THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
Isaiah 40: 1-5, 27-31
Romans 6: 1-14
Mark 1: 1-11
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
You may have noticed, in the readings we have just heard and read together, that I have decided to deviate from the lectionary and offer a sort of “greatest hits” on the subject of baptism.
I’ve done this not only to give greater recognition to the baptism we have just witnessed but also to focus in on one of the most intriguing figures in Scripture. That is, John the Baptism.
Through the normal course of the lectionary, John is given only a passing glance; either popping in to announce Christ’s coming at advent or to be executed during Herod’s party.
But if we want to understand our shared baptism, it makes sense to focus in on the man who carried it as his title. And not only John himself, but also the community gathered with him in the wilderness…
In the ministry of John the Baptist, we learn that there was already a people gathered in expectation before Jesus arrives in the Gospel.
Before there was a church; before there was a group of people called Christian there was John and his crowd.
And indeed this was John’s ministry: to initiate and to prepare the community for Jesus’ arrival.
In this ministry, John performed a very important service, he addressed a very important need; after all, how could any community receive the mysterious and wonderful and life-changing gift that is Christ without a little initiation?
But what exactly did John the Baptist do to initiate the community?
According to Mark (1: 4):
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
From Mark we learn that John, as a wild and prophetic preacher, literally stood out in the wilderness and proclaimed the baptism that he offered; John offered this baptism to many and many came to his open air service to meet him.
*That’s one thing I want you to keep in mind and to imagine this morning: imagine a great crowd leaving what is familiar—their cities, their towns, their lives—and imagine these people going out into the wilderness near the Jordan river to meet a man who dressed and acted like a prophet from long ago
John called on people to “repent,” to get right with God, to come before God openly, to turn around and SEE God approaching and to accept his baptism of water as a symbol of their shared faith.
In order for John to have been as successful as he was in this ministry, he must have been a captivating figure; one who was capable of bringing attention to himself and to God.
In these days, long before radio or television, internet or telephones, John must have had not only an incredible VOICE but also an incredible ABILITY to reach people and draw them TOGETHER.
And this is truly, all the more amazing when we consider Mark’s description of John:
John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey
John did not subscribe to the idea that success in marketing, in reaching an audience, depends on a clean image and winsome personality…
Quite the opposite: John was strange, John was wild, John went about his neighborhood—that is, the wilderness near the Jordan river—dressed as a throwback to Israel’s prophets of old. He would have looked, in his time, like an Ezekiel 2.0: someone to be feared rather than followed.
Imagine for a moment, this wild man, this baptizer, calling people out of the comfort of their homes and their lives, to join him in the wilderness. To come at the calling of a man with locusts and wild honey on his breath and camel hair on his body – to receive his baptism of forgiveness – to follow his instruction to know God and turn to God, to accept the waters of baptism as proof of their naming and claiming by God.
Imagine this whole strange, wonderful, and mysterious scene—this community of people coming willingly to the wild prophet in the desert—and now consider that according to this prophet, the most wonderful and mysterious thing was still yet to come!
If we see these people, this community out in the wilderness, drawn by John the Baptist; if we imagine ourselves standing alongside them, what have we travelled all this way to hear?
Or, considered from the perspective of John. If we consider that we have earned the ear of so many people, that they have come a great distance to meet us and hear us, what will we say to them? How will we convey the importance of our message that the Lord is coming, that the Messiah, that Jesus Christ is about to come to save them from their sins?
The one who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
In other words—John says—you people haven’t seen anything yet!
Biblical scholars through time have described John’s “job” or John’s “function” in the Gospels as one who makes way for Jesus, as one who announces Jesus’ arrival.
But if Jesus is who we know Him to be, the Son of God, the Word Made Flesh, our Lord and Savior…WHY does Jesus need a marketer? Why does Jesus need a hype man?
The answer to this question, to who John the Baptism is and why he matters, is best found perhaps not in the man himself but in the crowd who has come to see him.
John’s role as a “prophet in the present time” is—of course—no accident. Like Isaiah, like the original announcer of the “voice in the wilderness.” John is carrying out his ministry at a difficult time in Israel’s history.
Where for Isaiah – Israel was under the captivity of Babylon, in John’s time Israel had been crushed under the authority of Rome.
