Christmas Series: Receiving God’s Greatest Gift

Sermon by Billy Dempsey on December 11, 2011

Mark 1:1-4

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The Lord’s Day Morning

December 11, 2011

“Receiving God’s Greatest Gift”

Mark 1:1-4

The Reverend Mr. William E. Dempsey

Let me ask you to open your Bibles if you will to Mark chapter 1.
We’ll give our attention this day to verses 1 through 4, the beginning of
Mark’s gospel. And before we do so,
let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Father, You have made it plain that we do not live by bread alone but by every
word that proceeds from Your mouth, and so we come to You, hungry.
Feed us now; feed our hungry souls; nourish our hearts; let us see the
truth; shape us by it, and make us look like Christ.
That is our prayer; that is our plea.
We stand before Your Word now, in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

From Mark chapter 1 verses 1 through 4:

“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.”

All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of God stands forever.

Last Lord’s Day, Ligon took us to Matthew chapter 1 to the narrative where
Joseph hears for the first time the message of the angel concerning the child
that Mary, his betrothed, was carrying.
And he heard then what Ligon pointed out to us last week, of God’s
greatest gifts, the gift, the most important gift – the gift of forgiveness of
sins, the one we need the most. And
he heard about the gift that we ought to want the most — the gift of fellowship
with God. Remember, the angel told
Joseph, “You will call His name Jesus, for He will forgive His people of their
sins and save His people from their sins.”
And the word, Immanuel, was reminded to Joseph.
The coming of Immanuel, “God with us” – the forgiveness of our sins and
fellowship with God. The question
really that Mark faces us here with in chapter 1, at the very beginning, is —
How do we receive God’s greatest gifts?
You’ll be excited when I tell you that the answer is one word.
You’ll be excited because you’ll think it will be a very short sermon and
you can go home quickly. It is one
word, but let me draw a picture first.
Preachers are always drawing pictures, but let me draw a picture first.

I’m moving. I’m moving into the
house we bought and so I’m thinking about houses and furniture and all those
things. I want to give you a new
house. I want to give you a new
house full of new furniture and all the stuff that’s required for you to live
and operate every day. All brand
new. All just out of the package.
All at no cost to you. All
you have to do is move in. and you
can say, “Thank you very much, preacher, that’s wonderful — appreciate that.”
But you haven’t received my gift until you have left your old house and
all your old furniture and all of your old stuff and take up residence in the
new house. When you’ve done that,
you have actively received the gift I have given you.
If we’re going to receive gifts from God, it works the same way.
The one word that describes how we receive God’s greatest gifts is
repentance — to turn away from, to leave behind, to change one’s mind, and by
changing one’s mind to change one’s whole manner of life.
That’s the message of John — repentance.

REPENTANCE: THE MESSAGE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

Let’s talk about the purpose of his message and then we’ll talk about the
meaning of his message and the point of his message to us today.
The purpose of John’s message — God has been silent in the nation of
Israel and in terms of speaking to His people for 400 long years.
Malachi, the last prophet through whom God sent His word, Malachi
preached about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the 400’s B.C.
God has not spoken through a prophet for 400 years.
John Calvin helps us understand why God might have been silent.
You would think, “God, these are Your people and events are building —
why be quiet? Don’t you need to
speak?” And Calvin maybe helps us
understand. Let me read this quote:
“In order to inflame the minds of His people with a stronger desire of
the promised salvation, the Lord has determined to leave them for a time without
new prophesies.”

Well, we find evidence of that being the case, certainly in Malachi chapter 3,
which John refers to. We’ll talk
about that in just a second. John
refers to Malachi chapter 3 and the whole verse, Malachi 3:1, refers to “the
Lord whom you seek and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.”
God is withholding revelation.
Not that they needed more — God had already said everything that needed
to be said. He’s withholding the
voice, His voice, the voice of His truth, until such time as the fullness of
time had come. In the meantime, they
long, they seek, they yearn for the Messiah to come.
We certainly see it with Simeon, don’t we?
As Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus for His purification rites in
the temple, there is Simeon and he says, “Now I can depart in peace.”
Why? “Because I’ve seen the
consolation of Israel. I’ve seen the
one You’ve promised.” Simeon was
longing for Messiah to come. We see
it with Anna, who rejoiced to see the infant Jesus at the same time, at the same
context, and Luke tells us that she went to tell all who were waiting for the
redemption of Jerusalem. Anna knew
there were people counting the days looking for Messiah.
“Is He here? Is He there?
When’s He coming? We need Him
so badly!” We can even see evidence
among the Gentiles, don’t we?
Longing, looking for Messiah’s coming.
The wise men. They came from
the East, they came from Persia where God had sent His people into exile many,
many years before. And in that exile
they planted the seed of the hope of their ultimate deliverance.
They let their captors know, “We look for a day when Messiah comes.
We look for a day when the Promised One, the Holy One of Israel, comes.”
Those Gentiles looked for that same truth.
They looked for that same arrival.
When the star in the East made its appearance, they knew what star they
were looking at and they came to worship Him in Bethlehem.
They were looking. I think
God’s planned worked. People were
inflamed. Minds and hearts were
inflamed, ready to find Messiah.

