Advent 2: 7 December Mark 1:1-8
From last week, where we began the season of Advent and the liturgical year with the last words of Jesus’ ministry according to Mark, we swing back this week to the beginning of his gospel. Last week came from the setting of Mark’s hearers, concerned with what was going on in the world, especially the disaster befalling Jerusalem. This week’s passage is from the same general setting. What is going on in the world!?
It begins with the claim that there is ‘good news’ for what is going on in the world. What can be ‘good news’ for what is going on in the world, Mark’s or ours? It is a big claim to say you have something that is ‘good news’ in any world! So Mark sets the agenda: how Jesus was good news and brought good news and how we can be good news. For people familiar with Roman propaganda the claim to "good news" might even sound subversive. There was only one son of God, bearer of good news, bringer of peace and ruler of the empire/kingdom (basileia) and that was not an obscure Galilean! "The good news", however, might have very different associations for those who longed for change. How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one bearing good news to Israel and announcing God's coming kingdom (Isaiah 52:7)! The Spirit anointed the prophet to proclaim good news to the poor and that meant liberation (Isaiah 61:1)! The cries of the poor and the acclamations of the emperor still compete in our ears.
But 1:1-8 is not yet the good news. It is setting the scene for it. In 1:2-3 Mark makes a connection with hope. He cites the Old Testament, loosely, naming "Isaiah". In fact it is Isa 40:3 introduced by Exodus 23:20 (which is also very similar to Malachi 3:1). The Exodus passage originally refers to the angel who would go before Israel in the wilderness. Here it refers to John the Baptist. Malachi 3:1 speaks of a messenger whom God would send. These allusions combine well with the prophecy of Isaiah about a voice crying out that people should get ready for the Lord’s coming. The people who wrote the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls had already used this verse to explain their identity. They used the Hebrew text which speaks of preparing in the wilderness the way of the Lord. Mark uses the Greek text which has swapped ‘in the wilderness’ so that it now describes where the voice is crying. That fits John better.
The upshot of Mark’s opening sentences is that the good news which will come with Jesus follows God’s intention expressed both in biblical prophecy and in God’s action of inspiring John the Baptist. A sense of continuity is important for a community of faith: what happened in Jesus did not leave the past behind; it continued it. The God of Jesus is the God already known in actions of the past. This God means well; this God delivers.
The links with such memory and such hope are also present in the echo of Israel’s liberation from Egypt and especially of the time in the wilderness. Wilderness, in Australia, ‘outback’, was the place of waiting and preparation before big events. We know that many groups who aspired to liberating Judea from the Romans started in the wilderness, from the sectarians of the Dead Sea to the revolutionaries reported in Acts 5:36-37 and Josephus. Wilderness was a symbol loaded with hope. It evoked the response: what good news is this? What liberation is on offer? Mark is setting the scene for Jesus.
The drama is intense as Mark reports the strength of the response to John. For Mark, John has little to say beyond pointing to Jesus. In Q’s account, preserved in Matthew and Luke, we hear of the preacher threatening judgement and fire. Mark probably assumes this, but the focus falls on baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This was an act of preparation. John was calling people of all kinds and all levels of society down to the water as a sign of their commitment to turn to God’s ways and away from sin. It was dramatic. John, himself, plunged them beneath the water and earned for that the nickname, the baptiser or baptist, because water rites, including immersion, were usually self administered. Submitting to John symbolised submitting to God, the God who freely cleanses away sin.
It was not that before John no one knew about forgiveness. One only needs to read the psalms which are full of God’s mercy and compassion. It was not forgiveness so much as the dramatic once for all conversion which John’s baptism symbolised which was new. Forgiveness is fundamental and essential for change. It is very odd that some people want to reduce the message of Jesus to forgiveness of sins as if it had not been there before. Clearly the good news must include forgiveness of sins, but it includes much, much more, as Mark will show.
The Bible already had a system for handling sin: the temple. We can understand that its priests were not altogether comfortable with John’s new dramatic rite. It was daring. Could it get out of control? One can imagine the temple setting up a commission to worry about it. Jesus would be an even bigger worry. It was untidy; such concern can easily become oppressive. Yet there was something neat about John’s waterside drama: everyone was at the same level. It was inclusive and confronting. It was simple. No room for pretence.
The simplicity appears to have been a feature also of John’s lifestyle. Clad in the basic attire of a prophet he lived from the good food nature provided (some people really liked locusts!). John lived what according to Matthew and Luke Jesus later preached: live simply; consider the flowers, the birds, how they feed. His lifestyle was in stark contrast to that of the wealthy and those who aspired to wealth; it was confronting of that lifestyle.
There is therefore a lot of good news already in John. Catch up with where John can take you - conversion, forgiveness, inclusiveness and a simple lifestyle - and you are well on the way to being good news for the world. Mark does not ‘hog’ all the good news for Jesus. The good news of Jesus presupposes the good news of John. That is why we still have water baptism. But John points to another baptism: the baptism of the Spirit. That is the good news Mark is about to recount; it is about to be initiated through Jesus.
John’s prediction of a great baptism to come probably referred originally to the wind or spirit and fire expected at the day of judgement, as his fiery preaching shows. For all his fervour John’s predictions did not quite happen as he expected. We find indications of this in the question he sent to Jesus from prison, reported in Matt 11:1-6 and Luke 7:18-23. So people rethought his prediction. Luke saw the prediction fulfilled at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4-5). Mark sees it fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry. The good news of the kingdom is that Jesus will bring liberation through the power of the Spirit. Mark goes on immediately after reporting the prediction of baptism with the Spirit to tell how the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and drove him on (1:9-13). His ministry will be a baptism of this Spirit.
Advent preparation is preparation for life. We need at least to make it to where John takes us - John is a very good roadbuilder.
Epistle: Advent 2: 7 December 2 Peter 3:8-15a
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