John’s Baptism Prepared the Way for Jesus

John the Baptizer was an intriguing character in history.  He came along clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey.  He asked Jewish people to do what would have been considered religiously inappropriate for them to do.  He called for them to be baptized, but baptism was looked upon as being for Gentiles not for Jews.  Gentiles were, by definition, “unclean,” and needed to be circumcised and washed by baptism if they wished to become Jewish.  For Jewish persons, to be baptized was tantamount to saying that their birthright as children of Abraham was not enough.  Such an action as baptism bordered on being scandalous.  Nevertheless, so many Jewish people flocked to the Jordan River to be baptized by John that the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that King Herod was alarmed by the size of the crowds and feared that John’s movement might turn into a political revolution. 

Apparently, though, John’s message struck a chord in people’s hearts.  They recognized that simply being born Jewish was not enough for them to feel a closeness with God or to enable them to walk consistently in God’s ways.  Therefore, they came to be baptized “confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). 

Confession: Frederick Buechner expresses beautifully the essence of confession: “To confess your sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know.  Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you.  When you confess them, they become the bridge.”  People were seeking a better bridge to God, so they came to John confessing their sins.

It is confession that brings liberation to our lives.  What is referred to as The Big Book in Alcoholics Anonymous describes the prison of hidden sins: “More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life.  He is very much the actor.  To the outer world he presents his stage character.  This is the one he likes his fellows to see.  He wants to enjoy a certain reputation, but knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it.  The inconsistency is made worse by the things he does on his sprees.  Coming to his senses, he is revolted at certain episodes he vaguely remembers.  These memories are a nightmare.  He trembles to think someone might have observed him.  As fast as he can, he pushes these memories far inside himself.  He hopes they will never see the light of day.  He is under constant fear and tension—that makes for more drinking.” 

In contrast, Step 5 of the Twelve Steps offers liberation: “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  Confession is the bridge that leads to freedom.

Repentance: Mark tells us that John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).  Repentance has to do with turning around.  It is the recognition that I have been going in the wrong direction and that I need to turn around and go in the other direction. 

Brian Weatherdon points out, “Wabush, a town in a remote portion of Labrador, Canada, was completely isolated for some time.  But recently a road was cut through the wilderness to reach it.  Wabush now has one road leading into it, and thus, only one road leading out.  If someone would travel the unpaved road for six to eight hours to get into Wabush, there is only way he or she could leave—by turning around.  Each of us, by birth, arrives in a town called Sin.  As in Wabush, there is only one way out—a road built by God himself.  But in order to take that road, one must first turn around.  That complete about-face is what the Bible calls repentance, and without it, there’s no way out of town.”

Baptism with the Holy Spirit: When we recognize that we are failing to find in life a feeling of closeness with God or an ability to walk consistently in his ways, it is time for us to turn around and go in a new direction.  It is time for us to stop trusting in our birthright, and it is time to stop depending on our own efforts.  It is time for us to begin living a life that depends on the power of God’s Spirit flowing into us and through us.

John told his audience that one would be coming after him who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).  That’s what we need, and that’s the good news that John brought to people when he appeared on the scene, preparing the way for Jesus.

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