Text: Mark 1:1-8
It seems now that, just about a full week into the month of December and a week and a half removed from Black Friday, preparations for Christmas have certainly begun. If you haven’t begun, maybe you really should. But really, though, holiday preparation can take it out of you. There are the presents to buy, the food to buy and prepare. Houses need to be cleaned; attitudes need to be tweaked so you can survive with those relatives you dread. You love them and all, but some people are just hard to be with. For many of us, we’ll all be glad when the 2nd of the year hits and things go back to normal.
In the reading from Mark today we see another kind of preparation, the preparation of the way of the Lord. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness baptizing and preaching the Word of God. John’s message was a stark and serious one, in Matthew we have him calling the Jewish leaders a “brood of vipers.” John came preaching the Law to show its strict demands and the world’s universal need for a savior in preparation for His coming.
The text begins, “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.”’”  It is an interesting beginning for the book of Mark. The book begins by showing our need for a Savior in the first place. Like John appearing in the wilderness to make straight the paths of the Lord, Mark sets things straight by showing what was written in Isaiah: God would send a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord.
In the book of Malachi, God pointed out that the people of Judah wearied Him with their words. He said their general sentiment was, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them,” and they asked, “Where is the God of justice?” Therefore, God responded that He is sending His messenger to prepare the way before Him. The people asked where God is, and He said He’s coming. This messenger is to cry out that all flesh is grass. In all its beauty, it is still like the flower of the field that withers and fades. That which is flesh is sown in iniquity and shall go away in sin.
Thus, John appeared in the wilderness preaching the Law of God and a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He came accusing people of their sinful hypocrisy. All people have been tainted by the stench of sin. In this life no one escapes the hold that sin has over them. We see this even during this month as we prepare for the birth and return of Jesus. It makes sense that the world goes wild for giving and receiving gifts, hosting parties, and drinking egg nog, and we can get caught up in it, too. We tell ourselves to “remember the reason for the season,” but do we really? Christmas is about the coming of the Savior into the flesh to die for our transgressions. The eternal Son of God humbled Himself to be born, and to carry our sin to the cross because we cannot do it ourselves.
All the country of Judea and everyone in Jerusalem went out to confess their sins and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. John preached God’s Law and they were convicted that, at every point in their and our lives, we transgress against God and one another and deserve punishment. John, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts, was a picture of what we should’ve aspired to, but even he was not perfect. When he was arrested and put in prison, he doubted whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. Even John would not escape the coming of the savior, which will be like a refiner’s fire, burning up all impurities. That is, He would not survive without the forgiveness of sins. Therefore John preached, “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.”
To many people John appeared crazy. Here was this wild man out in the desert. He might have looked a little unstable, but so did most of the Old Testament prophets. He was a stark vision of adherence to God’s Law: itchy camel hair clothes with a leather belt, eating locusts. They make candy now, at least you can get it all the Mall of America, that has crickets in it; but can you imagine eating that all the time? Some scientists are working on mass producing food from grasshoppers to solve shortage, but John ate them in order to keep pure. But even he was not worthy to untie the sandals of the one coming after him.
The one coming after John is mightier than he. The Lord says in Malachi 3, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” Who can endure the coming of the Son of Man, the eternal measure of Justice? No one. For all have sinned and are consumed by iniquity. The Son of Man came to burn away and condemn all evil. But, Martin Luther writes, “Christ is not merely the Purifier but also the purifying Agent. He is not only the Blacksmith but also the Fire; not only the Cleaner but also the Soap. He does not sit indolently at the right hand of His Father. Rather He is always working among us.”
What Luther is getting at is that Christ came to do all the work. He is the eternal enfleshment of the Son of God. His wrath against sin will be like a fire that burns everything away, but He is also a fire that resides in us, those who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. John showed that all our attempts to fulfill God’s Law and gain life for ourselves fail, and the result is that not even John is worthy to untie the straps of Jesus’ sandals.
John came preaching the Law before the coming of Jesus to show our need for a Savior and for cleansing. Jesus is the one who came to clean us, to be both the cleaner and the soap. He is the one, who for our salvation, came down from heaven. He humbled Himself to be born of the Virgin Mary, to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins. Thus, He is our Cleaner, but He is also the soap. We, who have been given His Holy Spirit, are washed in His blood. By His blood our robes are made clean. The Lord spoke in Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” This is not because our works make it so, for all flesh is like grass, but because of Christ – He who is both the Cleaner, and by His blood, the soap that washes us.
As we continue the journey though Advent and into Christmas it’s easy to get caught up in the season, caught up in a bad way. All the holiday preparations come into full swing and sometimes we forget not just the “reason for the season,” but why He came as well. John came preaching the Law, showing us our need for a savior. This Savior is Jesus, who came to earth to pay the penalty of our sin and win for us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap He burns away all impurities even as He fills us with His Holy Spirit. To Him we pray, “Lay on the sick Thy healing hand and make the fallen strong to stand; show us the glory of Thy face till beauty springs in every place. All praise, eternal Son, to Thee whose advent sets Thy people free, whom with the Father we adore and Holy Spirit evermore.”
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 1:1–3.
 Mal. 2:17.
 Mk 1:7–8.
 Mal 3:2.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 18: Minor Prophets I: Hosea-Malachi, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 18 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 410.
 Is. 1:18.