At Halloween it is fun to watch the little kids all dressed up. Many of them chose some iconic character from movies or cartoons. It changes every year as new characters are created and others are forgotten, but some seem to be timeless. You do not have to ask who they are if they are dressed up like Superman, or Batman, Snow White, or Ariel (the Little Mermaid). When I was a kid, we might dress up like a historical person. Anyone with a coon skin cap in Texas had to be Davy Crockett.
There were iconic figures in ancient times as well. One of these people was the prophet Elijah. Elijah was definitely a character that stuck out. In 2 Kings 1: 8 some messengers of the king Ahaziah of Israel encounter a strange character on the road who prophesies the king’s death because he put his faith in the pagan gods instead of the God of Abraham. The king askes them to describe the man they met, and they say, “a hairy man, with a leather belt about his waist” (2 Kings 1:8a). The king knew immediately who it was, “It is Elijah the Tishbite,” he said. Elijah had quite a reputation. He multiplied oil and flour for a poor woman so she and her son would not die of hunger. Later when that same boy fell ill and died, Elijah raised him from the dead. On more than one occasion, He called down fire from heaven to aid him in his cause. He wiped out great number of pagan priests and soldiers sent to stop his prophetic proclaimations . Finally, scripture says he did not die, but was carried to God in a fiery chariot carried up in a tornado.
Keep this image in you mind because we will come back to it shortly.
Mark begins his Gospel “In the beginning” just like Genesis and the Gospel of John, but he does not begin with the good news of creation. He begins with the Good News of Jesus Christ and he refers back to passages in Malachi and Isaiah. He attributes them both to Isaiah which indicates he has memorized these passages and is not looking at an actual written document. His audience knows their scripture as well. Perhaps not chapter and verse, those delineations are a late additions after it became common for people to have printed manuscripts, but they knew the stories of their people by heart.
John is calling the people to participate in a ritual washing or bath and calling them to repent or literally change their mind and go a different direction. We tend to think of repentance as saying “I’m sorry,” which may need to happen, but true repentance means that we are not just sorry we got caught, or sorry we hurt someone’s feelings and now they are mad at us. It means we have changed our priorities and we intend to live life differently going forward. Repentance is more than a New Year’s resolution that we might keep until it becomes inconvenient. Those are often directed at bettering ourselves for ourselves anyway. It is embracing the life which puts God first, everyone else second, and our personal desires toward the bottom of the pile. Just a word of caution. Self-denial has often been taken to mistaken extremes. We are precious to God and taking care of our mental and physical health so that we might be able to worship God and to help our neighbor is a good thing.
Mark describes John the baptizer for us in more detail than he describes anyone else. Mark is wanting to make sure that when we look at John, we see Elijah. Remember how Ahaziah described Elijah. Mark says, “Now John was clothed with camel’s har, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1: 6) Why would Mark do that?
The Jews, the people from Judah that were left after Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom, anxiously waited for what they called “The Day of the Lord.” They believed that on this day God would set everything right. The prophet Malachi (which is the last book in the Christian ordering of the Old Testament scriptures, but not the last book as it is currently ordered in the Jewish Tanakh) ends with this statement, “Lo, I will send you the prophet, Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” Even today, at the Passover an extra place is set at diner for Elijah and someone goes to the door during the meal to see if he has arrived. Mark is telling his audience that John was Elijah. Matthew goes so far as to have Jesus say, “…John came, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11:14).
John proclaims, “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.” (Mark 1:7) A proper host at this time would provide for his guest to have his sandals removed and his feet washed. People walked everywhere on hot dusty roads in leather sandals and it was comforting to be able to get out of your dirty sandals and wash your feet, but the act itself was always done by the most menial of servants. Most people considered themselves too good to take off someone else’s sandals. John says here that he, John, is not worthy to even do that for Jesus because Jesus is so special. Jesus, you will recall will do just that for his disciples on the day we call Maundy Thursday to demonstrate to them that they were being called into servant leadership.
Finally, John says “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s baptism was a symbolic ritual act of submission and intention to lead a new life, but on our own, we cannot accomplish that. We are destined to fall back into our old habits, unless we allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and guide our will so that our will aligns with the will of God. It is Jesus’ own spirit that fills us, which is why Paul describes the totality of believers as “the Body of Christ.” In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for Spirit can also be translated as wind or breath. At creation, as God spoke, his breath moved over the waters of chaos bringing order and all live to all the living things upon the earth. God breathed into his human creatures to bring them to life. Jesus breathed on his disciples after his resurrection to fill them with his Spirit, and on Pentecost it was like a hurricane blew through the room, filling everyone who would accept the Holy Spirit into their very being.
John tells us to prepare and to repent because the king is coming. I was so touched by the preparations that were made on my behalf when I arrived. The hospitality I have received is overwhelming and I am just a county parson. How much more should we examine our own lives if the guest we are expecting is Jesus. Are there places in our hearts where we need to scrub away some dirt, mend broken relationships, straighten, and polish, and clean out the closets of our minds and our hearts. This Advent, let us find the places where our spiritual paint has cracked, the weeds need to be pulled, and doors unjammed to make room for the Spirit of Christ this Christmas and to prepare our lives for the time we meet him face to face.