The Gospel of Mark: A Voice in the Wilderness

Sermon by David Strain on April 29, 2018

Mark 1:1-8

Well, let me invite you, please, to take your Bibles in hand and to turn with me to the gospel according to Mark, chapter 1. We have concluded our series working through the teaching of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians and we begin this morning a series looking at the message of Mark's gospel. So we’re looking at Mark chapter 1, verses 1 through 8, on page 836.


According to the ancient traditions of the church, John Mark, the author of Mark’s gospel, served the church in Rome with the apostle Peter. And Mark wrote down, after Peter died, the substance of his catechesis, his teaching. And that became the first of the gospels. So when Mark wrote Mark’s gospel, he was writing something entirely novel and new. No one had ever written a gospel before, and so Mark is writing for us and recording for us the substance of Peter’s eyewitness account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. And if you were to ask Mark, “This gospel thing you’ve written for us – what’s it about?” well he tells us, doesn’t he, right in verse 1. Look there with me for a moment. Mark 1:1 – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark’s gospel seeks to answer one question. There are others, but this is the heart of the matter. The most important question you would ask – “Who is Jesus Christ?” As Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Mark wants to rivet our attention upon the person and the work of Jesus Christ.


Now you might suggest that if Mark sets out to answer this one great question, “Who is Jesus?” it rather spoils things for him to come right out in the opening verse and to tell us so bluntly and directly as he does. He is the Christ, that is, the Messiah; long-awaited, promised in Scripture. He is the Son of God. Not just an earthly human Messiah, but He is, in fact, God the Son, the blessed second person of the holy Trinity. Made flesh and dwelling among us, for us and for our salvation. That’s who Jesus is. And the rest of the Gospel sets out to explore that and expand and expound and apply these great truths about Jesus.


And you might say, “Well Mark, why did you come out and tell us the answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ right away like this?” But that’s actually very characteristic of Mark’s whole writing style. He likes to get to the point. It is a very pithy, very direct, almost urgent account of the life of Jesus. The word “immediately” is his favorite connector between the different sections of the gospel story. “Immediately,” and then “immediately” something else happens right on its heels. There’s a sense of movement and urgency, which of course is entirely appropriate when you consider the message is about knowing Jesus Christ. What could be more urgent than that?


And we are, in these opening eight verses, in the preface if you like, where Mark wants to cue up for us many of the themes that he is going to explain further as the story unfolds. And you might consider these opening verses, again, rather surprising. If you look at the other gospels, Matthew and Luke begin, don’t they, with the announcement and the narrative of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew’s gospel has a genealogy that connects Jesus to His ancestor, Abraham. In Luke’s gospel, when you get to the genealogy, it goes even further back all the way to Adam. In John’s gospel, John begins not with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ family history but goes even further back into eternity. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through him,” speaking about Jesus, the Word, dwelling in the bliss and glory of the unity of the blessed Trinity and the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the agent of God’s work of creation.


But Mark’s gospel, setting out to tell us “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” doesn't start with Jesus at all. It starts, rather, with John the Baptist. Now, this is Mark's way of underscoring the importance of Jesus. Even today, when someone important is about to step onto the stage, they are announced. I was thinking about the President of the United States when he comes to deliver the State of the Union at Congress. He arrives there at the door of the chamber and he’s met by the sergeant at arms. And when he’s ready to step into the chamber and deliver his address, the sergeant at arms opens the doors and he says, in a loud voice, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” He’s announced. That’s exactly what John the Baptist is here to do. He’s an announcer, announcing the most important person ever to step onto the stage of human history – the God-Man, the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Lord Jesus Himself.


And as we consider these eight verses together, we are going to see three things about John the Baptist, Mark tells us, three things about John the Baptist that are designed to underscore and highlight who Jesus is and what He came to do. Three jobs that John the Baptist fulfills. First, Mark is going to tell us John the Baptist is a newscaster. He has news for us that changes everything. He is secondly, an alarm clock. He’s sounding an alarm calling his generation to wake up. And thirdly, he is a flashlight, shining all its light not upon himself but upon Jesus Christ. Those are the three things I want you to see with me. He is a newscaster, an alarm clock, and a flashlight.


Before we read the passage and then consider those themes, let’s pause first of all to pray. Let’s pray together.


O Lord, help us to hear the news again with wonder and gratitude and to take appropriate action as we hear it. Help us to hear the alarm sounding and see our urgent need. Help us to look where the flashlight illuminates the Lord Jesus and to see that He’s the only One that can respond to our need in a way that meets our need. Would You do that please through this portion of Your Word in all our hearts, for the glory of Jesus’ name. Amen.


