Forerunning…or For Running?

Posted: September 17, 2012 in Mark, Sermon Manuscripts

Shortly after moving here to Crozet from Indiana and settling into the new house and just kinda getting my feet under myself, our volunteer coordinator Jeff Hellings invited me to go hiking at Mint Springs with him. I didn’t have to think too hard about it. I mean, this is cool. It’s a chance to connect better with Jeff, and I love the outdoors, why not? In my youthful naivety, I thought that Jeff liked me. I thought he wanted to be friends. About five minutes after hitting the trail, I realized the horrible truth- Jeff hated me, and this had to be his way of running me out of town!

But no, it’s better now than it was that first trip up the hill. Still hard, but easier. Fun, even. I had a revelation the other day, though, ‘cause of the different ways we approach the trail. I’m not exactly a fitness guru, and I spend the majority of our time together panting, gasping, and trying to make sure that I don’t step on anything stupid. Thankfully I’m so focused on taking the next step that I seldom ever look at the hill above me- and a good thing, as the few times I do see what remains ahead generally causes me to lose resolve.

Not Jeff, though. Jeff’s a weird one. He’s different. Typically taking the lead, seldom ever lagging behind, Jeff is armed with bear-strength pepper spray and spends his time scanning the trees, looking into the distance, clapping his hands- doing his part to make sure we don’t wind up as bear food. He’s gotta do the looking, ‘cause he knows I’m worthless. The other day I was this close to making a Facebook status that read, “I’m not saying I’m out of shape, but if I had been predestined to meet a bear on this trail this morning, he would have been predestined to eat me!”

And his attitude is strange, too. We went trail running a couple weeks ago, and it was pouring rain from the time we got there to the time we left. In the middle of my panting/gasping/wheezing thing that I do, I could hear him utter strange things like, “Lord, thank you for this beautiful day.” I told you he was weird!

But there couldn’t have been a clearer contrast the other week between me staring down, struggling, out of breath, hurting, focused on nothing but the next step, and there was Jeff- confident, watchful, exuberant…it hit me right then that I was seeing the perfect illustration of the Old Testament prophets, these men of God (sometimes women, but typically men) who were other worldly, who spoke a message birthed from a supernatural experience with the Creator of the universe.

Isaiah was such a prophet. Little is known about Isaiah, though we know that he received his calling and vision of God around 740 B.C. in the same year that King Uzziah died. This was no casual death, but rather signified the end of an era of prosperity, that perhaps God’s blessings on the Kingdom of Judah were now a thing of the past. You can imagine the fear, uncertainly, and chaos that was ensuing as the people were thrown into turmoil.

Not Isaiah, though. His encounter with God (you’ll have to read more in Isaiah chapter six) left him focused on the eternal, rather than the temporary. His eyes were on the future, not dwelling in the past or preoccupied with the present.

Malachi was another such prophet. Some two hundred years after Isaiah’s day, God came to Malachi with a prophetic word for Judah. Now here’s the interesting thing…there are a couple small parts in both Isaiah and Malachi that were designed by God to be used in tandem, coupled with each other to present a fuller message.

The prophecy mentioned by Isaiah and then supplemented by Malachi was in reference not just to the coming Messiah who would rescue his people…but also of a forerunner, a messenger, a preacher, a prophet who would pave the way for the coming Messiah. You can imagine the deafening silence among God’s people as, scattered, they go some 400 years without a prophetic voice. And then…the Messenger arrives, and his name is John.

Mark has no doubts that John is this forerunner. Follow along with me in Mark chapter one as we find Mark referencing these Old Testament prophecies. He says, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Fascinating thing Mark is doing here under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit- he’s taking a small portion of Malachi, a minor prophet, and using it to bring to light the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy, and then he goes further and names John as the realization of this prophecy: “John appeared.”

John appeared. Now you have to know that even though this is Mark’s first mention of John, Luke provides us with even more detail in Luke chapter one, and we find that this John, not to be confused with John the Beloved, is actually related to Jesus. John’s mom, Elizabeth, though much older than Jesus’ mom, Mary, is related to her- either as an aunt, great-aunt, or cousins of a sort. All we known from scripture is that they were related. John’s story is fascinating, but I don’t have time right now to cover all of the nuts and bolts- I would encourage you to dig in later and read the amazing story that Luke records in chapter one of his gospel.

