Now that the “Hallelujah Chorus” has echoed away, the blare of the festive trumpets has stilled, and the Advent wreath is back in its closet until next year, it is time to turn to the hard work of actually living the gospel of Jesus. Of course, that work is made a tad more difficult by the fact that the large Christmas crowds have disappeared and have been replaced by the hardier, steadier folk of the flock. But that is all right, since they are usually the ones who are anxious and ready for the hard work of the gospel, having sought for decades to do it as well as they can. So, this smaller congregation might be prepared to listen to the breathless words of the Gospel of Mark, as he rapidly and unrelentingly announces the very beginnings of Jesus’ fateful ministry. There is far more in these 20 verses than I can possibly address in one essay, but for preachers that is a very good thing, since passels of sermons fairly leap from Mark’s rapid accounting.
Of course, Mark begins his gospel in a thoroughly different fashion than his fellow gospel writers. There are no angel choruses, no babe in the manger, no camel- riding wise guys from the East, no angel Gabriel, no Mary, no Joseph, no crowded inn. Like a thunderclap, Mark gives his story away in his very first verse. “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Several things need to be said about this terse sentence; rather than a pregnant Mary, Mark begins with a sentence that announces the birth of the gospel. The sentence itself, first, claims what Mark will attempt to prove in his succeeding 16 chapters, namely that this Jesus is in fact both Messiah (Christ) and Son of God. It will be very important for us to remember these two designations, for they will prove to be determinative of just who Jesus is for Mark. Thus, Mark 1:1 is a classic case of dramatic irony. We, the readers, are in on the story’s claim from the very first verse, while those in the story, the disciples and the various antagonists, are not. We know who Jesus is, and we watch as Mark attempts to prove it to us and to show us how difficult it is for us and others to believe that Jesus is who Mark says he is.
Within this grand sentence there are several details that need unpacking. By employing the word “beginning” (arche in Greek) Mark uses a word rich in connotation. It can simply mean “the start” of something, how something, some movement, begins. Surely, Mark means at least that here. But the word has political implications as well. It can imply a ruler, one with authority, or even a domain, a sphere of influence. This Jesus himself will announce a new domain, a new realm of God, inaugurated in his ministry, and Mark allows us to witness the very beginning of that work.
The word “good news” should perhaps only be translated “news,” since that is its basic meaning in Greek. The “news” only becomes good when that news is filled with good content. For example, it was common to announce the birthday of the Roman emperor by calling it “news” (euvangelion in Greek). Whether in fact that was “good” news depended, I suppose, on which end of the political spectrum one was on. When attached to Jesus’s life, only after the fact could it be called “good news” by those who embraced his work and ministry. I doubt few Romans found the news of Jesus good.
And it is this Jesus, says Mark, who is God’s Messiah. Jesus, the obscure peasant from Galilee, seems on the surface to be a highly unlikely Messiah candidate. One of the chief characteristics of the Jewish belief in the coming of Messiah was that he would restore the fortunes of Israel—though there was much argument about what that meant exactly. But at least the Romans would disappear from the Promised Land. When Mark wrote his Gospel, either sometime prior to or just after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the Romans were fully in control of the land, thus serving as a terrible stumbling block against any belief that this Jesus was Messiah. The reality was that the day Jesus was crucified, precisely nothing changed politically in the land of Israel.And finally Mark tells us that Jesus is the Son of God (though some quite old and genuinely reliable manuscripts do not have this phrase). If it is an original one to Mark, it implies that Jesus is uniquely related to God, perhaps in ways unlike any other mortal. Or it might well mean that he is the “Human One” foretold in Daniel 7, one who has come to confront and overcome the powers that enslave and oppress God’s people. It is difficult to determine more precisely just what this may mean, but at least it implies a kind of uniqueness in the man that sets him apart from all others.
So, Mark gets a running start on his gospel, telling us what we need to know to observe Jesus as he acts and speaks in first-century Palestine. In high-speed succession, Jesus appears in the wilderness to be baptized by the peculiar figure of John, who is described to us as Elijah returned. As Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan, he alone witnesses the “heavens torn apart,” and “the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” And then a voice comes from heaven, announcing, apparently to Jesus alone, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11). Thus is the designation of Jesus as “son” made certain by the heavenly voice, though note carefully that only Jesus is at the moment privy to this information. The dramatic irony for us readers continues, though now Jesus is in on the plot; Jesus and we know who he is, while all others remain in the dark.
“Immediately (one of Mark’s favorite words!) Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit” (that same Spirit present at the baptism) where he remains for the biblically significant time of 40 days. While there, he is tempted by Satan (no more information about him is forthcoming, though he will reappear later in the story), is with wild beasts, and angels waited on him. Of course, each of these tiny details is made much fuller in the other gospels, but here they are just mentioned. Apparently, Jesus navigates Satan’s temptations and the threats of the beasts successfully, with the help of the angels, and is now ready to begin his work.
And Jesus now proclaims the gospel according to Mark: “The time is fulfilled; the realm of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Here is nothing less than a summary of what Jesus has come to announce. No more waiting, because God has at last filled the time, a portentous way of saying that there will be no more delay in God’s coming. The rule of that God, the realm of that God is about to be manifest; it is “at hand,” very near. All who hear this news are called to “repent,” literally to “turn around 180 degrees.” Stop going your way and go in a way completely opposite of your way. Believe that what Jesus is saying and will say is precisely what all need to hear.
And the reality of that new rule of God is made apparent immediately as Jesus walks near the shore of the Sea of Galilee, calling for Simon and Andrew, two fishermen, to follow him. “Immediately, they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:18). They leave their own way and go a new way. However, exactly why they act so precipitously is not made clear now. A little further on the shore, Jesus sees James and John who were mending their nets; “immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him” (Mark 1:20). This new way may require both the rejection of livelihood and even of family to fulfill its radical requirements.
In all these startling ways, Mark begins his gospel, dragging us in to its demands and its mysteries. Never will Mark release us from his plot until at the very end we are challenged to proclaim the good news we have just heard in the face of the utter failure of those in his tale to do so. Mark is nothing less than a master storyteller, urging us both to read and to act on the astonishing good news that his fabulous Jesus has to proclaim. Hold on, my friends! The story we are about to hear is without doubt the greatest story ever told.
(images from Wikimedia Commons)