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Advent 2B – December 6, 2020
Isaiah 40:1-11 – Comfort, comfort ye my people… A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted. Thou who tellest good tidings to Zion… He shall feed his flock…
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13– Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
2 Peter 3:8-15a– With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, The day of the Lord will come like a thief… The elements will be dissolved like fire… Therefore wait in peace with patience.
Mark 1:1-8 – Isaiah: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord! John appeared in the wilderness. Many were baptized by him, confessing their sins.
The Beginning of the Gospel of the Son of God
Advent B Summary
- Advent 1B: Mark 13:24-37 – About that day or hour no one knows
- Advent 2B: Mark 1:1-8 – The Voice: Prepare the way of the Lord
- Advent 3B: John 1:6-8, 19-28 – John: The voice in the wilderness
- Advent 4B: Luke 1:26-38 – The Annunciation
This Sunday the gospel reading gives us the preamble, the first eight verses of the Gospel of Mark. Here you have it:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Before you dive into the first verses of Mark’s gospel and pull it apart piece by piece, it might be good to step back and reacquaint ourselves with the whole. Here is an Introduction to Mark’s Gospel.
Luther Seminary professor emeritus Paul Berge points out that the first sentence of this gospel has no verb. He points out that this is Mark’s way of putting a title on his gospel. Keep in mind that Mark was originally written in Greek, with all capital letters, no punctuation, and no spaces between the words. This complicates things. One might not think it matters much, but consider this phrase:
Does it say, “God is now here,” or does it say, “God is nowhere.”? One could have two completely opposite interpretations, depending on how the words are divided. This is one small example in an ocean of translation challenges. Interpretation is going on in every step of translation, but there is also interpretation going on even before translation begins, in the dividing of the text into words, and then the words into sentences and paragraphs, and inserting punctuation. By the time we are looking at Nestle’s Greek text, it has already been divided into words, put in lower case letters and filled with punctuation.
Liberation theologians remind us we bring a whole load of cultural assumptions when we begin reading and interpreting a text. Totally unbiased, objective, universal interpretation is a myth. It is best to name and own our cultural location as we begin to interpret a text, and then interpret in community with those who have different social locations, so we can understand the text from many angles of vision.
Someone once asked in a Bible study if their deceased loved one was in heaven right now. A member of the study quoted Jesus’ words from the cross, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” Ah, but where do you put the comma?
- “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,” or
- “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”?
One indicates they’ll be in paradise today. In the other, today I am telling you, at some undefined time in the future you’ll be with me in paradise. Punctuation matters.
Enough of this tangent. The thief doesn’t even appear in Mark’s account. My point is that the gospel writer would not boldface and center his title giving a space in between. The missing verb clues us in that this is the title of his gospel:
The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God
Beginning: This is just the beginning. Does Mark intend to write a second volume, as Luke did? We will never know. None exists to our knowledge. But “beginning” hints of Genesis and creation. John uses this in the opening of his gospel as well.
Good News: Mark tells us this is good news. This is not a tragedy, like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, though the main character will be martyred. This is similar to Plutarch’s biography of Julius Caesar, who also meets an unjust death, but, according to Plutarch, is vindicated. This story is good news (evangelion), not just for Jesus, but also for the world. Mark uses the word “good news” more than the other gospel writers. Luke does not use it at all in his gospel. Paul uses it 59 times. Witherington suggests this links Mark’s and Paul’s theology. What, exactly, this good news is will unfold in the pages of Mark’s gospel that follow.
Jesus Christ: Christ (christos in Greek) means anointed. The Hebrew Word is mesias, messiah. Mark’s good news is about Jesus, who is the messiah hoped for not only in the Old Testament, but also in the uncountable number of books written in the 400 years between Malachi and the New Testament. During this interim period, apocalyptic fervor and the anticipation of a messiah grew considerably. Matthias Henze, in his book, Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us, shows how we cannot fully understand the gospels without understanding these apocryphal writings, because they help us understand the early rabbinic Judaism of the first century in which the events occur, a Judaism which is far removed from the ancient religion of Israel we know from the Old Testament, which knows nothing of rabbis, synagogues, Pharisees, Sadducees, demons, or resurrection. There are conflicting views of what this messiah will do. Some view the messiah as a military leader who will overthrow foreign occupation and restore Israel’s power and home rule. Others see the messiah as a spiritual leader and suffering servant who will usher in judgement day at the end of time.
Son of God: In the first words of his “title,” Mark clues in the reader that this Jesus Messiah is the Son of God. The characters will not know this throughout the story, but the reader does, like a mystery in which the reader knows the identity of the culprit, but the characters in the story, including the chief detectives only gradually come to realize.
Son of God is a title that is reserved for the emperor, Son of the divine Augustus. It says so on all the coins. So, from the very outset, we learn this gospel is to be a seditious document, about a seditious person. We should understand this statement as a divinity claim.
Throughout most of Mark’s gospel, Jesus will also be the Son of Man. In much of the Old Testament son of man simply means human being. In the prophet Daniel, and other writings of the 400 years before Jesus, Son of Man becomes an apocalyptic figure who will come on the clouds to judge the nations. That Jesus is Son of God and Son of Man, proclaims the early church’s theology of a Jesus who is truly human, and yet truly divine. “Son of God” only appears a half dozen times in this gospel. The first is here in the inscription. Then it is announced at Jesus’ baptism (privately to Jesus?). The demons recognized Jesus as Son of God immediately, but he silenced them. At the Transfiguration it is announced again, in front of Peter, James and John, but they don’t get it. No one gets it until 15:39. At the climax of the gospel, it is only a pagan, Gentile, Roman centurion who realizes who Jesus is, and only upon his death. Jesus’ crucifixion reveals his identity.
