Out in the wilderness, along the bank of the Jordan river, we are introduced to a mesmerizing figure. His name is John the Baptist, and what he is doing could be likened to a cultural wake-up call. God’s people the Israelites find themselves under yet another nations occupation – this time the Romans. When this had happened before, it was on account of God’s people sinning, or turning away from their God to go after other gods. One way to describe this would be: they left their ultimate source of love and devotion to go to something/someone else. They would be lulled away from their fervent devotion to Yahweh by the allure of another hope, and when that happened, God’s people would wait until the time Yahweh would remember them and visit them, and bring them back into their land and ultimately a right relationship with him.
And here we have John the Baptist in effect saying: “Time to stop dreaming and face not just any other day, but perhaps the most significant day of the rest of your life, even the most significant day in the history of the world.” That was John’s message.
What did this mean for those standing on the bank of the Jordan that day? Both John and Jesus talk of repentance – both in preparation for the coming kingdom and as a response to the arrival of the kingdom. But what would repentance have looked like? Some of us today might answer, “It means to stop sinning” or “live as God’s people should live.” But it’s interesting to note that John and Jesus were both speaking to God’s people; what did it mean for them to “stop sinning” or “live as God’s people”?
Jesus’ contemporaries had lived a life that declared that Yahweh was their King, but functionally they lived with other things placed above Him. They had other things as more important. Things like their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws, their customs and traditions. Part of this was a long list and series of washings that had to occur to “purify” or “cleanse” them from any contamination they may have come in contact with. How can something defiled be acceptable to someone Holy, like God? For those Israelites, this was a simple matter of washing your hands, but for a Gentile, the only way to be allowed to participate in the worship of God (and with it the life of God’s people) was to be baptized – whole person “cleansing” whether by effusion or immersion). This was how a Gentile could become “clean”.
Now John the Baptist is preaching a ministry of baptism for everybody – Jew and Gentile alike – for the forgiveness of sins. This is scandalizing. Your pedigree no longer mattered. Your moral record no longer mattered. It’s good that you washed your hands, but that’s not going to cut it anymore. Something new is happening, and with that new thing, only complete newness is acceptable.
The only way to be “fit” for the kingdom of God is through a radical display of saving grace. The kind of grace that eclipses the baptism of John the Baptist; one that not only cleanses from sin, but gives the Holy Spirit. Compared to that, no one is even worthy to untie his sandals.
Questions for Reflection:
- Read Mark 1:1-13. How does John seek to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming? (vv. 1-8)?
- Would you say that you are “shocked” or “awakened” by the message of the gospel? If not, how do you feel about the gospel? If so, why is that?