ISAIAH 40:1–11, MARK 1:1–8
Today, the gospel of Mark brings a BIZARRE STORY about a man for the Second Sunday of Advent. While Isaiah spoke of this man as a "voice crying in the wilderness," the gospel of Mark identifies this person as John the Baptist. His story was strange to us today in many ways. First, John made his living in the wilderness and lived with wild animals. He was eating Locusts and wild honey for his diet. Lastly, John wore Camal's skin to cover himself—sounds primitive!
Both passages bring to us the message of readiness in our calling, comfort in our weary, deliverance in weakness, and peace in our distress and hope in our sorrows. Isaiah comforted Israel in the Babylonian exile, promising deliverance from God. That God has forgiven his people and now it is time for God to accomplish his divine purpose by taking his people back to their promised land. That, the messenger has been discharge to "break the good news" of restoration to his people.
The gospel message speaks of John the Baptist, who did not desire to live in big Manson, a nice house, or even in a tent. He was not interested in eating hamburgers, fries, and chicken sandwich. There were no hot wings for appetizer nor chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Yet, even in his uncomfortable situation, John was ready for the purpose to "break the news of the coming of the Messiah." He proclaimed a message of repentance, forgiveness and return to God.
You may ask whether John had indeed eaten Locusts? The Answer is a BIG YES! John the Baptist "ate Locusts and wild honey." Eating Locusts may sound disgusting. However, Locusts were prefect diets for John the Baptist. And YES, John did not wear a suit, or even a T-shirt, but what he wore were made of a camel skin and his belt was made from a fresh leather. This too, sound uncivilized.
John was ready and he has all the equipment for the task. The Camel skin helps protect from the severe heart of the wilderness and the leather belt support his back as he walks long ways. Honey has antioxidants and Locust has portion to build up strength.
Yes, it is primitive for us today in the 21st century. For ancient Israel, Locust was the type of insect allowed by mosaic law in the Torah-extract. "Every flying insect that uses four legs for walking shall be avoided by you. The only flying insects with four walking legs that you may eat are those which have knees extending above their feet, [using this longer leg] to hop on the ground. Among thee you may only eat members of the red locust family, the yellow locust family, the spotted gray locust family, and the white locust family. All other flying insects with four feet [for walking] must be avoided by you." Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ohr.edu: (Ask the Rabbi April 30, 1994, Issue #19)
How does Locust test? Served as are Kosher snacks, many people say Locusts test like chicken and crunchy in texture. This may not surprise you either. Take Africa for example, different kinds of insects are eaten by different ethnic groups all over Africa. As anthropologists/sociologist would say, the beauty of a culture/tradition is in the eyes of the beholder, say anthropologies.
Therefore, eating Locusts for John was normal. He was content with his lifestyle (Philippians 4:12-13). Even if his food and clothing seem uncomforting, John was buckled-up and was at peace with himself while in the wilderness. He was ready for the task given from God. And at the right time, John was discharged to remind people, exhort them, and call Israel to repent and return to God and the God of their fathers. He called for a new life in Israel. He led simple life but equipped to deliver a message from God.
John appeared, in the wilderness after 400 plus years of God's silence since the prophet Malachi. In those four hundred years, people had lost the meaning of life and tend to wander around over gods. Yet, Jehovah Adonai raised up a prophet to restore the fortune of Israel and bring back the nation to its path.
John the Baptist had the Spirit and zeal of the prophet Elijah as it was promised by prophet Malachi, saying, "Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" " (Malachi 4:4) (Luke 1:17). John came to draw attention to God. He was a hairy man like Elijah, “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah was a miracle worker, a messenger who encountered King Ahab and his wife. He prayed and there was no rain in Israel for three years because people chose to worship Baal over the God of Israel. After three years, Elijah defeated queen Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. He destroyed the worship of Baal at Mounty Carmel and led the people back to worship Yahweh (1 King 18).
One more thing, in the ancient days, there were no microphones, emails, Facebook, Tik-Tok, snapchat etc. to help spread their message to people. The messengers had to go around on foot announcing the message from one location to another, so that people could hear them. They use their voices, etc. to call attention to their message. A message could be a King's edict, public announcement for a special meeting or a call for war. People go out to listen to a prophet.
I remember back in Africa when a messenger would walk round my village from one location to another. They would repeat the message twice and people close to the road would ask him questions for a better understanding. Then when the messenger voice or the trumpet does not sound for the next five minutes, it would be understood that everyone had received the message. But people would continue asking others about the announcement. At that point, everyone is assumed to receive the message and are tasked to pass on the message.
This is similar with John experience and ancient Israel. People kept pouring to listen to John because the message has been passed on from one person to another. It was done human to human connection!
God's promise was fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist (Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3). John was a long-promised messenger to come and prepare the way for Christ's coming. When John emerged from the wilderness, people were interested to see, hear, and even talk to him (Mark 1:7).
Like Elijah, John asked people to repent and chose to live a life fit for repentance. His Baptism was for the change of hearts to God—as making a "U" turn when you make a wrong exit. His message meant to remind people of forgiveness and reconciliation. He compared this newness or change as of constructing a highway, where the valleys are filled-in and the hills made low. He called upon everyone to make such radical change, in that the whole world shall see the glorious salvation of God. A World at peace and everyone cares for one another.
