The Man in the Wilderness
Our Scripture this morning is found in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1 verses 1 through 8.I invite you to follow along as I read from God’s holy, inerrant, and inspired Word.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ”
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that we may hear your Word with joy. Amen.
This morning, we begin a new series looking at the Gospel of Mark. Maybe you’re wondering, “Why?” Because the Gospel of Mark is all about who Jesus is.
We live in a time and place where people make Jesus whoever they want. About ten years ago one of the most popular movies was Talladega Nights. It’s a pretty ridiculous comedy about racecar driving. There’s a scene where the main characters are praying over Thanksgiving dinner. The man praying kept saying baby Jesus. When he’s told that Jesus eventually grew up and became a man, he responds by saying you can pray to whatever Jesus you want.
So often that’s how we treat Jesus. We treat him like he’s a character in a story that we can re-imagine. Lion King is a re-imagined version of Hamlet. A few years ago there was a popular show called Revenge. That was a re-imagined version of The Count of Monte Cristo. We do the same with Jesus. We think we can re-imagine him and make Jesus whatever we want.
But the Gospel of Mark, along with the other gospels, tells us exactly who Jesus is. He’s not a Jesus of our own making but the real, historic Jesus that we so desperately need. Mark doesn’t give us a lot of what Jesus says; he gives us Jesus, who he is and what he does. As we examine this passage, we’ll see that Jesus is the king and that there is a messenger preparing the way for the king.
Jesus, the King
Mark begins his gospel account with these words, “This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Straight to the point. The other gospels have longer prologues. Matthew’s prologue begins with a genealogy connecting Jesus to David and Abraham. Luke’s begins with the birth announcements of John and Jesus before telling us of their births. John’s gospel account begins with the creation of the world.
And yet here we have none of that. It’s not that the genealogies, the birth narratives, and showing that Jesus existed before the foundations of the world aren’t important. No they are. They’re very important. Mark is just a simple writer. He’s straight to the point. And the point is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I have to confess, growing up I thought Christ was Jesus’ last name. I thought, “My last name is Flick and Jesus’ last name is Christ”. Maybe you think that; that Christ is Jesus’ last name. I hate to burst your bubble but it’s not. It’s actually a title. Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah. It means anointed.
Jesus, he is the anointed one. He is anointed to do the Lord’s will. It is the Lord’s will that he redeem his people. That’s what his name means. Jesus means “Yahweh saves”. Jesus is anointed to show that God’s save people through him.
It’s not just that Jesus shows that God saves, he is God himself. Mark says that he is “Son of God”. We don’t recognize how radical that statement is. We’re so accustomed to it that we don’t recognize the radical claim Mark is making. In the ancient world, the great kings and emperors often styled themselves as the son of god. Caesar Augustus did that. We have coins he minted that said he was the son of god. Other kings and emperors did that too. The Egyptian Pharaoh’s styled themselves as the embodiment of the gods. But it wasn’t just a title that anyone could claim. Only the great kings and emperors could make that claim.
But on the other hand, you had the Jews. To the Jews, God couldn’t, God wouldn’t become human. And therefore it was blasphemy to call anyone the son of God. Often modern people think they’re the first to have trouble accepting that Jesus was God. The Jews had more barriers to it than we do.
But Mark is making it clear that Jesus is God. It’s not just that Mark says Jesus is the son of God that lets us know that Jesus is divine. The quote from Isaiah makes clear that Jesus is God. We read, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ”
Maybe you’re wondering how that makes clear that Jesus is God. It’s not particularly clear how it’s about God, at least in Mark’s use of the quote. See what Isaiah says. Isaiah writes:
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. 
Notice the differences? Isaiah is saying that it is the LORD our God who will come and comfort his people. It is God that the messenger is preparing everyone for. Mark has taken that quote and applied it to Jesus. He is making it as clear as possible that Jesus is God in the flesh.
That means God understands what it’s like to be human. So when you suffer, you can go to God and he understands. He understands what is it to be in pain, to be betrayed, to be exhausted. That is a radical claim. The God of the universe, the God who was before time and space, understands what it’s like to suffer. You can go to him with your pain and your hurt and know that he understands in ways no one else does.
God taking on flesh also means that he cares about creation. In Buddhism and Hinduism, all of this is just an illusion. And the point of salvation in either Buddhism or Hinduism is to leave all of this behind and escape the material world. But in Christianity, the God who created the universe took on human flesh and entered into it. We celebrated his birth a few weeks ago.
Jesus came to redeem his creation. And biblical salvation is a recreated heavens and earth free of sin and corruption that those in Christ will inhabit for eternity with him. That means we should care about creation. We should take care that we don’t misuse or abuse creation for our own betterment. We should take care that we treat others with respect, even if they’re from a different social class, because they bear the image of God.
Mark has told us that Jesus is the king. Mark also tells us about the messenger, his character and his message.
John, the Messenger
It wasn’t uncommon for messengers to come and prepare the way for the coming king. Go back to Isaiah 36. The Assyrian king was preparing to invade Judah. He had been conquering all of the surrounding nations. He had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, Syria, and all of the other nations between Assyria and Judah. And as he was preparing to invade Judah, he sent a messenger to prepare the way. And that’s what John is doing. His job is to prepare people for the coming Christ.