But we know that John’s an odd one from the get-go, because when Mary finds out she’s pregnant with Jesus, she goes to tell Elizabeth, who at this point is about 6 months pregnant with John. Luke tells us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.” In some awesome, unfathomable, mysterious way, John as an unborn fetus responded with joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. According to Luke, John eventually “…grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80).

So fast forward about thirty years and we see Mark recording John’s arrival as we find John indeed out in the wilderness, “baptizing…and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Now we need to park it right there for a bit, because something unusual and amazing is happening.

The concept of baptism wasn’t entirely unusual in John’s day. It was primarily the means by which a Gentile could become a Jewish proselyte. In other words, people not born in the bloodline of Abraham could enter into  Judaism by way of confessional baptism. But this isn’t what’s going on here. Mark tells us that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Ok, we see a few things here. One, John is baptizing Jews. Perhaps there are some Gentiles involved, but he’s definitely baptizing Jews. Jews, the members of the covenant family of God. Jews, who were confessing their sins. This also wasn’t too unusual, as it was a common practice in those days for Jews to receive a sprinkling, a symbolic cleansing for their sin. But what was unusual was for a Jew to be fully immersed, which is what the word “baptize” (baptidzo in the Greek) means. John is called The Baptizer, the Immerser. Their full-on immersion in the waters, confessing their sins, showed that in their own mind, they were as far away from God as Gentiles were. Clearly, the Spirit of God was at work revealing sin to sinners…

Think back a second about the work of the prophesied forerunner to the Messiah. According to Malachi, the message of the forerunner was in part to, “Prepare the way of the Lord- make his paths straight.”

Ok, so September first was the opening day of squirrel season, and as you may already know, I’m an avid hunter/outdoorsmen. Sarai and the kids were at the beach with her parents, so I decided to make the trip up to the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area to um, try to do my part to combat a growing zombie squirrel infestation. I knew it would take an hour to get there- what I didn’t know was that it was an hour to the bottom of the mountain; I was still several miles from the hunting area.

I knew it was going to be trouble when the asphalt disappeared shortly after I passed a sign reading “End State Maintenance.” Sure enough it wasn’t long before I found myself creeping up the side of this mountain with no guardrails, trying to avoid the potholes and praying that I wouldn’t destroy the suspension of my car by climbing the small boulders that comprised what could loosely be called a road. No exaggeration- it took another 25 minutes or so to go the remaining few miles to the parking area. It would have been so much easier to drive in had the road been smooth and paved.

This was precisely the idea behind the prophesied forerunner. It was customary in those days to roll out the proverbial red carpet for visiting royalty. Ruts in the road would be filled in, high spots would be leveled off. The arrival would be smooth and efficient. This was the role of John the Baptist- a role foretold to his own father Zachariah. Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel said about his infant son, “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the LORD their God, and he will go before Him in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

So how was John going to come in the spirit of the prophet Elijah? Several ways- his desert isolation, his attire, and his identical message of repentance. Mark tells us that John “was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” Interesting thought there, huh? Too many of us believe that we need to be like our culture in order to reach our culture…when sometimes what our culture needs to see is someone who is radically different from our culture. Sometimes.

This was one of those times. Here’s John out in the wilderness, miles away from the city of Jerusalem, dressed like a mad man, and if we get additional details from Matthew, we’d see in Matthew 3:2 that John’s message was this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Here at Life Journey you’ll hear Walt and me often preaching repentance. As we should, since Jesus told his hearers that unless they repent, they’ll perish. We need to be sure, though, that when we mention “repentance,” we’re defining it Biblically. It doesn’t mean to force yourself to stop sinning. It doesn’t mean to mechanically go from “bad” deeds to “good” deeds. It doesn’t simply mean to feel sorry for screwing up, because there are many reasons we can feel sorry without experiencing true repentance.

Simply put, insofar as “repentance” can be simply defined, is this idea of changing one’s mind. Or as I like to say, seeing the real reality. It’s that act of grace by which we no longer see ourselves as basically good, as ok with God. No, true repentance means seeing God for the holy, righteous being that He is and contrasting this with our own sinful wickedness. This grip of reality, when truly experienced, will come with earth-shattering repercussions. There will be remorse, yes. There will be a desire to sin less, not to earn God’s love but in response to God’s love. There will be a desire to sin less, but not to make God happy- rather we sin less because sin is increasingly unappealing to us. We hate it and can’t stand our rebellion against God anymore.

