We all hope in something, even when we think there is no hope. We might hold to the small possibility in the most impossible situations that something might change the course of what we face, or our hope maybe in something beyond that moment… that something good might come of our hopelessness. Hope is essential to being human: it keeps us going, and it shapes how we live in and see the world.
A study by the American Psychological Association into factors that helped disadvantaged Children better their circumstances showed the power of hope to effect change. The one common factor among all those who took part in the study – hope. They had hope for a better future, hope that inspired them into “planning and motivation and determination.”1 Hope changes things! What do we have hope in?
We All Hope
What we hope in is defined by our context. Covid has shaken our hope because it has shown how shallow the foundations we have built on are. There is nothing created that we can truly trust. Our experiences in life confirm this as we go through different seasons and hope in different things. We study to earn a degree in the hope that it will get us a better job, we try different ways to meet new people in the hope of meaningful relationships, we invest our money in the hope that it will return a profit – our lives are defined by the constant search for hope in hopeless things. Soon that which we but hope it is ours. Soon we must search again: we get the job and find ourselves thinking about our next move, we meet countless people and yet we never meet ‘the one,’ or a global pandemic comes along and sends the stock market into free fall and the value of our investments with them. What are we hoping in?
The Solid Foundation of Christian Hope
Advent is now upon us, that season of the church year that calls us to stop and look back to the first coming of Jesus Christ and ahead to his final coming – the consumption of our Gospel hope. Advent reminds us of the certainty of our hope regardless of places, time, or context. We live as those who have all they need now, yet, know there is more still to come and that it will come when Jesus comes again. Advent is both a reminder of a Disciples continuing hope and its fulfilment. While the world constantly searches for new hope, the people of God are a people of a continuing hope today based in our certain hope of tomorrow. Our passage in Mark today reminds us of that dual reality as we learn that Jesus is the promised Hope of the Old Testament and the saving hope of all humankind and to put our trust in Him is to have hope beyond all hope.
Passage: Mark 1:1-8 – The continuing of our Hope (NIV)
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way ”— 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 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 baptised 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 I comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
A New Hope (1-3)
Have you ever bought a book in the expectation that it will be good (reviews of friends say…)? Then you sit down one night by the fire relaxed and ready to read. Yet, with the flick of every page you wonder what you are reading (Have I bought the right book?) and no matter how long you wait, it never turns good. I remember reading one book the whole way through because of the authors’ previous works, yet, as I read it, I kept wondering was it written by the same person. I told myself that even after the strangest start, it would come good, then it was finished.
How something begins sets the stall out for us: Books, TV Series, and movies all need to begin well so that we finish them. Additionally, how something begins tells us something about the author behind it. The Gospel of Mark begins in a way that is unique to him. There is an urgency to Johns writing that is unlike the other Gospels – he wants to get to the point, and to make sure we get the point!. It is not because he has somewhere to go, rather it the urgency of the message and its important! It does not need excessive detail or random points of information. It starts as it goes on, the good news of Jesus Christ. Mark is writing to tell the world what it needs to hear:
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus.”
Thus, right from the start, Mark makes clear not only the purpose of his writing but his life! Jesus. The beginning of Marks Gospel is a challenging mix of things known, and things revealed to his readers. He reveals to us that Jesus is the promised hope of the world: the one who through God will bring the redemption of his chosen people – all by the use of the word messiah. Yet, he also reveals to us that this work of God is nothing new. That to place hope in it, is not trusting something new, but to trust the same work of God throughout history. Not only is Jesus the Messiah, but he is also the ‘Son of God.’ The revelation of the Gospel hope in Mark (and all the Gospels) is that hope in Jesus Christ is new hope, a continuing hope and certain hope. Hope that is new because it is new because God enters our world to redeem us, yet hope that is continuing because it is the same good God at work in the world (He who promised that he would rescue his people. Hope that is certain because that which God sets into motion will be fulfilled, we know this through the work of Christ on the Cross and that he said he will come again. This is the hope of Advent, the hope of the Gospels and the hope of all Christians no matter the season of life or context of living – our hope is in Jesus.
The Certainty of our Hope
It is a hope that we can be certain of because it was not the random idea of an absent-minded god who one day decided it would be good to do something in the world. No, it was an act of a Sovereign God who is all-knowing, all-powering and all-good. Who before the foundations of the world had been put into had set into motion the plan by which his people would be saved through faith and the work of Christ on the Cross. That plan had been at work throughout the history of humankind. It is why in verses two and three, Mark makes reference to the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:3). They are words written about the life and ministry of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus Christ who would go before him and prepare the way for him. Yet, for us today, they also remind us about the certainty of Gods action in the world. Words that were written hundreds of years before they came to pass, yet, when the time was right words that came to pass. Thus, we can be certain that the good news of Jesus Christ and the hope it offers is both the continuing hope of God acting in the world.
