I like to make – and more importantly, eat – potato pancakes. I make them with a combination of baking potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, and sweet Vidalia onions. It takes a lot of time to prepare, though.
First, I peel the potatoes, then grate them and squeeze the excess juice out of the gratings and discard the juice, since it will make the pancakes too liquidy. Then, I put the squeezed potato gratings in a mixing bowl. During this process, I also grate the Vidalia onions and put them and their juice in the mixing bowl with the potato gratings. The onion juice helps to keep the potatoes from oxidizing and turning red. Otherwise, by the time I’m done grating all the potatoes they’d be a gross-looking, unappetizing reddish-brown color.
Then, once I have the potatoes and onions grated, I mix in some beated eggs, salt and pepper, and flour or corn meal until I get a nice consistency. It can’t be too thin, or else the mix will run all over the place when I put it on the griddle; and it can’t be too thick, or else it won’t cook properly.
So, after all this preparation, then I can finally cook and eat the potato pancakes I’ve been looking forward to. By themselves, the initial, un-prepared potatoes are hard and do not taste good raw, but in the end, the potato pancakes are really good. It just takes a lot of preparation and care to get them into this new state.
You obviously can’t reverse these steps or mix them up. I can’t just throw a whole potato on the griddle and expect it to turn into a potato pancake. It takes a lot of time and a lot of care to transform the potato into a pancake, to take it from what it used to be and turn it into something new and better.
We’re similar to these potatoes in a way. We are by nature hard and stiff people, resistant to being transformed. You can’t just tell us the Gospel, because telling someone that their sins are forgiven does not mean anything to them if they are hard and stiff and resistant. It’d be like throwing a raw potato on the griddle and expecting it to change into a pancake by itself. In this state, the Gospel would turn into an excuse to remaining as we were, since we would either think that we are not sinners or that we could keep on sinning with impunity. We would remain as the stubborn potatoes we were rather than become new creations in Christ. So, how to crack open these hard, stiff, potatoes and transform them into something new?
Well, in the case of potato pancakes, I use a peeler and a grater. The peeler opens up the surface of the potato to lay bare what lies beneath. Then the grater takes what was once there and destroys it to make it ready to be turned into something new. So, with a potato, I peel it and then grate it so that it is prepared to become something better.
God uses His Law in a similar manner. His Law opens up our hearts by peeling open our outer shell to reveal to us how we really are; that is, that we are sinners. His Law displays the sin that it finds inside and destroys all pretenses that we have of being without sin. His Law causes us to reflect on His will for our lives so that as we examine the Ten Commandments we see that we are not only not perfect, but that we cannot make ourselves perfect through our own power. His Law destroys the people that we once were to prepare us to be made into something new. His Law reveals our true standing before Him as condemned sinners.
But if left in the Law, if left in this state, we would spoil. We would either become hardened in our sin or red with dismay. We would be like the peeled and grated potatoes that oxidize and so are useless for anything. Perhaps you have known people like this, who are in such despair because they know that something is wrong with their lives. Many people feel the sense of brokenness, fear, and dismay that sin brings – oftentimes without really knowing its true cause or how to fix things. Perhaps you have felt, or still feel, this way yourself.
But, God does not want us to remain in this state. The purpose of the grating action of God’s Law is to prepare us to receive the Gospel. It is not an end unto itself, but rather serves the purpose of God’s saving actions, just as the purpose of peeling and grating a potato is not to leave it in this state, but rather to turn it into something new. Peeling and grating are destructive processes, but it is done for a purpose, just as God’s Law kills us and plunges us into despair, but it is done for the purpose of preparing us to receive the Gospel.
And the Gospel of Christ – the news that Jesus Christ has reconciled us to God, each other, and creation itself through his own death and resurrection – then comes to us like the sweet juices of the Vidalia onion that begin the transformation to something new. The Gospel binds up the wounds of the Law; like the Vidalia juices that preserve the fresh wounds of the potatoes from turning red. The Gospel transforms us into new creations, created anew in Christ. No longer the hard, stiff, resistant potatoes that we were, but now new creations, like potato pancakes. And this is God’s work whereby he changes us from the old to the new; we can’t do this ourselves anymore than a potato can transform itself into a pancake.
So, let’s look at the reading from Mark’s Gospel in this light (Mark 1:1-8). When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – when Christ came down to proclaim His Gospel – he was proceeded by John the Baptist. John came as the messenger sent by God to prepare for Christ’s coming. John came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He came to proclaim the Law and lead people to confess their sins. He came to peel and grate the potatoes to prepare them to be turned into something new. He came to prepare the hearts of people to receive the Gospel by prepping them for the coming of Christ.
