Scripture: Mark 1:1-8
The early 19th century was the very beginning of the industrial revolution, and one of the early innovations were more advanced weaving looms that were much faster than what traditional artisans could ever do. This led to some resistance and a semi-organized group took to destroying these new machines of industry. This group called themselves luddites, and while their movement was not successful their name stuck around. Today a luddite is someone who is resistant to adopting new technology. I may not be among the earliest of adopters, but in general I am not a luddite. I tend not to have too many problems learning and using new technology. One notable exception for me though were GPS systems for directions. I was fairly resistant to those. In part because back twelve years so it was easy to find GPS horror stories. There were a disturbing number of driving into lakes, to the edges of drop offs, or for one group of Japanese tourists into the ocean. Combining these stories with some personal experiences where a GPS system made some questionable calls, led me to not really mess with them for the longest time. I much preferred to look at maps and figure out what seemed like the best route. Now in part this is because I really like maps. A good map just does not show us where we are going. It shows us where we have been, where we are, and gives us the context of what is around us.
Not too long ago maps were an essential part of preparing for travel. A map showed us where to go, it pointed us in the right direction. This morning’s scripture reminds us that John the Baptist did something similar. John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord by pointing people in the right direction for the coming messiah. In the season of Advent, one of the readings always focuses on John the Baptist. This is because in addition to being a season of expectation, Advent is a season of preparation. While it can be a time to prepare our own souls to celebrate the coming of Jesus or prepare ourselves to wait in expectation, Advent is also a time when we can prepare the way of the Lord. We can follow the example of John the Baptist, and be a map that points others to the Messiah.
This morning’s scripture comes from the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel is often known as the “action gospel.” It is the shortest, it tends to get right to the point, and it moves at an extremely fast pace. We see this right away with this scripture. The gospels of Matthew and Luke have a birth narrative. John’s gospel begins with an opening theological statement. Mark, though verse one just jumps right into it, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah.” In Mark’s gospel though, the beginning of the good news about Jesus, does not start with Jesus. It starts with John the Baptist. In fact, this is true in all four gospels. The gospels attribute John the Baptist as fulfilling Isaiah 40:3. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all identify John as the voice calling in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.
The gospels give us the impression that John was incredibly effective at preparing the way. For instance in this morning’s scripture, Mark uses a bit of hyperbole here and states that the all of Jerusalem went out see him, which literally is not the case. It drives the point that John has captured the attention of the people, and a number of them traveled to see him. We have to keep in mind that people could not just hop in the car and zip on over to him. There are a couple of sites proposed for where John baptized, the one with the longest history happens to also be the one closest to Jerusalem. However is still around a 30 mile walk, and most of that is through desert. Mark calls this stretch of land the wilderness. This was not a trip that people were making on a lark. At the very least it would have been a three day venture, and it would require provisions and planning in advance. Despite the effort, many people made the trek.
It is impossible to fully put ourselves in the mind of the first century Jew who traveled from Jerusalem to the Jordan River in order to see John the Baptist, but I have to wonder what motivated them. Why did people make the trek? I am sure for some it was curiosity. More than any figure in centuries, perhaps John fit the mold and had the aura of an Old Testament style prophet. Perhaps they just wanted to see for themselves how true this was. However, I imagine for many others they sought at John because they were looking for direction in their life.
John was offering a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This was something different. Baptism, a form of ceremonial washing, had been in Judaism for centuries. It was common practice to do a ceremonial bath as a way to signify washing uncleanliness away. However, that did not offer forgiveness. Perhaps in the baptism that John was offering, people saw a chance for a fresh start. They saw the way to rest and get their life going back in the right direction. If that is the case, I have to wonder if the people who came to John looking for direction were excited or disappointed. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but that was not all he preached. John also prepared the way.
Verse seven of this morning’s scripture states this was also his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. “ People may have come to John looking to launch their life in a new direction, and John offered them directions to a new life. However, John also laid the groundwork for the coming Messiah. John’s ministry was more than just baptism he was pointing to the next destination. John’s whole ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus. He did this by preaching repentance, leading people in turning back to God, and pointing towards Christ. He focused on leading people to have changed hearts so that they could better accept the saving grace that Jesus was going to offer.
