THE BEGINNING OF THE STORY
This is the beginning of the story of how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, brought the good news to men. There is a passage in Isaiah the prophet like this–“Lo! I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you. He will be like a voice crying in the wilderness, `Get ready the road of the Lord. Make straight the path by which he will come’.” This came true when John the Baptizer emerged in the wilderness, announcing a baptism which was the sign of a repentance through which a man might find forgiveness for his sins.
Mark starts the story of Jesus a long way back. It did not begin with Jesus’ birth; it did not even begin with John the Baptizer in the wilderness; it began with the dreams of the prophets long ago; that is to say, it began long, long ago in the mind of God.
The Stoics were strong believers in the ordered plan of God. “The things of God,” said Marcus Aurelius, “are fun of foresight. All things flow from heaven.” There are things we may well learn here.
(i) It has been said that “the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” and so are the thoughts of God. God is characteristically a God who is working his purposes out. History is not a random kaleidoscope of disconnected events; it is a process directed by the God who sees the end in the beginning.
(ii) We are within that process, and because of that we can either help or hinder it. In one sense it is as great an honour to help in some great process as it is a privilege to see the ultimate goal. Life would be very different if, instead of yearning for some distant and at present unattainable goal, we did all that we could to bring that goal nearer.
“In youth, because I could not be a singer, I did not even try to write a song; I set no little trees along the roadside, Because I knew their growth would take so long.
But now from wisdom that the years have brought me, I know that it may be a blessed thing To plant a tree for someone else to water, Or make a song for someone else to sing.”
The goal will never be reached unless there are those who labour to make it possible.
The prophetic quotation which Mark uses is suggestive.
I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you. This is from Mal.3:1. In its original context it is a threat. In Malachi’s day the priests were failing in their duty. The offerings were blemished and shoddy second-bests; the service of the temple was a weariness to them. The messenger was to cleanse and purify the worship of the temple before the Anointed One of God emerged upon the earth. So then the coming of Christ was a purification of life. And the world needed that purification. Seneca called Rome “a cesspool of iniquity.” Juvenal spoke of her “as the filthy sewer into which flowed the abominable dregs of every Syrian and Achaean stream.” Wherever Christianity comes it brings purification.
That happens to be capable of factual demonstration. Bruce Barton tells how the first important journalistic assignment that fell to him was to write a series of articles designed to expose Billy Sunday, the evangelist. Three towns were chosen. “I talked to the merchants,” Bruce Barton writes, “and they told me that during the meetings and afterward people walked up to the counter and paid bills which were so old that they had long since been written off the books.” He went to visit the president of the chamber of commerce of a town that Billy Sunday had visited three years before. “I am not a member of any church,” he said. “I never attend but I’ll tell you one thing. If it was proposed now to bring Billy Sunday to this town, and if we knew as much about the results of his work in advance as we do now, and if the churches would not raise the necessary funds to bring him, I could raise the money in half a day from men who never go to church. He took eleven thousand dollars out of here, but a circus comes here and takes out that amount in one day and leaves nothing. He left a different moral atmosphere.” The exposure that Bruce Barton meant to write became a tribute to the cleansing power of the Christian message.
When Billy Graham preached in Shreveport, Louisiana, liquor sales dropped by 40 per cent and the sale of Bibles increased 300 per cent. During a mission in Seattle, amongst the results there is stated quite simply, “Several impending divorce actions were cancelled.” In Greensboro, North Carolina, the report was that “the entire social structure of the city was affected.”
One of the great stories of what Christianity can do came out of the mutiny on the Bounty. The mutineers were put ashore on Pitcairn Island. There were nine mutineers, six native men, ten native women and a girl, fifteen years old. One of them succeeded in making crude alcohol. A terrible situation ensued. They all died except Alexander Smith. Smith chanced upon a Bible. He read it and he made up his mind to build up a state with the natives of that island based directly on the Bible. It was twenty years before an American sloop called at the island. They found a completely Christian community. There was no gaol because there was no crime. There was no hospital because there was no disease. There was no asylum because there was no insanity. There was no illiteracy; and nowhere in the world was human life and property so safe. Christianity had cleansed that society.
Where Christ is allowed to come the antiseptic of the Christian faith cleanses the moral poison of society and leaves it pure and clean.
John came announcing a baptism of repentance. The Jew was familiar with ritual washings. Lev.11-15 details them. “The Jew,” said Tertullian, “washes himself every day because every day he is defiled.” Symbolic washing and purifying was woven into the very fabric of Jewish ritual. A Gentile was necessarily unclean for he had never kept any part of the Jewish law. Therefore, when a Gentile became a proselyte, that is a convert to the Jewish faith, he had to undergo three things. First, he had to undergo circumcision, for that was the mark of the covenant people; second, sacrifice had to be made for him, for he stood in need of atonement and only blood could atone for sin; third, he had to undergo baptism, which symbolized his cleansing from all the pollution of his past life. Naturally, therefore, the baptism was not a mere sprinkling with water, but a bath in which his whole body was bathed.
The Jew knew baptism; but the amazing thing about John’s baptism was that he, a Jew, was asking Jews to submit to that which only a Gentile was supposed to need. John had made the tremendous discovery that to be a Jew in the racial sense was not to be a member of God’s chosen people; a Jew might be in exactly the same position as a Gentile; not the Jewish life, but the cleansed life belonged to God.
The baptism was accompanied by confession. In any return to God confession must be made to three different people.
(i) A man must make confession to himself. It is a part of human nature that we shut our eyes to what we do not wish to see, and above all to our own sins. Someone tells of a man’s first step to grace. As he was shaving one morning he looked at his face in the mirror and suddenly said, “You dirty, little rat!” And from that day he began to be a changed man.
No doubt when the prodigal son left home he thought himself a fine and adventurous character. Before he took his first step back home he had to take a good look at himself and say, “I will get up and go home and say that I am an utter rotter.” (Lk.15:17-18.)
There is no one in all the world harder to face than ourselves; and the first step to repentance and to a right relationship to God is to admit our sin to ourselves.
(ii) A man must make confession to those whom he has wronged. It will not be much use saying to God that we are sorry until we say we are sorry to those whom we have hurt and grieved. The human barriers have to be removed before the divine barriers can go. In the East African Church, a husband and wife were members of a group. One of them came and made confession that there was a quarrel at home. The minister at once said, “You should not have come and confessed that quarrel just now; you should have made it up and then come and confessed it.”
It can often be the case that confession to God is easier than confession to men. But there can be no forgiveness without humiliation.
(iii) A man must make confession to God. The end of pride is the beginning of forgiveness. It is when a man says, “I have sinned,” that God gets the chance to say, “I forgive.” It is not the man who desires to meet God on equal terms who will discover forgiveness, but the man who kneels in humble contrition and whispers through his shame, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
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