And Christ came after him as the fulfillment of God’s promises and as the one to whom John and the Law had been pointing. Christ came to take what John had prepared through the preaching of God’s Law and turn it into something new through the Gospel. John was the sous-chef, while Christ is the head chef.
And so, John baptized with water, but Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Our Christian baptism connects us with Christ’s own baptism – and his death and resurrection to which it is connected – and bestows upon us the Holy Spirit. Baptism is God’s act for us and to us through which He incorporates us into the body of Christ, the Church. It and the Gospel to which it is connected takes us and makes us new creations in Christ as we receive this Good News through faith.
So, Christ came as the fulfillment of God’s promises. The entire Old Testament looked forward to the coming of the Christ, the Messiah anointed to bring salvation to sinful humanity. The Law drove people to look for a savior, and the prophets pointed to his coming. The Old Testament faithful were saved through faith in the promised Christ, just as we are saved through faith in the same Christ.
John the Baptist arrived on the scene as the last of the prophets. He straddles the time between the prophetic visions of the Old Testament that pointed to the coming Christ, and the realization of these prophecies in the New Testament with the arrival of the Christ. John is there for one purpose, to proclaim the Law and the coming of the Christ through whom salvation comes.
We often see bracelets in the store that say WWJD, or What Would Jesus Do? This is a fine sentiment, although something that we ultimately cannot fulfill. For Jesus was perfect and sinless, and he died for our sins and defeated death for us. He did what we could not in reconciling us and redeeming us.
So, perhaps if we set our sights a little lower, we could instead ask ourselves WWJTBD, or What Would John the Baptist Do? The answer, of course, is “point to Jesus.” We are called, in a sense, then, to be like John the Baptist. We too are called to point people to Jesus Christ. We too are called to be messengers of the Lord to prepare his coming in the lives of his creatures. We too are to act at times as peelers and graters, preparing people to receive the Gospel to be turned into new creations.
This means, of course, that we sometimes have to confront sin. We may have to peel off the outer layer of pretense to reveal what is really wrong and broken. But, we do this not to leave people in this state, for this is not the end goal of God’s Word. For if we open people’s hearts and wound them and leave them be, then they will become red and embittered, like scarred, spoiled potatoes. So, after we open them up, we have to pour over them the sweet balm of the Gospel, like the juices of the Vidalia onion that heal their wounds and begin to turn them into something new, something better.
For, the Gospel is transformative. God’s Word acts and does what He says, and His Word acts through the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel is not simply a historical lesson of what Christ did on the cross and the empty tomb; the Gospel actually gives Christ to the hearer, it gives the hearer Christ’s death and resurrection and the benefits they bring – namely, the forgiveness of sins, restoration to God and each other, and life everlasting (which is, perhaps, another way of saying “restoration to creation” since we will experience the bodily resurrection and be brought into the restored creation of the new heavens and new earth). God works to bring people to faith through His Word and Sacraments.
So, God is like the head chef making potato pancakes. He brought you forth from the ground, like those potatoes in the recipe. He opened you up by the peeling and grating work of His Law to reveal your sins. But, then He poured out the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – upon you to heal your wounds. And He has recreated you through Baptism into new creations, His children. Just as all the preparatory work of making potato pancakes has a plan and an end in sight, so too does God’s plan for you.
Do you see the grace and mercy of God towards you in all of this? God has so ordered things that He has accomplished everything for you for your salvation. Your God is a God who acts for you. He has a plan, a plan He formulated from the beginning, a plan for your salvation that He has started, won, and will bring to completion for you.
And His ultimate plan for you, now that He has made you His children by grace through faith in Christ, is to dwell with you for eternity. A person doesn’t make potato pancakes to just discard them, he makes them for a purpose, and that purpose is to have them. Likewise, God didn’t do all these things for you to just discard you. He intends to live with you in eternity forever.
That is why Christ came. He came once to die for your sins, but he is coming again to raise you up to him. As the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews said, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).
So, Christ is coming again, because God will not abandon you to the grave. You have been called as God’s very own possession and made His children because of what Christ did for you on the cross and the empty tomb. His death and resurrection is what justifies you in God’s sight. You have a holy God who justifies sinful humanity through His own actions. God does it all. He even brings you to faith in this promise and credits you with the righteousness of Christ. So, because your God is a God who acts for you, you can be sure of your salvation, because it rests on God’s power and faithfulness.
St. Mark began his written Gospel by writing, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This Good News begins and ends in Christ, it continues now in the Church through Word and Sacrament, and it will be brought to completion with the return of Christ when you and all the Church of all times and all places will be resurrected to dwell with the Lord forever.
(Image: Potato, By Øyvind Holmstad – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63414024 )