We are all making preparations for Christmas:
- We’ve been budgeting so we can buy presents for our loved ones;
- Hopefully already put the decorations up outside and inside;
- Bought the Christmas tree or unpacked the ‘fake’ tree;
- Went to a few Christmas parties with friends and an office party or two.
As my wife and I have been preparing, it made me wonder what preparations were made for the first Christmas, or how about for the launch of the ministry of Jesus? Surprisingly a lot! Even before the angel spoke to Mary and Joseph, preparations had been made, as the numerous Old Testament prophecies prove, and even before Jesus began his public ministry, preparations were made.
Now as a person who teaches Introduction to the New Testament classes, and having even written curriculum for that class, I’ve had the opportunity to study the four Gospels in depth. Honestly, Mark is probably my least favorite Gospel. Why? I’ve always liked the other three Gospels more for various reasons:
- Matthew is the great teaching Gospel and the most Jewish of the four, therefore with a great emphasis on how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies;
- Luke is the Gospel for everyone with the magnificent parables unique to it (the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son, etc)
- John . . . well John is undoubtedly my favorite! Admittedly it is the odd duck of the four because it’s by far the most theological, and therefore also the most distinctive in that it doesn’t have any parables, or nativity, or baptism and temptation of Jesus, or miracles but instead eight great “signs”, and it has the seven great “I Am” statements, and on and on I could go with its distinctiveness.
Where’s that leave Mark? Well, most scholars today still believe it was the first Gospel to be written, but other than that, Mark has an abrupt opening (no genealogy or nativity), rushes from event to event (the most prevalent word in the original Greek is our English word “immediately”), with scant teaching segments at best compared to the other Gospels, and the original ending most likely has been lost to history.
But, as I recently re-examined Mark 1:1-8, I discovered something. Even though Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels to have a traditional nativity narrative (Matthew emphasizing Joseph’s perspective and Luke Mary’s), Mark’s introduction does have something to add! Mark declares the preparation that was needed for the coming of the Christ, especially as he is about to launch his public ministry, and that is through the ministry of John the Baptist (or more accurately John “the baptizer”). While much of this material is also seen in Matthew 3, the fact that Mark wrote first, and decided to start his Gospel with this is significant.
Before we go any further, please read Mark 1:1-8:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
In the wilderness John the baptizer began preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem were going out to him, and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to bend down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (NET Bible)
Did you catch it? Just as we prepare for Christmas by doing all the things I mentioned above and much more, so too for the coming of the Messiah, and at the inauguration of his public ministry, there had to be preparations. Why?
That’s a long story, but suffice to say that with the close of the Old Testament, there was nearly 400 years of divine silence in the land – no prophets, no word from God, nothing! And then, according to Galatians 4:4 “the fullness of time had come”! Yes, the baby had been born, but few knew whom he was, and no one knew what kind of a Messiah he would be.
So what did John the Baptist do?
He prepared the way for the Lord. In ancient times, this phrase emphasized the obligation of making sure the way was prepared for an official visit of an important dignitary. The roads would be cleared, the people would receive instructions, and the way would be secured.
In relation to Jesus, the dignitary of all dignitaries, how did John make preparations? He “proclaimed” or as most current translations express it “preached” two things:
- He called all of Israel to a “repentance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. This was an astonishing demand since the Jewish people didn’t practice baptism. They did participate in ritual washings, and a proselyte would be baptized into the Jewish religion, but most scholars believe John’s call doesn’t really fit either of those practices. Essentially, John’s call for baptism, ‘since you have repented’ (the meaning of “baptism of repentance”), was a command to ‘make yourself ready’ for the impending visit of the Messiah, and that began with spiritual preparation!
- Then, John “proclaimed” the one to come is “more powerful” or mightier than I am. Notice that John’s official proclamation wasn’t about himself, but that a strong and powerful man was coming who could accomplish all he intended to do.
What does this mean for us today?
First, while it’s important to be ready for Christmas, have you used this special time of the year to prepare yourself for a visit from the King? If I may, let me ask two questions:
- When was the last time you had a meaningful worship experience in his Presence?
- What act of obedience is God putting on your heart?
To summarize this point, don’t get caught up with the presents of Christmas and miss spending time in his Presence!
Second, you are now John, tasked with the privilege of “preparing the way” for the Lord for others! As in ancient times, we are to spread the news the King is coming, making smooth and securing his arrival by removing any hindrances one may have to seeing and receiving the King.
We can do that in a multitude of ways, but it helps to remember John at this point. He was a faithful witness the people flocked to because he shared an official proclamation concerning the King, but also because everyone knew he lived the life! Doing these two things, and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, will allow us to “prepare the way” for many in a glorious manner.
So let these two reminders from John encourage you as you’re preparing for Christmas, and as you have the opportunity to “prepare the way” for others this season. It’s not about presents, but the Presence of one stronger and mightier than we are.