Hope Dawns in the Wilderness (4-5)
There is no time wasting as the hope that John had annoyed arrives on the scene. I love the ease of which the narrative shifts “And so,” there is no drama around it, no great poetic description of the coming of the Lord, just a shift in the events. What is now so is the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene, the character would prepare the way for the messiah of the Lord and also act as his herald. It is the dawn of hope, yet what makes this dawn more beautiful and powerful is where it is birthed. This new chapter of Gods redemptive work in the world is not birthed amid the busyness of Jerusalem’s streets, nor even the quiet suburbs of Bethlehem. No, John the Baptist proclaims the dawn of hope in the most hopeless of places – the wilderness:
Amid the most barren and lifeless place in that context one arrives proclaiming life and hope beyond the world. Hope dawns amid desolation! This is not some random mention by Mark as he writes as if he has just recalled some useless detail, the scene has a point: It is descriptive of the spiritual state of God’s people – they are in a barren place. Thus, the wilderness acts as a description of the hopelessness of Israel and their situation both spiritually and literally. They are under Roman oppression, for some 600 years, there have been no prophets or messengers of God; they are hopeless people without hope.
This Advent we are in a context like no other: we are distant from our loved ones, some of us have not been able to see friends and family for months. It can seem hopeless! Yet, our passage reminds us that our God works in all situations for the good of those who love him and his Glory. Even more potently that our hope (in Christ) is hope beyond Covid, beyond all circumstances. The good news of Jesus is good news for all people, at all times and in all places: it is the news of a continuing hope because of the work of Christ on the Cross that made possible an everlasting relationship with God through faith. A certain hope that is achieved by no merit or actin of our own but by the election of a sovereign God. Thus a hope that transcends circumstance. It is a hope that bears fruit
Fruit in the Barren Place and announces the coming of the Lord
John appears and brings a message in both word and deed. He preaches a message that demands a response – a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins and the people seem to the response. There in the wilderness for the first time in hundreds of years, the people of God are responding to a messenger of God. Hope is bearing fruit. In these moments, John acts as both an arrow pointing to Jesus and model as we read this passage today. John the baptist is an arrow for us in our wilderness moments that reminds us where our hope is found.
Our wilderness moment is one that is far beyond covid, or the difficult moments of life we find ourselves living. As the people of God today, we live perpetually in the wilderness as we await the final coming of Jesus. Advent as a season reminds us of our wilderness living, yet in our wilderness wandering, we are called to bear fruit – Gospel fruit. This is the essence of the great commission that amid the barrenness of this world ravaged by the effects of sin, we point to the wonder of life in Christ! A life that provides fruit in every season regardless of our context as we wait for the return of the King. Thus John the baptist is not only an arrow for us but a model for those who follow Jesus. John models for us what our lives must be as we wander in the wilderness today, we are to be those who point to our hope in Jesus by our word and deed.
Our Wilderness Commission
This Advent, the world has felt more barren and fruitless than ever before, it is not just covid, you could throw in any number of things: Elections, Brexit, wars, terrorist attacks or any number of events. Yet, now more than ever, the world is in need an of true hope, a hope that transcends our contexts, cultures, and circumstances. A hope that when it is made known transforms them. As we wait for Him and look to his second coming in this advent let us fulfil the mandate of the Great Commission in the power of the Spirit by pointing to him by our words and deeds. Let us make known the hope of Christ that is ours so that amid the dark nights, ‘ people would know the light of Christ. Let us not be afraid to get creative so that people can know What it means to have life and fellowship with Jesus and a hope that continues throughout all the seasons of our lives and is certain in its fulfilment. Let us be a people bearing Gospel fruit in a barren place.
The Uniqueness of this Hope (6-8)
The Appearance of John the Baptist and what he declares about the one who is to come are the two major factor in this section of the passage. The details related to John, the Baptists appearance, is all the more interesting consider Mark’s lack of concern for detail as he writes. The lesson? Johns appearance is one in keeping with that of a prophet; he has been set aside by God for a purpose, and every facet of his life displays that purpose. He is not concerned with the finer things of life, nor desperate to try all the pleasures that the world offers. Hence, he preaches in the wilderness – away from the trappings of the city and all the temptation that can be brought there, away from the crowds – if people want to hear him they must go to him, and they do. John is concerned only with the role that God has called him too, and he orientates his life to it – proclaiming the one who is greater than he. His diet again enforces this imagery, he is a simple man, leading a simple life. His life is simple because his life is faithful: John is faithful to the task of which God has called him – proclaiming the one who is to come – King Jesus.
Hence he dresses like a prophet, and he maintains a simple life because his hope, joy, and purpose are not in the things of this world but in the one who had come into the world. Thus, John again acts as a model and a challenge for the church today during Covid and all the events that are shaking the world. John is clear in his identity and purpose, and thus those things shape every aspect of his life: from his clothing to his diet. He lives a life centred on the purpose and call of God! The Challenge is simple: What shapes our living in this world? If those around us looked to us would they see a life shaped by Christ and our calling to make him was known in every aspect of our life or would they see a life shaped by the many idols and fears of the world: Family, Career, Travel, Romance or even covid? Let us make sure our lives are shaped by our hope in Christ and then are calling to make him known.