“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you breaking news…” That’s how we might begin. That’s how Mark begins, doesn’t it? Look with me at Mark chapter 1, verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.


As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’’


John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”


Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.


A Newscaster

So John is a newscaster, interrupting the regularly scheduled program with breaking news. That language, of course, is language with which we are familiar. Usually, when we hear it, it heralds bad news. Doesn't it? Those words were used to announce the assassination of JFK, or the disaster on 9-11 at the Twin Towers in New York City. Sometimes we hear it when there's been a dreadful weather event and we are summoned to take cover. John the Baptist has news. He is, according to the prophet Isaiah, "a voice calling in the wilderness." He's a newscaster summoning the attention of everyone who will listen. Of course, his news is not bad news, but the best news of all. And yet, in light of his news, everything must change.


Look with me at verses 2 and 3 where this emphasis comes out most clearly. John, the newscaster, the voice calling in the wilderness, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’’” So there’s John’s ministry. Mark is actually cobbling together three different quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures. Isaiah being the most well-known of the authors, it is ascribed to him. That was a convention in those days. When you were citing, you didn’t need to cite everyone, but you could combine texts like this and just mention one, and so Mark mentions Isaiah. But it’s three passages that he’s really using. And the context of each of the three is helpful and important as we understand the message that John came to announce to the world.


A Messenger

The first text that Mark is using to explain John the Baptist’s work comes from Exodus 23 at verse 20. God tells Moses, “Behold, I send my angel,” or my messenger, “before you to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared.” That’s a word for Moses from God and it’s addressed, or it’s referring to the people of Israel who are making their way out of Egyptian bondage through the wilderness of Sinai toward the Promised Land. And God said, “I’m sending my messenger ahead of you to the place that I have prepared.” It’s referring to the land. The messenger, the angel, will go ahead of them, the people of Israel. And here, however, Mark makes that verse refer not to the people of Israel but to Jesus. And the messenger, not an angelic messenger but John the Baptist. You see, Jesus, we’re being told, Jesus will act in the place, in the room and stead of Israel. And He will inaugurate a kind of new exodus, a new beginning for the people of God. But He will be more than just a human, earthly representative and actor in the place of the people of Israel.


The Lord is Coming

And the second and third quotations that Mark cites for us help us to see that. The second quotation comes from Malachi chapter 3 verse 1 where the Lord says, “Behold, I will send my messenger and he will prepare the way,” not now before the nation of Israel, but, “He will prepare the way before me.” So on the one hand, Jesus is the representative who acts as the Israelite in the place of the Israelites. And on the other hand, He is the Lord Himself who is coming, in the context of Malachi chapter 3, He is coming to the temple, the temple many centuries after the exodus. The temple had been destroyed by Israel’s enemies. Now they have returned to the land and the temple is being rebuilt and the Lord says, “I’m going to inhabit that temple once again.” Well here, Mark says in the person of Jesus Christ the Lord is returning to the temple to dwell in the midst of His people. Not the earthly temple, but the people of God where He will make His residence among them. “The Word became flesh and tabernacled, templed, dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.”


New Creation

And the third quotation emphasizes a similar point, this time from Isaiah 40 at verse 3. “A voice cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord and make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Isaiah now is thinking of another day when a new creation will come to which the Promised Land and the temple both pointed. The ultimate fulfillment of both where the Lord and the Lord’s people shall dwell in joyful unity and fellowship forever. That day is coming, Isaiah says, and Mark says John the Baptist was preaching the dawning of that day with the arrival of Jesus Christ.


A New Exodus

Now here’s the message. Do you see what it is? A new exodus, a new beginning, a fresh start is coming with the arrival of Jesus Christ. And so Mark was in the wilderness where the story of Israel all began, calling them back out into the wilderness with him to go back through the waters of the Jordan to start the story over again. Only now, he’s saying not just that there’s a second chance – who needs a second chance? I don’t need a second chance. I’ll make as much of a mess of my second and third and fourth and fifth chance as I did of my first chance. That’s not what I need. That’s not good news. And that’s not what Jesus comes to give us. Not a second chance, no, but an entirely new beginning. Not that I will begin upon, but that He will undertake for me. He will be Israel, the true Israel acting to bring a new exodus about on my behalf.


