Sermon: Come Out to the Wilderness (Mark part 3)
Here’s the mp3 audio version. Apologies: the recording ends about halfway before the sermon does due to a malfunctioning mp3 recorder.
Sermon by Matt Kennedy
Sunday March 11th, 2012
Let’s begin this morning in Hosea. We’ll look at sections of chapters 2 and 3. How many are familiar with the Book of Hosea?
Just briefly let me summarize a bit. God tells Hosea to marry a woman named Gomer. It’s an unfortunate name but it was even a worse marriage. Gomer has three children in the course of her marriage to Hosea. One of them is his. Gomer, it turns out, wants to have sex with lots of different men, rich men who buy her clothing and jewelry. She loves that. And, it seems, she despises Hosea. So much so that when her lovers desert her, she ends up selling herself as a sex slave, rather than go back to her husband. Hosea’s crushed. You can feel his rage, humiliation, and pain as you read the book that bears his name—and you identify with it.
Last year a close friend of mine discovered his wife was having an affair. He confronted her. She wasn’t repentant. The next day she took the kids out of school and left town. My friend lost his wife and kids in one week. My friend called me frequently during this time and one of the things I told him was, “Get a lawyer, get your kids back, you’ve got to defend yourself. She’s taken your kids, she won’t stop there.”
He knew I was right. And as you might expect, he was enraged about the whole thing, but he hesitated to get a lawyer, he hesitated to file the various necessary motions because as angry as he was, he wanted her back. He didn’t want to do anything to damage the possibility of reconciliation.
I was so frustrated with him. I was angry with her. I wanted her to pay for what she’d done to my friend.
The book of Hosea creates the same emotion. You read it and you’re filled with indignation toward Gomer and when ultimately, Gomer’s reduced to selling herself on the open market…part of you says, or at least part of me said: she’s getting exactly what she deserves. She’s made her bed, she should lie in it.
But then God tells Hosea: “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress” (Hos 3:1) God’s command to Hosea fills me with just the sort of frustration I felt toward my friend. Let that horrible woman be sold. She’s not going to change.
But the rest of the verse is the catch: “even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods.”
The book, it turns out—and chapter 3 isn’t the first time Hosea makes this clear—isn’t about Hosea and Gomer. It’s about God and his people, God and us.
We are Gomer. You are. I am.
You expect Hosea to be a book of wrath—and as long as you think in terms of Gomer, not yourself, not us, you want that.
And there is punishment. Turn back to chapter 2 for a moment, vv.13-15
“I will punish her for the feast days of Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the Lord. Therefore…”
But just when you expect the hammer to fall…
“Behold I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her…And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time she came out of the land of Egypt.” (2:13-15)
There will be punishment. There will be exile. Israel will be stripped of her jewelry and her wealth and her power—stripped of her lovers.
But the punishment is also the rescue. Her discipline becomes part her redemption. YHWH takes away her gods, her comforts, her pleasures in order to remove everything that distracts and tempts, in order to allure her, coax her, draw her out to the wilderness…and there speak tenderly to her and it will be as in the days of her youth.
Pay close attention to that wilderness language. It’s crucial to this first section of Mark.
God married Israel in the desert, the wilderness. He delivered her from enslavement in Egypt, parted the waters of the Red Sea and at Mt. Sinai made a covenant with her—in the wilderness. He taught her to look to him alone for food, water, meat, and guidance. Then after all was ready, he carried her over the threshold of the Jordan, parting the waters, like a husband carrying his bride into the home they will share together.
But now Israel’s sold herself and as a result, she’ll go into exile, God strips her of her gods, wealth, power
But he also makes a promise: I’ll call you out to the wilderness again, I’ll make you my bride once more. One day we’ll start over again.
Isaiah speaking of this reconciliation in chapter 40 of his prophetic book says: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that the warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord…”(vv.1-3)
I’ll meet you in the wilderness and make you my people again.
And so the walls of Israel and Judah were finally broken down, the temple destroyed, Israel destroyed by Assyria and scattered, Judah conquered by Babylon and sent into exile for 70 years.
Then a remnant returns, but she’s ruled by invaders, oppressors, the Persians, the Greeks, then, after a brief period of independence, the Romans.
But she waits, clinging to Isaiah and Hosea, waiting for YHWH to come. But he remains silent.
And then, 400 years afterwards, just at the right time, “4John appears, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth by the miraculous intervention of God, cousin to Jesus, the voice in the wilderness, calls the people back to meet God.
It wasn’t an easy mission.
John didn’t invent baptism. 1st century, rabbis used baptism to initiate Gentile converts. Jews considered gentiles unclean and baptism was a way of both marking that fact and dealing with it.
So it’s not strange that John baptized. It is strange that he baptized Jews.
Over the period of waiting for God to restore the covenant, many Jews come to believe that by zealously observing the law, they could trigger the coming of the messiah. God would come in response to their obedience. If we clean ourselves up, God will save us. And the Pharisees in particular, keep the law with great zeal, at least externally. They don’t worship other gods, they obey the moral law, they obey the ceremonial law, they keep away from every unclean thing.
But then comes John—the long awaited voice in the wilderness—who says, “no”, that’s not the way it works. You are incapable of making yourself clean, incapable of earning or initiating God’s saving work on Israel’s behalf. You yourself need a bath. You need to be washed just like Gentiles. They did not like to hear that.
John was not a gentle preacher. Many worry that setting down stark choices: life or death, repentance or judgment—offends and/or depresses people and drives them away. Preaching, some seem to believe, is supposed to be a kind of advertisement for God. You’ve got to make him look attractive.
