2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Commentary: Mark 1:1-8 Part 2

Too often Christians read the Gospel of Mark as if Mark simply stitched together a string of interesting anecdotes about Jesus and his life. However, we readers serve our interests more faithfully if we read Mark's Gospel as one story about what God is doing in God's world through the life and death of Jesus. If Mark is one comprehensive story, as I suggest, then the story's beginning is important. We take care not to skim too quickly the introduction to the all-important story that Mark has to tell the church.

Mark begins his gospel, the "good news," rather abruptly in relation to his synoptic counterparts, Matthew and Luke. In Matthew the good news begins with what many readers may see as "bad news"—a brief genealogy. Matthew transports readers from Abraham to Jesus the Messiah in a matter of only seventeen verses. Unless one is well versed in the importance of genealogies or unless the reader has an interest in such tables of people, the beginning is less than satisfying. Luke conversely, although he too includes an important genealogy (Lk 3:23-38), begins his Gospel with an explanation to Theophilus about the nature and purpose of his account of Jesus. In contrast to Matthew and Luke, Mark begins in a straightforward way: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

In this beginning Mark ties together the first two elements of the Trinity. Mark's introduction connects Jesus and God from the first sentence. In doing so Mark binds God and Jesus together in a way that makes them inextricably part of the other. Indeed, before Jesus' baptism or first sermon or miracle and prior to Jesus' crucifixion, Mark informs the readers that this is "the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." By so doing, Mark alerts the reader that this story, called explicitly "gospel" by Mark, ascribes extraordinary authority to Jesus—the Christ of God. Mark's opening words indicate that God's promises given in Jesus Christ are a fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. Mark finds these promises in the Old Testament prophets that naturally comprised Mark's holy scripture.

Mark, however, not only clearly connects Jesus with God, but links Jesus directly to the prophet John. Mark makes this connection by paraphrasing Isaiah (40:3) and thereby identifies John as a "prophetic preparer." John is introduced twice in the first three verses as a messenger "who will prepare the way" and one who cries out, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." The role of John as "prophetic preparer" is fulfilled by an all too human being, although one that is eccentric by almost anyone's measure. He feasts on an unusual menu: "locusts and wild honey." The apparel of John, the herald, is as much of an oddity as his diet. He clothes himself with "camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist." These items of food and clothing depict a person who lives in the wilderness, and later Jesus will also have a desolate desert experience.

It is entirely possible to suggest that Mark's introduction to this Gospel makes Jesus the hinge between heaven and earth. First, Mark portrays a specific link between Jesus and God and thereby emphasizes the divine part of Jesus' nature. At the same time Mark also articulates the relationship between Jesus and John who functions as an "advance man" or herald of the coming of Messiah. From the very outset of Mark's Gospel story, Jesus is a go-between. He negotiates the sacred space between God and God's people.

In today's pericope, from Mk 1:4 to the end of the lection, the evangelist focuses strictly on John as the preparer of "the way." John symbolizes the epitome of Jewish eschatological expectations. He comes in from the wilderness, he eats the food of an itinerant wanderer, and he dresses like Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8). Mark summarizes John's preaching by writing that he was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." As the people responded, John baptized them in the river Jordan as they were "confessing their sins." The final part of John's message is that he is only a forerunner of one who is to come. This coming one "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Preachers, in addressing this text, will keep in mind the expectation of the season. What does it mean to say that God comes to human beings or that we expect God to come? After all, God does not really have any place from which to come. Human creatures do not see God ensconced among the stars, nor do we measure God's attributes in weight or dimension. When human beings say that they expect God to come what they may mean is that they expect the One who makes all relationships and people whole. This One, the Messiah, heals and brings hope to people who despair—those who sit in darkness. Messiah represents God's continuously fresh fund of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. These gifts from God's bounteous storehouse of goodness are what the gospel delivers. Perhaps we could say that John announces and Jesus delivers God's good gifts to humankind.

John's function for Mark's Gospel is as a harbinger of the good news. He announces the coming of Jesus Christ as Messiah. In this Messiah the hopes of God's people as well as God's hopes for God's people will be fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As John is a forerunner to Jesus' arrival, John is also the one who dies before Jesus (Mk 6:14-29). In life and in death, John provides the catalyst of expectation for Mark's Gospel. Today we preach about the hope for Messiah that John announces.

David Mosser

First United Methodist Church

Graham, TX