Advent 2 + December 7 & 10, 2017
Text: Mark 1:1-8
A popular show on NBC is the The Voice, which features contestants singing to a panel of celebrity judges. The season starts with blind auditions. In this phase of the show, the contestants go on stage and sing, but the judges sit in chairs with their backs to the contestants. They can’t see the contestants; they can only hear the voice.
This is what God wanted the people of Jerusalem to do with John the Baptist. Our Gospel lesson says, "John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey." (v. 4-6) By offering that description of John, the Bible is basically telling us, John was not much to look at. He was not a well-dressed, polished celebrity. The only things that really mattered about John were his voice and his message. The same is true with preachers today. God does not issue a dress code for modern preachers. God only requires one thing: that they use their voices to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. And on the other side of the coin, God requires this of you, his people: listen for the voice of the Gospel.
Listen again to our text from Mark: "The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in Isaiah the prophet: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way - a voice of one calling in the desert, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
Saint Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah to describe John the Baptist and his work, which was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus. John did this by "baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (v. 4) The Lord still uses the same basic method today. God still sends out his preachers to prepare the way for the Lord. He wants this way prepared because the Lord wants to come to you and to bless you with his gospel of love, peace, comfort, and salvation. But before any of God’s people can appreciate and accept this good news, they first have to hear the bad news.
John the Baptist was especially good at preaching the bad news. For example, in Luke, chapter three, we read, "John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Lk. 3:7) Vipers are snakes. Satan took the form of a snake when he tempted Adam and Eve to sin. John was effectively telling the Jewish people, You think you are so holy because you kinda-sorta-but not really follow the Word of God. You think your relationship with God is safe and secure because you are a Jew and God called the Jewish people to be his very own. But don’t fool yourself. Your sinful nature makes you the spawn of Satan, not a child of God. Your willful breaking of God’s law every day cuts you off from the Lord. Your sin and your guilt make you repulsive in God’s sight and a foul stench in God’s nose. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance.
God still calls his modern preachers to echo the voice of John the Baptist, even to good, church-going people like you and me. God still prepares the way for the Lord by having his preachers tell you: You members of Saint John’s know the right words to say: “Lord, I’m not worthy. I am a poor miserable sinner in thought, word, and action.” And yes, you are very clever at keeping your sins hidden from others. Or at least, you are very careful of the company among whom you commit your sins of anger, drunkenness, gossip, foul language, and lust. But you cannot hide you sins from God. Your shallow, robotic confession of sins is the unbearable shrieking of lies in the holy ears of your Almighty God. Your smoke and mirror act of hiding your sins are so pathetic, they would be laughable if they were not so damnably serious. Yes, you think you are so holy. But you are nothing but filthy rags and rotting garbage. You are only fit to be thrown away from the presence of the pure and Holy God.
That’s how God prepares the way for the Lord. It’s like a road construction crew. That crew blasts away hills, pulverizes boulders, and cuts down trees to make a smooth, straight highway. So also, the Word of God destroys every sinful obstacle in your heart and life to prepare the way for the Lord. That’s why Isaiah says, "A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain." (Isaiah 40:3-4)
So listen to the voice of the preacher. God is using him to prepare a road of redemption, a freeway of forgiveness, and a superhighway of salvation from God’s loving heart to your needy soul. That’s why God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Lord. John’s ministry had nothing to do with John; it had everything to do with Jesus. That’s why John says, "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (v. 7)
John the Baptist was the greatest of all prophets, but he was nothing compared to Jesus. Sure, John did the outward work of the gospel. That’s why he says, "I baptize you with water." But Jesus does the real work, the inner work, the powerful, spiritual work of the gospel. That’s why John says of Jesus, "he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (v. 8)
The same is true today. In every baptism a pastor performs, he speaks the Word of God and pours water on the person being baptized. But every time that happens, Jesus is the one who is doing the real work. Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit to create faith. Jesus is forgiving sins. Jesus is turning that poor sinner into a dearly loved child of God for eternity. The same is true when a pastor preaches. Sure, the pastor studies the Word of God. The pastor writes the sermon. The pastor prepares the sermon. The pastor preaches the sermon. But it is Jesus who does the real work. Really, it’s like that TV show, The Voice. When the contestants sing, the use their own voices, but they always sing a song from an established artist’s repertoire.
That’s what John the Baptist did. That’s what faithful preachers still do today. They preach the Gospel of Jesus – not their own ideas or opinions. So listen for the voice of the gospel. Through your lowly, insignificant pastor, Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of Lords says to you: Comfort, the true comfort of God’s love, is what I give you. For where your sin abounded, God’s love and forgiveness doubly abounded. Not only do I forgive all your sins by my holy, precious blood. But for the punishment you deserve for your sins, I will award you double joy and double happiness in heaven. Although your holiness is like a wilted flower and a leafless tree, my promise to be your Savior and my guarantee to forgive your sins will stand strong and true forever and forever. And even though you have acted like a foolish sheep wandering away from my fold, I will be your faithful Shepherd. I will gather you, my precious lambs, in my arms and I will carry you close to my heart forever and ever.
Listen for the voice of the Gospel. Listen for the voice of your Savior, Jesus Christ. Listen and believe. Believe and rejoice.