See Your Savior Clearly
There is an ancient Indian parable about a group of blind men and an elephant. They had no idea what an elephant was, and so they had to learn about it only by their sense of touch. One of the blind men came to the side of the elephant and described an elephant like a large wall. Another found the tusk of the elephant and described it as a spear. Still another began to investigate the trunk of the elephant and described an elephant like a snake. As they all began to argue, another joined in saying that an elephant was like a tree, upon examining the elephant’s leg, and yet another argued that an elephant is like a rope, as he grabbed the elephant’s tail. The whole purpose of this parable is to say that unless you have the whole picture, you cannot see something clearly. And if you can’t see something clearly, you won’t be able to understand it’s purpose.
Today we are going to work on seeing our Savior clearly. Really, that’s what the season of Epiphany is all about. But here especially, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John gives our Savior a proper introduction. Your Savior demands repentance and he has come to live in your place.
“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). John’s environment illustrated his message well. “Your hearts are like this wilderness you see around you!” He might have said. Your hearts are parched and dry, hard and rocky. They are inhospitable for any kind of life. They are harsh to anyone who dares to venture in. No one could live out here, nor would anyone want to! Do you see how this is a reflection of your own heart? This is no place to foster any kind of new growth. This is an unforgiving place. And yet, here you are. You are out here in this harsh wilderness to hear a message that your Savior is near – to hear about your Savior and to learn how to meet him rightly.
The bad news is, you are not ready to meet him. If your perception of the Savior is that he will come, meet you in the depths of despair and in your agony and just make everything alright, you are not ready to meet him. Please, understand me correctly, indeed, he does do that, but that’s not the whole picture. He doesn’t simply lay sod over the desert wilderness of your heart and call it good without addressing the underlying problem. In no time at all that sod would die and the desert wilderness would take over again. Rather, your Savior has come to bring about a full transformation. Not just addressing the symptoms of sin, but getting to the root problems, starting with your sinful nature.
So repent! And make it a full repentance, a full transformation. That’s what the word means after all. True repentance means not only sorrow over sin and dread of God’s punishment. It means turning your heart and mind away from the sin that expresses itself in outward ways whenever possible. True repentance will not allow the penitent soul to continue to live in sin. Rather, it will come up with a strategy for turning down sinful desires whenever they arise. You know those sins which plague you again and again. The next time you begin to feel that sin lurking, what are you going to do to shut it down before you are caught in Satan’s snare? Know that repentance isn’t just a way to clean up in the aftermath of sin. Repentance means a whole new attack strategy, a whole new way of life, a way of life that encounters sin and shuts it down.
Live a life of repentance and be baptized! In baptism there is forgiveness of all your sins! That’s exactly what it says here. John preached “a baptism of repentance FOR the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). Just as God commanded the baptism we use today, God also commanded John’s baptism. And for both of these baptisms he attached the blessing of the forgiveness of sins. It’s amazing that God has given us a tool which really addresses the underlying problem in such a vivid way. Baptism also serves as a physical reminder that it is God who makes the change within. I’m sure you’ve taken many showers and baths in your lifetime. And no matter how hard you scrub, this is only going to remove surface dirt. But when you are washed by God’s command, when the water falls upon your head in connection with God’s Word, he makes something special happen. He removes your sin and guilt. He cleans your heart and washes sins away. And he works in you a transformation so that you are no longer a parched wilderness, but a spring welling up to eternal life!
To see your Savior clearly, you must first understand the problem that he has come to address. He hasn’t come primarily to address the symptoms – things like the bad days that you experience, the natural disasters that affect people’s lives, or the general presence of evil in the world. Primarily, your Savior has come to address the root cause of all these things. He has come to deal with Satan – we will get to that later in the year. And he has come to deal with your sinful nature. After understanding what problems your Savior has come to address, then you can also understand what kind of Savior you need.
See your Savior clearly. See what kind of Savior is revealed. “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mk 1:7). Jesus, your Savior, is God Almighty! There is not one who is worthy to approach him. John explains that he isn’t even worthy to bow down on his hands and knees to untie his dusty sandals. This is God in the flesh. This is the only one who has been sinless even since birth. And now we see him approach John and ask him, not to untie his sandals, but to baptize him. What?! Mark doesn’t mention it in his gospel, he’s kind of the action oriented, matter of fact kind of guy. But from the other gospels we know that John protested. “Why do you need to be baptized Jesus? You are sinless! This baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. You don’t have any sins to forgive!” Jesus’ response was short. “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). In allowing himself to be baptized, Jesus was showing his solidarity with sinners. He was giving himself completely to the work of bearing your sins. He was joining you, and every sinner, in baptism to take your place.
His work as “Christ” now begins. “Christ” and “Messiah” are both words that mean the “anointed one”. Kings were anointed when they were inaugurated into their offices. They were anointed to show God’s blessing upon the work that they were about to undertake. In the same way, this baptism was the anointing which inaugurated Jesus into his office of Savior. It visibly showed God’s blessing upon the work that he was undertaking. And “as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mk 1:11). In this way the one true God, the holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is now launching the climax to his great plan of salvation. And in the same way, at your baptism, the true God, the holy Trinity, launches the climax to his great plan of salvation for you! In your baptism, the Spirit covers and comes to dwell in you. The Son presents you to his Father as one for whom he did all of his work. And the Father is well pleased with you because of what his Son has done for you and in your place.
For the people of John’s time, the period of waiting was over. The most momentous days the world will ever know were beginning. And as Jesus carried out his peculiar ministry as Savior, the world would begin to see their Savior clearly. Satan’s power and dominion are doomed. The world’s redemption by our substitute Savior is at hand. For us too, the period of waiting is soon over. Who knows which generation will be heralding the coming of the Savior for the last time! It could be this one! Your salvation is won, and by binding yourself to your Savior through baptism and faith, that salvation is yours!
I don’t think it was merely the spectacle of John’s preaching that attracted so many people to go out and hear his message. I think it’s because his was an authentic message. He didn’t focus on just one aspect of the Savior to the exclusion of all others. He gave the full picture – both the demand for life changing repentance and the relief that comes from a Savior who lives in your place. He helped the people see their Savior clearly in the moments before they could finally see him with their own eyes. In the same way, the message that we proclaim today, the message of the Bible, gives you the whole picture and allows you to see your Savior clearly. He is the one who brings about life changing repentance because he came to take your place.