As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
--Mark 1:1-20 (NRSV)
We’re going to do something a bit different today. Over these past few weeks of Christmas and Epiphany, we taken a slight detour from our lectionary. Mostly, we’ve done this because this is the year of the gospel of Mark. And, because Mark has no nativity or epiphany story, we’ve had to bounce around a little bit between Luke and Matthew and, even, on Christmas Eve, a little bit of John. But, today we begin Mark.
We do not know who wrote Mark. There is a lot of speculation among theologians, but the truth is that no one knows for sure. We believe it was written sometime around the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, around 70 CE. It may have been slightly before or slightly after. This was a time of conflict - conflict within Judaism and conflict outside of Judaism, between the Jewish people and the Roman empire.
Mark was the first of the gospels to be written. There is early historical evidence to suggest that the author of Mark wanted to make sure that all of what Jesus did and said was written down. Because, up to this point, all of these stories had been shared orally. By word of mouth. At this point, though, the eyewitnesses to Jesus and his ministry were dying, because they were being persecuted and martryed.
In these opening verses of Mark, there are important words and themes that we will hear as we move through this gospel during these next months. So, today, the different thing we will do is to dig deeper into the text to better understand these words and themes, so that we might build a good foundation for our reading of Mark and for a deeper understanding of the message of this first gospel.
Mark opens with these words: the beginning. Does that sound familiar to you? Where have we heard those words before?
If we go all the way back to the start of the Hebrew scriptures in Genesis, we hear similar words. “In the beginning.” This phrase is an important signal for us. It’s a sign that God is doing something new. In Genesis, that new thing that God was up to was forming an ordered and beautiful creation out of darkness and chaos. Here, at the beginning of Mark, we do not yet know what this new thing is that God is doing. Yet, in the very next few words, we are about to get a hint.
The next important word (or words) is the phrase “good news.” Now, in the Greek, the word used for this phrase is euangeliou. It’s a form of the word euangelion. Have you seen this word before? Does it look a little familiar to you: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Perhaps this will jog your memory: Grace & Glory Evangelical Lutheran Church?
The Greek word euangelion means "good news." Or "gospel." But this good news that we are about to hear is not a reference to a physical book, to the written “gospel” of Mark. Instead, it refers to the word of salvation as it is carried out in the acts of salvation. In Mark, the saving word is not separated from saving action. Good news, or the gospel, in Mark is always in motion.
We will see this good news acted out in the preaching and teaching, and in acts of mercy and healing by Jesus Christ. Jesus, the now roughly 30-year-old man, son of Mary and of Joseph. And the Christ, meaning the Anointed One. The Messiah. The One promised by God to come and save God’s people. The first half of Mark’s gospel will focus on identifying Jesus as this promised Messiah. The second half will begin to unfold the stunning truth that, not only is this Jesus the Anointed One, the one who will both announce and initiate the good news of God’s reign. But, that this Jesus Christ is also the very Son of God. That he is both human and divine.
But, first, we must meet the one who will prepare the way for this Jesus, the Anointed One, the Son of God.
This one who will prepare the way is none other than John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. Son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Who we met just a few weeks ago, on the very last Sunday of Advent, before Christmas. It is John who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah. The one promised who will “prepare the way of the Lord.” We're also reminded of Exodus 23, where the prophet has the very difficult, yet very necessary, job of making a course correction. And of bringing a wayward people back to the right path. To the right way. This is John’s job in Mark. To prepare the way for Jesus by returning people to the right path.
In his camel’s hair clothing, with his leather belt and his diet of locusts and honey, John has claimed a life of poverty. One who lives off little. Who has chosen to be poor. But, the people coming to see John are not poor. They come to him from places that enjoyed comfortable living standards. They are people living in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, an island of wealth and power in the midst of Galilee, a rural place. A place of poverty.
John invites them into this wilderness. To reflect on their history and their complicitness in the economic divide. He calls them to repent. To repent in Mark is to step out of one’s mindset and adopt a new and different mindset. It is to have one’s perception of the world and of oneself transformed. To adopt a radically different world view. To relate to the world in a new way. It also means to make a U-turn. To change course. To turn one’s back on the status quo. On one’s former life. To envision a new reality. And then to endeavor to bring this new thing to fruition. For those coming to see John, entering into the wilderness is a time of reflection and reckoning. A time intended to bring them back to God and to God’s ways. To ways that will lead them through the wilderness to Jesus Christ and to the in-breaking reign of God.
Jesus comes to John to be baptized. We read in the 10th verse that just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“Just” or “immediately. We will see this adverb 42 times in Mark! Because there is an urgency in Mark. There is no time to waste. Immediately, Jesus sees the heavens being torn asunder. This is not a gentle descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. In Greek the word used is a form of the word schizo. It is a violent word. A word of division. This ripping apart of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism will be echoed in the ripping apart of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death. The public ministry of Jesus beginning here, with his baptism, will not only bring words and actions of healing and salvation, but they will bring violence and conflict and division.
This baptism is an event between Father and Son. Jesus alone sees the heavens being torn asunder, his baptism by the Spirit, and hears the words of his Father. Words that express the relationship and love of this father and son. We will hear these words again at Jesus’ transfiguration as he prepares to face the conflict his ministry has created. And to be crucified by those who have rejected not only him, but the entire reign of God.
It is this reign of God to which you and I, sisters and brothers have been called, just as the early disciples. You and I, beloved of God, who have been called to repent and be baptized. To step out of our comfort and our complacency. To turn around. To adopt a new mindset and a new way of life. To step onto the wilderness path. To believe in the good news - good news that is understood in both word and deed.
In our baptisms, we have been given a new birth. We have been cleansed from sin. We have been raised to life forever. But, at the same time, we have promised individually and communally to live out the kingdom - the reign of God. We have promised to live among God’s faithful people. We have promised to hear the word of God and to share in the Lord’s supper. We have promised to proclaim this good news of God in Christ through what we say and what we do. We have promised to serve all people by following the example of Jesus. And, finally, we have promised to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
So how far along are you in keeping your covenant with God?
Dear church, ours is not to be a life of comfort and complacency. Ours is to be a a wilderness life - a time of constant reflection and remembering and repentance. A time of faith lived out with urgency and action. It is a life that may bring us into conflict with the powers that be, with the status quo, with those who defy or deny God’s reign, as it should. Because we are not to be passive people of God. The reign of God is not some nebulous thing that we wait passively for in the distant future. It began with Jesus’ baptism and public ministry. And it continues with us at the present time. The reign of God - the kingdom of God - is now. Right. Now. And we are called to live it out.
This is the good news of the gospel of Mark. May it jolt us into motion. Amen.
Preached Sunday, January 12, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Baptism of Our Lord (Epiphany 1)
Readings: Ezekiel 36:25-27; Psalm 91:9-12; Mark 1:1-20