Prepared with Water and Spirit -- Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B
Mark 1:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Gospel of Mark wastes no time with infancy narratives or genealogies. His story begins with the declaration that the way is being prepared for the coming of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Rooting the announcement in the Hebrew Scriptures (Malachi 3:1), Mark speaks of one crying in the wilderness, calling on the people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. The one who takes up this ministry is the one called John the Baptizer. The picture of John given here is one most are well acquainted with. He lives in the wilderness, dressed in a rough camel hair garment and living on locusts (bugs) and honey. He is the type of person we would normally shun, and yet he represents the Holy One and everyone who hears his message and is willing to respond with repentance for straying from the path of righteousness is baptized by him. It is worth noting that in Malachi, the one who comes will bring with him the refiners fire and fuller’s soap to purify the “descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (Malachi 3:2-3).
Hearing these opening lines of Mark’s gospel, perhaps it is appropriate for us to pause and meditate on what it means to prepare for the coming of the Lord. How might we be purified, so that we might present offerings in righteousness? After all, Advent is a time of preparation. It is time to sort things out and get things straight. It is a time of discernment (refiner’s fire). We can ask ourselves questions like “what is important in life?” This is a good question to ask when we are being bombarded by messages that tell us that this or that gadget will make life wonderful. We might ask a deeper question -- “Why am I here? What is my calling?” And of course, we can ask: “Where is God in all of this?”
The season of Advent lives in an uneasy tension with the more secular side of the holiday season. Yes, I think it’s a good thing to think in terms of a holiday season, because not only are other faiths observing their own holy days (Hanukkah for instance), much of the season has little to do with the spiritual message of Christmas (and I don’t want to demean the multiple aspects of the season). The carols are nice, but surely there is more to the story than even they convey.
In John’s understanding of his own ministry, one prepares for the coming of the Lord through repentance and baptism, which brings forgiveness of sins. The same message is given by Peter on the day of Pentecost. When the people ask him what they must do to be saved (to be made whole) – the same question being asked of John – Peter tells them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). But forgiveness, as important as it is, is not the end game. Both here in Mark 1 and in Acts 2, baptism leads not only to forgiveness but to the promise of the Holy Spirit. Now, because John’s ministry is preparatory, he only offers forgiveness; that is a new beginning. But the one who comes after him, the one whose sandals he is unworthy of untying, will bring the Holy Spirit to the people.
Sticking with John’s baptism for a moment, we are reminded that baptism is a converting ordinance. It is, to return to Malachi 3, the place where we go through the refiner’s fire and are washed with the fuller’s soap. As a result of this action, we are prepared to enter into the fullness of God’s realm. The path is made straight. We are cleansed from that which has soiled our lives. We are ready to present our offerings in righteousness.
The cleansing of one’s life is only the first step. John understands this only too well, though he does not abandon his ministry. Something more is needed, and that is the Spirit. The one whose way he prepares will bring the Spirit. And on Pentecost, a Lukan story, Peter declares that not only will those who repent and are baptized receive forgiveness, but they will also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. With this gift, transformation comes in its fullness. One not only has a new start but is empowered for life in the realm of God.
It strikes me that there is a parallel here to the message of John 3, where Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Now, John may have in mind both human and spiritual birth, but in John 1 as in Mark 1, the Baptist speaks of Jesus being the one who baptizes with the Spirit (John 1:33). In other words, both are necessary for preparation for life in the kingdom of God – repentance/cleansing and empowerment.
As we stop to take stock of our lives we must remember that the journey we take is one empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are born of both water and the Spirit. Perhaps as we look at the gifts that are being gathered under the tree, we can envision the gifts of God provided to us through the Spirit so we might fulfill our calling as children of God. Of course, the gifts that come to us through the Spirit are very different from the ones placed under the Christmas tree.
All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
And open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for the truth. (Alberto Taulé)