A reflection on Mark 1:1-8 for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2020.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
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.’
Mark 1:1-8 (NRSVA)
The second gospel opens abruptly. No birth narrative. No childhood stories. After citing Isaiah and briefly introducing ‘John the baptizer’, the reader is left expectantly hanging on the hope that an even ‘more powerful’ character will emerge.
Eight verses that set a cracking pace – one this compact gospel will maintain.
We would be wrong, however, if we dismissed this as contentless preamble. From these verses we know that this is a narrative – and we are at the ‘beginning’. Something new is happening.
We also know this story will tell of ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. It will be ‘good news’. In Rome these terms were used exclusively by the emperor. He was a ‘Son of God’; his decrees ‘good news’. It is a dramatic opening line.
The cited Isaiah passage addresses the one whose way is to be prepared. It is a promise of firm, flat ground. A ready-built highway. The one sending, though unnamed, seems to be God.
A story, a history, foretold by the legendary prophet Isaiah, and now initiated by God.
Mark’s warningless time-jump lands the reader in the middle of the Judean desert. John is systematically described as the archetypal prophet: proclaiming repentance, dressing wildly, a diet of insects and ‘honey’.
He is not from around here!
But the people flock to this new shepherd. They leave Jerusalem, confess their sins, undergo his baptism. This wilderness cry is hitting the mark. It is being heard.
This is not the ‘Son of God’, however. The only quoted words from John point beyond this mission: ‘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’,
John is fulfilling Isaiah’s God-sourced words. He embodies the ancient prophecy. He looks great.
But the coming one will dwarf him.
The stage is set. The expectation raised. The reader hooked.
How would you describe the mission of John the Baptist? What does it look like for you to be a preparer of the way of Jesus?
Why do you think this passage opens the gospel of Mark rather than a birth narrative? What does this say about this gospel? In what way is this an Advent reading?
In Isaiah 40:1-11, the prophet promises a comforting shepherd from God. In what ways does John offer a glimpse of the gracious mission of Jesus?