Perhaps it is after witnessing, no, overseeing the crucifixion of gentle, humble, innocent man – after seeing how he died – the Roman centurion is the one to confess who Jesus is: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Not just king of the Jews, as the authorities had posted above his head, as a sign of his insurrection, but Son of God.
I strongly recommend, if you are teaching or preaching on this gospel this year, sit down and read it straight through from beginning to end in one sitting. 45 minutes. One feels more clearly the scope and content of the gospel.
Beginning, good news, Jesus, Christ/Messiah, Son of God. There is a lot in the inscription, just the first 13 words of Mark’s gospel.
John the Baptist
In verse two Mark tells us he is quoting Isaiah, but Witherington points out he starts by quoting Exodus 23:20a, verbatim from the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament). Then Malachi 3. Then, finally Isaiah 40. It is worth mentioning that all of the New Testament writers take their Old Testament quotes from the Septuagint, often word-for-word. Why translate from Hebrew, even if you know it and have it, when a solid translation is available?
I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way… Exodus 23:20a
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. 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
Compare this to Mark 1:2-3:
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
Witherington points out that it matters where we place the colon in verse three. Is it:
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight…”
the voice of one crying out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight…”
Is the voice in the wilderness, or are we to prepare the way in the wilderness? Obviously the NRSV prefers the former. But look at the Isaiah 40 passage above, our first reading for Advent 2B. It indicates the way is to be prepared in the wilderness (between Babylon and Jerusalem). So, Witherington believes Mark does not intend to say voice is in the wilderness, but that the way is to be prepared there. This will be important. John’s baptisms and forgiveness are unauthorized rites held outside of Jerusalem. They represent absolution without the temple system, in the wilderness, far from Jerusalem’s hub of sacred activity. Who does he think he is?
Most importantly, Mark connects the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God with Old Testament prophecy and deliverance. Just as Yahweh provided a way through the wilderness for the Israelites and the captives returning from Babylon, John announces that Jesus will offer a way through the wilderness for us as well.
John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the whole Judean countryside and “all the people of Jerusalem” were going out to see him. If people can get forgiveness of sins without buying animals in the Temple for sacrifice, what will become of the religious economy? Indulgences come to mind. John’s immense popularity probably led to his execution.
John wears camel’s hair and a leather belt. In 2 Kings 1:8, we are told of Elijah, “They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” This mode of dress identifies John with Elijah, who is the harbinger of the end times. Mark Allan Powell says Mark believes John is Elijah, who has returned just as Malachi (4:5-6) said he would:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
John eats locusts and wild honey. Generally, winged insects are considered unclean in the Torah, but Leviticus 11:22 allows a special exception for the eating of locusts, crickets and grasshoppers: “Of them you may eat: the locust according to its kind, the bald locust according to its kind, the cricket according to its kind, and the grasshopper according to its kind.”
High in nutrition, these were free and therefore the food of the poor. (Even Shakespeare extolled their value: “The food that… is as luscious as locusts…” Othello, Act 1, Scene 3). Fish, on the other hand, were a highly taxed commodity in first century Palestine. It might do us well to consider the things we eat. Who does our diet affect? What systems does it support?
There isn’t really an Old Testament allusion here (though some will make the case that John is literally eating Israel’s enemies for supper…). The point seems to be that John is an ascetic, living a kind of monastic lifestyle, to avoid the pitfalls of the corrupt economic and religious system. Jesus ate and drank with sinners. John preached a baptism of water, with repentance. He made it clear that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Read a power that goes beyond repentance and purity.
I like John because he points to Jesus. In the famous altarpiece painting by the German artist Matthias Grunewald at Isenheim, John the Baptist is pseudo-surrealistically painted into the scene. He is, of course, dead when the crucifixion takes place, so this is a marvelous work of dialectical art. John points to Jesus with an over-sized finger. “Him.” This is what we do as well.
How do we make a way in the wilderness? Someone once defined evangelism as “making space in people’s lives for God to act.” God is always acting, or speaking, but sometimes we are so consumed with crisis, or busyness, we don’t perceive it. How can we make a way in the wilderness of people’s lives?
The preacher might consider ways in which our lives point to Christ, like John. Do our ministries point to Christ? Or to us? Do they say, “See how wonderful we are?” or “See how wonderful Christ is?” How might we, like the moon, reflect the light of the sun? Luther said we are all “little Christs.” This is good news. It doesn’t ultimately rest or fall on us. Christ is the light. We are only reflections, not worthy to tie his sandals. We needn’t, indeed, cannot be flawless. Nevertheless, light shines in the darkness of this world. It is only our privilege to reflect it, if God so chooses.
During these pandemics of COVID, racial injustice and election chaos, we are certainly in a wilderness. John comes proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Nancy Rockwell points out that the road to Christmas begins with repentance. We begin with heartfelt contrition. John stirs it up.
A voice cries, make a straight path for God in the wilderness. How can we prepare? How can we make room for God in people’s lives, in the midst of the current chaos? How might we continuously point to Jesus?
Apple, The Bite in the. 2017. “The Angel in Camel Skin.” The Bite in the Apple. December 3, 2017. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/angel-camel-skin/.
“Commentary on Mark 1:1-8 by Mark Allan Powell.” 2014. Workingpreacher.Org. 2014. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2266.
Matthias Henze. 2017. Mind the Gap : How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus. Minneapolis, Mn: Fortress Press.
“Othello: Entire Play.” 2018. Mit.Edu. 2018. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/othello/full.html.
Witherington, Ben. 2001. The Gospel of Mark : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.