John made it clear, that Messiah will be "baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. Meaning people will be baptized into Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As with fire, means everyone will be made accountable and responsible for their act of faith. He called people out of Jerusalem, back to the wilderness at the Jordan river. For many people, we may think John had lost his mind by asking people to leave behind their comfort life. But this was the prophetic model. Elijah too, had called queen Jezebel and his people out to Mount Carmel. There, Baal was defeated, and people entered the city with the rain pouring after three years of draught.
Here, John recreated Israel's entry to the promise land and to Jerusalem. Remember, Jordan was the last River the Israelites had crossed when entering the promise land. During the first entry, Joshua called out leaders and elders of the 12 tribes ad laid stones to help crossover to the new land.
Now John symbolized this event. By his call to baptism in the Jordan river, John the Baptist signified the spiritual reinter to the promise land. It was calling for new partnership with God and make people ready to receive the promised Messiah. He tasked people to go and "break the good news" they had just received. He had made it clear all-along to people, that he was not the Messiah. But he was the forerunner in the preparation for the coming of the promised One.
I can go on and on with literal background of this rich story. But let us turn to what it means to us today. First the location of John's activities present challenge to the temple practice, temple goers without real change and life of faith. His message exhorts to virtue and self-righteousness. He demands purity of heart, repentance of guilt and forgiveness. This too, is a call for us today to step out of our comfort zones in our ministry.
Second, John calls us for renewal; Isiah invites us to partner with God during this advent. As Israel returned to God when years of exile ended, we too, are remined the drawing new of the light of hope. We are called out to accept the message of God with pure hearts. The voice calling us to the church outside beyond the building walls. In every advent season we begin a new journey with God and reminded of our experience's wilderness/ of life circumstances. In his journey, the Lord assures us his presence. On Christmas Hope of new life is born again in our hearts. Yeshua, the savior confirms his indwelling among us—as Emmanuel—God with us!
Third, as John had his full armor of God, we are asked to do the same this time as we journey through Advent. You and I are demanded to "fasten the belt of truth" and "put on the breastplate of righteousness" and break the good news of God's grace (Ephesians 6:10-17). As John asked his attendees, the Lord asks us today to empty ourselves and to "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:13).
Fourth, we are strengthened and comforted in our darkness of life. "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:1-2). This season, the Lord is taking us back to his intended purpose. He assures us of forgiveness, and gracious gift of salvation—it is accomplished through Christ! Our hope in Advent "…is not grounded in the possibilities we can see in the human community, but in the faithfulness of God that is not conditioned by human frailty or fickleness" Charles B Cousar.
Fifth, God is doing something new in our wilderness as we are reminded of our Baptism. God speaks anew into the silence and desolation of our lives when we repent, listen, and recognize his voice. The Lord brings assurance and solidarity to us—God is always faithful to his promises.
Take our current situation for example. We long for a time where everyone is set free; where no mask is required; where everyone talk to family member, a friend, a coworker freely without being cautious of contacting the virus. This time was like the exiles to whom the message of deliverance was first broken. They were anticipating a day when they were all set free and enjoy peace at last.
It is the same for us today during this season. We are all exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and weary spiritually and hope for a new day. We are anticipating Christ's birth. God's promise of care and concern for you, in your moments. “Like a shepherd the Lord will take care of his people. He will gather his children, carries them in his arms and leads nursing mothers through the long journey of the desert… " (Isaiah 40:11).
Therefore, as Israelites were tasked to prepare a road for the coming of Yahweh, now we are informed to make our hearts ready. Human heart is center of our change. It is the temple of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. From our hearts the spring of life and the living water flows (Prov. 4:23; John 7:38). In this season, make peace, love one another, take care of the poor, and feed the needy. In that, God comes and indwells in our hearts and make his living in midst. Then we will be blessed with the gifts, of compassion, and forgiveness, care, toward others and build unity with our neighbors.
Sixth, the work of evangelism is to show God and newness where none seemed possible. As messengers of the good news, we are dispatched to speak, break the news (mĕbaššēr"/ መስበር) loudly and clear calling people to be at peace, stable and ready in these trying times. You are called to break the news of the new season where light shines through the dense darkness and shall not overcome. A message of breakthrough, that gives future for those who has no future. Let us acquire a passion for the gospel message and bring comfort to the brokenhearted, of assurance of peace and a promising future.
Lastly, let us be content with our lives and run the race of faith as we prepare to receive the newborn Messiah (Philippians 4:12-13). May Christ finds a space in our hearts on Christmas Day, where our spiritual exile ends, darkness of our circumstances is dispelled and drought of desire for peace yields to springs of water of blessings through Christ. Life begins anew, whole, safe, protected. Everything comes anew after hearing the good news proclaimed and act on it. As we are reminded of our Baptism, know that we are renewed, revived and "…everything old [left behind]; everything become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Therefore, let us be ready and prepare our hearts for Christ’s return as a Baby born in Bethlehem. Let us welcome the Messiah and proclaim ["mĕbaššēr"] the good news to everyone. Peace to you and to the whole world!