowing again. The highway to freedom and faithfulness is once again being made straight. Once again there is a call to repentance, not just to individuals but to all the human race.

John’s first day by the Jordan probably didn’t go so great. He must have had many days when few showed up. He kept at it. After a while the hunger for something other than the cold bread of despair grew in people. They wanted hope and they wanted to participate in that hope and John’s baptism gave them a way to start.

Aren’t people today looking for a place to start? Aren’t we?

Have no fear, the Holy Wind is blowing and will make a way in desert for us, a way to freedom and faithfulness.