(Year B, Advent 2, December 10, 2017; Gospel Reading from Mark 1:1-8)
“And he preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’” – Mark 1:7 (ESV)
How many of us enter our careers knowing that we are not God’s gift to our chosen profession? How many of us further know that we are just stage-setters for someone else to come along and be that “chosen one” or the “rock star”? Finally, how many of us, even if we knew and acknowledged the above, would accept it and willingly tell everyone who would listen about it? I must confess that for me this would be a very tall order, and I think that it would be fair to say that many would find this a difficult life to lead.
John the Baptist was an impressive preacher, as evidenced in this Gospel account by the masses of people that sought him out in the wilderness. Mark tells us that many heard his message and were “baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” This is the measure of success that many ministers of our day have in their view – that some soul in dire need of the message of Jesus would just hear the word God gives us and they would believe and be baptized. Every time this happens, it is like God stamping His approval on our work!
John doesn’t stop at baptizing the people though; where this would be the pinnacle of many ministries, John treats it as just the top of the first hill on a longer journey – one that I think he may have known he wouldn’t see all the way through. Instead of stopping, John goes on to tell his audience about the One who will come after him, whose ministry will be superior to John’s in every way. And instead of being bitter or sour about it, he appears awe-struck in his language, telling the crowd that even the humblest task one could do for someone else was far above John.
This is the image of what every minister of the Gospel, from Christ’s Ascension until His Return, should strive for. John, as the forerunner for Christ’s first Advent, is also a type of the kind of minister we should be in anticipation of his second.
John approached his calling to preach repentance and the coming of the Son of God with humility. He did this in the way he dressed, in his diet, and in how he shared the message he was given to the people. By clothing himself in “camel’s hair” and wearing a “leather belt around his waist” he contrasted himself from the religious leaders of the day, also calling the people’s minds to previous preachers in the desert. By eating locusts and honey, he denied himself fine foods and relied on the Providence of God above the fruits of man’s labors. Finally, by staying in the wilderness, and preaching about the One who would come after him, he de-emphasized himself – and relied on God to send those who truly sought to hear the message.
Today, we have many examples of ministers, pastors, and priests who live into this image with varying degrees of success. Some of the most grievous blows to the modern Church have been a result of ministers forgetting who the ministry is about – and importantly who it isn’t. On the other hand, some of the best examples of the Gospel message have been lived by ministers who approach the task with careful humility, as a loving father approaches the sober reality of raising children.
In this Gospel reading, Mark captures a confession that should and must be central to everyone who would share the message of the Gospel – “I am not worthy.” By saying that he was unworthy to do the meanest task for the Christ, he confesses that he is also unworthy of the trust of souls placed before him. However, do not hear in this confession an excuse for why you shouldn’t share the Gospel – even though John confessed that he was unworthy to untie the strap of Jesus’ sandals, remember that he baptized the very Son of God. God called and chose John to be His minister on Earth to “prepare the way of the Lord [and] make His ways straight.” While John on his own was being truthful in his confession of unworthiness, God, by choosing John for this task, made him as worthy as He needed him to be.
This confession of unworthiness is the same confession that we must have when we approach the judgement seat of God. For if we wrongly think ourselves worthy, we tacitly reject the sacrifice of Christ crucified. To say, “I am not worthy,” is a grace unto itself, because it reveals the sincere heart that has been softened by the Holy Spirit. Such a heart will not fall into Pharaoh’s trap, or Herod’s mire, or be guilty of Pilate’s sin. It is not without fault, but its faults can be mended because it recognizes and freely confesses the truth.
As an Anglican Christian, one of the traditions I am thankful to be a recipient of is the recitation of the Prayer of Humble Access at every Eucharist. This is a regular reminder of the same truth that John the Baptist confessed to first century Jews in anticipation of the coming of Christ. It reaffirms that I am not worthy on my own, by my own lights, to even approach the altar. If I truly understand the physical bread and wine to be the Spiritual Body and Blood, then I have no right to even touch the elements, much less eat them. But it is by God’s grace and love for His creation that despite my unworthiness He allows and even invites me to take part in the weekly communion of His people.
As we continue in Advent, I encourage you to keep praying for ready hearts and open ears, and to also seek after true humility. Remember John the Baptist, not only as part of the Advent story of anticipating the coming of Christ and his ministry on earth, but also as an image, or type, of the kind of ministry we are to have as we await Christ’s return. Finally, I ask you to earnestly pray for God to reveal to you what work He would have you do as you await the coming Kingdom.
Grace and peace to all, in the Name of Our Savior Jesus who is the Christ.