[December 7, 2014] The Second Sunday of Advent brings us to the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark and introduces us to John the Baptist and his message of repentance. He was telling people to prepare for the one who is to come, “the one who comes after me” the strap of whose sandal “I am not worthy to kneel down and undo.” Last Sunday I described a little bit of my hypothesis on the origin of Mark’s gospel. This time we will consider why the gospel begins the way it does, what it might be trying to say to its readers, and what it might say to us.
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The word “Gospel”—euangelion—combines the adjective “good” with “message” (an angelos is a messenger). It literally means a joyful message, glad tidings, or good news. In English, gospel originally came from “good spell” (spell means story). The message is the story of Jesus, his coming, told in a way that brings out the significance of his coming (what makes it “good”). Mark’s manuscript is going to be the gospel of Jesus, the one who is the Messiah and the Son of God—the story of his coming. Mark is the only one to use the word “gospel” to refer to a particular writing. Nevertheless, this use corresponds to how Paul uses the noun. The Gospel is the story of Jesus’ coming (i.e, his incarnation, as recalled by eyewitnesses) and the significance of this for us. If you read the Acts of the Apostles, you can see that when they preach the Gospel, they are telling this story; their kērygma, proclamation or preaching, was the outline of this story.
Within the gospel itself the word “gospel” is the announcement that the Messiah has come and that this has brought the kingdom of God near to us. “After John had been arrested, Jesus … proclaimed the Gospel of God saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe the Gospel.’”
The story of Jesus’ coming is the Gospel because he is the “Christ,” the Messiah. Mark tells us also that the Messiah is the “Son of God.” This is new. People did not assume that the Messiah is the Son of God (except in the sense that Israel’s king is God’s son), nor is it obvious what this means. Yet this is integral to the significance of the story of Jesus’ coming. Its inserting here causes it to function as part of the title of the gospel as Mark will tell it. It prepares us for verse 11, however, when the Father’s own voice out of the heavens declares Jesus to be his Son, the Beloved in whom he has found—by his decision and act of being baptized—his delight. So Jesus’ sonship, while describing his person in relation to the Father, is to be seen by us as expressed by the long obedience and love of his humility, by his taking upon himself the Way of the cross, which is what his baptism signifies.
Mark chooses to begin his telling of the Gospel at the juncture of when Jesus comes onto the public stage. Mark skips over the accounts of Jesus’ birth and gets right to where Jesus presents himself to the world. The only introduction he gives is that of John the Baptist’s message. “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet … so John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance.” John was preparing people for the coming of the Messiah as Malachi 3:1 says and Isaiah 40:3 explained. In Malachi (whose name means “my messenger”) God says, “Look, I shall send my messenger to clear a way before me,” and Isaiah tells us what the messenger will say: “Prepare in the desert a way for YHWH. Make straight a highway for our God across the wastelands,” etc. Isaiah addresses the exiles in Babylon. A metaphorical highway leads across the desert back to the Promise Land. But here the message is to prepare the way for God to come to us in judgment and grace: we need to prepare ourselves for God’s coming. Therefore John’s message is to “repent.”
John “was in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And the people came to him and “as they were baptized by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins.”
Since I do not have time this morning to unpack this (I woke up late), let me get to the point. What is this doing here? Obviously it prepares the reader for the coming of Jesus to be baptized. For us, however, at this juncture in history, it seems confusing. If it is a baptism of repentance and Jesus is sinless, why is he being baptized? Is it really for a different reason than everyone else? Teachers often assume that it was for some other reason than the reason here given; yet nothing in the text would lead us to think so. Jesus began his ministry by taking on the role of a penitent. This is confirmed by his departure into the desert to fast immediately afterwards. The vision that he has of heaven being torn open and the Spirit coming down upon him in the form of a dove, and the voice that he heard, “You are my Son, the Beloved; in you I have found my delight”—this is the divine response to his decision to be baptized with the baptism of repentance and his obedience to that decision.
In order to understand this “beginning” of the gospel—that is, how Jesus chose to begin his “coming out” and manifestation of himself as the Messiah (what we call his “ministry” or apostolate)—we have to first understand very simply—since Mark tells us in such few words—what the baptism of John meant. For Jesus prepares for his own coming—his own manifestation to the public—in the same way everyone else is told to prepare for it.
Briefly, baptism marks one as someone taking on the role of a penitent. A penitent is someone who lives with an awareness of God’s judgment along with an attitude of love towards God and loving acceptance—even submission—to God’s judgment. It is thus to live in an awareness of God, or rather of ourselves before God. This is meta-noia, the changed state of attention or consciousness that the word refers to. How Jesus applies this is a lesson for all of us: Jesus takes on the guilt of us all; he enters into solidarity with us in our guilt, identifying with us in this our condition. Even so is it with us, penitence is not only about our own ego, our own individuality, but about our acknowledging and surrendering to our part in—and solidarity with—the human collective. Each of us is humanity; we cannot separate ourselves from the “us.” Your guilt is my own, as my personal guilt is part and parcel of the nexus of the whole—not alleviating but rather nailing my responsibility for it.
It is by taking this position that we stand in the mercy and loving kindness of God. It is only here that we can know ourselves as forgiven, and it is also here that we can be assured of that forgiveness, the grace of it surprising us when we receive the nearness of God’s kingdom as Jesus’ coming to us. On the one hand we fast and mourn for our sins, recognizing the loss of our relationship to God and our being under God’s overwhelming judgment; on the other hand we live in overflowing joy at the recognition of the grace of God’s love for us and amazing extent of God’s reception of us.
How does John’s message to the multitude (and to Jesus) address then the reader? For before we even get to Jesus—who is the content matter of this gospel—we are introduced to the baptism of John. This is not just to prepare us mentally to understand the baptism of Jesus. It does this, tying this beginning of Jesus’ apostolate to the main thrust of the formative prophetic movement of Israel’s past (the legacy of which is conveyed by the scribal work that composed the literary prophets of the Old Testament). This is not an insignificant point, though I do not have the time to elaborate on it.
The point I want us to grasp at the moment is this: Mark’s relating to us John’s message, his preaching of a baptism of repentance, is here to prepare us for the coming of Jesus in the gospel that follows. We can simply receive Mark’s story as the story of Jesus and leave it as that (now we are better informed), or we can prepare our hearts to receive the gospel—to receive the person of Jesus—in this story. We can surrender to Jesus as we hear him call us. We can become part of this story, be among the disciples as we read how Jesus related to them. When he speaks to them, he is speaking to us. Jesus can be personally present to us as he hear this gospel (and thus we “remember” him). In order for this to happen, however, our hearts need to be in a particular place, to be situated in a particular condition. We need to ourselves become penitents, to take on the attitude of a penitent. We need not only to be physically baptized but to recognize ourselves in the presence of God, to lovingly surrender ourselves to the judgment of God’s holiness, in other words, to humble ourselves before God. This attitude of our heart—though itself a gift of God’s grace—is necessary for us to hear the Gospel as God’s presence with us in the person of Jesus.
This “method” of Mark in his gospel, inviting us first to be among those who accept the mantle of John’s “baptism of repentance” before we get to actually “see” Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, is the message of the church’s season of Advent. We cannot truly appreciate the message of Christmas unless we come via this route, unless we are prepared. It is not something that we can simply make happen by sheer effort. It can only happen by God’s grace, by the internal operating (en-ergia) of the Holy Spirit who works in us both the will to do it and the doing of it. When we turn to God, calling on God to help us instead of thinking we can do it on our own, we may discover to our surprise that God is already doing it in us. So let it be (“amen”).