If you read the story of the exodus when Israel made its journey from Egypt toward the Promised Land, an entire generation died in the desert and didn’t make it because of their sin and waywardness. But here, one will come who will not sin and fall, who will not fail, who will not be unfaithful but perfectly obedient who will act in our place. And He will accomplish this new exodus and usher in this new age, in Jesus Christ. For He will not only be a man, but He will be the Lord Himself coming to act and to rescue us, to do for us what we could not do ourselves; returning to bring fellowship and reconciliation, to dwell in the midst of His people and to give us new life. That is John’s message, Mark says. That’s what he came to preach to the world. There’s a Rescuer coming and He will give you a new beginning. His story will be a story of perfect obedience and it will overwrite your wretched story of perpetual failure. His record of faithfulness will overwrite your record of infidelity to the Lord.

Now that is news we all urgently need to hear. Isn’t it? That’s news in the light of which everything must change. Earth-stopping news. He’s coming in the Lord Jesus Christ. John is a newscaster. Don’t you need a new start? Not just a second chance. Don’t you need a better story than the one your life has been writing this far? The record of perfect righteousness provided not by your best efforts but by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, the true Israel and the Lord God made flesh. John is a newscaster proclaiming good news for us all.


Alarm Clock

Then secondly, Mark tells us John is an alarm clock. Not just a newscaster, but an alarm clock. I have to confess to you that I am not at all a morning person. I long ago concluded that the morning is clearly an effect of the fall and that alarm clocks are irrefutable proof of the doctrine of total depravity! There’s nothing more obnoxious than a blaring alarm clock. And yet even I have to admit how important and useful the blasted things really are! What a mess my life would be without them. I need alarms to wake me up, to alert me to the course of action I must take or I’ll forget, I’ll miss it. You set alarms on your phone, don’t you, to remind you to take appropriate action just in time.


Call to Repentance

That’s what John came to do – to sound the alarm for his generation and to call them to wake up. You’ll see that if you look with me there at verses 4 and 5. “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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.” He doesn’t want them to miss the new age that the Messiah who was coming was about to inaugurate. He doesn’t want them to miss the new life that could be theirs in Jesus. He doesn’t want them to miss the cleansing and the pardon and the forgiveness of sin he knows they most urgently need. And so he summons them back out into the wilderness to start over; back out to where the story of Israel all began, right there on the banks of the Jordan River, the borders of Israel's ancient territory, and to go back through – like a second exodus – back through the waters. The great picture of God's redemption was passing through the waters of the Red Sea. And it was repeated symbolically at the banks of the Jordan as Joshua led the people into the Promised Land. Again, the waters parted and they walked through on dry land. 


And here is John saying, “Come on back out. Time to start over. What a mess you have made and what trouble you’re in, but there’s a new start coming in Jesus. Time to face yourself honestly. Time to seek the cleansing He can give you. Time to come clean at last about your deep problem, your real problem. Not dysfunction. You’re not a victim; you’re a sinner. You’re guilty in the sight of God and you need to be made clean.” He’s sounding the alarm. “Repent,” he says. “Repent.” That’s what his baptism was a picture of – a new beginning, made possible, cleansing made possible through this one John preached was coming, the Lord Jesus. “Wake up,” he was saying to his generation.


Maybe that’s a message you need to hear this morning. “Wake up.” I don’t mean that the soporific effects of my preaching have got the better of you. I mean spiritually and really and truly – “Are you alert to the deep issues of your heart?” It’s not that you are dysfunctional, merely. It’s not that I am a victim and other people are to blame. No, whatever else may be true, whatever dysfunction and victimhood may characterize my life or yours, our deepest problem is we are sinners in the sight of a holy God and we need mercy. It’s time, John was saying to his generation, to stop pretending, to stop avoiding the real issue, to stop ducking the problem. It’s time to face ourselves and get real with God. “Repent,” he says. That’s a word perhaps that you need to hear and I need to hear.


A Flashlight

John was a newscaster, interrupting our regularly scheduled lives with the world-changing news. Good news. The Savior is coming. He was an alarm clock, sounding the alarm, calling us to repentance to get serious about our heart problem. And then finally, John was a flashlight. He was shining away from himself. Flashlights illuminate something else, don't they? He was illuminating Jesus Christ. Look at verses 6 through 8. John was clothed with camel's hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist, ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."


Pointing to Someone Else

Now the prophet, Malachi, who’s already been in Mark’s mind, the prophet Malachi says that before the Lord comes to Israel, Elijah would return. And Mark is highlighting the way John the Baptist was dressed because that is precisely how the prophet Elijah was described in 2 Kings chapter 1 verse 8. You see what Mark is saying. John the Baptist is the forerunner, and the one who follows him is the one we’ve been waiting for. That’s the whole point. He’s the one you need. You see, John the Baptist is not pointing to himself, but pointing to the one who was to come. That’s certainly what he was saying in the record Mark gives us of his preaching, of his message. Look at the passage again. Verse 7, “There is a coming one, mightier than I. Look at Him.”


