Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11 Mark 1: 1-8
I guess you’re wondering what a story about a dragon has to do with today’s
readings, or indeed with this season of Advent. As Billy said in the story “It just
wanted to be noticed!” When I was preparing today’s service one of the things that
struck me about the Gospel reading, was that John the Baptiser was someone who
was noticed. You could hardly ignore him. He was right there, proclaiming his
message under the authority of the prophet Isaiah:
“See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.”

But, if John was in the wilderness, how did people know about him? What sort of
wilderness are we talking about here? I believe that this again relates back to the
Isaiah reading we heard this morning.

The people of Israel had been in the wilderness for a very long time. They had been
a people in exile n Babylon. They had suffered for a long time, and now at last God
has spoken into the silence and desolation of exile, and these first words and words
of comfort. However, the way the word ‘comfort’ is used is a little tricky. We can,
and I believe often do read it as God being a little like a mother soothing a fretful or
distressed child – a soothing word to give the child a sense of security and to help it
feel better. But in the original Hebrew it is a word of command. It is an instruction to
the prophets and anyone else who hears it, that they are to offer comfort to all
people. Jerusalem has now paid the price for her disobedience and the people are
to be released from exile and allowed to return home. They are now able to return
from the wilderness.

But now they must make “a highway” for our God. A way will be prepared, a new
road that will run from the place of exile right to Jerusalem. The triumphant God and
all the long-exiled Jews will travel this road in a glorious, victorious home-coming.
the God who seemed defeated by the Babylonian gods will march in a display of
unlimited power.

However, there is also a voice of caution – the voice that asks “What shall I cry?”
This voice recognises that the people are fickle and unreliable and their victory will
probably be short-lived. But it is the constancy of God – the word of God that does

not fade or wither, but is utterly reliable that is to be proclaimed. This is a new rule of
God and it is to be shown in this stunning procession across the desert to begin a
new community with power and well-being. God is at the head of this wonderful
procession like a triumphant warrior returning from the battlefield. But then suddenly
the image is reversed. This God at the head of the procession is as gentle as a
shepherd with feeble sheep, as tender as a nursemaid who cares for the vulnerable.
This is indeed a God for all people. The people who had no future are comforted by
the powerful, gentle God. On the way home in joy, exile ends, darkness is dispelled,
drought ends with new springs of water and life begins again. Everything is new.

So the wilderness in Isaiah is not so much a physical desert, but a place where the
people have become separated from God; a place of exile and loneliness; a place
where there is no future and all are lost. So too, the wilderness in which John the
Baptiser appears.

He was very likely working on the outskirts of Jerusalem – in the open countryside
near the river Jordan. A desert place, not of drifting sand but a barren expanse of
limestone country, with the occasional tiny valley when Bedouin would scatter a few
seeds in autumn, and reap the meagre crop in spring before the whole place became
seared by summer heat.

And the crowds came. Big crowds! Not thronging rugby world cup finals or Cup Day
or to the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, or to a pop concert, but to hear a
prophet call them to repentance. Crowds of them, vast crowds, going out to hear
John the Baptist.

I think is fair to comment that Mark is exaggerating somewhat. According to him all
the country people of Judea went, and all the citizens of Jerusalem made the
pilgrimage out in the wilderness to hear John’s message. This is the language of an
enthusiast. It is Mark’s hyperbole for a very big crowd indeed. John the Baptist was a
person of widespread influence and power. That voice crying out in the wilderness
bore a message of hope and joy.

It had been hundreds of years since the Jews had been given a major prophet. It was
a part of their belief that near the end of the old era, before God sent his Messiah to
usher in the new age, they would be given a prophet like Elijah. And John was seen
as that prophet. A powerful figure preparing the way of the salvation of the Messiah.

John was certainly an unconventional figure – one that it would have been hard to
ignore. And it is likely many thought he was mad. I’m sure many people treated him
in the same way as we tend to treat the street preachers or those rather sad-looking
men who used to walk up and down the city streets wearing sandwich boards that
proclaimed “The end of the world is at hand.” Mostly we ignored them and they
often preach a message of fear. You are all miserable sinners and destined for hell
unless you repent and be saved! It is a message that is very heavy on punishment
and offers no hope for the future.

But John’s message is different. He is hearing people confess their sins and he is
baptising them, but he is also offering a message of hope. He is pointing ahead to
the one who is to come after him – the one who will baptise not with water but with
the Spirit. This is your opportunity to prepare to meet this one who is coming after
me. Be prepared! Be alert! Look around you and see what is happening. Take
notice of the signs you see.

What are the signs of hope in our world? What are the signs of peace? What are
the signs of joy and love? What signs of hope and peace and joy and love can we
offer to a world that largely ignores us?

Maybe we need to be a bit like the dragon in our story. He just grew bigger and
bigger until the adults actually noticed him! Once they had acknowledged his
presence he was happy and he fitted more easily into their lives. So how can we be
noticed more? How can we become attractive to others so that they may come to
know hope and peace in their lives? How can we package our message in a way
that can compete with all the conflicting voices in the world?

I don’t have all the answers to this. I have some ideas and so I guess have you, but
we need to talk about them. We need to find ways of being more visible in our
community and ways of sharing our faith and our hope with those who do not share
it. Maybe we need to be the voices crying in the wilderness, pointing beyond
ourselves to Jesus, the bringer of hope and peace. .