Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 prepared by Michelle Ellis, Dec. 6, 2020
Last year I went to visit Vancouver, where I lived for three years while I went to a school called Regent College to study to be a pastor. While visiting, I hopped on the bus and on my bus ride, all kinds of memories came washing over me. I passed the coffee shop where I sat with my dad when he and my mom brought me to Vancouver. I remembered the excitement and fear I felt in beginning something new. I remembered bus rides with my housemates, the excitement of meeting new people, the joy of new friendships, the life and the diversity of the city. I remember the feeling of possibility, but also of fear. I remembered a bus ride on my way to a first date with Joe, bus rides to work in a downtown church. All the feelings and thoughts and memories of the experiences of that time all came at me. Just being in the physical place of the city, waiting at the bus stop brought with all the thoughts, feelings and memories I hadn’t thought of since I was last there. Have you ever had an experience like that?
That is exactly the kind of experience that Mark is constructing for his readers in this first chapter. He’s bringing his readers to a place that is rich with memory, experience and meaning for them. His setting was the wilderness. Mark let the lone desert do its work of conjuring thoughts, feelings and memories which would flood into the hearts of those reading. The place of the wilderness, bringing to mind the Exodus, how God freed his people from slavery and brought them to a new land. The subsequent wandering in the wilderness. The physical setting is made all the more poignant by quoting from the Hebrew Scripture: the first and oldest was Exodus, the second and most recent was from the prophet Malachi, the final and most breathtaking came from the prophet Isaiah. Through these Mark touched on the most foundational and powerful of the memories of his people. Let’s look at them each. The line from Exodus calls his people to remember when God promised to lead the people through the wilderness. He says, “See I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” Malachi is the last of the great prophets. They’d not heard a Word from God as heard they through Malachi for several hundred years. This is a quote spoken to a people in the desert who were thirsty for God. Through Malachi, God said, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way for me. Then suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty” Then, the quote from Isaiah: “a voice of one calling in the desert prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
As Mark describes John the Baptist, memories of Elijah come flooding in. His clothes are what Elijah wore, he like Elijah, was called to the wilderness and like Elijah, John was calling people to walk in a new direction, away from cozying up to the surrounding culture. And the people listening and watching see this Elijah named John who has just walked right out of Malachi’s prophecy — as strange for them as it sounds to us. This character walks out of the prophecy and Mark reminds us of who we’re looking at: See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord comes.”
What we come awake to is that the wilderness is not just a dry old desert — it’s a place of testing, wondering, transformation, the birth of God’s Kingdom. It’s not just a place without water — but rather the place where God transforms His people. Just like when I looked out the window of the bus, memories came washing over me of people and places from my time in Vancouver, when Mark brings us to the wilderness he hopes that all that has happened in the wilderness in God’s story comes washing over us. He wants us to remember the significance of what has occurred there so we can be awake to what is happening now. Maybe if we looked we could see Abraham and Sarah hiking through that wasteland. Abraham and Sarah are called to leave their life in the city, tried and tested in the desert, mysteriously led into a new land. Abraham and Sarah, to whom God made Himself mysteriously present under the night sky, amidst the smoke, stars and fire. Perhaps if they looked, they’d see many other prophets also driven into the desert, maybe they’d see David running for his life, the single mother Hagar’s tear smeared face wandering with her son, Ishmael crying alone in a desolate rock wilderness. Perhaps they felt the whole nation of Israel around them — led by a pillar of fire in the front showing them the way out from slavery. So many of God’s people who were called away from what they knew into the inhospitable place that Mark brings us to today.
Mark invites us to stand here in the wilderness with John the Baptist. John steps out of the pages of Scripture into our own places of being unsettled, of not knowing, of confusion, of being confronted by the coming Other. We’re invited to the place of the wilderness where we can easily feel forgotten. Where the epic stories feel horribly mundane in the moment. Where the great coming of the Kingdom feels like just a group of people gathered around some nut in the desert. That’s where John invite us. He invites us to stand with Him in the discomfort of the wilderness and feel keenly the discomfort of not being at home, of being a stranger in a strange land.
And I wonder if one of the things that God is calling us to come awake to through this text today is that following Jesus means spending time in the wilderness. God often calls us away from the centre, away from what grabs the attention of our world. He calls our attention away from endless and empty battles and debates that rage on in our culture. He calls us to people and places that seem unimportant and uncomfortable. He calls us to lives where our next steps are revealed only one step at a time and where we can’t see our final destination. He calls us into places where we must leave behind what is comfortable, familiar and known to us. He calls us into the wilderness of those of us who live with homelessness and addiction and those of us who live are living on the wrong side of twisted systems of inequality.
Do you find yourself in this moment on a wilderness journey? Maybe you are at a moment in life that seems inhospitable or where there is lack—lack of friendship, lack of purpose, lack of finances, lack of certainty or trust, maybe lack of support, lack of justice, lack of understanding, lack of vision, or lack of faith. You are not alone, friend. God’s people have spent a lot of time in the wilderness.
God’s people have spent a lot of time in this inhospitable place—the wilderness, this harsh, place that prepares our souls to encounter the Living Fire of God. And we take of our shoes and walk forward feeling the scorching sand in our toes in this place of dying for the sake of being reborn.
Because the wilderness is not just a place of lack. It’s a place where people encounter the power of the living God. The living Fire of God led the people of Israel through the wilderness on through the Red Sea and on over the Jordan river. It’s the place John now stands. In this exact same place, Israel was generations before after wandering in the desert, just before they crossed the river into the promised land.
Bringing us to the place is Mark’s way of saying, “Remember what happened the last time we were here? God met us, he guided us, he freed us from slavery, he brought us into freedom, he showed us the way when we didn’t know where to go, he provided for us when we didn’t have any resources, he made water come from a rock and bread from the sky, he spoke to us, he saw us, he was with us, he conquered powers that were too big for us, he led us into something new. It was difficult, but God brought us through to the other side, to life.” Mark is saying, “wake up—he’s going to do that again, here, now”
A way is being made through the wilderness. The Waymaker himself is journeying towards John and all those gathered with him. Coming towards them with wonderful, terrible, mysterious purpose. God is making the way. God is making rough places smooth, straightening out all that is twisted and crooked. God is making His way towards his people. The people are about to encounter the power of God in the wilderness in a new way.
John cries out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This is how Jesus comes in this story. Unassuming. Not a pillar of fire. Not a cloud of smoke. One of them. He is baptized. His Holy Spirit drives Him deeper into the wilderness. And though on this twisted path the enemy tried to trip and destroy, Jesus came out the other side unscathed. Then Jesus marches right into our wilderness, the wilderness of our world. He goes to the sick, the poor, the demon-possessed. He levels the mountains they face. He walks into the wilderness of death, of separation from God, to construct the way to reconciliation with God and to life. Jesus walks into our wilderness of fire and testing. All the while, he is making a way, levelling mountains, making rough places smooth, preparing the way for us to follow him. He invites us to follow him through the road he’s made.
Prayer: Lord, we meet you today in the wilderness. As we stand here together, wash over us by your Holy Spirit. Remind us again of who you are. Meet us as we cry out to you from this place. We pray from the wilderness of our lives that your highway would catch us up in the progress of your good news this Advent. We ask that our preparation will allow you to use us to declare the rightness of your Way that we know in Jesus, for whose coming again we long. Amen.