So in light of my history of reading Hemingway it may not be much of a surprise to you that Mark has never really been my favorite gospel. I gained an appreciation for it in seminary, but it always reminded me of Poppa Hemingway. Maybe Poppa learned his trademark abruptness from Mark. Mark throws you into the action right away … PLOP! … right into the wilderness with John the Baptizer – a “man’s man” who lives in the wilderness, wears animal skins, eats bugs and honey, and calls people to repentance. Just the kind of guy you’d invite to your next shee shee cocktail party, right? … yeah … sure …
John is a truth teller who paves the way for Jesus. But he’s the kind of guy that makes you uncomfortable. He asks hard questions. He condemned Herodias for divorcing Philip to marry Harod … and he lost his head for that one. But for some reason, Mark tells us that people from the big city, Jerusalem, and all the Judean countryside were going out to the wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized by John. In some ways this is a repurposing of the traditional Jewish mikvah bath – a ritual cleansing done before going to the Temple (and most often done by women who were routinely considered “ritually unclean”).
John’s baptism is about confession and repentance; but Jesus, the greater one who comes after John, does not talk about confession at all. In fact, this is the only time Mark uses the word “confessing.” Perhaps this is because John’s mission was to bring about confession and repentance in order to prepare the way. Our Orthodox sisters and brothers call John the "Forerunner" ("the Baptist" isn't his last name). As a forerunner, his role is to get people prepared for the coming of the Christ. Confession and repentance open the heart to hear the message of the one who is greater.
John’s role and ministry, according to Mark, were to prepare the way for Jesus. While John clearly has a strong following of all these folks coming from miles around to be baptized, he realizes the message isn’t about him – it’s about preparing for Jesus. He clearly points to Jesus when he says, “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.” John may be a rough character, but his heart is open and he knows his message is about something much bigger than himself. He knows it’s not about him!
Many years ago, my father warned me about believing my own "press." He told me there would be people who think I'm terrific and want to put me on a pedestal and others who would think I'm lower than dirt - neither are true - the truth is somewhere in the middle. John was clear - he didn't let the "press" about his ministry make him into an egomaniac. He didn't move off the message of pointing to Jesus.
John serves as an example to us in our ministry – and no, I’m not talking about a need to adopt the bugs and honey diet. Our ministry is not about us either … it’s about the one more powerful than us. We can lose sight of that because of our egos. Our need to be right, to have our egos affirmed, believing our own "press" or even going to the other extreme of believing ourselves unworthy or unqualified to minister on behalf of Christ – all of these point to ourselves and not to Jesus. John knows himself, his message, and his place – and all of his being is pointing to Jesus.
As we continue to prepare for Christ’s coming in our hearts, ask yourself – to what, or to whom, does your life point? Does it point to the one more powerful than you? In this season of preparation, we are invited to open our hearts through confession and repentance so that we might better be able to point to Jesus.