So as John is preaching this message of repentance, he’s urging those in earshot to repent, to see reality for what it is, to be in sorrow over their sin against God, to express this repentance through the act of baptism. And as Mark tells us, John warned his listeners, “After me comes one who is mightier than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie…”

I need to stop here a second and explain this or we’re going to miss the significance of John’s statement, because on the surface it sounds like an exaggerated “I’m not worthy to carry his bags” kind of statement. But in his day, in his culture, rabbis could expect anything out of their followers, could ask them to do anything for them, with one exception- to loosen or remove their shoes from them. That kind of task was left to the slaves and servants. In reality, this one prohibition was the only thing separating slaves from disciples.

John’s not simply trying to be humble- John is communicating to these people that he is nothing compared to the One who was coming, the One John references as he says, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew’s angle fills out John’s statement to include “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And so this is John’s message to those around him, to those both baptized and not baptized, to the sincere participants and the curious onlookers: “He’s coming. He’s coming. The Messiah is coming to His people. Some will be immersed into the Holy Spirit. Some of you will be immersed into fire. The Messiah knows who are his, and He will deliver them. He will rescue them. Those who are not His will be in Hell for an eternity…”

The interesting thing here is that we already see the reality that simply being a Jew did not guarantee one’s salvation. John’s mission was to pave the way for the Messiah. His means of doing that was to proclaiming mankind’s sinfulness. Those cut to their core would be baptized as a sign of their contrition and repentance. Those unaffected by the spectacle either watched in curious distain or left.

So here’s where we enter this story. Because we weren’t there 2000 years ago as all this went down. We weren’t there as Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a spotlessly clean life, identified himself as the Son of God, and bore the sins of His people as He was crucified on a Roman cross. We weren’t there when the Roman centurion said, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

We weren’t there when they removed his beaten, dead body off the Cross, a body that had been whipped beyond human recognition- his beard had been ripped out, a crown of thorns shoved into his scalp. We weren’t there when they buried him in a tomb that was guarded by soldiers, and we weren’t there when on the third day Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, came back to life, rolled the stone away, and walked out of the tomb victorious over sin, the grave, and Satan!

We weren’t there afterwards as Luke records for us in the book of Acts that Jesus spent the next forty days speaking about the Kingdom of God before supernaturally rising towards the heavens and disappearing from sight.

But the story doesn’t end there, because as the people watched Jesus disappear from sight, two angels among them said “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into Heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into Heaven.” He’s coming again, and when he does will be when he will, as John prophesied, “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And so my question for you is this: what have you done with Jesus? Do you value him above everything else? Do you truly believe that he’s the Son of God? Are you trusting in His work on the Cross as your only hope of salvation? Or are you still watching the show?

It’s not about being in church. It’s not about nodding your assent to some historical facts- it’s about coming to that place in your life where you’re finally ready to let go of everything and pursue Christ, to trust Him as your Savior. Maybe you’re sitting there reading and for the first time ever you see the Truth. You’re crushed by the weight of your sin and you realize how much you’ve rebelled again your Creator. That is repentance and you now lack one thing- believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Will you do that?

Week before last I wanted Sarai and the kids to experience the view from Mint Springs that Jeff had shown me. Part way down the mountain there’s a log bench that overlooks the valley below- beautiful place. So I took the family the back way- also the shortest way- up to this scenic overlook. I was carrying Gracelyn, Uriah was walking and collecting acorns to throw into the lake, Sarai was with Uriah.

And I was there leading the way. I was talking to Gracelyn, but I was also looking around us to make sure that there were no wild animals close by, that no danger was lurking. And it occurred to me that I was beginning to adopt the role that Jeff had taught me, to be vigilant over the surroundings, to watch out for others.

So maybe you’re sitting there and you are a Christ follower- are you paving the way for Christ’s return? Are you sharing the Good News with those in your life, the news that Jesus has rescued his people and promises eternal life to all who repent and believe? Or is your focus more on yourself, on your own surroundings and circumstances? Perhaps you’re caught up in the so-called American Dream and no longer focused on the Kingdom of God. Maybe you’re scared to become a spectacle, the object of ridicule to a lost world around you. Will you this morning surrender to God and fulfill His calling on your life? Whether you need to surrender yourself to God and embrace His salvation, or ask God to help you as a believer to be more focused on His Kingdom, we can all do something. The question is, will you?

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