The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ’Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”Mark 1:1-8
There’s an old meme floating around the internet, poking fun at Christianity. It goes something like this:
Jesus promised to get rid of sin. How many bad people do you see running around now?
Thor promised to get rid of all frost giants. How many frost giants do you see running around now?
Thor – 1, Jesus – 0.
It’s a silly old joke, but it does give voice to the idea that, well, sometimes it seems like God isn’t very good at doing his job. Or that even when he does something, he does it in a really bizarre way.
Our passage today might well tell us something similar. The whole thing is about Jesus, and how he would deliver God’s people from their troubles and their sins. But it doesn’t open with fanfare and trumpets, it doesn’t open with an exclamation that King Jesus is here and everything’s going to be ok!
Instead it opens with an old, old prophecy. The last time God’s people had heard this prophecy was 400 years before this passage. So let’s rewind four hundred before this passage. Four hundred years before Jesus, God’s people had already been living under the boot of a foreign enemy, hoping and praying that God would save them. Then they hear this prophecy from God himself, telling them he would send ahead his messenger, and then he would come too, and save his people.
Great news! And so God’s people waited…
…and waited. For 400 years, God’s people waited, and prayed, and hoped, and God was… silent. Silent for 400 years. And for 400 years God’s people were ruled by one foreign enemy after another. Dear God, why aren’t you doing your job?
And then — finally, after 400 years! — God’s messenger arrives. Surely, soon after that, God himself will come, right? And then he’ll save his people, and everything will be good once again, right?
But dear God, why… aren’t you doing your job? You said you would send your messenger. And here he is, but… where’s the fancy robes? Where’s the loquacious eloquence of a highly educated man of God? Why do we instead have this crazy homeless man called John who eats bugs and wears camel skin? Why is he saying that he’s the messenger of God?
And what of God coming to rescue his people after this messenger? This isn’t in this passage, but just a few chapters down, you can again feel that disappointment. Dear God, why aren’t you doing your job? Why haven’t you come in a thundering cloud to smite the wicked? Where is the flame and lightning? Instead we get this strange man called Jesus, going around saying that he’s the Son of God! Isn’t he supposed to be an impressive King? But he doesn’t look impressive, for God’s sake, he was born in a barn! Dear God, why aren’t you doing your job?
But this is God’s rescue plan. This is how God does things. Usually not in the way we expect, not in the way we want. God sent Jesus to save his people not by destroying their earthly enemies, but by freeing them from the real enemy, from sin. Jesus didn’t make friends with priests but with prostitutes, crooks, and terrorists. And Jesus won not by making his enemies die, but by dying for his enemies. And when all seemed lost, when it looked like sin and death had won because Jesus’ body was going cold in the grave, God raised Jesus from the dead. And now Jesus is alive. God’s people are finally free. We are all free.
God doesn’t do things the way we want him to. Christians, maybe you’re expecting me to stand here and tell you that as long as trust God, that A* is in the bag, that as long as you pray hard enough, God will help you ace that test, or if you ask hard enough, God will tell you exactly what you need to do in life. But no, sometimes God doesn’t do that. And it’s frustrating, I know. It’s seriously, seriously frustrating. But Christians, it’s not a matter of believing and wishing hard enough, and then things will be ok. Sometimes God doesn’t do things the way we want him to. Just like how he didn’t save his people for 400 years. Just like how he didn’t send a King riding a horse, instead he sent Jesus riding a donkey. Just like how he didn’t spare Jesus from the cross, even though Jesus told him how scared he was.
But Christians, if there’s one thing this passage tells us, it’s that God is good. He doesn’t do his job the way we want him to, but he gets the job done. He keeps his promises. He saves his people. He sent us Jesus, and Jesus was dead, but he is now alive. There’s your proof that God is good, even in the midst of so much crushing trouble. There’s not much in life that you can trust 100%, but this truth is trustworthy: Jesus is alive. With all your heart, hold fast to that.
Non-Christians, I know a lot of this sounds very odd. You might even wonder what kind of God is this, either he’s incompetent or schizophrenic. Well… God doesn’t always do things in ways that make sense to us. But he is good. Through this passage today, through Jesus, we can say he is good, even if it’s not immediately clear. And I hope that one day you’ll be able to say this with confidence as well.