It is a wonderful scene as the crowds come out to John to hear a messenger from God preaching in a way that has not been heard for hundreds of years. Yet, even as the crowds gather and the excitement increases John remains resolute in his conviction and proclamation:
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”
John knows his place in the scheme of Gods redemptive plan, and he is delighted with it. Hence his humility as he points to the one who is to come, of whom John (and none of us) would even be worthy to tie his shoe laces. John points to the one who is to come, Jesus. Why? Because he is our only hope. So great is the one who is to come, so beyond our grasp in awe, majesty and power that even the most menial task of a servant would be beyond on us. His Greatness is our hope because even in that he would come into the world so that the world might know God through him. The final words spoken by John are perhaps the greatest:
“ I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
The greatest because they remind all who are listening and reading that Jesus is the fulfilment of Hope that the Old Testament promised and pointed to. Consider the words of Isaiah 32:15, or these well know words from Joel 2:28 and 29:
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
Thus for Jesus to be the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit means that he is the one to whom all of Scripture pointed. He is what the people of God have been waiting for, and He can be trusted because God is always faithful. Furthermore, the promise of the baptism in the Spirit should give us even greater confidence and hope in Jesus, because it reminds us of that which he gives us is something beyond this world. We receive through faith To be baptised by in the Holy Spirit is to receive the gift of faith from the sovereign God by no effort or merit of your own. Thus, our hope in Christ and through Christ is a certain hope because it is not an earthly hope it is eternal hope. Finally, in that promise of being baptised in the Holy Spirit when we come to know Christ we are reminded not just of the eternal nature of our hope we are also reminded about something of our life today as we wait for Jesus. The Holy Spirit is not just some benign gift that marks out our faith in Christ until he comes again, no! The Holy Spirit is both the deposit of faith and the power of our discipleship: through faith in Christ, we can enter into the presence of God and then are empowered by God to live for Him and make Him Known.
Conclusion: Making Our Hope Known
The Holy Spirit here is the reminder that we are never alone, and we are never without purpose. Today the darkness perhaps feels greater than it ever has during advent; the perils of this world feel all too real as we retreat into our houses for fear of covid, and then glance at the news that drip feeds constant negativity: the economic fall-out of covid; the political, social, and economic fall out that may come from Brexit, the rampant effects of human sin throughout the world as we hear stories of war, terrorism, and racism – the world is dark, and darkening still. Yet, amid this gloom we are a people who have a hope that is certain because our hope is not of this world and not of our effort.
Furthermore, we are a people who are active in making our hope known because that which empowers our purpose and living is not of this world but the same deposit of our hope. Our Call and response to our hope in Christ are to make this hope know, so let us today consider how we are sharing the good news of Jesus this advent and December season. All the old has been stripped away; we cannot gather for carols services, it feels irresponsible to have any mass gatherings either inside or out, we are wary even of visiting family and friends, and even still some three weeks away from Christmas day we are not even sure if it will be safe to meet in church.
Yet, what if all this is not loose but opportunity and challenge, what if God in the power of his Spirit and by these circumstances is calling us to a new thinking a fresh approach to offering a wear world hope. Thus, the question we must ask now is not “what we have lost?” but “What opportunity have we gained?” Today as those baptised in the Holy Spirit, as disciples and followers of Jesus who’s hope is certain and continuing let us consider how we can shape our lives and living around our call to make Christ known. Perhaps it might mean picking up the phone to check in and share our hope with friends and family, praying for those in our lives, or acting in missional ways towards our neighbours and communities. Let us look to the Lord for wisdom and then in the Power of the Holy Spirit shape our lives and living so that our Hope in Christ might shine brighter than it ever has this Advent so that even absent from Carol Services and gatherings in years to come we will look back and say that during Covid the Lord was at work.
It would be amiss to not mention the verses that follow this passage. Often then lectionary misses out important points by where it stops and without diving into Mark 1:9-12 the baptism and testing of Jesus. They remind us of two fundamental things about putting our hope in Jesus. Firstly, that which we receive from him through faith is not by merit but simply by Grace. The baptism of Jesus in marks Gospel is a telling of what is to come, by going into the waters Jesus was not admitting a need to repent, he was becoming like us! Thus, Mark uses the baptism to symbolise the greater act that was to come – the work of Christ on the Cross when he would take on himself the sins of the elect. Our hope in Christ is a gift of God received through faith, let us never forget it. Finally, the testing of Jesus in the wilderness affirms that Jesus can be trusted: Whereas the people of God who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness constantly sinned and struggled – the Son of God was tired, temped and tortured by Satan yet never strayed for his purpose, calling or dependency on the father. The testing of Christ in the wilderness declares to us that unlike all the things of this world, Jesus can be trusted.