A Weirdo Appears in the Desert
By: Jerrod McCormack
I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for many years. In all of those years I can’t begin to tell you how many times this passage or one very similar to it popped up in the lectionary. Suffice it to say that I have preached this text so many times that the first question that came to my mind was, “how in the world will I find some new word to share from this?” One of the things that stood out to me while I was reflecting on this passage is the ring of the prophetic voice in the midst of God’s people.
There’s no time for pleasantries or background in Mark’s characteristic style. He just jumps right in with a simple one sentence introduction: “This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Mark admits that the purpose of his relating these stories is so that we too might know the good news of Jesus Christ whom Mark is convinced is the Son of God… But then the first story Mark tells us isn’t specifically about Jesus. It’s about a John the Baptist, the messenger who prepares the way for the messiah.
John the Baptist is a very interesting character in the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. Mostly because John is a total weirdo. We meet John in the wilderness wearing clothes made of camels hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He is an ascetic. That means that he practices a radical level of self-discipline and denial. That has led some scholars to wonder whether he belonged to an ancient community of religious, i.e. monastics. His practice of monk-like rigor makes him even more of a weirdo in our day and culture. Self-discipline and denial are not popular Google searches. The rigorous and devout life that John leads also brings this gospel into connection with the ancient prophets of Israel.
Like those prophets of old, John calls the people to return to the Lord by receiving a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) And we are told that people came from all around the surrounding region to be baptized and to confess their sins. The prophetic role has often been associated with calling people to return to God. I am reminded of the many voices that called Israel back from idolatry and waywardness to return to the God their ancestors knew. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the wayward Israelites saying,
“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3)
Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah have all lived into the prophetic role and have called God’s people back to relationship with God. The prophetic role is one that speaks truth to a people who have strayed from the ways of God or from their responsibilities in the world. It is almost impossible to separate the prophetic call to repentance from the call to a more just, caring, and whole society because our inner spiritual lives shape the way we interact with the world and the way we interact with the world shapes our inner spiritual lives. Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:14-15) It is from the overflow of God’s goodness in our hearts that we construct this new kingdom of Jesus in the world.
John appears in the desert calling the people of the day and us as well to receive the baptism of repentance that we might live into a new vision of what God is doing in the present age. John takes a remarkably humble position as he describes the one who is coming. He says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John points us towards Jesus as the one who comes after who will baptize his followers not with water but with the Holy Spirit and it points us towards the second role of the prophet and that is to proclaim a truth that the world has yet to realize.
Walter Brueggemann calls this the Prophetic Imagination. In his book bearing the same title he says, “The alternative consciousness is to be nurtured on the one hand, [and] serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness…[and] to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.” Brueggemann further acknowledges that the role of the prophetic imagination is to energize the community with the promise of a new vision and a new place to which God’s people can move. Moving towards a new vision is exactly what Advent is all about. It is about acknowledging all that God has done before, accepting our waywardness, and yearning to move boldly into the new kingdom that comes to light in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and his coming again.
Jesus gives us a common vision into which both liberal and conservative can move together. Our tendency to sometimes forget that for the sake of our own ideology. We are all working towards that day when, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) We are invited to be the prophetic voice to the world decrying that which is wrong, acknowledging and uplifting that which is good and right and true. Just as John prepared the way of the Lord we too get to participate in preparing the world to receive the messiah once again. We do it every day in our interactions with each other and the world. Advent invites us to participate in the prophetic task and speak truth to power.
 Walter Brueggemann. Prophetic Imagination: Revised Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).
Jerrod McCormack is the Youth Leader at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also a Spiritual Care Provider for the Alberta Health Services. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.