With today’s reading we begin a yearlong study of the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel that forms the centerpiece of lectionary year B.
Mark is the shortest and punchiest of the Gospels, full of narrative detail and action that practically hurtles from its opening to its unsettling conclusion. Mark is known as a gripping storyteller but one whose style is straightforward and unadorned. It’s a bracing combination.
Mark throws you right into the deep end of the pool without any warning. No preliminaries about Jesus’s miraculous birth, no angels or Mary and Joseph or anything Christmas-y at all. In fact the first sentence of Mark doesn’t even have a verb, so it reads like a headline more than an introduction: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
And yet in this compressed form, this opening headline tells you everything you need to know about Mark’s Gospel, which will do nothing but unpack in potent form the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
So here the story begins, with a kind of prologue that sets the stage for what is really going on in the rest of the Gospel.
The British theologian Morna Hooker writes this about the opening to Mark’s Gospel: She says: “These first few verses are a kind of theological commentary on the rest of the narrative. [Afterward] we come down to earth with a bump, and the characters in the story become the normal, everyday inhabitants of Galilee. It is as though in the prologue Mark has allowed us to see Jesus from God’s angle, and now the curtain falls, and we are among men and women who stumble around, wondering what is happening. But though the characters in the story are bewildered, Mark does not intend us to forget the truth which he has uncovered in these opening verses.”
This characterization is entirely correct I think for a few reasons. First, as Hooker points out, after this short prologue we are surrounded by “the normal, everyday inhabitants of Galilee.” That is true, because here we are in a very different setting to which we will not return in Mark’s Gospel. We are as verse 4 says “in the wilderness.”
Now we are likely to think of the wilderness as rough and discouraging, a hostile place. But in the Bible the wilderness is a place of potential hope, from which new relationship with God is possible.
It was in the wilderness that God met with Israel and made them his people after delivering them from captivity in Egypt. There they trusted in God and were provided for by him for 40 years. Moses reminds the people of God’s faithfulness to them during their entire sojourn before they enter the Promised Land and requires them not to forget all that God did for them in the wilderness.
And as Mark points out, in his only direct quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah foretold that the Lord’s messenger would appear in the wilderness, and right on cue—once more without any kind of warning or ceremonial introduction—John the Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” So we will soon be surrounded by “the normal, everyday inhabitants of Galilee” in Mark’s Gospel, but right now, here in the beginning, we are in a privileged place, in the wilderness, where there is nothing normal, nothing everyday, no, here God is acting in a new and powerful way.
Hooker is right too to point out that after these introductory verses the action of Mark’s Gospel thrusts us “among men and women who stumble around, wondering what is happening.”
This too I think is right because Mark is keenly aware of human frailty and failure, and it can fairly be said that his emphasis is on Jesus as the Son of God, but a Son of God who surprises us by his failure to live up to any triumphalist expectations about what it could mean to be God’s Son and the Savior of the world. One of the climactic moments of Mark’s Gospel is when the Roman centurion who helped execute Jesus confesses that “Truly this man was the Son of God.” But the centurion only realizes this after Jesus has breathed his last breath on the cross. This coupling of Christ’s humiliation and death with the recognition that he is nevertheless divine is typical of Mark. For Mark the great action of the Gospel happens amidst and for people who are stumbling around and wondering what is happening and who realize the truth of things maybe a moment too late. Mark brings good news, but he brings it to people who are slow to catch up.
Finally, I think Hooker is right to say that Mark wants even his bewildered audience to remember this opening assurance that Jesus is the Son of God whose coming is foretold by the prophets and by John the Baptist himself. This assurance is secure from the beginning of the Gospel because in fact in these few succinct verses we are shown who Jesus is from God’s own point of view. It is the word of God, speaking through the prophets, that announces the messenger who will prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, and it is the word of God spoken by John the Baptist who fulfills this prophecy and promises the imminent coming of Jesus Christ the Son of God, who will pour out upon God’s people the Holy Spirit.
In the season of Advent the church asks us to contemplate beginnings and endings. We look back to the coming of Christ into our world to save us from our sins, and we look forward to his return, when all things will be placed under his final rule. Mark highlights the fact that the Gospel story begins here, in the wilderness, with John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord.
But Mark also points to endings. No sooner has John the Baptist abruptly appeared on the scene than he is gone again. And with him go the whole storied history of the prophets and an ancient way of God’s relating to his people.
My former colleague in Australia Frank Moloney has observed that most prophets recall the past deeds of God, reminding the people of Israel of what they already know and calling them back to a restored relationship with God. A prophet usually recalls God’s record of historical faithfulness to his people.
John the Baptist is different though: He points to the future, not the past, and he teaches something that the people of Israel do not already know. He foretells an entirely new way that God will deal with his people, via the promised Messiah who is now at hand.
Even John the Baptist’s final words in today’s reading refer to his own past activity and a future that it is not his but in the hands of Jesus the Son of God alone. “I have baptized you with water [past]; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit [future].”
When I was a kid it was common for my fellow evangelicals to describe a low point in our spiritual life as being “in the wilderness.” This is unfortunate because it’s not biblical. But maybe like the ordinary people of Mark’s Gospel you are bewildered or frightened. Know that your wilderness is not a place of isolation and barrenness but a place of new hope where God is powerfully present to his people. Let’s take heart and realize that when you think you are in the wilderness it is precisely there that the Gospel is still speaking to us. Let’s take this new year as a chance to not only look back to what God has done for us in the past but to look forward to what new thing the Lord is yet doing for us even in the midst of our bewilderment and confusion. The Gospel of Mark is for people who are bewildered and confused. And that means Mark’s message is for us now more than ever.