John the Baptist didn’t want to do it, but what would you do it if you had the chance? What would you do if you had a chance to untie your Savior’s Sandals? I pray these words from St. Mark’s Gospel about dirty, dusty sandals surrounding dirty, dusty feet will help us keep getting our hearts and hands and voices ready for the coming of Christmas.
Why did John the Baptist say that — what he said in verse 7 near the end — “After me comes one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” After all, while Jesus was certainly, of course, more powerful than John the Baptist, still John the Baptist was the one Jesus himself once called the “greatest of men born to women.” If John the Baptist didn’t think he was worthy of doing that – John the Baptist, the one whom St. Mark tells us today fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah from hundreds of years before that there would come a special messenger to prepare the people for the coming of the long-promised Son of God, when the long-promised Son of God finally arrived on the earth – if John the Baptist said he wouldn’t feel worthy to untie his Savior’s sandals, if he had a chance to do so, where does that leave the rest of us?
Where that leaves the rest of us is in the very same place as John the Baptist, because we are all in the same place together. We are out there in the wilderness with all the people who listened to John “preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” because we all need the forgiveness of sins. The person who normally helped a house guest untie his sandals and wash his feet was the lowest servant of the house, but you and I don’t even deserve to be in the house, let alone be one of the servants in the house, because we are unworthy to have the opportunity to even be in the presence of Jesus, let alone be able to serve him. So, on the one hand, if we had a chance to untie our Savior’s sandals, we would have to humbly decline for fear that if we even touched God, we might surely die, so holy is the God who came to earth and so not holy at all are all of us sons and daughters of the earth.
That is why we are told that when John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord by telling the people to “make straight paths for him,” those who humbly realized the need to do so confessed their sins, Mark tells us, and were baptized in the Jordan River. To “make straight paths” simply means to not let any obstacle be on the path that leads from God’s heart to our heart: no excuse that asks how can you expect me to be so good and caring and loving, God, when I am under so much stress from so many things in my life not being good or caring or loving; no defense that asks how can you come down on me so hard, God, when you really should spend your time humbling that other person who has done far worse things than me, and everybody seems to love him or her; no accusation that asks what do you expect from me, God, when you certainly have not done for me what I expect a good God would do for me. Aren’t those the very kinds of things that can so easily fill our minds throughout the day when we think about God and his will and our sin and the need to repent? Aren’t those the thoughts that show how true John the Baptist’s words are that we need to make straight paths so the love of Jesus doesn’t get tripped up and end up meaning little to us, as God’s words of love get spoken to us. Aren’t those the humbling realities of life that show how true it is that we have to join John the Baptist in saying, “I am not worthy to even think about untying my Savior’s sandals?”
And yet look again at how St. Mark began our Lesson, which is also the way he began his Gospel, since these are very first words of his Gospel. He said, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” The entire reason we can see it as good news to say we are not worthy to untie our Savior’s sandals is because the one whose sandals we are not worthy to untie is worthy of so much because of what he came to do. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John saw and heard thousands and thousands of angels of heaven singing, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” The reason the angels were singing is because in his revelation St. John saw a scroll which had written on it the future of heaven and earth, but it was bound up by seven seals, and there was no way he could open or untie those seals, causing John to cry and weep because not he or anyone else in heaven or on earth or under the earth, he said, was worthy to open it – until to the rescue came a Lamb – a Lamb which looked like it had been slain – the arrival of the Lamb of God, leading the hosts of heaven to join in that unending chorus that we still sing today, “Worthy is the Lamb.”
That really is at the heart of what John the Baptist was talking about in the last verse of our Lesson, when he said, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus also told us to baptize with water, for which we are grateful since that saves us from our sins, but what John the Baptist was referring to was the so-called baptism of the Holy Spirit that came after Jesus finished the work of saving us from our sins and sent the Holy Spirit on his disciples on that great day of Pentecost, fifty days after he had risen from the dead and ten days after he had returned to heaven. Jesus is worthy of our honor and praise because he did what he was sent to do – and what he was sent to do was to make sure that everyone in the world would be considered worthy of entering eternal life as God’s holy, dearly loved child. Everyone who believes and is baptized, Mark said at the very end of his Gospel – yes, those who believe that Jesus did forgive their sins, will have that eternal life, and those who don’t believe will not.
That means that through the work Jesus did, we who are unworthy are worthy. We who are unworthy to untie our Savior’s sandals would be worthy to untie those sandals, if that was something he asked us to do. We don’t have a command to untie his sandals, but we do have his command to do to others as we would have them do to us. We do have his command not to judge with a hypocritical, self-righteous heart, even when we do have to judge the wrong someone does or says. We do have his command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. We do have his command to store up treasures in heaven rather than in places where moth and rust can destroy. We do have his command not to worry about the everyday things of life, but to keep seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness by clinging to the work of Jesus.
In other words, when we realize how unworthy and worthy we are at one and the same time, all those kinds of ways God wants us to live and all those kinds of ways God wants us to think are not a burden or a hassle, but a joy. I get to do even more than untie Jesus’ sandals. Every day I get to serve Jesus as a humble servant as I serve the other fellow servants in my life – fellow servants to whom I want to show Jesus and for whom I want to be Jesus, some of whom may not right now know Jesus or perhaps are making the way to their heart more and more crooked with every passing day.
So, what would you do if you had a chance to untie your Savior’s sandals? Wouldn’t that be an absolute honor to do that, if he did ask you to do that? If Jesus really did ever ask you to do that, untie those sandals with all your heart, remembering every moment along the way that your unworthiness to do so has been undone – or untied – by the one whose feet you are touching – the one whose feet — later nailed to the cross — were evidence of the worthiness he has given you by removing every ounce of guilt and sin that has ever been part of our lives – the one whose feet walked out of that grave and the bottom of whose feet could be seen forty days later as the disciples looked up and saw him rising to heaven to the right hand of the Almighty God.
But since you don’t know if Jesus will ever give you the chance to untie the sandals from his feet, do make sure to keep sitting at his feet, like today as you hear the word of John the Baptist prepare you for your Savior’s arrival at Christmas, when unworthy parents and unworthy shepherds and unworthy you and I get to peer over the manger and see those little feet beneath those strips of cloth – and knowing, praise God, where those feet would someday go, so that you and I can know we will someday end up right there with him, no matter what dirty, dusty paths he allows our feet to travel until we get there. Amen.