2nd Sunday of Advent – Mark 1:1-8 | John the Baptist Appears in the Wilderness



Once upon a time, long ago, when Pastor Hopkins was Corporal Hopkins,

I was on a field exercise in a place called 29 Palms – a sort of sick joke.

The place is barren wilderness of scrub and mountain and dirt.


It was there that one of the young Marines took a nasty spill on a hill face.

He was pretty scuffed up, and he had broken his leg.

Corpsmen, who are medics, don’t like to see anyone hurt;

But they always appreciate an opportunity for practical application.


For this young man, that meant, among other things, addressing the break.

Maybe it could have waited, but the doc didn’t want to take any chances.

So he set the break right then and right there.


It wasn’t fun to watch.

It was incredibly painful

But sooner or later, it was necessary.


People are not machines, even if were taught to think that way.

You are not machines. You feel real pain.

Sometimes it is self-inflicted; sometimes it’s accidental; often it is from outside us.

But it hurt is real: Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

The hurt is real because the breaks are real.


What can hurt more than the break, however, is fixing it.

As that young Marine on a hillside in the desert will attest,

The fix can hurt.


It’s why some people stay in abusive, dangerous relationships,

And others continually reschedule their trip to the dentist.

Fixing things can be painful, even if when it is good for you.


That’s why the opening of St. Mark’s Gospel is so troubling.


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,’”

With those words, Isaiah saw what John saw:

That the way of the Lord was not straight.


It was crooked like broken bones.

It was twisted like a violent relationship.

It was painful, like cracked tooth and an exposed nerve.

And the only thing that seems worse than the break is getting it straightened.


Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,


That doesn’t sound like the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t sound like Gospel at all.


It sounds like the good news of lying down in the dentist’s chair,

And watching Dr. John walk into the room –

A filthy man dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt,

Fresh off a lunch break of locusts and honey,

Violently prying out your dead tooth,

And yelling at you about how you need to floss more.


At least you think that’s what he’s saying.

But you can hardly hear his screams over your own.


Some people out there think that’s what coming to church will be like.

Some of you think that’s what coming to private Confession will be like.

Sadly, some pastors think that’s what a good and faithful sermon should sound like.


We think that because we know something about ourselves.

We know that Jesus desperately wants to make His home in us.

To dwell, as it were, in our hearts –


But the way there has become so crooked and cluttered.

And if it is going to be set right, to be made straight;

And if that heart is going to be a worthy place for Him to live,

It is going to hurt.


That’s why many won’t come to church.

That’s why Confession seems scary.

That’s why Pastors can get cranky and mean.


We’ve had more than enough hurt.

And some days we’d just rather not endure the fix.


That is the most natural way to think –

That making straight what is crooked must be horribly painful and distressing.

Surprisingly, John doesn’t say that at all.

And the people don’t hear that at all.

Hear again verse five:


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.


Somehow, they heard John’s call to repentance, and they weren’t scared.


Instead, they journeyed out into the wilderness,

A place barren and harsh and twisted, just like them,

There in the wilderness the Lord’s paths were made straight.

And it didn’t hurt in the least.


From forever, and still today, people have been trying to make crooked paths straight the hard way, the painful way, the Law way.


But God makes crooked paths straight the water way, by irrigation.

The crooked and tangled He washes straight;

All the debris and clutter He cleans away;

The brokenness and the infection, He drowns.


It is His gracious way of making wrongs right, and crooked roads straight.

The hard and the painful He saves for Himself.


To fix you the Baptism way, Jesus suffers and dies the cross way:

Whips and thorns and nails and spear –

Far more savage than Dr. John’s dental clinic.

That, Jesus reserves for Himself.


This Jesus, who is even mightier than John,

His mightiness, His strength… it is made perfect in weakness,

In suffering and in death.


I think that’s why some people struggle with Baptism.

It looks weak.

Like a baby in a manger;

Like that Baby grown up and nailed to a tree:

It looks weak and not mighty.


That God would give the Holy Spirit, that He would work faith in you this way:

With water and Word.

It doesn’t seem…worthy.


Candidates for Baptism, especially babies,

They hardly seem, in Isaiah’s words: prepared.


Just like the adults, they haven’t fixed themselves.

They haven’t made their paths straight.

They can’t. If they could, then why bother with the wilderness?

But Jesus can and Jesus does.


The paths you could never straighten are straightened.

The sins that have twisted you are washed away;

Once and for all in the font,

Again and again here at Confession & Absolution,

Where you are returned to the water and the promise.


That’s the kind of Advent John preached.

And thanks be to God, that’s the Advent we’ve got.



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