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Immersed in the Life of God

Living in the power of the Spirit is 10,000 times better than religious legalism.

The story behind the sermon (by Kevin Miller)

When I first read this text, I thought it was simple. The text is short, only 8 verses, and Mark is clear, direct, action-oriented. The more times I read Mark 1:1-8, though, the more preaching challenges I hit. Here were the three biggest for me:

1. Mark is so concise that he sometimes leaves you begging for elaboration and explanation. What does it mean that "he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit"?

To answer that essential question of the text, I had to do something I don't regularly do: leave the text. In the spirit of "let Scripture interpret Scripture," I went to Romans 14:17, to let it interpret "baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

2. The phrase "baptize you with the Holy Spirit" means many different things to the people in our church, who come from different backgrounds and traditions. How could I preach this text so that every believer, regardless of his or her background and perspective, would benefit—would long for and thirst for a fuller life in the Spirit of God? I decided to "trust the text" and stay close to Mark 1:8 and Romans 14:17, to try to say no more than they did.

3. What is the application to today's listener? John the Baptist had a unique and unrepeatable mission of preparing people for Jesus. I decided to step one rung up "the ladder of abstraction" and focus on his core message—prepare for Jesus (and his greater baptism, in the Holy Spirit) by repenting and confessing.


In the final words of the final chapter of the final Old Testament book, written by its final prophet, we hear this: "See, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." The prophet says there will be a day of the Lord, there will be a day in which God comes in power. And right before that, to get his people ready, there will be a prophet Elijah figure—someone who, like the ancient and powerful prophet Elijah, would come with that kind of power and that kind of work of preparation.

And then the prophet falls silent. The prophecies end. The Old Testament closes, and for 450 years there is a famine of hearing the word of the Lord. And just when people are beginning to think, I guess God doesn't send prophets like that anymore, up out of the desert walks this man named John. And John is hard to miss. Mark 1:6 says, "His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist." This is very rough clothing, very unusual clothing. Imagine you are in Chicago, and you see a guy on the street with really long hair, his beard looks like it has never been cut. He looks like ZZ Top. It looks like he just came out of the Wisconsin north woods because he's wearing overalls cut out of deer skin. It looks like he cut them out himself and stitched them together with rawhide. That's what it would have been like to meet John.

John grew up in a priest's home, so it would have fallen on him to someday wear refined priestly garments. So why does he dress in camel hair? Because John knows he's a prophet. And he's not just any prophet—in some sense he is this Elijah who will prepare people for the day of the Lord. So he chooses to dress exactly like the ancient prophet Elijah. Once he has everybody's attention, he gives them a one-point sermon: Someone greater is coming soon. In verse 7, John announces, "Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am; so much greater that I'm not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals." Or as we would say, "I'm not even worthy to park his car."

The main event

If you watch Entertainment Tonight, you know that when there's a screening of a new movie the stars come out onto a red carpet, behind burgundy roping. The media packs in, all trying to see the celebrities dressed in multiple-thousand-dollar gowns or multiple-thousand-dollar suits. Their makeup and hair are done by professionals, and they're smiling and preening and nodding. And there's a flash, flash, flash, flash of cameras. The whole apparatus there is designed so that you know who the "it" people are, who's "it."

John comes with a counter message. His whole message is this: "I'm not 'it.' Don't ever think I'm 'it.' The one who is coming after me is 'it.' He's so much greater than I am because I baptize you with water, which is good, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. That changes everything. The one who can do that is unfathomably greater than me. I do the preparation work. I baptize you in the muddy Jordan River, but the one who is coming will baptize you into the cool, clear presence of God himself. He will change you on the inside, and you will have new life flowing within you. What would it be like to be saturated in the very power and presence of God? That is the main event."

My family makes fun of me because I'm a geek about construction. Anywhere a new building goes up, I always drive around it, sometimes sneaking through the fence to check it out. I had a great moment one time on a business trip. I was in Atlanta the year before they hosted the Olympic Games. I was driving up I-75 North through the city, and everywhere I looked there was something interesting. On the right I could see the walls of the stadium halfway built with cranes around it. It said, Future home of Centennial Olympic Stadium. That was cool. Then I saw Turner Field, where the Atlanta Braves play. Then to the left I saw the Georgia State campus. They had brick dorms under construction, and there was a big sign there that said, Future Village of the Games of the 26th Olympiad. How cool is that? Then I drove a little further and saw a big exit sign saying, This Way to Centennial Olympic Park—the hub of the games and now the hub of Atlanta's tourism district. And on top of all the Olympic construction, there was more construction because the tax payers were spending half a billion dollars on infrastructure upgrades at the airport and the highways and the public housing units. All of that was very exciting because it changed a major regional city into a truly global city.