In both cases, the people who yearned for the words of the prophet wanted to know (needed to know) that God was still there! That God had not forgotten about them in their captivity…
Friends, there is—of course—no era of human history or of church history that is without difficulty. Though WE gathered here today may not worry about Babylon or about Rome, we do have reason to worry about the powers and principalities of this world…and the sins that torment our hearts…
Powers such as our all-consuming media
The powers of fear and propaganda
The power of politics to divide and sow hatred among us
Our sins of vanity and self-obsession
Our sins of seeking pleasure and comfort over justice
Our sins of rejecting and ignoring those whom we consider different or inferior…
Given all of these divisions that have existed for all time, there is something amazing, miraculous even, about a congregation…
Whether we are speaking of the congregation gathered in John’s wilderness or our own church, there is something truly amazing about a community united in the faith of a Savior who is both arrived and arriving.
At its best, the church is a place where the politics and sins of this world have no power, where there is no consideration for our differences in politics or our differences in favorite sins…where all can come openly before God and to feel belonging in our shared faith…
In baptism, part of what we do is recognize the love and the power that God has used to unite us. In baptism, we call each person by name, we recognize them as a member in this community the church, and we make vows to safeguard their care and their belonging in this church…until the day when are finally perfected in Christ and we finally see Him face to face…
“I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Through our baptism of water, we are initiated into knowing Christ fully, according to God’s Will.
In this way, the words spoken by John the Baptism carry meaning into our current church: we have shared in this baptism of water, we invite you into this baptism of water, and one day…(already and not yet) we will meet Jesus and be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Our baptism of water may not be our final baptism but it is the one we share as an earthly community. A community that has decided that what separates us according to the powers and principalities of this world, compares nothing to what unites us in faith (x2).
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
This quotation of the Prophecy of Isaiah is the second sentence in Mark’s Gospel.
Before introducing us to the initiator (John the Baptist), Mark sets the stage with the words of Israel’s greatest prophet: the one who announces that even in times of difficulty, even in times of captivity, the Lord IS COMING!
The Lord is Coming!
There is a Messenger preparing His way!
He shouts out like a “voice of one crying out in the wilderness”
*off script* imagine the sound of a voice breaking the silence
Friends, to now, I have spoken of the amazing ability of God, through Jesus Christ, through John the Baptist, and through Isaiah to make a community out of strangers and call it the church…
But truly, this reality should stand out as even more amazing, as even more of a miracle, given the isolated times we live in…
It has been said many times that “loneliness is the epidemic of our time.”
Whether it is despite (or because of) our technologically, we are living in a time and place of unprecedented loneliness and isolation…
A world where, according to statistics, more and more people do not have even one person they can reliably call upon.
A world where seniors who live alone can wait weeks or even months between face-to-face interactions.
A world where youth receive bullying 24-7 through their smartphones and have nothing but social isolation and anxiety to show for this “progress” in technology…
In these times of unprecedented loneliness, of unprecedented private wilderness, there is still a voice that breaks through and unites people…
Gathered together in community, in a shared faith that Christ is the big “yes” to all of the no’s of the world, we stand together, united in faith and in the waters of baptism that there is still a voice crying out…
Sometimes this voice sounds like God the Father, sometimes like God the Son, sometimes like God the Holy Spirit, and even sometimes like John the Baptist…
This voice calls, it invites, it charges us with a task to “prepare the way of the Lord,” to live our lives in the faith and hope of the coming savior…
This voice calls us
It calls us above the din and confusion of our lives
It calls us through the icy isolation of our world
And most amazing of all, it calls us together as a community.
Friends, Mark does not tell us a great deal about those who were gathered to receive John’s Baptism…
What they looked like
How they dressed
How they made their livings
What was precious to them in their lives
Only that they were a crowd, that out of many they were united as one.
The strange and wonderful thing about the wild prophet in the wilderness is that he made a community out of a crowd.
Being united in a common baptism, they (and now we) are united in a common hope and faith…
In the modern church, we have many quotable ways to remind ourselves of what the church truly is:
-We say that the church is not a building, but rather it is a people
-We say that God’s church does not have a mission, but rather God’s mission has a church…
However, even with these reminders, it is easy sometimes for us to lose sight of who we are and in whose name we are gathered…
OR “Who we are and whose we are” to borrow another quotable phrase
Truly, the answer here is much like it was for those who went out to hear John’s message and receive his baptism:
There is a voice crying out in the wilderness
Not just in the wilderness of the Jordan River but the wilderness of our busy modern lives…
The wilderness of powers and principalities
The wilderness of excess
The wilderness of temptations
The wilderness of comfort and entertainment
The wilderness of idols
The wilderness of isolation
There is a voice that cries out in that wilderness and breaks it
Breaks the silence
Breaks the noise
Breaks the confusion and restlessness
Breaks the monotony
There is a voice that cries out to break the wilderness and to draw us together to make us a community, a church
A church that still gathers to hear the truth of John’s message:
“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” Amen