I am fairly positive I have spent more time in front of a TV watching stuff this year than I have in a really, really long time. Given this year, it is not too surprising. With lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing watching movies and TV shows on streaming services provided something to do. I imagine a lot of people had a similar experience this year that it did not take long to burn through their go to categories of movies and shows before branching out. This past year there were a few nights where I spend way too long browsing Netflix categories that I normally do not venture into looking for something new to watch. One of these categories was horror. I tend to like to like the idea of horror movies a lot more than I actually like watching them. Often the plot and premise of these movies sound intriguing to me, but I end up not enjoying the experience of watching them because they are scary. I am a little embarrassed to admit this now, but the most scared I ever got watching a horror movie was the Blair Witch Project. If you are not familiar with it this 1999 release was recorded to look like found footage. It is about three film students exploring and getting lost in a haunted woods. Honestly, it is not that scary. It is also not terribly good either. The reason why it was so scary when I first saw it is because I honestly thought it was real.
It would likely never work today, but in the late 90’s when the Internet was fairly young and not an everyday utility for a lot of people the makers of the Blair Witch Project leveraged the Internet to promote this movie. The Blair Witch Project saw a wide theatrical release in the summer of 1999, but a full year before that a website was put up detailing the missing students, complete with fake police reports and interviews with surviving family. The movie producers managed to keep the actors out of the public spotlight for a good part of 1999. A couple of weeks before the wide release, there was a mock documentary on cable detailing the “legend of the Blair Witch.” A lot of effort went into making the Blair Witch Project seem like it could be actual found footage from real missing students.
This is a stunning example of viral marketing, before viral marketing was really a thing. It worked too. The film was originally made with a budget of only $60,000 and in the U.S. box office it made $140.5 million. The Blair Witch Project was not a successful movie because it was a particularly good or scary movie, it was successful because the way was prepared for it so well. This success happened because of a highly innovative and intentional marketing campaign. The website, mock documentary, and other marketing tactics all prepared the way for the movie’s success. Marketing is really meant to be a messenger, it is meant to be a vehicle that goes before whatever it is promoting to prepare the way and make the path straight. The Blair witch marketing was so successful because it did not deviate from preparing the movie seem like it could be a real horror. In the same way, John the Baptist did a great job preparing the way because his ministry of repentance pointed to the messiah who would bring forgiveness. Advent is meant to be a time of preparation, and I think it is an appropriate time for us to ask ourselves, how well are we doing at preparing the way for our savior?
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. However, 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 not the end goal, it was the trailer of what was to come. 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. Just like good marketing cuts through the noise and points people to the movie or product, our lives should cut through the noise of the world and point people to Jesus.
John Baptist managed to do this in his day. He did this by emphasizing an aspect of what Jesus would ultimately accomplish. He took a familiar tradition, ritual washing, and used it to point to Jesus. He did this by pinpointing what the people of his era were desperate for in their hearts and souls. He offered a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and in doing so he prepared the way for the Messiah who would bring about the total forgiveness of sins once and for all. In the same way, today we can prepare the way for Jesus by providing what people are desperate for in their hearts and souls in a way that prepares the way of the Lord. There are a variety of ways we can do this, but perhaps one of the most pressing issues in our culture that we can directly address is loneliness. Almost 60% of adults in the United States report feeling loneliness in some capacity. This tends to be worse in the youngest generation of adults. About four out of every five young adults between the ages of 18-22 reported feelings of loneliness. Half of all adults agree with the statement that no one truly knows me. These statistics are from 2019, so given the social distancing of 2020 these feelings are likely stronger.
Addressing loneliness will prepare the way to Jesus. When we take the time to see someone, to listen to someone, to let them know that they are valued and loved just as they are then we push back against the shadow of loneliness. Taking time to let someone know they are worth taking the time for, is valuable in its own right. But when we do this, we also point to a greater reality. We make a straight path for God to use to show how the longings of our hearts our met in faith. We prepare the way to Jesus. Because it is in Christ we are truly no longer alone. We become part of a blessed community, a family of God. It is in Christ we have a confidence that no matter what God’s love for us does not fail and that Jesus is with us to the very end of the age. It is in Christ we have an assurance that we are known, we are loved, and we are so valued that we are worth dying for.
In this season of Advent, in this season of preparation, I challenge all of us to prepare the way for the Lord. We can do this in the very practical way of combating loneliness. I challenge you to do that. If you know someone, especially someone not part of a regular church, who is especially isolated right now then reach out and let them know through your words and actions you care. If you know someone who struggles with feeling like no one truly knows them, then move past the superficial conversations about the weather and really listen to their heart. Let them know that they are known. In the very least, let us take time to recognize the people around us. Let us not view other people as part of the background of our lives but may we truly take the time to recognize that even strangers to us are precious creations of God with sacred worth, and may we treat them as such.
I am confident that in doing these small but important acts, we will give others a glimpse to a greater reality. A reality where they are fully known by the creator of the universe and they are never truly alone in Christ. We can prepare the way of the Lord and in doing so do our part to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.