But that's not what the Olympics are about. The Olympics are about athletes who have trained for 20 or 30 or more years for one 2-minute floor routine or for one 10-second dash. When you see that level of human greatness and glory, you can't forget it. That's what the construction was leading up to. And those games were amazing. In the '96 Olympics, Michael Johnson took gold in the 200 meters and the 400 meters. It was the first time women's soccer had ever been an Olympic event, and the U.S. women's team brought home gold. But the unforgettable moment of that Olympics was when Kerri Strug, doing the vault on her first two tries, badly sprained her ankle. They had to carry her off after her second vault. And when it came down to her third and final vault, on which the entire fate of the U.S. women's team was depending, she had her ankle bandaged up with this bulky Ace bandage. She came padding down, vaulted over the horse, and improbably landed the dismount on one leg. And the U.S. women's team won gymnastics gold for the first time ever. That was the main event.

In Mark 1 John is saying, "Confession and repentance are important. They're necessary preparation. But what they're building to—what you will stop and give your attention to—is the one who will baptize you in the Spirit, because that matters more than anything."

When John preached this, his audience was saturated in the Old Testament Scriptures. They understood why a life immersed in the Spirit of God was everything you could want and long for. But we are not quite as clear on that. We think, I don't know. It's important, but I don't know why that would be good. I'm not exactly sure what it means. How good could it be? I have a home theater system. Could it possibly be any better than that?

So to help us understand why baptism in the Spirit is the pinnacle that all our preparation leads to, I want to look at one verse from elsewhere in the New Testament, Romans 14:17. It gives a nice summary of baptism in the Spirit. "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking." It's not primarily about rules and regulations, although a lot of people think that's exactly what Christianity is all about. So what is life with God really about? It's about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you are baptized into the Holy Spirit, you can intimately experience righteousness, peace, and joy.


Let's unpack that. Righteousness means there is a right way to live. It means a way of living in which you live with justice and honor and compassion. You know what the way of righteousness looks like because it's how you want to be treated. So how do you live that life of righteousness? Some people say, "It's too much bother, so I'm going to get away with as much as I can without getting caught." In answer to that, the traditional religious answer says, "No, there's right and there's wrong. You're not supposed to smoke, chew, or date girls who do." The problem with this traditional religious answer is this: It sets up an unreachable external standard. You look at it and think, That is beautiful. I would actually like to live like that. I agree with it, and now I want to try to live up to and adhere to this external standard.

But the problem is me. Five seconds after I determine this is how I want to live, I am angry because somebody living up to that standard better than I am got more attention for it than I would. Or I look down on someone else. The problem is me. I need more than an external standard of righteousness. I need an internal power to live up to it. I need an internal coach to direct me toward the external standard of righteousness. Actually I need a player coach. I need somebody who will coach me toward it, and then actually live through me better than I could live on my own. That would be incredible.

You have that in the Holy Spirit. When you're immersed in the Spirit of God and the Spirit comes to live in you, you have his presence inside you leading you into righteousness.

How does that work? Earlier this week, my wife and I had a fight. Afterward, as I thought, What just happened? the Holy Spirit whispered to me, "Let your gentleness be known to all." That's from Philippians 4:5. The Holy Spirit was kindly telling me, "You could have been gentler." The beautiful thing is, as the Holy Spirit spoke those words to me, not only did he remind me of this standard, but his words actually started to bring forth that within me. My heart began to soften, and I became gentler by his speaking to me, his living presence inside me. That's how you enter into righteousness. Jesus said that the Spirit will guide you into all truth. Paul said that over time the Spirit will build in your life the amazing character qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the rest. That happens for you and for me when we are baptized into the Spirit. Do you see that this is 10,000 times better than religious legalism? This is far better than the attitude I'll do whatever I want as long as I don't get caught. This is the only way to live. John says you can live this way if you're baptized into the Spirit.


When you are baptized in the Spirit, you also experience peace. This week our church family laid to rest Tad Richard Popp who died at eight months in utero. Is there anything more wrenching than losing a child? It wrecked me to see that tiny white casket going down into the ground. I wondered, If I had a loss like that, how would I handle it? How would I even begin to function? I talked with Rusty and Mindy, Tad's parents. They said, "When we first got that diagnosis, we were so afraid. It was like when Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water and said, "It is I; don't be afraid." And they said, "Whatever our outcome, God is near and he is good."

You see, Christians, of course we're going to feel afraid. Of course we're going to feel grief. But in the midst of our fear and in the midst of our grief we have the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who can say to us, "Peace. It is I; don't be afraid. My peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you." That is an unspeakable treasure. There is nothing you will face in which the Holy Spirit cannot give you peace. Everybody wants that. John tells us this beautiful gift is ours through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.


Most people live on a roller coaster of circumstances. If things are good, they're up; if things are bad, they're down. If the stock market's up, they're happy, joyful. But if their portfolio crashes, as it did for many in fall of '08, they're in despair and they're wrecked. Or maybe their treasure is not a portfolio, it's the performance of their children. So if their children are doing well in school and they're getting leads in the plays, they're happy. But then if those children start acting out and spinning out of control, they are wrecked and in despair—life can hold no meaning for them.