You know it’s against that backdrop that Mark uses the word, “appears.”
God appears. It’s almost like
He bursts forth. He’s suddenly there
with an electrifying message of preparation.
It’s a message that’s so powerful that thousands came from all over Judea
to the wilderness, not some cushy stadium and not to some nice sanctuary, but to
the wilderness, to the rock-strewn wilderness along the banks of the Jordan to
hear John’s message of preparation, John’s message of “Clear Away the
Obstacles.” We’ll talk about those
in a moment. A message so powerful
that they began to ask, “Are you the Messiah?
Are you the one we were waiting for?
Are you the one? Are you the
Holy One?” It’s as though God’s long
silence and sudden sending of John as the forerunner is saying, “Here He comes!
Don’t miss it! Get ready for
Him! He’s about to be here!
Don’t be late!”

What the meaning of John’s message?
First of all, let me go back and say something right here, just by way of
clarification, not that it’s my part to clarify Mark at all, but look at verse
2. Mark says, “As it is written in
Isaiah the prophet,” and what he says right there, “Behold, I send my messenger
before your face” — that’s a quote from Malachi.
People who are looking to find a reason to say the Bible doesn’t know
what it’s talking about will look at that and say, “See, he says it’s going to
be Isaiah but his first quote is Malachi; Isaiah comes in verse 3 so why didn’t
he list Malachi?” Let’s just give
Mark credit for being a good citer of sources.
There’s an old rabbinic rule.
When citing two prophets, you cite, you give the citation to the greater
prophet. Isaiah’s the greater
prophet. Mark knew what he was
doing. I just pass that on to you as
one little piece of ammunition when you find people shooting holes in faith in
the Scriptures. There’s a reason why
that happens the way it does.

Let’s talk about the meaning of the message.
Look at verse 4. “John
appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sins.” Let’s
understand that baptism was familiar to the Jews.
It was not an unfamiliar idea, and unfamiliar rite.
They were accustomed to ceremonial washings involved in daily living and
certainly in their worship. They
were accustomed to the concept of sin and defilement and the need for cleansing.
They were accustomed to the notion of baptizing Gentile converts into
Judaism. The males had to be
circumcised but all Gentiles who converted from their pagan religion to Judaism
also had to be baptized. It’s
precisely because of that notion of cleansing from defilement outside the
covenant community. That’s not what
John is talking about. John is
talking to sweet hearted Jewish people.
John is talking to people who go to temple.
John is talking to people who know the Law.
John is saying they are defiled.
John is saying they need cleansing.
John is saying their hearts need purifying.
John is saying to them, specifically to the Pharisees — but if you look
in Luke chapter 3 he’s addressing the whole crowd.
And he says, “Don’t say you’ve got Abraham for your father.
God can raise from these stones children for Abraham.”
He’s saying, “Don’t count on your DNA!
Your DNA’s not going to save you.
Your heritage is not going to save you.
The issue is your heart, and your heart as a people,” John is saying, “is
not ready to meet Messiah, Messiah who’s coming.
Your heart is not ready.”

