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Commentary: Mark 1:9-15

The lesson for this Sunday comes from the prelude to the Gospel, 1:1-15. The prelude to Mark does contain two separate sections, one devoted to John (1:2-8) and one devoted to Jesus (1:9-15). But Mark does not parallel John and Jesus. John is clearly a forerunner, much as Elijah is the forerunner of the Messiah.
This compact prelude to Mark also establishes a pattern of promise and fulfillment. First, the prophets, here designated as Isaiah, promise the coming of a wilderness messenger who will prepare the way, and then (1:4) "John the baptizer appears (egeneto)" in the wilderness in fulfillment of the prophecy. No sooner has John appeared than he promises "one who is more powerful" and "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit," and "Jesus appears (egeneto) from Nazareth of Galilee." Finally, Jesus promises the coming of the reign of God (1:15), and the reader awaits the fulfillment of this prophecy. If the first two promises have been fulfilled, then the third one will be as well. But when? and how?
Having established the reliability of the promisers and of the pattern of promise and fulfillment, the gospel narrator creates suspense regarding the third promise, and the rest of the narrative is an effort to answer its implied promise.
Elements of Structure
The text for this first Sunday of Lent brings together three tightly woven events, each of which comments on the other two.
The three events are as follows:
A. baptism of Jesus, 1:9-11
B. sojourn in the wilderness, 1:12-13
C. proclaiming good news of the com ing reign of God, 1:14-15
Taken together, they introduce Mark's Jesus and tell us all the narrator thinks we need to know about him as he begins his public work.
Message and Interpretation
It is important to examine each text carefully and not to read them in light of their parallels in Matthew and Luke.
The baptism: The baptism text in Mark is not really a baptism text in the way it is in Matthew. In Matthew Jesus' baptism is a christological problem (3:13-17), but not in Mark for whom the baptism is simply a stage setter for the apocalyptic moment when the heavens are "ripped apart," the Spirit descends upon Jesus, and the voice comes from the torn apart heavens. The image of ripping apart the heavens (schizomenous) is startling. It means that the boundary separating heaven and earth has been breached. Things are not normal, and it will be difficult to do business as usual. God is on the loose on the earth, no longer confined to the safety of the heavens above. Little wonder Jesus will soon proclaim that the reign of heaven has "come near." Too near, too close for comfort.
In a world ordered by purity concerns, there is a place for everything and everyone, and everyone or everything needs to be in its place. Impurity occurs when things or people get out of place. So the baptism sets the tone for Jesus' public work in which he will be out of place and will encourage the chaos of displacement. His own itineracy is a sign of this. He comes "out of Nazareth of Galilee" and goes "into Galilee." Galilee is a place where things are out of place owing to the commingling of Judeans and gentiles. So the baptism is more like an unsettling of the world.
The sojourn in the wilderness: Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark's wilderness episode doesn't emphasize the temptation. The spirit drove (ekballei) Jesus into the wilderness. The verb is important because it is the verb used in Jesus' exorcisms. Jesus drove the unclean spirit out of the possessed. Yet here the Spirit from heaven drives Jesus out into the wilderness. The description of wild beasts reminds one of the function of beasts in the book of Daniel. There they represent the kings of this age, the powers that be, who corrupt and usurp God's power. Is this the nature of the test to which Satan puts Jesus? The account is sparse, but the general point of the narrative is clear. Jesus' wilderness sojourn, unlike Israel's, ends well. Jesus does not succumb to the lure of power but awaits the coming of God's angels. It is as though Jesus is reliving (recapitulating) Israel's history. If so, then the reason for the Spirit's driving out Jesus is clearer. It points to the divine impulse behind the testing in the wilderness.
The proclamation: Mark 1:14 once again links and demarcates John from Jesus. John's arrest sets the stage for Jesus' proclamation. There is an ironic juxtaposition here. After John's arrest, Jesus comes with "good news." What good news can there be after John's arrest. Another prophet treated with contempt, another messenger silenced. Yet this is just the moment that Jesus begins his public work. It is reminiscent of the text from Genesis 9:8-17. Just as the flood waters are receding, Yahweh makes a covenant with Noah. Destruction and creation are woven together; bad news and good news reside side by side.
Jesus proclaims a new time and a new order. The time (kairos) is fulfilled. It is easy to make too much of the distinction between kairos and chronos. The two words are used almost interchangeably in the New Testament. But here Jesus does refer to propitious time when God is at work in a significant way. The reign of God is a difficult phrase to define with precision, but the outlines of its meaning are clear. The reign of God is a prophetic critique of the temple state in Judea and of Roman rule. It is God's justice over against the world orders that crush and exploit the people of the land. This is why people must repent and believe. To repent is to change. If God is on the loose in our world, then we can no longer countenance injustice and misery. We must live differently and believe God's good word.
The proclamation of Jesus means that the tearing apart of the heavens, though threatening, is ultimately good news because it points to the possibility of a new world.
William R. Herzog II
Editable Region.