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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Instant Messenger

2014-12-07 Mark 1:1-8 Instant Messenger


"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."

Now, I'm a preacher and you know we can take one sentence and talk for hours about it. I'm not planning to talk for hours, but I can if you want me to. John did the opposite. He took all about Jesus, and compressed it into a couple of short messages. Kind of like people do on Twitter.

Twitter is the world's micro-blogging instant messenger. Do you do Twitter? It's like Facebook for people with really short attention spans. On Twitter, the whole WORLD is your friend, or your enemy, because EVERYBODY can see your tweets, which can get you fired, or arrested, or on TMZ. Or all three.

Twitter forces you to be brief. You get 120 characters per message, called a tweet. Turns out, that can be enough. Revolutions (like the one in Egypt) have been orchestrated 120 characters at a time. Short messages can mean a lot.

In today's scripture, the Bible gives a tweet-worthy message about God's instant messenger, John.

What the Bible says about John is brief. What John says about Jesus is short, too. But if the message is right, and the words are critical, you don't need to go on for hours.



Mark introduces John in one short message:

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."

I counted. 38 characters. If Mark had been tweeting, he could have used 82 more. Mark's like, Tweeter's Digest.

So let's look at this.

"John the BAPTIZER." Baptizer: Critical word #1.


In the King James Version, John was not a "baptiz-er." He was John the Baptist. A full-on, freshwater dunking Baptist. John was Baptist before Baptist was cool.  He appeared in the Judean countryside, which is the south part of Israel. So John wasn't just Baptist, he was a SOUTHERN Baptist. He was a Southern JEWISH-Baptist. Lord have mercy. No wonder so many people came out to look at him.


From what little Mark says, it doesn't seem John had formal ties to any particular Jewish sect. John the baptizer just APPEARS. Appears – critical word #2.

In Mark, there's no backstory. John's a pop-up. He was out there, on his own authority, all on his own. He was an Independent Southern Jewish-Baptist. Hardshell and Missionary, too. Not just foot-washing, he was whole-body-washing. John called people to, "Repent!" For The End is near. And John took no shenanigans.

Now, repentance and atonement for sin was nothing new. The Jewish people had a Day of Atonement. And, if you had certain sins, you could atone any old day by going to the Temple in Jerusalem, paying a fee (money or livestock), undergoing ritual baths, and being declared clean by the priests. John wasn't offering anything you couldn't buy somewhere else.

Except, John was doing it outside the Temple. John was an outsider, literally working outside. But wait, there's more: Not only was John offering forgiveness, he was offering it for free. Strange things happen in the wilderness.



John the baptizer appears in the WILDERNESS

Wilderness – critical word #3.

Didn't we just come through Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday? Proof positive that people love a bargain the days before Jesus comes.

People flocked to John like Doorbusters at Wal-Mart. Well, maybe with a little more civility. The Bible doesn't report any fistfights or trampling. But come they did. Rich and poor. Young and old. Near and far. Forgiveness of sin was on sale. And unlike the Temple establishment, John was giving it away. The whole thing was wild. Uncivilized, as the civilization of forgiveness went.

They'd wade into the Jordan River and cross over the far side, the Dark Side, the symbolic, enslaved side of Exodus from the Egyptians.

(If you're not sure what Exodus was like, there's a new blockbuster movie out that tells you all about it. Moses is played by Batman, so it should be exciting. "Letmypeoplego" [raspy voice].)

The penitent would wade over to the far side, and then reenact the escape from Pharaoh's slavery by coming back toward John, who, near the middle of the river, would baptize them under the water, so they could rise up, symbolically reborn into new life, forgiven from their sins. For free.[1]


Now, after 2000 years of Christianity, this whole "free" thing has been so drilled into us that we take it for granted. Worse, we make it trite. Jesus did the work so you don't have to. "His Pain, Your Gain." "Paid in full." Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

But at the time, John's baptism into forgiveness, John's uncivilized, wilderness-y, free gift of atonement, his 43-character message, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" – all of John – his person and his message - was nothing less than revolutionary. The civil authorities despised revolution. They were afraid John was starting something un-civil, something un-controllable. And they also feared that whoever came after him would be even WORSE.

And they were right.

John cleared the path for a revolution with his short, wild, primitive Baptist message that appeared out of nowhere.

Just in time for Jesus.

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."



Twitter gives you 120. How many characters does it take to make up a church? There's usually a fair number in the choir. And the oddest character's likely in the pulpit.

When we were coming up with a revised Mission Statement for the church, we knew we wanted something short, because we wanted to remember it. Rhyming helps.

So to go along with the vision of being "A church in the community, serving the community of God," we say that our purpose is to follow Christ's mission (not our own but Christ's): Welcoming, Worshiping, Educating, Celebrating, Tending and Sending. That's kind of our John the Baptizer squishing down of all we do into a short message. Six critical words that guide just about every church.

If you were going to squeeze all that you do and all that you are into 120 characters or less, what would your short message be?

What would you WANT it to be? If John the Baptist appeared in church a few minutes before you to let people know you were coming, how would you want him to announce you? What would you want him to say? Or tweet? To the world?



A couple of years ago, I did a wedding that, unbeknownst to me, was being live-tweeted by a member of the audience. I saw the feed afterward. It was like Al Michaels doing play-by-play.

"The minister has entered the building." #itsstarting

"The bride is walking down the aisle." #shesbeautiful

Thank the Lord there was nothing like, "The minister has tripped over his robe." "The preacher has dropped the rings," hashtag "idiotpresbyterian." 

Because once it's out there, it's out there, in the wilderness, for the whole world to see.

But in their first-century way, that's what people were doing when they came to John for the forgiveness of sins. They were confessing their mess-ups to John, in public, before God and everybody. All their character faults were out there. All their sins were revealed with the hope that they wouldn't be taken back. And John gave them a really short message reply. It said, "You are forgiven." "Now wait 'til you see what's coming next."

We do this – you do this – every Sunday. It's why the Prayer of Confession is up toward the start of the service. It's like your personal yet public trip to the river. Say your sins, post them for the world to hear. Do it so you'll be ready for what's coming next.

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."

It's a short message of critical words.

Here's YOUR short message of critical words, publicly posted to your account by John, confirmed by Jesus, and guaranteed rock-solid by the Holy Spirit. You ready for it? Here it is, your 3 critical words that will change your whole character. Here it is.

"You are forgiven."

Now. Get ready for what's going to pop up next.

[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot, Chap 7, The Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness.