Text: Mark 1:1-8
Date: Advent II + 12/7/14
The call of Advent: Be Prepared.
At the beginning of a new Church Year St. Matthew says the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is His incarnation as the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Luke says that the beginning of the gospel is with the conception and birth of John the Baptist, then Jesus. St. John says the beginning is in the mystery of the Word become flesh dwelling among us full of grace and truth. But this year we hear not from Matthew nor Luke nor John but from St. Mark, the writer of the second and shortest Gospel. And if all we had is Mark’s Gospel we would not have our present Christmas at all! For Mark says that “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” happened when John the Baptist appeared on the scene. John is the angel or messenger prophesied by the prophet Isaiah. Dressed in a coat of camel’s hair and leather belt John is obviously to all who saw him the new Elijah promised through the prophet Malachi. Which is one reason everyone got so excited.
So the question for us today is where, when and what is “the beginning” of the gospel for you? What is this thing called “gospel”? εύαγγελίου as you may know means a “good” “message” or “good news.” This is going to be the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. St. Mark wants to get right to our Lord’s active, earthly ministry through John the Baptist because he wants you to get right to the baptism and repentance he preached, saying this is the beginning of saving faith for you.
It is “good news,” Mark says, that the prophesy of Isaiah became fulfilled when “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.” Wow! Was it literally “all” from Judea and all from Jerusalem? That’s what the text says. But isn’t that the natural reaction? Isn’t that the normal expectation of this proclamation? Why, yes it is. It is until and unless sin resists, blocks, takes control, resists the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51).
You see if there is news called “good,” that must mean that there is also bad news. There’s a lot of resisting going on today. And there always has been. Not only among the seeming growing number of people who call themselves “a-theists,” those who say they believe there is no god (with their recent billboard campaign, saying, “Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church. I’m too old for fairy tales”) but also by that hidden atheism that resides in each of us. Yes. That is, it is because of our fallen, sinful, hiding-behind-the-bushes anti-God nature that the gospel must begin as St. Mark says, with the repentance of sin and holy baptism. We need help.
It must begin with repentance of sin, the Law of God revealing our waywardness, even evil thoughts, words and deeds, which, only if you really face up to them and dare to believe God’s judgment for punishment because of them, saying, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4 & 20), you can turn away from such disaster. The good news must begin with repentance, that is, the complete despair of self, the emptying of self so that God can fill us with Himself.
John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Though his baptism was not yet the powerful sacrament Christ would institute and command at His ascension, it was, still, a washing signifying the confessing of sin and repentance of sin. John says there is a more complete, more powerful baptism coming, as he said, “I have baptized you with water, but he,” meaning Jesus Christ, the one “who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie,” “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What is that more powerful baptism? It is said that Dr. Norman Nagel wrote, “If you can get there without Calvary, then it is not a Gospel at all.” Holy Baptism is all about Calvary as St. Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Likewise the sacrament of the altar is all about Calvary, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
John baptized with water for repentance. Of course, Jesus’ baptism would always also use the element of water, too. But (get out your catechism) it is not the water that does such great things “but the word of God in and with the water [that] does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.’”
This is “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So where is the beginning of the gospel for you? We put not our trust in any desire or decision of our own making. That would be only to introduce plenty of reason to doubt whether the gospel has really begun in you. No, we put our trust in God’s Word and command, that is, in what God so clearly says about and does and accomplishes in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. In my first parish as a pastor I was at once pleased but also a little troubled when a parishioner candidly said to me, “Pastor, we’ve never heard so much about baptism in sermons before!” Well, good. But (for the rest of you) let that be a lesson. It’s that important.
This alone is how we are, as St. Peter said today, “to be found by [God]” at the last day, “without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14). Since our repentance and faith and salvation is all God’s activity, creation and work in us, it is God alone who deserves the glory and honor for His great love with which He has loved us and the whole world. This is what it means to Be Prepared.
God’s own child, I gladly say it:
I am baptized into Christ!
He, because I could not pay it,
Gave my full redemption price.
Do I need earth’s treasures many?
I have one worth more than any
That brought me salvation free
Lasting to eternity! (LSB 594:1)