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This Advent season we're letting the Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—prepare us to celebrate Christmas. Last week Matthew showed us that Jesus' family tree was full of sinners. This fact reminds us that the whole reason the Son of God became human was to redeem sinners.
This week we turn to the next book, the Gospel of Mark. Interestingly, Mark was one of the DISCIPLES of Jesus, but NOT one of the twelve apostles. Mark traveled with the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey, and he also traveled with the apostle Peter on occasion. The preaching of Peter was probably one of the major sources that Mark relied on to write his Gospel—that and actually asking Peter questions. So, in a sense, the Gospel of Mark is really the Gospel of Peter. More about that later. Let's read the first eight verses of the Gospel of Mark.
Mark 1:1-8 (ESV)
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the Prophets:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
3 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’”
4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. 8 I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark is the only Gospel that doesn't include any early history about Jesus. Nothing about his birth at all. Mark launches right into the beginning of Jesus' ministry by talking about the "Forerunner". The man known as "John the Baptist" whose job it was to prepare the people for the ministry of Jesus.
All of the Gospels are pretty sparse when it comes to information about Jesus' childhood. Luke gives us the most with his Christmas account in Luke 2. But other than that we hardly have ANY information about Jesus' years from age two to age thirty.
Of course the reason for this sparseness of information is that the Gospel writers were writing to present Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior from sin that had been long promised by the LORD. They weren't writing to give us a biography covering all the cute things Jesus did when He was a toddler.
By bypassing the early history of Jesus, Mark gets us right into the meat of things. He would prepare us for celebrating this Christmas, by preparing us to have an enjoyable SPIRITUAL encounter with our Savior. For this, repentance is required.
Outer preparation for Christmas is fun, and good. Wreaths, and greenery, and sparkling lights, and stars, and decorations, and presents, all help us to get in the holiday mood again. But the more crucial preparation for celebrating the birth of Jesus is the inner preparation of having a humble and repentant heart.
To get our hearts ready for Christmas we first have to remember who this Jesus is. Mark gets us headed down this road in verse 1 by calling Him, "the Son of God".
The quotation that Mark inserts next is from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. It talks about the Forerunner. It says that this "Messenger" who would prepare the way would prepare the way before the "LORD". You'll remember that when you see the capital L-O-R-D in an English translation of the Bible that means that here in the original text was the proper name of God, "Jehovah" or probably more correctly pronounced, "Yahweh".
In these two ways Mark shows us that the little Jesus who's birth we celebrate on Christmas, is God Himself. The Son of God, Yahweh.
But Mark adds one more detail to show how high above Him this little child is. In the last couple verses of our reading, John says that he doesn't consider himself worthy to loosen the sandal strap of the One who will come after him.
John was not a flowery guy. He lived in the desert, wore camels hair robes and ate locusts. He wasn't the type to say something like this if he didn't mean it. He really didn't consider himself worthy to touch the stinky sandal strap on the Savior's foot. This was because the Savior was so far above Him, so much more important to the world.
Okay, so the next thing we have to do is understand the ministry of John the Baptist. He was, as Isaiah put it, to tell the people to "Prepare the way of the LORD" to "Make His paths straight". Now, of course this obviously doesn't mean that the people were supposed to actually make a new road for Jesus to walk on. No, Isaiah is talking about something else here. Isaiah, was talking about being straight with the Lord in our hearts. Being true and honest. Not like a rocky and undependable road, but like a straight, true, level, dependable blacktop highway. Nothing hidden there, everything plain and in the open.
Now we don't want to get the idea that John means we need to be perfect and sinless before we are ready to have a spiritual encounter with Jesus. That's just not possible. What John meant was that we should be open to God in our hearts. Honest with Him. Confessing our sins, and admitting the absolute evilness of the things we've said, done, and thought.
Mark writes that John the Baptist's ministry was all about repentance. Turning around. Changing your attitude. Turning away from sin, instead of embracing it, trying to live God's way instead of sin's way.
For the people who came to John out on the banks of the Jordan River, part of repentance was being open with other people as well as being open with God. Admitting publicly that they were sinners who needed God's salvation. Accepting the baptism of repentance that God's prophet offered was like saying, "I can't make it on my own. I need God's forgiveness". It was an open expression of repentance and faith.
Openness is a characteristic of repentance. Don't get me wrong, you certainly can be repentant about something that you don't want to talk about because it's so embarrassingly shameful to you. What I'm saying is, that even the sins that you still cringe to think of, you'll bring those up if the time is right. If your talking about them will help someone else to know Christ and His forgiveness.
Earlier I mentioned that Mark's Gospel could be considered Peter's Gospel because much of it probably came from Peter's preaching. One of the things that makes scholars come to this conclusion is that Mark's Gospel is subtly different than the others. In chapter 8 Mark omits a word of praise that Jesus gives to Peter. But Mark makes sure to include the sharp words of rebuke that Jesus aims at Peter in that same chapter. In the account of the Peter's denial of Christ during Holy Week, Mark includes some aggravating details that the other Gospel writers pass over in silence.
It appears that because Peter was genuinely repentant, he was in the habit of calling attention to his weakness and sin without mincing words, while the other apostles didn't dwell on the shameful details of Peter's denial.
We find the same attitude of openness in the apostle Paul also. Throughout the book of Acts Paul tells the story of his conversion over and over. A story which started with Paul being a persecutor of Christians and a murderer. Paul was able to tell these shameful stories for the same reason Peter could. He was sorry for the sins of his past, and He knew that in Christ He was forgiven. God given repentance and faith enabled both of them to be open about their past, and to be at peace, knowing their sins were forgiven in the highest court.
So, Mark prepares us to celebrate the birth of Christ by reminding us that this Child is God, and by moving us to repent of our sins, and trust in Christ Jesus for forgiveness.
But one more thing that Mark (and John) seem to encourage is an attitude of general humility toward Christ Jesus. Again, John the Baptist said that he wasn't worthy to even loosen the dirty sandal strap of Jesus. But also, John was full of a servant mentality. He was living isolated from the rest of the world out in the desert because He was told to be there by God. He was preaching the message that God had told him to preach. He dressed in camel's hair robes and ate locusts and honey, and yet he was content to do all this because He was serving His great God and Savior, who would sweep away all John's sins, and open heaven to Him.
So, let's take John's preaching to heart. Christmas is a lot of things, but first and foremost it is our celebration of the birth of God's Son, our Savior. Let's not ever forget that.
In order to welcome the Christ Child this Christmas, let's cultivate a heart of repentance by reading God's Word, being convicted by the law there, and made alive by the Gospel forgiveness found there also.
Lastly, let's be joyful about our Savior, but always remember to have John's attitude. Always remember that we're really not worthy to even touch His dirty sandal. But even so, we have been invited into His family for this Christmas, and for eternity.
In Christ Jesus our crucified and living Savior, Amen.