Joe the Plumber, John the Baptist, and Jesus the Christ

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family.  While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.  Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered.  Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.  

Mark 1:1-8

I bet you thought you were rid of Joe the Plumber, didn’t you. Joe was one of the icons of our recent campaigns… a sort of odd character out there in the wilderness of America. He is now cashing in on his 15 minutes… or longer… a book is coming out.

Well, long before there was Joe the Plumber… there was John the Baptist… standing out in his own wilderness outside of the beltway of Jerusalem. That’s where Mark’s gospel begins. Away from the capital.. the temples… the chief priests and those who preside in power. Mark is a "get to the point" kind of guy. Mark doesn’t even give you shepherds or wise men or mangers… No singing of Christmas carols or telling of cute stories– just John… out there. Way out there. The first real prophet to turn up in Israel in 300 years.

I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor describes the scene.
"If Mark’s gospel were a movie, here is how it would begin. First, a long pan shot of the desert east of Jerusalem: row upon row of buckskin-colored hills with nothing on them but rock and sand and silence. In the distance, a Bedouin shepherd dressed in black leads his sheep up one of the hills, and as they disappear over the other side of it, the title appears on the screen, just the way we heard it a moment ago: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’  It is a long title, but there is plenty of room for it, with all that desert.
Then you hear a man’s voiceover as the camera continues to scan the hills:
‘As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,’ the voice says. ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,’ it says, and people appear on the screen, walking toward something you cannot see. As you watch, they come to the edge of the big crowd and push into it, straining for a better view of what is going on up front. ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness,’ the voice goes on. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ And just then the camera breaks through the crowd to show you the strange looking man at the center of the commotion. He is standing knee-deep in the Jordan river, with a soaking wet person shivering beside him…" 1

Some may be surprised to find Mark’s Gospel beginning there in the middle of no where. But I’m not. Not as I’ve thought about it. Have you ever noticed that the good news of God always seems to break through in the wilderness? That’s where it all started. Do you remember?

We read part of that story this fall in Exodus. There in the wilderness of oppression… God sent Moses to save his people from oppression and lead them to a promised land…. Then in an actual wilderness of despair, starvation and thirst as they were homeless… God provides food and water… but even more… God prepares them to become his special people who will be a blessing… There in the wilderness… Later, when they are living in another wilderness of Babylon… where times got so tough they lamented and cried to God… "by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept" they sang according to the Psalmist… There in their wilderness of the soul– God sends Isaiah… to speak again to them… "Comfort, Comfort my people…" with more good news. A deliverer is coming.

Maybe it is in the wilderness that we are more apt to hear the good news of God. Maybe comfort and complacency are not so friendly environments when it comes to hearing good news or sensing the presence of God.

Mark knows that God has sent John the Baptist to prepare us to hear more good news. So, John sets up shop in the wilderness where God seems to speak most powerfully. John the Baptist sets up shop with only one real purpose in life: To prepare us for the coming of Jesus the Christ. John the Baptist is sent to prepare us for Jesus the Christ… Christ is also a title. It wasn’t Jesus’ last name. Christ is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word, Messiah, which means, ‘the anointed one."

Jesus is the one anointed by God to save the people. He is more than Jesus the teacher… or Jesus the humanitarian… or Jesus the prophet. This is Jesus the Christ. And the reason John is out in the wilderness is to help us get ready for him… to prepare.

A friend of mine reminds his congregation almost every Advent season… that "Advent is not a time to prepare for Christmas; Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ." And there is a difference.

I need to hear that. Maybe you do too. We spend quite a bit of money, time and effort preparing for Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas season. I’m there with you folks. I love the music… the food… decorations… the chance to put on my Christmas ties and socks…playing the music… secular and sacred- I love all of that.

But the irony of the season for me is that we cram it so full with busyness and expectations about making Christmas special… buying the right gifts… planning the parties, cooking the food… getting ready for Santa Claus to come… that what I hear from people on December 25th is the sound of relief from so many that Christmas is finally over. What, I ask you, is wrong with that picture?

I think John might tell us. Or at least ask us a question to lead us to an answer: Were we preparing for the coming of Christmas? Or the coming of Christ? The people who gathered in that desert were not gathering to hear John talk about Christmas. They weren’t there because he was handing out ads about where to find bargains in the Jerusalem mall… or holding one of those signs on the corner to tell people where to find the sales… They came to hear John talk about the coming of the Christ. The one who would save them… the one we say will bring to his people peace, hope, love and joy… They came because this man, dressed in animal hair with a piece of tanned hide around his waist, his breath heavy with locusts and wild honey, this John the Baptist, proclaimed that someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough simply to hang around waiting for him to arrive. You don’t just wait… you prepare…

Just before Advent, in preparing for this text, I was reminded of a song that has been around for decades… I placed it on my facebook profile. I love the version sung by Eva Cassidy. I think John the Baptist would have liked it…

People get ready, there’s a train a coming
You don’t need no baggage you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

People get ready for the train to Jordan.
Picking up passengers from coast to coast
Faith is the key, open the doors and board them.
There’s room for all among the loved and lost

Advent is a time when Mark the Gospel writer uses John the Baptist to invite us to get ready… to get on board the train that will lead us to receive God’s gift for us… Jesus the Christ… all you need is faith… to get on board. How might we prepare for that coming? Use our faith…

One friend suggests to his congregation that families place in their homes a candle, a crèche and a Bible as part of their advent preparations. I would suggest that we take some time even in a busy season to read from God’s word… read the story of Jesus again… perhaps read a Gospel with this question in mind: "What is the good news God shared in the life of Jesus ?" Take time… just a few minutes a day to read a devotion… reflect upon the good news God wants to offer you. That could be just the ticket to help you get on board…

You might use advent as a time to ask, "What hymns sustain us during the dark and the cold of the night? What passages of scripture might being light and hope when we are lonely, irritated, afraid? Christ came into a bleak world- Roman occupation, religious infighting, uncertain economic conditions. Listen to those hymns… sing those hymns… read those scriptures… let them draw you closer to the Christ.

How does "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" say it? "From our fears and sins release us let us find our rest in thee." That is what our God wants for us this Advent. God wants to release us from fear and sins or anything that gets in the way of hearing the Good news that Jesus the Christ is born among us… to save, to help to heal… to bring us something, that you cannot buy in a store.

Even the Grinch learned that:

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"
"It came with out ribbons! It came without tags!"
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn’t come from a store."
"Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!"

God wants to give us something that you cannot buy in a store and God wants us to remove anything that might keep us from singing, "Joy to the World, the Lord is Come" on Christmas eve.

God wants to clear the way for us to hear that message again, as if for the first time. So God will send a messenger to us… John… John the Baptist. Ready to prepare us to hear some really good news… I mean really good news about Jesus the Christ… Good news that is always beginning somewhere in the world, often to those living in the wilderness — for those with ears ready to hear it and hearts ready to do whatever it takes to prepare to receive the gift God has ready for all of us. Amen.

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