Mark starts his story a long way back—not at Jesus’ birth as Luke’s Gospel does; it does not begin with John the Baptist in the wilderness. The Scripture-scholar William Barclay says it began “with the dreams of the prophets long ago; that is to say, it began in the mind of God.”
“It has been said that ‘the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,’ and so are the thoughts of God. History is not a random kaleidoscope of disconnected events. It is a process directed by the God who sees the end in the beginning
The prophetic quotation Mark uses is suggestive.
I am sending my messenger ahead you; he will prepare your way.
This is from Malachi 3:4. In its original context it was a threat. In Malachi’s day, the priests were failing in their duty. The offerings were blemished and shoddy and second bests. The messenger was to cleanse and purify the worship in the temple before the Anointed One of God emerged on earth. So then the coming of Christ was the purification of life. Seneca called Rome ‘a cesspool of iniquity. Juvenal spoke of her ‘as the filthy sewer into which flowed the abominable dregs of every Syrian and Achaean stream.’
Where Christ is allowed to come the antiseptic of the Christian faith cleanses the moral poison of society and leaves it pure and clean.
John the Baptist came announcing a baptism of repentance. The Jew was familiar with ritual washings. Leviticus 11 -15 details them. Symbolic washing and purifying was woven into the very fabric of Jewish daily ritual.
The Jew knew baptism—as proselytes to Judaism were supposed to undergo it to cleanse them of the pollution of their past life—but the amazing thing about John’s baptism was that he, a Jew, was asking Jews to submit to that which only a Gentile was supposed to need.
Bishop Robert Barron, writing in the December issue of the Magnificat liturgical magazine (p.135), reminds us that John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah, who was a Temple priest. Since the priesthood was passed on from father to son, we must assume that whatever John was doing in the desert had something to do with Temple sacrifice.
When people came to the Temple, they were seeking remission of their sins through the mediation of their priests, but before they could do that they were obliged to undergo a ritual washing called a mikvah.
That’s what John was doing in the desert; he was drawing his followers through a purifying bath and then promising them forgiveness.
But how would that forgiveness happen? In Mark’s Gospel, John says. “One mightier than I is coming after me…..I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”(1:7-8). And in John’s Gospel, the Baptist cries, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”(1:29). These two statements are functionally equivalent.
John the Baptist was preparing Israel for the arrival of the definitive priest who would perform the final sacrifice by which sins would be wiped away. His water baptism was an anticipation of a fiery immersion by which Israel would be eschatologically purified, that is, for her final survival.
It is worth noting that all four Gospels compels us to approach Jesus through John the Baptist. All four Evangelists realize that we won’t understand what Jesus is doing and what he means without the interpretive key he provides by this strange desert prophet.
Barclay would add a little more description for us. It is clear that John’s ministry was hugely successful; they streamed out into the desert to listen to him and queued up to submit to his baptism. But why such an impact?
First, he was a man who lived his message. Not only his words, but his whole life was a protest against contemporary life.
Between Judea and the Dead Sea was one of the most terrible deserts in the world. It was a limestone desert; the rock is hot and blistering and sounds hollow to the feet. In the Old Testament it is sometimes called Jeshimmon—The Devastation. John was a man from the desert and from its solitudes and its desolations. He was a man who had given himself a chance to hear the voice of God.
In regard to his clothes, he wore a garment woven of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. So did Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). To look at the man was to be reminded of the prophets of old.
And there was his simple food—locusts and wild honey, the Scriptures tell us. But “locusts” could have been a bean or a nut—the carob–that was the food of the poorest of the poor. And the honey may have been the honey wild bees make orit may be a kind of sweet sap that distills from certain trees.
So John emerged and people had to listen to a person like that. For John, the man was the message. His message was effective because he told people what they knew in their heart of hearts and the depths of their souls they were waiting for.
The Jews had a saying, “If Israel would keep the law of God perfectly for one day, the Kingdom of God would come.”
As the folk queued up to be washed in the River Jordan, they were well aware that for three hundred years the voice of prophecy had been silent. John’s message was effective because he was completely humble. His own verdict on himself was not fit even for the duty of a slave. He said, “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”Or as the Gospel of John relates it, “I must decrease; he must increase.”
His message was effective because he pointed to something and someone beyond himself. He told his followers that his baptism drenched them in water, but one was coming who would drench them in the Holy Spirit.
COME LORD JESUS!
Now, listen and watch Prepare the Way of the Lord from Godspell Click here. Be sure to turn up your speakers and enter full screen. (Get a chuckle out of Jesus’ 1973 ‘Fro.)