We get an idea about his character in verse 6. We read, “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey”. That’s not a fashion statement. Camel’s hair was what the poor wore. And the leather belt wasn’t fashionable either. Maybe some of you are wearing a leather belt. John’s belt wasn’t like that. It would have been closer to a giant leather thong.
His diet isn’t what most of us would be ordering at McDonald’s. John ate locusts and wild honey. The Mosaic Law allowed for locusts as an option for the poor to eat.
John’s dress is deliberate. John wants to communicate two things with his dress. The first, that he rejects the lavish lifestyle that had come to embody the priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees who had control of the temple life in Jerusalem. John is the antithesis of what the temple worship had become.
The second thing he wanted to communicate was that he was the embodiment of Elijah. He is dressed as Elijah the Tishbite. We read in 2 Kings 1:8 that his garment of choice was made from camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. See the Jews believed that Elijah would come and prepare the way for the LORD. That’s why in Matthew 11 Jesus says that John is “Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14).
And because John is one preparing the way for the Christ, he’s out in the wilderness. Sometimes we use the word wilderness to just mean a place away from civilization; a place out in the boonies. But John is in the desert. He’s out in a place where there’s virtually no life, that’s why he eats locusts and wild honey.
In the Bible the wilderness is a place where God refines his people. It’s the place where God leads his people and teaches them. Where did God meet Moses in the burning bush? In the wilderness. Where did God wrestle with Jacob? In the wilderness. Where did God teach Israel his ways? In the wilderness. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness learning God’s ways.
Have you ever noticed that the times you grow the most in your faith are the difficult times? That the times you feel as though you’re in the wilderness are the places where you learn God’s ways? Look back on your life and see the times that you feel alone or the times that work is difficult or the times that your family seems to falling in on itself and you’ll see those are the places where you have grown the most. Those are the places and times when you have learned God’s ways and his love.
Why is that? Why is it that after time in the wilderness you have a deeper faith? Why is it that after time in the wilderness you come away knowing God’s ways better? Because the wilderness is the place where you are forced to listen to God. The wilderness is the place where you cannot depend on anything other than God. So you come away deeper in faith; you come out of the wilderness knowing God’s ways better.
I can tell you from my limited experience that it’s true. Before I came here, I had interviewed with a church in California. They flew me out, I met with the elders and some of the other leaders, and I preached a sermon. I thought it all went really well. But I didn’t get the vote from the congregation. And that was hard on me. I felt like I was in the wilderness.
Now as painful as that time was, I can look back and say that during that time I learned to trust in God’s sovereignty more than I ever had. Before that I had an intellectual understanding of God’s sovereignty but after that time in the wilderness I had a better practical understanding of it. That time forced me to pray and trust God more. Then when I came out of the wilderness, my faith had grown; I had a better understanding God and his ways.
Maybe you feel like you’re in the wilderness right now. Maybe you feel things around you are crumbling in your hands. Then this is the place where God is forcing you to depend on him more; he is leading you to a place where you stop relying on yourself and your strength and you learn God and his ways. This is the place where you learn that it is only God who saves.
And the people are streaming to John. We read, “And 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”. They recognized that John was calling them to come to the wilderness, to learn God’s ways, and leave their sin behind them. He was doing that through baptism.
Baptism was something completely and utterly new. The point of John’s baptism was to show that their sin needed to be washed away. It was not something that they could do of themselves. They needed someone to wash them clean of their sins. The people were coming to John, confessing their sins, repenting, and were then baptized. He would wash them to indicate that God had washed away their sins and expected that they would live in newness of life.
But that was only part of John’s message. The more important part of John’s message is “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”.
John’s message is that he is preparing the people for someone who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism is only symbolic. The one who comes after John is the one who will effectually cleanse the sin from God’s people. The one who comes after John is the one to save God’s people.
That person is Jesus. Jesus is the one who comes and saves his people. John is to show us we cannot save ourselves but we need someone to save us. So when Jesus came, he came as the only one who could save us. He is the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, causing us to believe and know that Jesus’ death saved us.
You cannot save yourself. You cannot cleanse yourself from your sin by what you do. The only one who can save you is Jesus. It is only through his life, death, and resurrection that anyone can be saved. He pours his Spirit out on his people, cleansing us of our sin. That causes us to recognize our sin, to truly repent of it and weep over our sin, and to know that our sin is taken care of in Christ.
That is what baptism in the Holy Spirit is. It is the Holy Spirit regenerating our hearts and minds so that we see our sin so that we repent of it. He then points us to Jesus and how he saved us from our sin.
Maybe you’re in the wilderness. Maybe you’re seeing all of the things you’ve depended on crumble away in your hands. Know that God has brought you out to the wilderness so you can learn to depend on him. That is the place where he will teach you who he is. And there he will teach you that he has saved us in Jesus. And because of that, Jesus is king; because he went to the cross to save his people, he is king.
 Lane, William (1974). The Gospel of Mark (p. 49). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.