Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Today, we start a look at the book of Mark. Mark is a gospel (good news) about Jesus Christ. Like the other three Gospels that begin the New Testament, it is a biographical story of Jesus. While the other Gospels cover time preceding Christ’s birth and times following Easter morning, Mark simply moves from Jesus’ baptism by John to the start of the Easter story.
The Gospel was written a couple of decades after Easter morning. For the first years of the church there was no need for a written account of Jesus because there were still many eyewitnesses and many people who got the story directly from the apostles were still alive. It was not until many of those eyewitnesses were passing away that the Gospels were written down in a formal way. Early congregations that met in people’s homes and synagogues probably had a few stories or sayings written down that were later used to write the expanded Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but nothing seems to have attempted to tell a complete story until Mark’s good news was written and shared.
It should be mentioned that Mark was written very differently than we would write an autobiography today. There was very little interest in details like dates and descriptions of what people looked like. In fact, if you wanted to say when something happened you would say something like “in the third year of the reign of Emperor Augustus” or “two years after the great drought.” As for personal appearance, we get minimal comments like “he had a ruddy complexion” or “the old man had a bowed back.”
To set the scene, the Roman Empire had conquered Judea more than ninety years before this Gospel begins. Judea and all the rest of Palestine were under strict Roman rule with puppet kings (like the Herod family) who had limited control but resembled a mafia family. Jewish officials had even less power and had to contend with many factions. It was a long and difficult military occupation and most of the people had no rights because they had not been granted citizenship. Try to imagine being an illegal alien in your own home territory and you get the idea. For nearly a thousand years people had been hoping for a king (or messiah or Christ) like King David who had ruled over the kingdom of Israel before it was divided and conquered. They were hoping someone would come and drive the Romans out.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
So Mark begins with a backward glance that says this is not a new story, but a continuation of the stories of the Old Testament. The quote is from Isaiah 40:3. There were many prophets, but Isaiah is considered the most important of all of them.
Now we bring forward a man who strongly resembles Isaiah himself, John the Baptist, a Jewish preacher that spoke and acted like a man of a much earlier era.
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John was not a Christian, but a Jewish religious figure who acted like an old-fashioned prophet. His baptism wasn’t the later Christian sacrament, but was a ritual cleansing that accompanied repentance. It was a symbolic cleansing that showed humility, meaning that to be reconciled to God we need to repent and allow God to cleanse us. Some people may have been baptized by John repeatedly, but John’s main task was to announce the coming of the new king. While John was recognizable as an Old Testament character, Jesus would not be what people expected.
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
The Jordan was a small shallow river that would never reach the ocean, it traveled South from the freshwater lake that was the Sea of Galilee to the incredibly inhospitable Dead Sea that was very toxic and surrounded by a desert on all sides. The Jordan was a natural boundary between Judah and the lands East and was famously entered by Joshua as he led the Hebrews into the promised land, but it is mostly a river that flows from a place of life to a place of death.
So, Jesus has come from Nazareth , ten or twelve days by foot, and has been baptized by John. It is a sign of humility from a man who could have claimed equality with God. We are told that Jesus has a vision of the sky opening up and the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove. The voice from the heavenly Father names Jesus as the beloved Son. Mark is not clear if anyone other than Jesus saw the vision or heard the voice.
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
So Jesus is sent directly away from Jordan into the “wilderness,” the sparsely vegetated landscape near the Jordan where countless people have died of thirst, starvation, exposure, and poisonous snakes.
Jesus is tempted by “Satan” whose name means “tempter,” who is mentioned in the old book of Job. Satan is not a rival god to the heavenly Father, but is an opponent who embodies what we often call “human nature.” The temptations of the tempter are all about self-centeredness and expediency. Mark gives no details of this encounter, but says that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, which hearkens back to many events in the earlier books of the Bible (like the 40 days of rain in the Noah story, or the 40 years of wandering by the Hebrews with Moses). Jesus survives these forty days with the help of nature and heaven (animals and angels).
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
After John was thrown in prison for criticizing King Herod, Jesus went back North and started preaching. Jesus begins his ministry with a simple statement. We might think that he is saying that the time of God’s kingdom has come near, but it would be more accurate to translate it as “the reign of God has come close to you.” People of the time might have thought he was saying that it would be soon time for a new king to drive out the Roman invaders, but he was implying that God had come close them, in himself, and that it was time to repent and believe this good news (or gospel).
We should make it clear that Jesus did not begin his ministry by claiming to be the messiah or the Son of God. He apparently seemed like a normal man of the time. Nothing like the fancy clothes or halos or the beauty of religious art that came later. Jesus was seen as an ordinary man who did and said remarkable things. His full identity would not be revealed until later and he would become quite a different king than whom people were expecting.
A question to ponder:
Imagine you were trying to tell the story of Jesus to a friend. Where would you begin? Would you begin with his birth, his baptism, his first miracle, his first public teaching, or with something else?