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Jesus' Family Album: Cousin John

. 6 min read

09-10
Dec 2017, Christ Mountain Top
Isaiah
40.1-11 (advent wreath)
2
Peter 3.8-15a (kids)
Mark
1.1-8 (message focus)
This
Advent, we are looking at the opening of each of the four gospels and leafing
through Jesus’ “family album”.  Last
week, we looked at Matthew’s gospel and Father Joseph.  This week, we open to Mark and Cousin John –
probably a couple times removed; all we know for certain is that their mothers
are related.  In the next two weeks,
we’ll look at Luke and John.
The
opening verse of Mark’s gospel is a title (Taylor, 152; Boring, 47):
“The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  It is the beginning of something, not the end.  That is, there is more of the story to
come.  It is the beginning of the gospel, a term used throughout the
Scripture for the good news of a king’s victory, for the good news of
deliverance for God’s people.
      Picture a sports bar in Boston, on
the night the Patriots won the Super Bowl last year.  When they sealed the victory, it was “good
news” (at least for their fans) and the crowd cheered.  It was the gospel of the New England
Patriots, despite Deflategate.  They hope
it is only the “beginning” of that gospel, that more super bowl victories are
ahead.
      Picture Mosul or Raqqa when they were liberated from ISIS, at least for
that majority who were being oppressed. 
Cheers, flag waving, guns fired in the air.  It was a gospel, hopefully only a beginning,
but with how unstable things are in that part of the world, much is uncertain.  Do you see how important “gospel” is in this
bad-news-world?  We crave this sort of
news, and when we get it, there is nothing but praise.
      Gospel: Good news of deliverance and
victory – through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

But
each true gospel story begins with preparation.  Behind the scenes, anonymous labor.  Or, public disapproval and extreme pain.  For the football team, it involved extensive
planning, long term commitment, and practice, practice, practice.  Allen Iverson: Eat your words.
      In this Scripture, the preparation begins
with a mash-up, a composite, of several Scriptures, from Exodus 23:20 (in the
ancient Greek version familiar to Mark), Malachi 3:1 (in Hebrew), and Isaiah
40:3 (in ancient Greek) (Taylor, 153):
      See, I am sending my messenger ahead of
you,
            who will prepare your way;
      the voice of one crying out in the
wilderness:
            “Prepare the way of the Lord,
            make his paths straight.”
This
language recalls the ancient tradition of town visits by emperors or
kings.  In our setting, when the
president comes through town, the motorcade shuts down streets and people line
the road.  In the ancient world, when the
victorious king comes to town, when the object of the gospel praise is on the
way, a new road is built, made beautiful with trees and construction, and the
entire town turns out to greet the king outside of the town – in the wilderness
– and escort him into town to cheers.  In
fact, this is one of the key New Testament images for Jesus’ coming again, for
what we expect in the season of Advent, a word that means “coming”.  (See N. T. Wright, 129.)
In
the case of this first biblical advent, the messenger stands in the wilderness
– far outside of town – and calls out, “Prepare the way.”  Here in Mark, he shows up, not in a luxury
suit but in camel hair and leather.  In
the playful language of Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jesus’ cousin John shows up
“looking as though he might possibly be on the corner of Main Street and
Broadway holding a cardboard sign with ‘Will Preach for Wild Locust and Honey’
scratched on it” (The Hardest Question website).
      The outfit is strange to us, and it was
strange in John’s time.  But it was not
without precedent.  In fact, he is
dressed just like prophet Elijah, who is referred to in the opening Scripture
quote sequence of verses 2-3 (Malachi particularly).  And, for a people who had not heard from a
prophet for 400 years, John was a big deal. 
Everyone turned out to hear him.
      Story
of San Jose de Gracia
at the turn of 1899-1900 … from Advent, pp 24-25.
      The strangest thing about John was not his
outfit, or even his food.  It was his
message: “Proclaiming a repentance-baptism (Taylor, 154) for forgiveness
of sins” (1:4).  In that era, Jews did
not come for baptism.  They are God’s
chosen people; they are saved already. 
Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized – they actually baptized
themselves.  But here, people come and
are baptized by John, or one of John’s disciples – not a do-it-yourself
baptism.  And, the people who come are
Jews, God’s faithful people, each of them confessing their sin in public!  And, the baptism is not just about confession
and forgiveness; it is also about the coming of Jesus.  “Coming after me is one stronger than I; I am
not worthy to bend down and loosen the thong of his sandals” (1:7).  (See Taylor, 155, on the uniqueness of John’s
baptism).
Prepare
the way.
 For John, the
preparation is an action: confession-and-repentance-baptism.  And, in that, to experience the cleansing, the
forgiveness, of God.  If we want to be
ready for the coming of Jesus, for the coming of one “stronger than” John –
even in all his strangeness and power – then it is crucial that we get down to
business with God in the matter of our sin. 
Note, however, that this is not about our guilt, but about God’s grace;
not about how miserable we are but about how merciful God is: “for the
forgiveness of sins”.
Prepare
the way.
 For whom?  Not for us to set out on a journey of our own
salvation-making but for “one stronger than I”. 
This language of “stronger” reflects the power dynamics of Mark’s
gospel.  In 3:27, Jesus speaks of
“binding the strong man”, a reference to taking on and defeating the Devil, and
plundering hell for the glory of God. 
This is a dramatic reference to and anticipation of Jesus as “Judge and
Saviour of the End Time” (Taylor, 156). 
Jesus’ arrival means that the Devil’s day is done: The brokenness of our
families and world, the power structures that maintain inequality, the sins of
greed, lust, and pride … all of this, as strong as it is, can’t stand against
Jesus.
Prepare
the way.
 When we look around,
we might ask, “Did he really come?”  The world is still full of inequality, greed,
brokenness.  Did the stronger one show up
to bring evil to an end?  John tells us
that Jesus comes and brings the Spirit. 
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8).  In the full story of the Scripture, we learn
that the Spirit is God’s gift for the in-between times in which we live.  Jesus has come, Jesus is coming.  Evil is brought to an end, evil is yet to be
brought to an end.  In between, we have
the gift of the Spirit.
Today,
in Jesus’ family album, we take a look at Cousin John, wild-eyed, weirdly-clad
prophet with food issues.  Yes, he’s in
the family album.  But he knows whose
family it is.  “It’s not about me,” John
says.  “I am not worthy.”  It is all about Jesus, the coming Lord.  It’s all about Jesus, the stronger one and
Savior.  It’s all about Jesus, the giver
of the Spirit.  And, it is only the
beginning of the good news.
Resources:
Taylor,
Vincent. 1953. The Gospel According to St. Mark. London: MacMillan &
Co. Ltd.
Boring,
M. Eugene. 1990, January 1. “Mark 1:1-15 and the Beginning of the Gospel”
[Electronic version]. Semeia, 52, p 43-81.
Wright,
N.T.  2008. Surprised by Hope:
Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
New
York: HarperOne.

Bolz-Weber,
Nadia. 2011 Nov 27. “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title”. The Hardest
Question
(website).
http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/advent2gospel-2/