Thought for the day
As Christmas approaches, we could ask ourselves: how can we prepare to celebrate the birthday of our Saviour? The proclamation of John the Baptist points to the preparation that really counts: conversion of heart and life. The deeper meaning of metanoia is a change of vision, a radically new outlook, in the light of the Gospel. God is our compassionate father, our Abba, who desires nothing less than our hearts, our whole selves. We are accepted and loved by him, while we are still sinners (Romans 5:8). Receiving his forgiving love means a revolution in values, beliefs and direction in life.
Loving God, as we your children prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus our Saviour, help us to prepare our hearts too. May the coming birth of the Son of David encourage us to true repentance and genuine conversion of heart. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way,
3 the voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Mark 1:4 In the wilderness John the baptizer began preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem were going out to him, and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to bend down and untie the strap of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
All beginnings are important and this is true in a special way for the four Gospels, all of which begin in their own particular way. Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus, reflecting his interest in the (dis)continuity with Judaism. Luke writes as a historian and offers us the principles and motives behind his research. John makes the most remarkable opening, which echoes the very first words of the Bible (and may be a resumption in a different mode of the start of Mark). In this gospel, the opening sentence functions as a title, an introduction and a plan of the Gospel (which divides into two parts—1-8 exploring messiah and 9-16 exploring Son of God).
It is also the case that each of the Gospels makes a special effort to locate John the Baptist and his ministry as preparatory for the coming of Jesus. The fact that throughout the first century you had followers of John the Baptist gave rise to notable anxiety in the Christian movement. It was always possible for the continuing Baptist movement to declare its superiority over Christianity because (a) John had been Jesus’ mentor and (b) John had baptised Jesus. In a word, the “one who has” gives to the “one who has not”! For these reasons, the gospels writers take some trouble to make sure the reader spots the relative inferiority of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus the Messiah. For us today, this is a battle long past but nevertheless it does help explain features of the text as we have it.
Kind of writing
It is an introduction, technically an exordium, the function of which is to get the reader’s attention and to invite the reader “in” by anticipating aspects of the story to come.
Old Testament background
(i) Though not so obvious as John 1:1, Mark 1:1 may echo the very start of the Bible as such in Genesis 1:1.
(ii) “Good News” as an expression does occur in the Greek Old Testament but nearly always as verb (1 Samuel 31:9; 2 Samuel 1:20; 4:10; 18:19-20, 26, 31; 1 Kings 1:42; 1Chronicles 10:9; Psalm 39:10; 67:12; 95:2; Wisdom 11:1; Joel 3:5; Nahum 2:1; Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1; Jeremiah 20:15; the noun occurs only in 2 Samuel 4:10, in a disturbing context). Isaiah makes the links between “good news” and the kingdom in this verse:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)
(iii) “Messiah” means anointed (e.g. kings, priests and prophets). There is no clear occurrence of “messiah” meaning a future agent of salvation. For that, we need to turn to the Jewish writings outside the Old Testament, for example the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Psalms of Solomon or the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The New Testament presumes that many people were looking for a deliverer, a messiah.
(iv) Mark says his citation comes from Isaiah, but in reality he has combined two sources, which are:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)
The attentive reader will notice the shift from “me” to “you” in Mal and the change from “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness…’” to “A voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare a way…’”.
(v) It was expected that the end would be ushered in by the appearance of two figures, a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15) and the return of Elijah (Malachi 4:5). Mark identifies John as “Elijah” by echoing another Old Testament text: “They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’” (2 Kings 1:8)
New Testament foreground
(i) This is preparatory to the baptism of Jesus by John. The baptism one of the surest facts in early Christianity because it uncomfortable for the writers and so they would not have made it up. Jesus was a follower of the Baptist, took baptism from him (Mk 1:9-11) and started his own proclamation when his mentor has been imprisoned and effectively silenced (Mark 1:14).
(ii) The first half of this Gospel is marked by attempts to grasp the identity of Jesus and comes to a first conclusion in the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27-30).
(iii) The proclamation of the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, is fundamental to the story being proclaimed (Mark 1:1, 14-15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14-15, 23-25, 29; 12:34; 13:10; 14:9, 25; 15:43; 16:15, 20). The opening proclamation says it all:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”” (Mark 1:14-15)
(iv) John is later beheaded (Mk 6:17-29) and in 11:27-30 Mark gives us Jesus’ own estimate of John.
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14–15)
Much of the comment is already present in the remarks above.
Verse 1 “Beginning” has three functions: the start of the book, the start of the ministry, the start of the coming of the kingdom.
Verses 2-3 Mark seems to be the first to come up with these citations to help recognised the role of John. The success of this innovation can be see in John 1:22-23, where the Baptist himself cites Isaiah!
Verse 4 Thus John aligns himself with those unhappy with the Temple and its cult. Repentance is better rendered conversion and corresponds to the OT to turn or to return to God.
Verse 5 The popular response to John helps account for the need to kill him.
Verse 6 John is the expected Elijah.
Verse 7-8 The historical John may have contrasted water with wind / fire, which in the Gospels becomes the Holy Spirit.
Pointers for prayer
1. John the Baptist is presented as a messenger to prepare the way for Jesus. Who have been messengers to you, preparing the way for the Lord? To whom have you been such a messenger?
2. The voice cries in “the desert” or wilderness...a reminder to us that when we feel that we are in a desert place in our lives, we should not give up hope. It may be that God’s grace will come to us at any moment. Have you had an experience of God’s grace coming to you when you were in a desert place?
3. John calls the people to repentance (= a change of heart), as a way to a new life. Can you recall times when you had a change of heart, and the change led to new life for you?
4. John baptised people with water as a gesture to mark their change of heart. Sometimes we perform an action to symbolise our change of heart - write a letter, throw away our last cigarettes, etc. Can you remember a symbolic gesture with which you marked a change of heart?
5. John did not claim to be greater than he was and freely acknowledged the greater role that Jesus would play. When have you seen yourself, or others, act with that kind of humility, freely acknowledging the place of God and of others in what is happening? What difference does it make to you when you are comfortable with your own important, but limited, worth?
With tender comfort and transforming power you come into our midst, O God of mercy and might.
Make ready a way in the wilderness, clear a straight path in our hearts, and form us into a repentant people, that the advent of your Son may find us watchful and eager for the glory he reveals.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever. Amen.