2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:1-8 Part 3

The gospel depicts John as baptizer, as preacher, but pre-eminently as the one who points to the one who comes after him. This is the one Mark has already identified as "Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1).

The reader is probably familiar with several depictions of John as baptizer: The Baptisms of Giotto, of Leonardo and Verrochio, of Patnir, of Titian, of his pupil Paris Bordone, of Perugino, of Poussin, among many others.

There are far fewer depictions of John as preacher, but there is the statue by Rodin, John the Baptist Preaching, Rembrandt's painting of the same name, and the American Thomas Cole's grand St. John in the Wilderness.

Rodin's John portrays the baptizer as muscular and brisk.1 There is a sense of urgency in the walking figure, as if he did not have time for all he must say. What he is saying connects heaven and earth, as he does, pointing as he strides into the viewer's space upward with his right hand and downward with his left.

Rembrandt's oil sketch was begun in 1636 or 1637 and worked over several times until it received final form in 1650.2 In the painting Rembrandt brings together all strata of society to hear John preach his message of repentance and salvation. John stands in the center of a strip of light. The crowd that attends him is in both light and shadow. John is intense. The crowd is divided in its attention. Some seem to hear and understand; many are moved by John's message. But some daydream or doze. Some argue. (These include three Pharisees in partial shadow, who have turned their backs on John to dispute among themselves.) Some loiter or play at games. But as Albert Elsen points out, Rembrandt does "not resort to the obvious device of illuminating only those who are the enlightened participants, for signs of vanity and folly can be found in both the light and dark areas of the crowd" (p. 207-8). John's message of light not only sheds light on a world that hears and does not hear. It reaches into the shadows of that same world.

In Thomas Cole's St. John in the Wilderness, as in all Cole's paintings, nature is dominant, and the human scene seems lost. But this is to ignore Cole's sense that nature and humanity are inextricably and mysteriously related. Thus in St. John the natural scene cannot be peaceful. As John Dillenberger puts it: "The forceful and threatening aspects of nature match the message of John the Baptist" (p. 99).

Rodin's sculpture portrays John alone. Rembrandt focuses on the human scene, on John and John's hearers. But that does not mean that it is impossible to convey graphically the content of John's message, as Cole's painting begins to show.

Still, it is not clear from any of these what it is that John preaches. Mark is clear about this, as Rick Carlson points out in his exegesis. From the first line, the object of the gospel is clearly Jesus Messiah, Son of God. John's only recorded words point to him, the one who is coming.

This is the Jesus we know (particularly in this season) as the one born in Bethlehem; it is also the Christ crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, the lamb slain for the sins of the world. Interestingly, John appears in paintings that capture each of these aspects of the life and work of Christ.

Best known perhaps is the John of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1512-1515).3 At the center of the large central panel (8'10" X 10'1") is Christ crucified. In both power and size, he dwarfs the other figures in the painting. To his right the beloved disciple comforts his mother. To his left stands the anachronistic and diminished John, "I shall decrease as He shall increase" written above his head. In his left hand John holds an open book. With his right he points "in an almost impossible manner," as Karl Barth wrote, to the crucified Christ. For most of his professional life, Barth worked with a copy of this painting hanging above his desk, finding illumination and inspiration above all in the figure of John and the odd, "impossible" way he points to Christ. "It is this hand," Barth said in one of his lectures, "which is in evidence in the Bible."

John is also an anachronism in the St. Lucy Altarpiece, Madonna and Child with Saints (c. 1445) by Domenico Veneziano. Flanking the enthroned Madonna and Child are at left St. Francis and John the Baptist and at right Sts. Zenobius and Lucy. Lucy is serene and contemplative, Zenobius rugged despite his elegant robes. Francis is humble and ascetic, but John is the magnet that draws the viewer into the picture. The other figures are draped in gently flowing robes. The rough skins he wears leave his legs and arms bare. The other worshipers are dressed in pastels. John wears a bright red cape. They are pale, he is swarthy. Francis, Zenobius and Lucy approach the throne with eyes downcast in attitudes of prayer or contemplation. John stares out at the viewer, challenging him or her to enter the scene—to join in worship of the Christ. Once again, John's role is to point to Christ. His muscular right arm, extending in a line from Francis's right slender one, boldly gestures to the infant and his mother.

Also worth mentioning is the John of the early sixteenth century Spanish retable St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist. Here is a calm, quiet and sainted John. Both figures are seated. The evangelist raises his right hand in blessing over the chalice he holds in his left. The Baptist, however, is still pointing. His right hand quietly but insistently indicates the book he holds in his left; and atop the book is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Richard S. Dietrich Decatur, GA


1. Rodin's John the Baptist Preaching may be found in The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. There is a photograph of the statue in Purposes of Art by Albert E. Elsen (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1967), p. 361. 2. Rembrandt's John the Baptist Preaching is in the Museum Dahlem in Berlin. The 24 1/2" x 32" oil on panel is reproduced in Elsen, p. 207, and in Rembrandt Paintings by Horst Gerson (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff International, 1968, plate 71).

3. Both Isenheim and St. Lucy Altarpieces are reproduced in full page color plates in Elsen (plate 6 and plate 17 respectively). The best reproduction of the Isenheim Altarpiece may be found, however, in the Time-Life World of Dürer (New York: Time Life Books), pp. 16-31. This reproduction can be folded to give the reader a good sense of how the altarpiece is actually constructed as well as to view it from inside and out.