Welcome to the church
Hymn: God has spoken by his prophets
Call to worship and welcome
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
(Isaiah 40: 3-5)
Welcome to worship!
It has been a strange week. We have seen further Covid outbreaks in this country, we have seen Covid disaster in the UK and we have seen civil unrest in America.
It is scary: But we know the renewed hope that Jesus brought into the world. The prophet Isaiah tells us that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Throughout the ages God has always spoken to his people, and he continues to speak to us today.
Let us pray:
Prayers of adoration and confession
Eternal God, it was your Spirit, hovering over the waters at the dawning of that first day.
It was your voice echoing through the darkness, which brought forth light.
Eternal God, it was your love that birthed humankind, and placed them in a garden.
It was your hand that helped them to their feet, each time they fell.
Eternal God, it was your prophets who spoke your word, to generation after generation.
Eternal God, it was your Son who took his place with those he came to save, and in his life and death showed the depth of love that will not let us go.
It is your love enfolds us, and your spirit that fills us.
It is your sunrise that wakes us, and your sunset that amazes us.
It is your promise that sustains us, and your power that upholds us,
It is your patience that humbles us, and your touch that heals and comforts us,
You have always loved us, and by grace you have saved us.
And today, as always, we praise your holy name, and give you the glory: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And as we praise God, we realise how much we fall short of his glory,
And so, trusting in God’s promises to us, we pray together:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
Have mercy on us and forgive us;
Wash us clean by your Holy Spirit,
that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your name. Amen.
Assurance of Forgiveness
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.
If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Friends, hear Christ’s word of grace to us:
Your sins are forgiven
Thanks be to God
Hymn: What a friend we have in Jesus
<Prayers of Intercession>
1 Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord strikes
with flashes of lightning.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
the Lord blesses his people with peace.
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Sermon: A renewed hope
Our opening hymn this morning was ‘God has spoken by his prophets’, and God speaking through his prophets sets the scene for this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel.
God speaking through prophets was what the nation of Israel expected: God would raise up prophets, who would speak God’s word, and guide the nation. Ultimately, of course, they expected that God would raise up an ‘anointed one’ – a Messiah, a king, to defeat the Roman occupiers and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. The regular speaking of God’s word by prophets would foretell the coming of the messiah, and prepare the nation.
But by the time of this morning’s reading, the prophets, it seemed had stopped speaking to the nation.
Israel, God’s chosen people, the very children of Abraham, were apparently forgotten by God. God who’d remembered them in slavery in Egypt, God who’d guided them across the wilderness to the Promised Land, God who’d defeated their enemies, God who’d rescued them from exile in Babylon.
By the beginning of the gospel accounts, the people were in the Promised Land, and they had the Second Temple. But it wasn’t really their land anymore. The Romans were running the place, and the nation of Israel only existed at the pleasure of Rome – and for the benefit of Rome.
Over the years, there had been many uprisings against the Roman occupiers - by the Maccabbees, the Zealots and others. And each time the uprisings had been crushed. The leaders put to death, the followers, if not killed as well, were enslaved or dispersed. It seemed that what they’d hoped for, all these years, was lost.
But then, there was a renewed hope, because John appeared in the desert, baptising and preaching.
Here, in the wilderness, was a prophet: someone who spoke the word of God, someone who baptised and preached.
What John preached, though, was a bit of a shock. “Turn away from your sins and be baptised”
Firstly, the accusation was that they were sinful. You can’t repent from sins unless you’re are sinful in the first place. The Jewish people had a system of sacrifices to deal with sins – different sorts of sacrifices for different things which was administered through a complex system which centred on the temple in Jerusalem.
But John was effectively overriding that system…just repent.
But the second part of the shock is that they had to turn away from their sins and be baptised.
While there is ceremonial washing and bathing in the Old Testament, there is nothing like the ‘baptism of repentance’ that John preached. In fact, baptism had emerged in the ‘oral law’ of the Jewish people in the period between the Old and the New Testaments. And baptism was a ceremony reserved for gentiles who converted to Judaism. It was certainly not something for the Chosen People themselves.
John was telling them they had to do something they never thought they’d have to do. Far from being special before God, they would have to humble themselves and wash themselves like mere gentiles…
The renewed hope that John brought wasn’t what they expected: This was a harsh message, delivered by a passionate preacher in the wilderness around the Jordan. The people of Israel were being told they could no longer rely on their ancestry; the ancestry that they believed gave them a special relationship with God, an entitlement unique amongst all the nations of the world! John said that they – just like the gentiles – needed to be baptised, that they were somehow no longer special in God’s eyes; that they needed to repent!
On the face of it, not a very appealing message at all. But people came, not just a handful, verse 5 tells us that the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.
John’s ministry in the Jordan was a huge thing in the life of the nation of Israel: in the nature of the message, in the size of the response, and of course, in who John preceded.
So the crowds came to hear John, just like they would later flock to Jesus.
But think about what John did: John preached, and John baptised, but that is all he did.
There were no miraculous healings, there were no raisings from the dead, no walking on water, no casting out of demons; none of the signs and wonders that we associated with Jesus’ ministry, John just a man, in the desert, speaking the word of God.
John’s ministry was similar to Jesus’, and his teaching that you can read in Luke’s gospel was similar to some of what Jesus would preach: Luke 3: Verse 11 “…Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none …”
Verse 13, to tax collectors “…Don't collect more than is legal”
Verse 14 to soldiers “Don't take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely."
