He was an odd man. He did not wear the flowing robes of the priests or the teachers of the law, but dressed in a simple tunic made from camel hair tied with a leather belt. He did not live within the shelter and comfort of city walls, but preferred the arid wilderness of the desert, eating locusts and honey scavenged from wild bee hives. His birth was unusual too. His father, a priest, was visited by an angel and told he and his wife would have a son with a unique role: “many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the Spirit and power of Elijah [the ancient prophet].” 1 After the angel’s visit, his elderly parents conceived, gave birth, and named their only child—John.
Hundreds of years had passed since the prophet Malachi predicted the coming of a messenger to prepare the Israelites for God’s arrival. Malachi warned God’s coming would be both “great” and “dreadful.” 2 God would bring justice to the earth, but would start in each person’s heart, offering the choice to either let God’s “refiner’s fire” turn the ugly into something beautiful or to be consumed. A second prophet, Isaiah, also prophesied about the coming messenger. Isaiah described him as “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” 3 God was coming, but his messenger would arrive first to prepare the people.
So Mark’s gospel begins: Settle in, because I am about to tell you a very good story about God’s son, the one he chose and sent to save us. It starts with God’s messenger, sent to prepare the way. It starts with John, living in the desert, dressed in clothing invoking the image of the ancient prophet Elijah, 4 and calling out to whoever crosses his path, whoever will listen: it is time, God is coming, we need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness for our sins and darkened hearts.
And amazingly people came to John. They left the big cities and the rural farms and traveled to the desert to find John. “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him” (v. 5). They were longing for a meaningful life and journeyed to the parched desert hoping to quench their spiritual thirst. They told John their regrets, confessed their mistakes, took an honest self-evaluation and bared everything and then found deliverance, forgiveness, refreshment and mercy. They came to John to be baptized, were lowered down into the water of the Jordan River, and raised up with new faith.
John preached a powerful message. He had an incredible ministry. But he made himself very clear: He was only the messenger. Someone else was coming. “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). God was coming.
1 Luke 1:16-17
2 Malachi 4:5
3 Isaiah 40:3
4 2 Kings 1:8. Youngblood, Ronald F., F.F. Bruce & R. K. Harrison. Compact Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 330-331.
Sara Nelson O'Brien is the author of The Bald Headed, Tattoed, Motorcycle Mama's Devotional Guide for Women Battling Cancer & Those Who Love Them.
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