But John’s task—and it’s the same task the NT assigns to all preachers—was to be God’s herald—to deliver God’s message in God’s way. That means we cannot shape the message to fit what we perceive to be the desires and felt needs of the congregation. Preachers must explain expound, and apply all of God’s word to a congregation without omitting or adding to it.
So sometimes coming to church should feel like God is gazing into your soul, that he’s pulled open a vault full of dark things, hidden even from yourself. That’s good. If you’re always comfortable in church then either you’re not listening or you’re not applying what you hear to yourself.
This sounds harsh, but biblical preaching is one of the most loving acts God calls people to do.
In scripture every message of judgment is always be paired with a sure remedy. So John doesn’t simply say, “You’re all going to hell. Amen.” He says, “You’re wayward, you’re unfaithful like Gomer. If you continue in that way you’ll die—but God is coming to meet you in the wilderness. Repent. Come to him. He offers forgiveness. Biblical preaching is Comforting but not comfortable.
But how can you be forgiven if you will not turn to receive it?
Many do. Verse 5: “5And all the country of Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins…”
In the other gospels, we’re told that prostitutes, tax collectors, the dregs came out in droves and these were the people who ultimately were willing to follow Jesus. But many of the priests, scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law refused.
The good people are often the most difficult to reach. The local church is perhaps the most difficult of all mission fields. If you’ve been raised in the church, let me ask: What do you see when you consider your past?
Many church people don’t see what converts see: broken promises, broken relationships, sex, drugs and rock and roll. Instead, church people have generally been well raised, raised in church. They see promises kept, hard work, honesty, integrity, achievement. For them, the promise of forgiveness seems less spectacular.
Jesus tells a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee at prayer. The Pharisee prays: “I thank you father that I am not like this tax collector, I tithe, obey the law…” He’s thanking God for the good things he does. That’s good. It’s good biblical theology to thank God for the good you do.
But his focus is not on what God has done in him through the course of his life…but what he has done…on his achievements, his stuff, the signs of his rightness before God. His work has become what, he believes, enables him to have a right relationship with YHWH and stand in the temple while the tax collector kneels.
So when the Pharisee hears John say, come to the wilderness and be baptized, repent like a Gentile, it doesn’t compute. Subtly, over time, the foundation of the Pharisees’ hope for salvation has shifted from God to self.
Has that happened to you? Do you subtly shrug off the call to repent and the offer of forgiveness? Do you think of everyone else you know to whom such a call might be met with joy but forget that you yourself are in continual need of God’s grace—the very grace by which and in which you stand?
To heed John’s call means allowing the edifice of self-regard to crumble.
The truth is, the closer God draws you to himself, to his light, the more clearly you see your need for his mercy, his forgiveness. You become more repentant, not less, and, ironically, more joyful.
Few things generate more internal misery and joylessness than trying justify yourself. Christians don’t have to rationalize our behavior—I don’t have to try to fool myself into believing I’m right when often I’m wrong—because our hope is not in what we do but in what Jesus has done for us. What freedom there is when you let go of self-justification and grab hold of the justification that comes through faith Jesus Christ alone. The two cannot stand together.
So John invites us: meet your God the wilderness, but to do so you must cast away all pretension and pride. You must see him as your one and only redeemer, his work, his strength, his power, his Son, his King, not you, not yours.
Mark moves on to describe John: “6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.”
Some modern critics claim that John and Jesus were really competitors and the gospels downplay John’s claim to be messiah as a matter of propaganda. But John’s clothing tells a different story.
The traditional garb of the prophet was the fur or hair of some kind of animal. Jesus warns in Matthew 7, “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” So we get this image of a wolf trying to fool a herd of sheep by dressing like them—and assume Jesus is being metaphorical.
Not completely. Prophets literally dressed in sheep’s clothing or camel hair or some kind of clean animal hide. Not everyone who looks like a prophet, Jesus warns, is really a prophet.
John wears camel’s hair, consciously dressing the part of the prophet.
And he’s wearing a leather belt.
Why would Mark mention that? The answer is found in 2 Kings 1:8, where we find a description of Elijah’s clothing: “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist…”
John purposefully dressed just like Elijah.
Why? Malachi 4:5, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
By the very clothing he wore, John said, I’m not Messiah…but he’s coming. John’s clothing proclaimed the coming of Christ as much as his preaching. This is not a man claiming to be the Messiah. His whole life and everything in it is shaped to point toward someone else.
vv.7-8 underlines that truth: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
1st century feet were ugly things. Most people wore sandals and walked in paths littered with dung, dead things, rotting things, in addition to the normal dirt. So the lowest task was untying sandals and cleaning feet.
John says, the coming one is so exalted that I’m unworthy to untie his sandals. Untying this person’s sandals is an exalted task.
Verse 8 tells us why. The water I baptize with, really doesn’t really do anything, it’s just an external symbol for what happens when you let the one who comes after me wash you. His washing goes deep. His washing will truly cleans you, not simply your body, but your heart mind and soul.
Who’s the Holy Spirit? He’s God. Only God can wash you with God’s Spirit. The One coming, John’s saying has that power. That’s why unlatching his sandals, approaching him, is something we’re all unworthy to do.
And yet he comes. He comes to the wilderness. He calls us out to meet him there. All the vows we’ve broken, all the betrayals of thought word and deed, all the lies we’ve told—he will scour away. Our sins are like scarlet, but through him they will be white as wool.