The Path to God
This Sunday in Advent is traditionally the celebration of John the Baptist. This is why our reading from the gospel of Mark is the story of John and his ministry. John picks up on Isaiah’s message from God to the people of Israel at the end of the exile: “Comfort, comfort my people Comfort, comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended.” John uses it as the rallying cry for the coming of God in Jesus Christ. John knows that the people are feeling exiled from God spiritually. The close connection between God and the people has been muddied by many things. John knows that God is planning something marvellous; but the people need to be ready. The people were living under the rule of the Romans. They were in their homeland and yet that homeland was not theirs to control. They had the freedom to practice their faith but physically they were limited. Their comings and goings were carefully watched. They were going through the motions of life, but they felt no hope, no escape, and no real future.
Then John appears with a message from God. His message breaks through the drudgery of life and touches the hearts of many. They hear the ancient words of Isaiah and are reminded of that time when the exile ended, and their ancestors were allowed to return home. They knew that God had brought that day about and that He had provided the path.
Now - in their time - the words of the prophet were heralded again. But what was this path? In the time of the Exodus, the path was from Egypt to Judah; in the time of the Exile, the path was from Babylon to Judea; but they were in the land of their ancestors, where were they to go?
The path of the Lord was being created and that path would be revealed in due time. For now it was necessary for the people to be baptized as a sign of their readiness for God’s coming. When a person chose to be baptized, they were publicly declaring their desire to not only be forgiven of their sins but to turn their life in a new direction. When we bring our children for baptism, we are making the commitment to direct the lives of our children that they may find the path of God as they grow. And so baptism is not a simple rite of passage nor is it holy insurance. Baptism is a sign to God that we have made a change in our life and that we have decided to live this life for Him and with Him.
This baptism by water, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was the first step in the journey that John was inviting the people to take. The second step would be when they received the baptism in the Holy Spirit: the promise of God to not only visit the people but to dwell with the people. The water washed them physically and was an outward sign that they were preparing themselves to receive the new message from God. The Spirit would wash them spiritually and is an inward sign that not only had they received the new message from God but that they could and would dwell in the presence of their God forever.
Not everyone came for baptism. Not everyone stayed for the baptism of the Spirit. But for those who truly repented, who sought to change the direction of their lives, the coming of God in Christ brought hope and peace. Today as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we find ourselves remembering two significant moments. We remember the beginning of a new life with God for this time in baptism and we remember the beginning of an eternal life with God through the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. And through it all runs the thread of God’s love for us!