Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jesus' Family Album (2): Cousin John

Isaiah 40:1-11 (kids)

Mark 1:1-8 (message focus)
This Advent, we are looking at the opening of each of the four gospels and leafing through Jesus’ “family album”. Last week, we looked at Matthew’s gospel and Father Joseph. This week, we open to Mark and Cousin John – probably a couple times removed; all we know for certain is that their mothers are related. In the next two weeks, we’ll look at Luke and John.

The opening verse of Mark’s gospel is a title (Taylor, 152; Boring, 47): “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. It is the beginning of something, not the end. That is, there is more of the story to come. It is the beginning of the gospel, a term used throughout the Scripture for the good news of a king’s victory, for the good news of deliverance for God’s people.

Picture a sports bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on the night the Packers won the Super Bowl. When they sealed the victory, it was “good news” and the crowd cheered. It was the gospel of the Green Bay Packers. For Packer fans, they hope it is only the “beginning” of that gospel, that the current undefeated run will continue.

Picture Libya when they heard that Gaddafi was dead. Cheers, flag waving, guns fired in the air. It was the gospel of a new Libya. And, it is only beginning, hopefully continuing not with a new dictator but with development and deliverance for all the people of that land. Do you see how important “gospel” is in this bad-news-world? We crave this sort of news, and when we get it, there is nothing but praise.

Gospel: Good news of deliverance and victory – through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

But each true gospel story begins with preparation. Behind the scenes, anonymous labor. Or, public disapproval and extreme pain. The Arab spring traces its beginning to Tunisia, particularly to a young street vendor who doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in protest before the local government building. The Packers victories come at a much more modest personal cost, but one that requires extensive planning, long term commitment, and practice, practice, practice. Allen Iverson: Eat your words.

In this Scripture, the preparation begins with a mash-up, a composite, of several Scriptures, from Exodus 23:20 (in the ancient Greek version familiar to Mark), Malachi 3:1 (in Hebrew), and Isaiah 40:3 (in ancient Greek) (Taylor, 153):
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.”
This language recalls the ancient tradition of town visits by emperors or kings. In our setting, when the president comes through town, the motorcade shuts down streets and people line the road. In the ancient world, when the victorious king comes to town, when the object of the gospel praise is on the way, a new road is built, made beautiful with trees and construction, and the entire town turns out to greet the king outside of the town – in the wilderness – and escort him into town to cheers. In fact, this is one of the key New Testament images for Jesus’ coming again, for what we expect in the season of Advent, a word that means “coming”. (See N. T. Wright, 129.)

Take a look at this video of “preparing the way”: Audi A7 Commercial - “Spring Cleaning” (available on YouTube). Of course, we are not here for Audi, though they have borrowed biblical language and imagery. “Ready the road” (Audi). “Prepare the way.”

In the case of the Bible, however, the messenger stands in the wilderness – far outside of town – and calls out, “Ready the road.” Here in Mark, he shows up, not in a luxury suit but in camel hair and leather. In the playful language of Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jesus’ cousin John shows up “looking as though he might possibly be on the corner of Main Street and Broadway holding a cardboard sign with ‘Will Preach for Wild Locust and Honey’ scratched on it” (The Hardest Question website).

The outfit is strange to us, and it was strange in John’s time. But it was not without precedent. In fact, he is dressed just like prophet Elijah, who is referred to in the opening Scripture quote sequence of verses 2-3 (Malachi particularly). And, for a people who had not heard from a prophet for 400 years, John was a big deal. Everyone turned out to hear him.

The strangest thing about John was not his outfit, or even his food. It was his message: “Proclaiming a repentance-baptism (Taylor, 154) for forgiveness of sins” (1:4). Jews did not come for baptism. They are God’s chosen people; they are saved already. Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized – they actually baptized themselves. But here, people come and are baptized by John, or one of John’s disciples – and not with a do-it-yourself baptism. And, the people who come are Jews, God’s faithful people, each of them confessing their sin in public! And, the baptism is not just about confession and forgiveness; it is also about the coming of Jesus. “Coming after me is one stronger than I; I am not worthy to bend down and loosen the thong of his sandals” (1:7). (See Taylor, 155, on the uniqueness of John’s baptism).

Prepare the way. “Ready the road.” For John, the preparation is an action, confession-and-repentance-baptism. And, in that, to experience the cleansing, the forgiveness, of God. If we want to be ready for the coming of Jesus, for the coming of one “stronger than” John – even in all his strangeness and power – then it is crucial that we get down to business with God in the matter of our sin. Note, however, that this is not about our guilt, but about God’s grace; not about how miserable we are but about how merciful God is: “for the forgiveness of sins”.

Prepare the way. “Ready the road.” For what? A new Audi? For whom? “One stronger than I”. This language of “stronger” reflects the power dynamics of Mark’s gospel. In 3:27, Jesus speaks of “binding the strong man”, a reference to taking on and defeating the Devil, and plundering hell for the glory of God. This is a dramatic reference to and anticipation of Jesus as “Judge and Saviour of the End Time” (Taylor, 156). Jesus’ arrival means that the Devil’s day is done: The brokenness of our families and world, the power structures that maintain inequality, the sins of greed, lust, and pride ... all of this, as strong as it is, can’t stand against Jesus.

When we look around, we might ask, “Did he really come?” The world is still full of inequality, greed, brokenness. Did the stronger one show up to bring evil to an end? John tells us that Jesus comes and brings the Spirit. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8). In the broader range of the Scripture, we learn that the Spirit is God’s gift for the in-between times in which we live. Jesus has come, Jesus is coming. Evil is brought to an end, evil is yet to be brought to an end. In between, we have the gift of the Spirit.

Today, in Jesus’ family album, we take a look at Cousin John, wild-eyed, weirdly-clad prophet with food issues. Yes, he’s in the family album. But he knows whose family it is. “It’s not about me,” John says. “I am not worthy.” It is all about Jesus, the coming Lord. It’s all about Jesus, the stronger one and Savior. It’s all about Jesus, the giver of the Spirit. And, it is only the beginning of the good news.
Taylor, Vincent. 1953. The Gospel According to St. Mark. London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd.

Boring, M. Eugene. 1990, January 1. “Mark 1:1-15 and the Beginning of the Gospel” [Electronic version]. Semeia, 52, p 43-81.

Wright, N.T. 2008. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne.

Audi A7 Commercial - “Spring Cleaning” (available on YouTube)

Bolz-Weber, Nadia. 2011 Nov 27. “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title”. The Hardest Question (website).

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