By Paul Koch –
I love the movie Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. I’ve watched that movie countless times. I can recite most of the scenes and I am still moved by the powerful friendship displayed between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday which runs through the heart of the movie. Now in the movie after the famous shootout at the OK Corral, Wyatt and his brothers are ambushed by a notorious gang of outlaws. The confrontation leaves his younger brother dead and his older brother without the use of one arm. This sparks Wyatt’s drive to bring justice to the land. In one particularly awesome scene, after Wyatt shoots his way through a trap saving his crew, one of them says to Doc Holiday, “If they were my brothers I’d want revenge too.” Doc Holiday responds, “Make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s after, it’s a reckoning.”
A reckoning is more than revenge. As Doc Holiday uses it in that scene, it means a settling of accounts. There is a finality and completion that comes with a reckoning. It means things are coming to a head; there is an inescapable point that must be faced. This atmosphere hangs in the air at the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel. Here in this text we have a sudden word that declares the coming of a reckoning. Mark doesn’t begin his gospel with the Christmas story of a little child born in Bethlehem lying in a manger. There are no angels appearing to shepherds and proclaiming a good news of great joy. Just a sudden announcement of a voice is crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” And then, before you can catch your breath, John appears baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John comes bursting on the scene, announcing like Doc Holiday that a reckoning is coming. He is there to call the people of God to repent before it is too late. A day has been set when accounts of all mankind will be settled. The measure of where you will stand is the Law of God. That Law stands as an immovable plumb line that cuts to the core of who we are and what we do. There is no way around it and nowhere to hide from it. Just because we pretend like it doesn’t matter, just because we are ignorant of its decrees and commands, it doesn’t mean that we are excused from its judgment.
Take a step back and examine yourself for a moment. Take that long and difficult look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you see the cracks in the façade, the failure to live as God desires you to live? What about those you have hurt? What about those you have failed to help when you could have? Do you see them as well? We can make our lives look pretty good on the outside. As a matter of fact we can have pretty good lives when compared with the lives of other people. We can say, “I’m doing better than he is, or at least I didn’t do what she did”. But that isn’t the true measure of who we are. We are not measured on a bell curve. We don’t get bonus points because we didn’t fall as far down as the next guy, or because we climbed up a little more than someone else. We are measured by God’s Law. His Law examines you more thoroughly than you examine yourself and it has declared that you are guilty.
You are sinful: each and every one of you in your thoughts, your words, and your deeds.
John was clothed in a peculiar way. It’s interesting that we are given these details. We are told that he is clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist. Now, this is no random fact for this is exactly how the great prophet Elijah was described in 2 Kings. And when we go to the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament and look at the second to last verse we read, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” John is the return of Elijah. He is the one who has come before the great and terrible day. John is the one who warns of the great reckoning of God. We then would rightly be there with the masses that came flooding out to him from Judea and all Jerusalem confessing our sins. For when our account is being settled, rather, we have a deficit that we cannot fix the only thing we can cry out is, “We have sinned. We are sorry. We long to do better, to be better”.
John the Baptist prepares the way for the arrival of God. As he preaches and washes for repentance, he says, “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.” John washes them in the Jordan to symbolize their repentance, but the reckoning is still coming. The water of John doesn’t change their debt load; neither does it even the account. But John proclaims something greater. He preaches of One who is coming that is mightier. This One will do far more than John could ever do.
John will point to our Lord and declare, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Just as he warns of the reckoning, so he directs the repentant sinners to the only way they can survive that great and terrible day. He directs them to the one who will wash them, not with water only but with the Holy Spirit himself. This washing that comes from the Word and gift of Christ is a washing that will attack the sinner before the day of reckoning. It is a baptism where all the brokenness, all the failing, all the sin within us is drowned and killed. In the washing of your baptism all the perfection, all the righteousness, all faithfulness of Christ become yours. And all your sin becomes His.
So now the reckoning of God is not a day to be feared, but longed for. It is not a moment of our undoing, but the entrance into eternal paradise. For in your baptism, in your washing by our Lord, you have already received the Holy Spirit. You have been made new. You have been clothed in his righteous garments. You are the Baptized; you then are forgiven, you are loved, and you are the saints of God. Come Lord Jesus, come.