The Collect: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth; Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and grant us thy peace all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; 2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; 7 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. 8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. 9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. 10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: 11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:1-11)
It is unlikely that anyone hearing this sermon can remember the day they were born. With what words could you have remembered, since you had no words in your mind at the moment of your birth? But we all remember the day Christ was born in Bethlehem – and that was even before our own birth. How is that we know? Because God has provided His Word for us to know and to understand. But even having God’s Word, and knowing it intellectually, does not mean that we truly KNOW His Word and, furthermore, know Him! If you believe that you came into being the day of your birth, you would be wrong. You were conceived some months earlier; and if you believe that you came into being at the moment of conception, you would be wrong again because God knew you and conceived of you in His omniscient Mind in the great eternities past. According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will . (Eph 1:4-5) So what does St. Mark the apostle mean in his opening remarks in verse 1 of our text: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
First of all, Mark does not mean this account to be the Gospel of St Mark (though for simplicity, we call it that). He means the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ insofar as we can know it. It is the revelation of beautiful truths that have existed forever, but revealed to us in the time of God’s own choosing. It does not mean, for example, the beginning of Jesus Christ, for He has eternally existed with the Father, and the Holy Ghost. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God!” (John 1:1) In fulfillment of the promise of God to Abraham and His spiritual Seed, Christ came in the fullness of time to fulfill all things spoken of Him by the prophets.
When traveling to a new land, every great sovereign is preceded by emissaries who prepare the way for his visit, make all arrangements for his reception by the host people, and send out news (such as the Gospel news) of his coming. The emissary sent should reflect, though imperfectly, the nature of the Sovereign who comes. If the Sovereign takes particular interest in the poor and downcast, so should the emissary in selecting his schedule of events, insure that the Way is made ready so that those, especially, will have opportunity to be introduced to Him. The old prophets spoke profusely of this coming Sovereign, but they also spoke uncommonly often of His emissary. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3) and, Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3:1) Truth is unquenchable and it resounds, not only across great distances, but also across the ages of time. So it is meet and right that Mark should echo and remind us of the great prophecies of one called John the Baptist: The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
I have always been struck by this clear and precise description of John the Baptist. He is one who cries, not among the false lights of the city, but in the Wilderness. If men will come to hear a “voice crying in the wilderness” then they must have a serious reason to leave the comfort of Jerusalem and come. They either are drawn by the promptings of the Holy Spirit (for those hearts whose soils are rich to bear fruit), or by the spirit of anti-Christ who sends out his spies to learn of ways to stem the rising hopes of the people in a Redeemer. We have the same among us today in both kinds – and they are IN the Church more than OUTSIDE it. The dress of John the Baptist would have met with serious disdain from the First churches of today. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. (Matt 3:4) There certainly was nothing special about John’s appearance, but there certainly was something of an overriding importance in his message! He was a burden on none that he taught, unlike many modern seekers of filthy lucre. No one brought him steak and wine – he ate locusts and honey. He wore neither Armani, nor Gucci, suits but, rather, a robe of camel’s hair and a leather girdle about his loins. The Pharisees and Jewish rulers must have been in a pickle to understand John. He appeared so very low and common, but what of these wondrous words that he spoke which so completely enthralled the crowds who flocked to hear him in the Wilderness? They simply could not lower their dignity from the dunghill of religious sophistry to the pinnacle of simple righteousness and truth found in John’s preaching.
John did not simply speak in even tones when he preached – he roared the message of the coming Savior as one “crying in the Wilderness.” The message was to ALL who believed – not the ones who failed of faith and good will. The dark chambers of the heart were opened in the bosoms of many men and women to a new Voice – a new Truth (to them) of hope and wonder. Yet, it was not in the polished halls of the Temple at Jerusalem that they first learned of this hope – it was in the lonely Wilderness. Have you ever considered how much more clearly one can hear the Voice of God in a quiet place as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the city? The point of John’s preaching in the Wilderness that most touches my heart is the fact that all who ever preached the Gospel before, or after, were as a Voice crying in the Wilderness. Perchance, one is easily enticed to go to the city square to hear a speaker; but they will not travel into the Wilderness to hear the words of a man dressed in camel’s hair and a leather girdle unless there is something mighty special about his message. Did I say HIS message? I should have said “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” THAT message is worth travelling into the Wilderness to hear. If you are a minister of God, or a devoted witness, you, too, will be as a Voice crying in the Wilderness, calling men and women to the HIGHWAY – not the BROAD and DESCENDING Way – of the Lord. Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matt 7:13-14)
If a man preaches the whole counsel of God, even with great love, the city crowds will not flock to his audience. Therefore, I hope that the ministers of God will cultivate the ground, and plant the seed, without expecting great success in the eyes of the world. The world has never known the meaning of truth and joy in Christ. If the numbers of Wilderness travelers remains few, be happy for the FEW! We sow the seeds of the Gospel – their germination and sprouting to the sun is the responsibility of the Holy Ghost. He works in the darkness of the soil, unseen by human eye, in creating the new life in the heart of the convert.
I love John the Baptist as my true brother! He surely is! What does one see in John that would discourage love? He speaks the truth, as any real friend would do, even when it hurts the water of our face. He is dedicated and earnest. Finally, he is HUMBLE! We are often lifted up with pride at our tiny successes, or even a presumed superior knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Why should we be if the Word we have learned is not ours, but God’s? 7 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. 8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. It was, in the time of John, the responsibility of the lowest servant in a household to unloose the shoe latchets of guests, and to wash their feet. But John, by contrast with Christ, was not even worthy to SERVE Him – and, friend, neither are you and I. If He calls us to the duty, He will MAKE us worthy through His own imputed righteousness.
It is the duty of every believer to be publicly baptized. That is the means by which, like circumcision, we come into the covenant relationship with Christ and His Church. Faith, too, must be the work of the Holy Ghost in the heart. When, by the grace of God, faith is confirmed in the “broken and contrite heart” the Holy Ghost has baptized that heart in the heavenlies.
8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. It is not the outward form of baptism that is efficacious to us before God, but the inward and spiritual grace attaining thereto – else it is only a work of man’s hands. It is much like the calling to the ministry and its recognition by the Church in the following ordination. If the head is ordained to preach, and the heart is not, there is no authority granted to preach. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph 4:4-6) Must we be baptized twice? Certainly not! There is one baptism for the remission of sins. The Holy Ghost atte4nd the believing heart in baptism just as we see that it presents Itself at the baptism of our Lord.
9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. “And it came to pass…..” I love the casual manner in which God speaks of momentous events! Sure it came to pass, but it didn’t simply come to pass as a matter of happenstance – it was foreordained from all time and eternity! When all of the stars of Heaven were drawn in perfect alignment; when all the words of the prophets had been met with fulfillment of time and purpose; when Christ had been incarnated and made a man after our physical likeness; when the approval of God the Father thundered down the halls of time – Christ was baptized by John in the unseemly little waters of Jordan. How seemingly inappropriate in the eyes of man, but altogether appropriate in the eyes of God! There was a time fixed for you coming to Christ. Do you feel that coming was accidental, or ON PURPOSE!
I hope you will notice that the presence of the Divine Trinity at the baptism of Christ….Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! 10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: 11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. The Holy Spirit descended at the moment of baptism – not a long delay of months or years afterward; and the Voice of a joyful Father thundered out of Heaven! Did you feel the love and comfort of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost at your baptism, or in your confirmation? Though you may not have felt it in the first, it was nonetheless, present; and certainly the Trinity was present at your confirming faith in your baptism. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)