John the Baptist: Opening an Advent window on the bigger picture of the Christmas story

LAST SUNDAY, as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, I shared the following reflection at a church in south Liverpool, on the second Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year when we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

The inspiration came from two of the recommended readings for the day: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8, and resources from ROOTS, a partnership of Christian organisations which publishes worship resources online and in print.

CHRISTMAS is often a good time to settle down and watch a good film. What’s your favourite? Perhap’s It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Carol, or Love Actually, or even Die Hard?

There’s something reassuringly familiar about a favourite Christmas film – you can be sure there are no nasty shocks or surprises to come, and you can probably recite most of the script.

A favourite Christmas film might be one piece of the jigsaw that makes up what Christmas means to us. Other pieces might include: food, family, decorations, carols, nativity plays, and other traditions.

The Christmas story is also a jigsaw, which we have pieced together from the four gospels. The pieces include: a star, a manger, shepherds, and wise people from the east.

So, it can be disconcerting when we bump into this week’s Gospel reading – the story of a man in the desert baptizing people doesn’t seem to fit the puzzle. Does it even belong in our picture of Christmas?

Mark doesn’t start his Gospel with Jesus’ birth; in fact, he doesn’t mention it at all.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus enters the story already an adult. Clearly John the Baptist was an integral part of the Jesus story, so important that the story starts with him. The opening words are:

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God’.

Mark 1:1

It’s not the complete Good News – the story continues right up to this moment, here today.

The Gospel starts with the word ‘beginning’, which seems to allude deliberately to the first line of the book of Genesis chapter 1, the story of creation. This suggests that what is to come is a ‘new creation’, with implications for our relationship with God, with each other, and our world.

Before giving the content of that good news, Mark presents John, a messenger sent to prepare the way and who baptizes people in the wilderness. In the middle of Advent, when we wait for Christmas to arrive, we encounter John the Baptist, who was also waiting: for the arrival of the Messiah, to baptize him and see him start his ministry. Including John at this moment in Advent helps us to see a picture much bigger than the sweet baby in the manger, of Jesus as God but also a human who came to live among us and change the world.

Mark introduces John the Baptist with words echoing the prophet Isaiah:

‘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”’

Mark 1:3

To help us see the bigger picture, it’s also important to see Isaiah in context. Isaiah was speaking to people living through an extended time of crisis.

Cast your mind back to 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown and all the restrictions – how did you feel?

It was worse for the Israelites in Isaiah’s day: Jerusalem, including the temple, had been destroyed and they had been taken into exile as slaves.

Chapter 40 of the the book of Isaiah begins with God’s command: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people’. But what are the words of comfort? The prophet speaking in God’s name reports that she (Israel) has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that God is with them, and they will be released from captivity.

But Mark is doing more than just echoing Isaiah [40:3] – the quote also echoes the prophet Malachi [3:1] and the book of Exodus [23:20].

So, Mark is calling on ancient prophecies of the Messiah, who will come to liberate God’s people. Mark is setting out what is to come – that John the Baptist is the one the prophets anticipated, whose words and actions mark a watershed in the story of God in creation.

I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m reliably informed that the one Greek word that appears in both parts of Mark’s quotation from the prophets is odos, which means way, journey, or road. It’s where we get the name of the instrument that measures the mileage in a car – the odometer. The same word reappears at significant moments throughout Mark’s gospel [e.g. 8:27, 10:32, 10:52). It also became an early title for those who followed Jesus (Acts 9:1).

This may be the key that opens the message Mark’s gospel – the ‘way of the Lord’ that John prepares for is the physical and spiritual journey that Jesus makes from Galilee to Jerusalem and the cross. On this ‘way’, there are those, such as the disciples, who follow him. Only John the Baptist goes before him on the ‘way’, as his ‘forerunner’. John soon disappears from Mark’s story for several chapters. When he reappears [6:14-30], there is a surprisingly detailed account of John’s suffering and death, suggesting that John is the ‘forerunner’ of Jesus in death as well as in life.

There are two more pieces of the picture of John the Baptist, and his role in the story of Jesus. First, in Mark’s description of John’s clothing [1:6], Mark quotes the description of Elijah, another prophet of God [2 Kings 1:8]. Second, echoing the words of Isaiah would recall for his listeners the story of Exodus, how God’s chosen people leave the wilderness and enter the ‘promised land’ – a whole new beginning. Mark tells us something that nativity plays don’t – that this story of Jesus is about the whole of creation standing on the brink of a total and radical transformation, a new beginning with God through the transforming presence of Jesus. Mark expresses this as being all about a man from Nazareth, with 12 disciples (just like the 12 tribes of Israel) as the founders of a new people of God – and we are all invited to join in this good news that continues to unfold among us today.

There are so many different pieces that come together to make our experience of Christmas. In the busy run up to the big day, with so many details to attend to, the pieces that are easiest to see may be those we think make a ‘perfect Christmas’, if there is such a thing. Even more importantly, there is something vital in knowing there is a bigger picture. The struggle of trying to make all the parts add up to the full picture can be difficult. Keeping in mind the vision of what this is really all about can help us to keep going.

The story of God coming to us is not just about warm fuzzy feelings around a stable or empathising with Mary and Joseph being turned away by innkeepers, though these insights are important. Instead, God sent prophets like John the Baptist to tell everyone to get ready to meet with God. John challenged all who came to him: religious leaders, soldiers, poor farmers, rich tax collectors. He told them to repent – to change their minds and turn their lives around – to refocus on God so they can recognise when God comes.

Here, today, prompted by Mark’s sweeping introduction, is an opportunity to zoom out and look at the bigger picture of God’s plan of liberation for humankind, and all creation.

So, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, beyond the Christmas dinner table, and even the nativity stable: all this is about the advent, the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us, living as one of us, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit so we may all be transformed, so all creation can be restored. Through Jesus we can find a true and transformed life with God our creator. This is the bigger picture of Christmas in context.

So how can we keep in mind the bigger picture of John the Baptist and the emergence of Jesus this Advent and Christmas season? The story of John the Baptist suggests three priorities:

  • First, to pay attention to ‘the way’, the journey. We may not see the final destination yet – but it is important to set out – whatever the cost. We may find ourselves following in the footsteps of strange ‘outsiders’ like John the Baptist. It may involve self-sacrifice or suffering, but we do not have the luxury of just standing aside and not ‘beginning’.
  • Second, to check our own lives to see whether we need to repent, to change our minds and refocus on God so we recognise Jesus when He comes for who He truly is.
  • Third, to speak ‘truth to power’, challenging others to hold to God’s standards of justice, mercy and love.

Perhaps some questions raised by Mark’s introduction to John the Baptist may help to focus our minds:

  • What is the wilderness for us, here and now?
  • Who are the ‘John the Baptists’ in our world today?
  • What do people today need to see the bigger picture of Jesus?

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