Now everyone was flocking to John’s ministry. Weren’t they? You see the “all”s? “All Judea and all Jerusalem” were coming out to John. There was quite a revival taking place in those days. Everybody was talking about John’s ministry. They were all listening to John’s podcasts on their iPhones at the gym in Jerusalem and talking about John. Everything was about John’s ministry all the time. And yet John was saying, “Stop talking about me. I’m not the one you need to pay attention to. I’m a flashlight and I’m trying to shine all my light on One who is to come. My only function and purpose here is to point you to Him. He’s the One that you need. I’m nothing. I’m not even worthy to do the slave’s work of stooping down and untying His sandals. All I’ve got is preached words and baptismal water. But when Jesus, when Jesus comes, the reality that my water and words point to, well He can give that to you. But only He can give that to you. He has the real thing.” He says, “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. The cleansing that’s pictured in my baptism is only a picture for the real thing. You need to go to Jesus. He can give you the cleansing of your heart. He can make you clean not just externally but all the way through by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is in His hand to give you and you need to go to Him.”


I think there’s an enormously important lesson that we may need to learn there for us – not to look to the forms to supply what only Jesus can give us through the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t look to preachers to do what only Christ can give. We mustn’t think that by coming out to the Jordan, as it were, that we’re guaranteed the new life that John was talking about. John is a flashlight shining in the darkness, illuminating the One that you need, the One that I need – Jesus Christ, the coming One, the mightier than John, who gives the Spirit, who washes hearts, who brings us out of the wilderness of sin into the Promised Land of pardon and new life.


What We Truly Need

You may have been coming to First Presbyterian Church for some time. And you’ve found, perhaps, some small comfort in the hymns and in the prayers. I hope you’ve been welcomed and encouraged by the people sitting around you week after week. You may find you feel better about yourself, about life after worship each Sunday. The load seems a little easier to bear each week and so you keep coming back. And let me say to you how glad I am that you do. I’m very pleased that you’re here and I want you to know that I’m praying for you. But do you see John’s message to his generation? He told them, while coming out to the Jordan and going through the waters and listening to the preaching, while that was vital and helpful and good and important and right and wise, it’s only ever the sign that the means pointing you to the real thing. And for that, you have to go to Jesus. So church is good, important; we’re called to be here together. Please don’t stop coming. This is where you’re supposed to be. But like John, you know, we’re here only to point you away from ourselves to the One you really need. Not church, but Christ. It would be a terrible tragedy if, as you come out to church, you fail to come to Jesus. What a dreadful tragedy to come out to the Jordan and not come to the One that John’s preaching on the banks of the Jordan was pointing – to the Lord Jesus Christ.


That’s where we need to look. Are you looking to Christ? You see, the alarm is sounding. You have a sin problem and there’s only one person in all the universe who can deal with it. Not you and not me, but Jesus Christ. John was announcing the good news. “He’s come! He’s available! You can take Him for yourself!” And then He began to shine the light upon Him and said, “Look there. Turn there. Go there. He can do, only He can do what you need. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved but the name of Jesus Christ.”


So John is a newscaster. We have good news in the light of which nothing can be the same again. Jesus is the true Israel who would accomplish in our place the new exodus by His perfect obedience. And He is the Lord, returning to dwell in His temple, to dwell in the midst of His people, to restore us to fellowship with Himself. Jesus is our Rescuer. And John is an alarm clock calling us all to wake up. It’s time to get real and deal with our sin. And he is a flashlight, pointing to the only One who can ever really deal with it, the Lord Jesus. Are you trusting in Christ? Are you hearing the good news and responding to the alarm that is sounding and turning all your attention not on the external forms but on the means, but on the Savior to which the forms and the means, the preaching and the church, the Savior to which they all point? Are you looking to Christ?


Let’s pray together.


Lord, there have been many Sundays when the news, the good news about Jesus has been proclaimed, and we’ve thought to ourselves, “This is old news and we don’t need to listen.” The alarm has been sounding and we’ve hit the snooze button and gone right back to sleep. The flashlight has illuminated Jesus for us in the darkness of our lives and we looked the other way. Please don’t let that be the case for us this morning. Draw us to Christ. Show us ourselves, the urgency of our need of a Savior, and enable us please to flee to Him. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.


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