Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 10, 2023
Mark 1:1-8 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ starts with someone else.
In fact, from this point-in-chronological-time of John the Baptist in Mark 1.1-8, Jesus the Messiah is still a future prospect (in verse 8, John uses the future tense in reference to the Greater One), the story seems to be spiraling through past, present, and future. It’s just as the Advent time should be.
The beginning of Jesus’s gospel (good news!) begins with a unique messenger like John. John is preparing the way for the Greater One to come by preaching and administering a baptism of repentance. His work harkens back to the old story, the timeless message of the prophets who prepared the way for the Lord’s will to be done among his people, and who turned people’s hearts towards what is to come. Even the fact that John “appears” (verse 4) seems like what the people and kings would have thought of the prophets of yore. Whoa, there! Where did you come from? God calls unexpectedly and according to God’s own standards.
John’s prophetic message is not the only throughline to Israel’s past. Everything about him shouts loudly of the story of Israel’s redemption. His dress, camel’s hair secured by a belt, and his diet, wild locusts and honey, reek of the wilderness. That wilderness time was a time-in-between: saved from slavery but not yet in the promised land. It was a time of learning to trust and grow in faith, a time initiated by the need for repentance for not trusting the Lord’s promise to deliver the land (let alone the crying for food… let alone the building of a golden calf… let alone the demand to go back to Egypt…)
The wilderness is Advent space: a threshold from one way of being to another. This was the essence of John’s baptism and why he baptised people in the Jordan River—the same pathway their ancestors took into the promised land. John’s baptism of repentance invited the people to recommit themselves to a life lived as God’s chosen people in a promised land flowing with goodness. It relied on God’s promise that sins repented of are truly forgiven and that repentance is an act of preparing to encounter God. John says so himself in verse 7: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming!”
We’ll be hearing a very similar passage next week as we hear the Gospel of John’s depiction of John the Baptist; so it’s worth noting how Mark emphasises the way that the people came flocking (whereas in John the leaders come questioning). “All the people of Jerusalem were going out to him”! (verse 4) The people were hungry, they sensed something important here that they needed to be a part of, they were hopeful as they committed themselves to John’s baptism. In the Advent posture, our eyes are lifted with hope as we actively seek to participate in the preparations.
Further, as a prophet, John’s message is basic: preparation is an invitation to turn from one way of being and join in on the way that expresses God’s will. And though John’s baptism was steeped in the promises and work of God, it was still one taken under human power and was therefore incomplete. In this spiralling of past-present-and-future, Jesus Christ represents a new era being ushered in. As the Greater One to come, Jesus’s baptism will happen in the future and it will be superior to the one John now offers. Notice how John uses the aorist (simple past tense) to describe his baptism and the future tense for Jesus’s: this is a change in time, an establishment of something new. It is an Advent!
Instead of human initiative and effort, Jesus’s baptism is with the Holy Spirit. We are meant to understand this in the broadest sense of God’s salvific work for God’s people (rather than through the lens of the book of Acts and the works of the Holy Spirit through spiritual gifts). The baptism with the Holy Spirit is the cleansing gift of God’s very self upon God’s people, the agent who works all things together for our salvation and imputes upon us the grace of every person of the Trinity to us.
And thus, in so many ways, the advent of Jesus Christ began before the incarnate Saviour began his earthly ministry around AD 30. As we seek to embody this Advent spirit, one of the ways we can do so is to be our unique selves and proclaim with our words and actions the good news of the Greater One—just like John the Baptist.
To do so is to do so with humility. John was willing to do what even the lowest Hebrew slave would never be asked to do: John knew himself to be unworthy to untie his Master’s sandals. From this humble awareness he boldly proclaimed the Greater One and helped people along their way to meeting God for themselves.
I firmly believe that for most of us who come to saving faith, the “beginning” of the good news of Jesus Christ continues to begin with someone else. The great cloud of witnesses, past and present, propels us to consider who we are and to whom we belong. The Scripture story and its many beginnings (the matching opening words of Genesis and Mark… each invitation by the prophets… each time God works for his people’s salvation…) promises one more beginning. People continue to come to faith in Jesus Christ because of the beautiful lives of goodness, purpose and peace they see modelled in his followers.
This truth of beginnings extends to the cosmos. Like the baptism with the Holy Spirit, this new beginning that we read about in Revelation is forever—it is the last of the “one more” beginnings. As Advent people, we await the beginning of the new heaven and earth and prepare its way.
You may have noticed the little superscript note in verse 2 on the word Isaiah. Some ancient texts say “prophets” instead of Isaiah, and it turns out this is more accurate. The quote is actually a mix of Isaiah 40.3 and Malachi 3.1. But as William Placher points out in his Belief Series commentary, Mark’s connection to the Second Isaiah text is strong, and perhaps purposefully emphasised.
There is one other connection to the past story that enriches this advent text. Placher acknowledges that some scholars have argued over whether verse 1 is meant to be a title or some sort of subtitle for the book of Mark. The use of the word arche (beginning) would not have been missed by the Jewish people—it was the first book of their sacred text, Genesis’s own title, “In the beginning.”
What stories do you know of people coming to faith because of someone else? The granny who prayed, the partner who stayed committed and resolute, the classmate who invited the lonely to friendship? Who makes up your congregation’s great cloud of witnesses?
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