Wouldn't it be awesome if we could have a sheltered investment that was immune from market conditions and a level of joy that is not dependent on what's going on around us? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a joy dependent on the unchangeable presence and power of the Holy Spirit, that you have been baptized into? That would be amazing.

About three years ago, my family and I were on vacation in Sarasota. We were on Siesta Key Beach which is the number one rated beach in America. It had beautiful, white sugar sand and the sun was out, bright. It was beautiful. The gulls were circling and squawking, and I should have been deliriously happy, but I wasn't. This was because I knew that we were facing unprecedented economic pressures in the publishing company I was working in at the time, from that '08 global economic downturn, and from the digital revolution. It was highly probable that when I went back after vacation we were going to look at serious layoffs, not just one or two. That meant I was going to have to lay off my friends, and the thought of that made me want to throw up. So I was walking back to the beach house, about halfway back, and the Holy Spirit said to me, "I'll be with you in the furnace." And I realized, It's going to be hot and hard, but I'm going to have this inner resilience, confidence, and joy from the Lord that will not dry up no matter how hot or hard it gets. And yes, it was hot and it was hard, but in the midst of that time, I had that inner aquifer, that river of joy. The Holy Spirit sustained me and refreshed me so I could get through that. That's God's promise.


Do you realize now why John says, "Someone is coming who is so much greater, because all I can baptize you with is water, but he can baptize you into the Holy Spirit"? That's what you need. Do you want to be baptized in the Holy Spirit? Do you want that presence and power of God in your life? Because you can know that. You can live that.

Our text says there will be necessary preparation for this baptism in the Spirit. Verse 2 says, "Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you and he will prepare your way." Verse 3 says, "Prepare the way for the Lord's coming. Clear the road for him." And the road clearing looks like this, in verse 4: "Baptize to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven." Verse 5 says, "And when they confessed their sins …" You cannot skip over this step, and John's coming to make sure that happens. He's saying, "You've got to go through confession and repentance as preparation for this great immersion in the Spirit of God."

In John's time, if you were a pagan and you were showing up at the temple of Zeus or the shine of Aphrodite and you were consorting with the temple prostitutes, and later you wanted to convert to Judaism, you had to go through a ritual washing. This was to show that you were washing off the sewage of your old life to enter this clean new life with God. John shakes everybody up by saying, "Just because you were born Jewish, don't think that's enough. Don't think you can just live any way you want and then paper over that with some kind of religious veneer. You need to change as much as any pagan needs to change. You need a change of heart; you need a change of life. You need confession and repentance. That's what gets you ready. That's what opens you up so that this immersion in the Holy Spirit can come to you. That is a necessary step."

This is where Christians sometimes get confused. Some of you have been in churches where this was not actually taught, but the culture emphasized confession and repentance, right and wrong, rules and regulations—it was implied that that's what Christianity is about. In fact, that's all they did or all you were brought into. Your church was stuck there. Others of you may have been in churches where the emphasis was all on the life and the Spirit, so the culture taught that confession and repentance were downers. Skip right past that and go straight to the life in the Spirit. But it's neither one. You don't get stuck there, but neither do you skip over it. It's the necessary preparation for the main event.


What does this mean for us this morning? First, if you are not yet a follower of Jesus Christ and you're considering that—you're thinking, I'm here because I feel like I'm being drawn back to God—you can know the presence and the power of God living with you. You can taste the reality of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. It starts with confession and repentance. Later in the service, there's going to be a lot of people getting up for communion and moving from their seats. That's when I'd like you to move, too. We have people who stand on either side of our auditorium. They'd be so glad to pray with you. Come up and start with a confession. Talk about what's honestly happening in you. Start there because that is what will open you to this new life in God. Of course, we'd love to see you baptized as well.

Second, if you're already a follower of Jesus Christ, you may be listening and thinking, I've tasted the Holy Spirit, I know what you're referring to, but I feel like I'm in the shallow part of the river. I have a sense that the river goes a lot deeper than what I'm living in right now. The same principle holds true, friends. That same entry into this amazing immersion in the Spirit of God is always confession and repentance. My daily prayer is, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That's how you open yourself. Are you willing to take a look at an issue in your life that everyone else in your life knows about and wishes you could recognize? Maybe they've tried to talk to you about it, and you've ignored them. Open up your life and say, "I'm going to stop pretending that's not true. I'm going to stop pretending I really have this together and that was just a little aberration. I'm going to actually look honestly at this. I'm going to confess and repent of this. Because more than anything else, I want a new life in the Holy Spirit. I want to be baptized and plunged into and immersed in and saturated in the very presence and life of God." Prepare the way of the Lord, because someone is coming who is so much greater, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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Sermon Outline:


I. The main event

II. Righteousness

III. Peace

IV. Joy

V. Preparation