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First Impressions: Mark 3:1-6

December 1, 2009

I will preach the primary Gospel text about John the Baptist and supplement that with a responsive reading of Luke 1:68-79 (United Methodist Hymnal, # 208).  The latter text features John’s father Zechariah prophesying at the birth of his son.  Luke 3:1-6 is the first of two Gospel lessons on consecutive Sundays about John.  This week’s text describes John and his work, and next week, John himself speaks.

3:1-2 Though we can find fault with the details of Luke’s list of the political players at the time John appeared in the wilderness, we must honor the evangelist’s emphasis that he arrived at a very real time in history to real people with real problems.  As Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring have written, “This setting of the Gospel story is in real-world history, at the furthest pole from ‘once upon a time’” (M. Eugene Boring and Fred CraddockThe People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 185.).

I once used a sermon introduction suggested by Homiletics (“A New Word for an Old World,” December 7, 1997) that substituted the names in verses 1 and 2 with those of contemporary politicians and religious leaders.  It could have lead to a strong sermon (but didn’t!) about how the word that came from John is also for us in our own unique time in history.

3:3 Proclamation is John’s work.  At this point in Luke, John’s proclamation is centered on a baptism of repentance and forgiveness.  We can infer that this act was an essential component of his preparing the way of the Lord.  Repentance is also a key theme of Advent.  The preacher could use the image of baptism and imagine what it means for us to be baptized by John anew in this season.  What would that look like in our lives?

3:4-6 These words from Isaiah 40 are not simply images to describe what John is doing in our hearts, but also follow closely Luke’s own feelings about the Gospel.  The lofty will come crashing down just as the lowly are lifted.  Crooked becomes straight.  Rough becomes smooth.  By chapter three, Luke has already hit this theme again and again, and he doesn’t ever let up.  There will be plenty of time throughout the coming year to preach this “great reversal,” and I may draw attention to it only briefly this week.

On the other hand, it is a theme that fits well with repentance.  You could combine it with Luke 1:68-79 to preach the saving work of God that John is preparing for with his work.  Our job is not to save ourselves, but only to prepare our lives so that God has a straight, even path directly into our hearts.  We prepare by repenting, by admitting that our own tired solutions to save ourselves are useless.  In baptism, we die to ourselves so that we can live to God.

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