OBSTACLES

Think for a second about what some of those heart issues might be, about what
some of those heart obstructions might be.
Certainly there’s wickedness, there’s wickedness in all of us.
There’s wickedness in that culture too — open, un-repented of sin.
John is certainly fingering that and saying, “Repent, repent, the kingdom
of heaven in coming near!” Could it
be also that John is calling them to repent of their righteousness?
Is that possible? How do you
repent of righteousness or why would you do so?
We need to understand that the Pharisees have put much stock for several
generations in obedience to the Law and the righteousness that comes through
obedience, the importance of obedience.
And they have built for themselves a reputation as a sect, as a people
who are encouraging of and who are exemplary of obedience and public
righteousness. They missed, perhaps,
the impact, the application of Isaiah 64 verse 6 where God says to His people
that “even your righteousness is as filthy rags.”
They missed that part. They
missed that concept of “God washed my tears that my tears of repentance may be
clean.” They missed the fact that
sin has saturated every portion and part, every particle of their being so that
even their good deeds, even their righteous acts, even their acts of kindness
and obedience are stained and ruined.
And they cannot point to them before a God who is holy and righteous and
perfect and say, “See, I’ve done that.
Aren’t you happy?” because you’ll never be happy in those things.
They are the pile of filthy rags that He turns from in disgust.
There is no hope for them.
God is saying, “Repent even of your righteousness.”

I think another obstacle that John would
be pointing to — Jesus, as you look through the gospels, He points to this among
His disciples repeatedly. The
obstacle of unbelief. Unbelief.
Maybe there’s unbelief in John’s audience because God has tarried long in
sending Messiah and they’ve just thought, “Well, it doesn’t matter.
It’s just a myth; it’s just a symbol.
We’re left here to make our own way.”
Maybe there’s unbelief in that capacity.
Well I think those are three things that John is pointing to as obstacles
to clear the path of Messiah as He comes — wickedness, righteousness, a trust in
righteousness, a confidence in our own righteousness, and unbelief.

How do we see unbelief? It’s kind of
a strange thing. I think we see
unbelief as it demonstrates itself in a spiritual apathy, a spiritual lethargy.
We’re inattentive to the means of grace.
We fail to see the benefit or the usefulness or the good of spending time
in God’s Word. We’ve got so many
places to be and so many things to do and just don’t have time and are just too
tired to get up a little bit early and have any kind of meaningful time in God’s
Word. Maybe there’s an
inattentiveness to spiritual things.
We’re in the presence of all kinds of spiritual activities and spiritual
opportunities and well maybe we’re just kind of inattentive.
Maybe we’re even there. Maybe
we’re even in place and just not aware, not aware.
Maybe there’s a certain hardness of heart, a certain unwillingness to
really recognize the importance of the things of God in a world like ours.
I think those are maybe — in a world like theirs, certainly in a world
like ours — unbelief as we experience it.

That kind of moves me to the point of the message.
What are the things, if John were here today — would he preach a
different message? I don’t think so.
Let’s remember that we live in the parenthesis of time.
John is preaching as Jesus is about Himself to burst onto the scene and
become the talk of the nation in the three years of His public ministry.
That will be culminated in His death, His resurrection from the dead, and
His ascension. We live in that time
in which we await His return. And
the question becomes, “Are we ready?
Are we prepared? Have we taken
advantage of emptying our hands, of turning away from everything we would cling
to, and making ourselves ready to receive those two fantastic gifts that God
offers — forgiveness of our sin and fellowship with Him — so that at His return
we’re ready to meet Him? That’s
really the time that we’re in. We’re
in the time of anticipating His return; yes, we’re anticipating Christmas, but
we’re really anticipating His return.
Are we ready? If He comes
before we get to Sunday dinner are we ready to meet Him?
Have we emptied our hands, have we emptied our hearts of everything that
is an obstruction, an obstacle, a distraction?
And are we ready to receive, have we received, do we regularly take
advantage of the benefits, the gifts that He has given to us — forgiveness of
sin and fellowship with Himself?

Let’s talk about what John would say to us.
What are the obstacles as he would preach to us?
What’s our wickedness? Well,
we have a long list. We don’t have
enough time to talk about my wickedness much less yours, but let’s talk about
one that sneaks up on us and gets by without our thinking about it.
What about idolatry? Idolatry
is our finding meaning and satisfaction and hope and a reason for living in
anything, in anyone besides God Himself, in His truth, and His ways.
Where do we find our meaning and hope and our reason for living in apart
from God? Could it be work?
It certainly could be. Could
it be family? Could it be
possessions? Could it be status?
Comfort? That guy?
That girl? Those grades?
Entertainment? Someone had
the effrontery from the 8:30 service to say, “Maybe you ought to add college
football to that list of things that we’re idolatrous about!”
I couldn’t believe it. Not
here, not here in Jackson. What is
it that gives our lives meaning that we tend to put our hope and our confidence
in? If we’re not careful, they’re
there and we have to look for them because our hearts are naturally little idol
factories and we look for anything besides God Himself to worship.
We’re worshiping beings and we’re going to worship.
We’re going to worship God or we’re going to worship anything else.
Are we worshiping anything else?
Are we finding our meaning, our living, our truth, our frame of reference
anywhere besides God?

