Photo by almogaver on Morgue File.
In yesterday’s post, we looked at the opening pericope of Mark’s gospel (1.1-3). After giving his quotation from the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament or OT), Mark, as is his custom, quickly (or to use his terminology immediately!) transitions to the purpose of that quotation: John the Baptizer and Christ.
Here is the next pericope . . .
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk. 1.4-8)
Mark, in these five verses, covers the entire ministry of John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Christ. (For more on John: his birth: Lk. 1.5-25, 57-66; his ministry: Mt. 3.1-12; Lk. 3.1-22; Jn. 1.19-34; 3.22-36)
John is an interesting figure to say the least. He is an OT prophet thrust forward and plopped down in the pages of the New. He seems to be a man born four or five centuries too late. He is something odd and unwieldy. Something almost otherworldly, alien. He is a fire raging in the wilderness, apocalyptic fire burning with white-hot flame against the self-righteous delusions and facades of his day. He is a bulldozer, rough and hard as flint. He is a seer and prophetic machine, content in his isolation and simplicity.
When thinking of John, I am reminded of Karl Barth’s description of John Calvin that he gave in a letter to a friend. It seems to fit both John’s in my opinion:
Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.
The idea of the wilderness plays an important role in Scripture. As I have stated before, it is not small thing that you cannot spell “wilderness” without “wild-ness”! Wildernesses are unruly places. They are places which lack comfort and sensibilities. They lack adornment (unless you count rocks and shrubs!). They are lacking of the refinements of life and culture. They are pushy and head-strong. They are testy and testing. They push to the extremes. They are hard, unyielding and unforgiving places.
In Scripture, they often represent places of shaping and molding. Places that remove the dross and produce something of quality and substance. We see that in the wilderness wandering of ancient Israel. We see it in the wilderness experiences of Elijah and the Psalmist. We see it too in the life of John the Baptizer and even in the life of the Messiah.
When was the last time you found yourself camped out in the wilderness? No, yours may not be an actual, physical wilderness; but, wildernesses come in different forms and shapes and sizes. While they are never easy, they are, at least from time to time, necessary.
What John was proclaiming in the valley of the Jordan was an exceptional message. He was preaching, with prophetic voice, that his Jewish countrymen and women needed to confess their sins and repent and be baptized! This was an unheard of message in that day. After all, in the view of many, they were God’s chosen people. They were descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They had the covenantal promises, the Torah, the Prophets, the Commandments and ancestry. For them, the only ones who would need to repent and confess would be the unclean Gentiles, the goyim.
But, John was not preaching to the Gentiles, by and large. His message centered on his own nation. He was telling good, God-fearing Jewish men and women they needed to confess and repent! This would have been a revolutionary message at the time. He was not only saying they needed to go through their ritualistic cleansing, something they were accustomed to; rather, he was calling them, as the prophets of old, to a 180 . . . to a repentance of sins and rebellion against the Holy God. While it had to be shocking to most who heard it; yet, we see God at work, because men and women responded, in droves, to John’s message.
As John’s fame grew, there began to be whispers that maybe he, was not just the forerunner, but that he himself was the promised Messiah. For many men, this sort of fame and approval would have been too much. Their head would swell and their chest would protrude and, before long at all, they would begin believing their own propaganda. But not John.
John for all his ferocity of preaching and tough as nails persona, had, at his core, a heart of humility. He made it plain he was not the One, he was not the Messiah (the Christ). In our vernacular, he says, the One who is coming is so much greater than me, I am not even worthy to bend down and untie the laces of his Converses.
You see, John knew something, as prophets tend to do, of what was to come. He saw the storm clouds on the horizon. He heard the rumbles and felt the tremors of the soon coming quake. He felt the heat of the soon-coming righteous fire. He baptized with water, but the One coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Who would this One be? Where was he? When would he come? What was he waiting for? What would he do?
All these questions, and many others, would soon be answered.
 Karl Barth in a letter to his friend, Eduard Thurneysen in 1922.