Definitely relevant to people who are trying to live as God wants them to, and definitely consistent with Jesus’ later teaching; but perhaps not quite as insightful or ‘deep’.
And so Mark tells us that the people left the city and the countryside, and journeyed into the wilderness to hear him, and to respond to his message.
From his message of repentance and baptism, John went on to tell the people about the one who was to come after him “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John says “I’m just baptising you with water” but someone will come who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. This is not just something different, but something entirely new. It’s easy to baptise with water, John had baptised hundreds if not thousands in the Jordan, and the Jewish people had been baptising gentile converts for years… but in the context of John’s listeners how do you baptise with the Holy Spirit?
So the scene is set: The multitudes in the desert hearing John’s radical message. Hearing it, and responding to it. And then we have John telling them about the messiah, the one who will wash them in the Holy Spirit.
And then the most remarkable thing happens, Mark tells us in verse 9 “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Jesus came to be baptised. John recognised him, famously, with the words recorded in John’s gospel “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
At which point I think we need to pause, consider things for a moment, and ask the obvious question.
Why does Jesus present himself for baptism?
We know John’s baptism is of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, so how can Jesus be baptised? What did Jesus have to repent from or be forgiven for? Don’t we know that Jesus was without sin? That he had nothing to repent, and nothing to be forgiven for?
In fact, in Matthew’s account of this same incident (3:14), he tells us “…John tried to deter [Jesus], saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?””
In coming to John in the wilderness, Jesus took his place – openly and publicly – with the people he came to save. He took his place with sinners. He took his place with us.
In that action, in humbling himself alongside the people who were humbling themselves before God, Jesus showed he was one of them. In that action, Jesus showed that he was one of us.
So, rather than his baptism washing away his own sin, Jesus offers himself as a substitute and a representative for the people who do need to be washed of sin. Jesus doesn’t become ‘sinful’ or in need of forgiveness, but he takes his place with the people and takes upon himself the burden of the people, our burden. The burden which we know is ultimately lifted upon his death on the cross.
And then verse 10 gives us some very famous words:
“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”
Of course, this incident is one of the key foundations of our doctrine of the trinity, along with the Great Commission at the end of Matthew 28, where we read "Go then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,".
Here at the baptism of Jesus, we see Jesus, God the Son, being baptised, we hear God the Father speaking from Heaven, and see God the Holy Spirit, descending. The three persons of the trinity present and distinct.
But beyond the implications for our understanding of the trinity, there is a huge significance in this for who Jesus is, and our understanding of the renewed hope that John foretold.
When we read that God the Father says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” there is a tendency to read “with you I am well pleased “ to mean “Good job, son, well done”, but if we read it as “my favour rests on you” we can get a better understanding. Or, I guess, to translate a bit less subtly “You are my Son, whom I love, and you are my chosen one”.
Jesus is God’s chosen one.
And this brings us back to the people of Israel, who had confidently known themselves to be God’s chosen people. The people whom John the Baptist told needed to repent and be baptised. The people who could no longer rely on their special status before God.
God’s favour doesn’t arrive by virtue of inheritance. It doesn’t arrive by virtue of who our father was, or what our surname is, or the nation of our birth, or the denomination to which we belong. God’s favour arrives from Jesus.
We receive God’s favour, not because of who we are, not even because of what we do, but we receive it through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And this is the message that John was preaching in the wilderness: a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Challenging people to turn away from their old ways, and turn to God. He prepared the way of the Lord: he prepared people by baptising them with water; he prepared people with a radical message. He prepared them for something more from someone greater. He prepared the way of the Lord.
And that’s what we need to do. Not only do we need to repent – to turn away from our sins – to stop doing the bad stuff, but we also need to work to prepare the way of the Lord today.
Just like John.
And just like John, what we have is a message. A message of hope – a renewed hope for a fallen world and for people who have turned their backs on God. A message that is radical, a message that is often ridiculed, a message that is increasingly at odds with the accepted wisdom and values of the world, but it is a message that brings hope, it’s a message that spans thousands of years, and it’s a message that truly is good news. And it's a message for everyone. Not a message restricted by race or background or wealth or social standing. It is a message for all the people of the world.
We don’t need to be out in the wilderness, we don’t need to dress in goat hair robes. But we need to share our renewed hope in Jesus with a world which doesn’t know God as we do, a world filled with entitlements, and rights, and self justification.
Our voice is small. A voice calling out in the wilderness.
But Jesus has lived and died and risen, and we’re empowered to carry the good news of Jesus to the world, because we haven’t just been baptised with water: we have been baptised with the Holy Spirit.
Hymn: He walked on earth, showing glimpses of heaven
Prayer over the offering
Last Wednesday was the Feast of the Epiphany, where we remember how the magi, the wise men from the East, came to Bethlehem to worship the new-born king.
Matthew’s gospel tells us “Going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts.”
- Matthew 2:11
And so we too, offer our gifts to our saviour – no matter what they are or how we give them, and we pray:
Creator of all things, we offer you the gifts of our work and our lives. We ask you to guide us in their faithful use, so that your kingdom may be furthered, and your renewed hope shared with all people.
As we finish our time together, let us be voices in the wilderness and let us prepare the way of the Lord as we go about our lives. And as we do so, let us be confident in the renewed hope that John preached and Jesus brought.
And may the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all now and for evermore.
Hymn: Be thou my vision
Next Sunday: 17 January 2021
1 Samuel 3:1-10
John 1: 43-51
Theme: ‘Listening for God, listening to God’
Lectionary Readings for next Week
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20