2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Commentary: Mark 1:1-8

Mark 1:1-3

Where does Mark's gospel begin? Recalling that Mark has no birth narrative, we typically conclude that Mark's gospel begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. That, however, would mean ignoring 1:1-3 as the crucial opening announcement of Mark. When we examine 1:1-3 carefully we may discover things we never before noticed.

First, there is the rather strange opening which literally reads, "Beginning of the gospel" (l:la). Most stories do not begin by announcing that this is the start of the story. The word "gospel" is not a reference to the written story which starts here and ends at 16:8. Rather, for Mark "gospel" is the salvific good news which is preached even beyond the resurrection (1:14; 13:10; 14:9); which is to be believed (1:15); and which takes precedence over everything else (10:29), including our very own lives (8:35). So what starts here actually continues on as the focus of our discipleship.

Second, Mark's opening tells us that the content of this gospel is Jesus Messiah, and that Jesus' true identity is Son of God. Salvation for Mark focuses on a person more than a teaching, and that person is Jesus, God's royal Son. By telling us this in the very first line of the gospel, Mark has invited us to evaluate everything done and said by or to Jesus in light of his true identity as God's Son. This is vital in the course of the story since no human being realizes his true identity until the centurion's confession at the cross (15:39). This, too, sets forth the focus of our discipleship. It is on the crucified Son of God.

Third, the beginning of this salvific good news of Jesus is not in John's appearance but in a conversation between God and God's Son about John. Here 1:2-3 is to be read in conjunction with 1:1. We are told that this conversation has been written in Isaiah (40:3) though the first part of the conversation actually stems from Ex 23:20 and Mal 3:1. As found in its Markan context, God (first person references) is talking directly to Jesus, the divine Son (second person references). Because the prophetic scripture allows us to be privy to this intimate parent-child conversation, we realize that the gospel's beginning lies in God's people ready for Jesus who will bring forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and God's final salvation. Indeed, the only words coming from John's mouth spotlight not himself but the stronger one who is coming (1:7-8). When Jesus comes in the very next verse John does not simply fade away into oblivion but continues to prepare for Jesus' own God-decreed way by being handed over, repudiated, and shamefully killed. The way is set by John, and it will lead to Jesus' own death on the cross. As Mark's gospel message is played out, this will also be the way for everyone who follows Jesus which forms a consistent pattern with John who preceded Jesus (8:34-37).

Advent Implications

What is to be the focus of our own Advent preparations? Where do they begin? What ultimately is their goal? Our gospel lesson gives us the clear answer: Jesus Messiah, God's crucified Son. In fact, using Mark's hermeneutics means that in Advent we are not preparing for a day but for the person of Jesus. This lesson calls us to repentance, calls us to turn and reorient our preparations during this hectic time when they can so easily stray from that Christocentric focus and goal. We are preparing to celebrate not ourselves or our traditions but the advent of the Lord Jesus.

Yet when played in a Markan key, such preparations also have the motif of the cross. That was the ultimate note of preparation sounded by John. That was the divine-decreed way for Jesus. And that remains the path for all who follow Jesus. A Markan song of Advent preparation always carries a Lenten rhythm since preparation is defined by Mark as denying self, picking up one's cross, and following the way of Jesus. That is where the gospel of Jesus Christ begins continuously in our own lives be it during Advent, Lent, or any other season.

Richard Carlson Lutheran Theological Seminary