Prepare the way of the Lord, was the life calling and the life work of John the Baptist. Honestly that should be true for each of us. It is the mission statement of our church, our very reason for being, to make disciples of Jesus Christ. A disciple of Jesus is one who follows Jesus, and we by our own power cannot make someone follow Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit working through the power of prevenient grace that ultimately does that. The work that we do, the role that we play, in making new disciples is that we prepare the way for the Lord, we make straight paths for him. We should seek to live lives marked by holiness and righteousness so that the way we live our lives points to Christ. If in our lives out of a love for God we regularly engage in acts of piety such as bible study, daily prayer, and regular worship then that can point the way to Jesus. If in our lives out of a love for neighbor we regularly engage in acts of mercy such as feeding the hungry, clothing the impoverished, and visiting the sick then that too can point the way to Jesus. If we live authentic lives where we seek to love God with all our being, and we seek to follow the example of Jesus by sacrificially loving others then our lives should function as a map that can guide others to Jesus.
Honestly, we probably like the sound of that. We like the idea that if we live the way we believe we are supposed to live, then that is all we need to do to fulfill our mission of making disciples. Unfortunately, it does not seem to work out that way all too often. Often a bit more is needed than passive observation. Our lives can be a map that points others to Christ, but the problem is not everyone can read a map. Often people do not have enough context or do not see the big picture enough to make sense of it. Sometimes, even when someone has a map, there are other factors that require a more detailed guide. I mentioned how it took me a long time to come around to trusting GPS devices and apps. What changed my mind was an experience in 2017. That year I had attended a large ministry conference in the northern Atlanta area. Under the best of circumstances, Atlanta can be a problematic city navigate because of heavy traffic, but this particular year two major highway construction projects overlapped and one of the major thoroughfares was shut down. To take the most direct route would have taken four hours to travel from the north side to the airport on the south side of town. So I had to trust google maps to guide me along the fastest possible route, which led me down neighborhood streets and into the airport complex via a service road. I never would have been able to look at a map and figure out the best way to go, I needed the app to guide with turn by turn directions.
In the same way, we can live a life that points to Christ but sometimes we have to help guide people to see what we are pointing to. John the Baptist did this. He baptized for the repentance of sins to help prepare people to follow the messiah, but he also pointed to the messiah. As this morning’s scripture points out, he actively told people about Jesus. He made clear that all that he was doing was to make the way for someone far greater than he. In a similar fashion, we absolutely should do all the good we can by all the means we can in all the place we can at all of the times can to all of the people we can. Yet we should be willing to say why we are doing good in the first place. We should be able to talk about a messiah who came and saved us from ourselves through sacrificial love. We should be able to say the reason why we engage in acts of mercy is because our Lord and savior told us that in order to love our neighbors we need to have mercy on those who are hurting and need of compassion. We should be able to explain that we love because he first loved us. Living our lives so that it functions as a map to God because of how we love God and love others is great, but we also need to be willing to guide people to understand why we are pointing to Jesus in the first place.
I am not saying that we need to all adopt the strategy of some denominations and try going door to door to ask people if they want to know more about Jesus, but we also need to do more than assume that we have planted seeds and people can find us if they want to know more. There is a fairly big middle ground between the two extremes, and I think we can all find a place in there where we can be the one who prepares the way for the Lord. A good starting point is to consider this question: When is the last time you shared with someone else why you follow Jesus? If you are having a hard time remembering when that might have been, then it has probably been too long.
Part of Advent is preparation. It is a time not just to personally prepare to celebrate the first coming of the savior while anticipating the second, but it is a time to consider how we are preparing the way of the Lord. This was the mission of John the Baptist and in the great commission, Jesus made it the mission of all disciples. So may your prepare the way. May you live life faithfully in such a way that it can serve as an example of what it means to love God and love neighbor. More than that though, may you be prepared to share Jesus with others. May you be prepared to share with others the hope you find in Christ and the peace you have in heart because of Jesus. We may not be out in the wilderness, but may you continue to be a voice that cries out, preparing the way for the Lord, making straight paths for him, and pointing other to Jesus the Messiah.