What about this — what about if not idolatry, what about unforgiveness?
There’s one that sneaks up on us.
What about unforgiveness?
What about something that we hold and we cherish and we nourish a grudge, a bad
feeling, against a group, a person, an employer, a spouse, a child, a parent, a
friend, a former friend? We nourish
this sense of having been wronged and having been hurt and we’re justified in
all our anger. Are we holding onto
something that is an obstacle to receiving the best gifts God has to offer?
We repent of it, we drop it, we turn away from it, we ask Him to forgive
us and we move forward. You know
it’s interesting that Jesus said, as He taught us how to pray in Matthew chapter
6, the only petition He explained was the petition regarding forgive,
forgiveness. He said, “If you can’t
forgive, you don’t know what it is to be forgiven.
You can’t forgive — if you won’t forgive, how do you expect to experience
God’s forgiveness?” Is unforgiveness
an obstacle that we hold on to that mars the way of Messiah as He advances in
our life?

What about unbelief? That’s a sneaky
one. That’s a sneaky one.
We’re here because we believe.
Do we believe when we get up in the morning and go to work or do we put
our secular garments on? “I’ve got
to fight the fight the way the world does to make a buck in this world.
I’ve got to fight the fight the way the world does.
I’ve got to be just as dirty.
I’ve got to be ahead of them. I’ve
got to be just as sneaky.” Do we
believe? And in believing, do we let
the truth of God dictate how we live and how we operate and how we do our
business and how we respond to our family and how we raise our children, how we
spend our money, how we spend our time?
Do we believe that God’s ways are the best ways, the right ways, the ways
we were made for? Do we believe that
all truth is God’s truth and He is represented and found — His fingerprints in
all of life, in all places of life, all facets of life, and His fingerprints are
there that He might receive glory from us as we walk through all those places?
Does belief shape everything we do and everything we are?
That’s belief. Unbelief chips
away at all of that foundation.
Unbelief shreds it bit by bit. “Oh,
it doesn’t really matter. Oh,
you’ve got to go along to get along.
Oh, you’ve just got to get by. It’s all about getting by, preacher.
You don’t understand.” I
understand what unbelief does to us.
I understand the poison that it is.
I understand how it rots our faith from the inside out.
And so we become hollow men and hollow women, hollow young people with an
appearance of faith and not much else.

John would call us to repent, to throw it aside.
John would call us to turn our back on it and prepare to receive again
those great gifts of God that we need not just once but every day — forgiveness
of sin and fellowship with Him. So
repentance is not just a one-time event as John would tell us, it’s a lifestyle,
because every day I see what I’ve trusted in besides the Lord God Himself.
Every day I see what my wickedness is.
Every day I see what my unbelief is and again, anew and afresh, we
repent, clear out the obstacles, and make ready the highway of the King in our
hearts, in our lives, in our living.
Every day

How do we receive God’s gifts? We
turn our back on everything else. We
change our mind and our life about everything else and we go to God empty
handed, “Give me, Sir, what I need the most.
Give me, Father, what I want the most, because without those I have
nothing.” I hope that’s your heart.
If not, it can be. By praying
that simple prayer, that simple prayer, we enjoy those gifts that God gives.

Let me ask you to stand and let’s go to the Lord together in prayer.

Father, thank You for speaking Your truth through John.
Thank You for speaking Your truth every day into our hearts and lives.
Thank You for recognizing us for who we are — a needy people who can be
wrong-headed about all the right things, a needy people who needs to clear those
obstacles. And thank You that You
make that way possible. Give us that
gift of repentance, not just once, not just twice, but every day, so that every
day we might enjoy sweeter and more intimate walking and knowing of You through
Your Son, the Lord Jesus, as we pray in His name.
And all God’s people said, amen.

Our hymn is number 193, our carol of response, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep
Silence.”

Now let me ask you to look up to receive the blessing of God.
Now may the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make His face to
shine upon you and be gracious to you, may the Lord Himself lift up His
countenance upon you and give you His peace, both now and forevermore.
Amen.

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