A voice calling in the wilderness

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’ – ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’” (Mark 1:1-3 NIV)

Mark began his good news about Jesus connecting him with the Jewish prophets. And notice that this is ‘good news’! He identified Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God, and the one Isaiah wrote about: there would be a messenger sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. This messenger would be a voice calling in the wilderness.

The Judean wilderness is the area largely to the east and south of Jerusalem. It begins on the other side of the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. You can look from the top of the Mount of Olives west and see the temple complex and Jerusalem; if you look east it is the wilderness. This area receives very little rainfall, while the area to the west receives a reasonable amount. This is due to the Mount of Olives, which stops the rain storms from going any further east. If you look to the west, it is green with many trees and foliage. The dominant colour to the east is brown. This area really isn’t a desert as most picture a desert. It is deserted but what we see is not sand but barren rock with very sparse plant life.

That there would be a voice calling in the wilderness would be strange to most in the first century who knew Isaiah’s prophecy. It was strange because very few people lived in this area. Due to the lack of water and the heat, villages were few and far between. Yet this was the area that a messenger preparing the way for the Messiah would be found. Mark goes on to identify who the messenger was.

“John came, immersing in the wilderness, preaching an immersion of a change of heart to obtain the forgiveness of sins. All the people of Jerusalem and from the whole Judean area went out to him, and were being immersed by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. He preached, saying, ‘One who is mightier than I comes after me. I am unworthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I immersed you in water, but he will immerse you in the Holy Spirit.’” (Mark 1:4-8 McCord)

That a man who acted like a prophet appeared in the wilderness and began preaching and immersing people got the attention of those in Jerusalem and Judea. Crowds began going out to hear him. John seems to have been preaching in the area around the Jordan River where there was water. The Jordan is just over 20 miles from Jerusalem and is a drop in elevation of 3,900 feet. They would have a day’s travel to get there and another day or more to get back. And all to hear a man who wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt.

His message to prepare for the Messiah had several emphases. The people needed “a change of heart”. The people needed to change to be ready for the coming Messiah. They needed to be immersed in water “to obtain the forgiveness of sins”. Immersing in water in a mikveh was part of the ritual cleansing of Jews in the first century. But this was different: it was being done to them, not by themselves as in a mikveh, and was not just a ritual cleansing but was for forgiveness of sins, accompanied by a change of heart. It was a needed message to call people to be ready to follow the Messiah.

Is our message much different today? As followers of the Messiah we still proclaim the need for people to change their heart and their lives and to be immersed for the forgiveness of sins. Our rationale, though, is different: this is not to prepare for the coming Messiah but because of what the coming Messiah did. He died so we can be forgiven.

Photo of Judean wilderness near Jerusalem by Jon Galloway, November 2019

Readings for next week: Isaiah 63-66; Mark 1-4

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