“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Well, that’s an attention-grabber! This week’s texts are double edged. It’s the “something old, something new” syndrome.
The story of Jesus is something “old” in the sense that it has continuity with what went before: the salvation story of the Old Testament. It continues Israel’s history with Yahweh, their God – or rather, God’s history with them. That is why Mark points immediately back to the Hebrew Scriptures with the “as it is written …” (v2). Yet it is also something absolutely new that eclipses anything that has gone before, and final because there will never be a sequel to it in the sacred texts of the community of faith. Isaiah pointed towards something greater that was yet a future hope. The only thing that Jesus points to beyond himself is the fulfilment of the kingdom – which, as we readers are well aware, is nothing less than the future of the world, summed up in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
On the threshold of deliverance (Isaiah 40/Psalm 85/2 Peter 3)
The Lectionary links the gospel with two key Old Testament texts that deal with Israel’s hope of deliverance and the merciful, saving character of God. Both are exilic texts, and signal Yahweh’s deliverance. The God who forgives (Psalm 85:2) is the one whose salvation “is at hand”. The final verse of the psalm (“Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps”) is why the text has been chosen to be read alongside the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3) whose job is to “prepare (literally construct) the way of the Lord and make his paths straight”. It emphasises something that we are to understand from within the gospel text itself: God’s salvation is at hand, but the salvation that comes in Jesus is far more than would ever have been dreamed about by the exiles. It is none other than God’s presence on earth. In the psalm, the notion that God will walk the earth is entirely poetical, and would have been understood clearly in that metaphorical way. The gospel opening tells us that in Jesus, this happens – literally! Likewise, the beautiful poetry of Psalm 85: 10, where “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace will kiss one another”, is to be understood in a new way in Jesus. It has continuity with the past, but the “so much more” that happens in Jesus means that it is also something marvellously new, undreamed of, unparalleled, unrepeatable and final.
It is difficult to read Isaiah 40: 1-11 without hearing Handel’s Messiah! The startling, plaintive and yet powerful beauty of the setting for v11 in that glorious piece of music evokes precisely the yearning and helplessness of the promise of Yahweh the Shepherd – the image of Jesus that has been in our texts for the past few weeks. The whole passage in Isaiah tells us:
(a) things are as bad as they could be, but
(b) Yahweh, who is faithful, compassionate and forgiving, is about to act, so
(c) wait expectantly!
The long-awaited Shepherd is about to appear for the gathering in of the lambs!
These are “threshold” texts – texts of heightened expectations. God is in the wings. Salvation is about to “appear” on stage. What has, until now, been a distant hope and promise has drawn excruciatingly, tantalisingly near. The waiting time is almost over. If this was a television drama, it is the point at which this – the penultimate episode – closes. The credits roll, and the audience is left frustrated and thrilled. “Oh no! How are we going to survive until this time next week?”
The third text that the lectionary gives us is 2 Peter 3: 8-15a. This is, of course, a text wrestling again with the delayed Parousia, but linking it here with the imminent appearance of Jesus recasts it (quite appropriately) as an Advent text. Jesus is coming, and his life and death will disclose the truth of all things (v10). It is the culmination of everything that has gone before (hence the apocalyptic language of vv10 and 12). It is not only the climax of the past, but its end, and the ushering in of a new age (v13). This is the “transition text” of the week: the text that moves us from expecting the arrival of Jesus only as the culmination of the past to the recognition that it is also something of a radically new and different order.
Jesus: Yahweh’s invasion force (Mark 1: 1-8)
What the opening verses of Mark’s gospel give us is the story of an invasion. Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, is the one-person invasion force of Yahweh. Mark’s characteristically stark and “fast” narrative style functions (says Ched Myers in his seminal commentary, Binding the Strong Man), like minimalist theatre. “Prophetic muses, long silent, suddenly sing again. A messenger is announced, and in turn heralds the advent, at long last, of one strong enough to wrestle the world away from the death-grip of the powers” (p91).
Myers is the commentator who has done the greatest justice to the Markan Jesus as the one whose ministry is to confront the “Strong Man” (Satan) who has the world in his grip. These are the powers of despair, disease, demon possession and death, in the face of which human beings are helpless. Yet they have human faces. In particular, they are vested in the powers of Rome and the temple system of Jesus’ day. These are the powers that kill messiahs – as they will kill Jesus. They have the “last word” – until the advent of Jesus. They are the powers that have reigned throughout human history, thwarting God’s purposes for good and for Life. Mark’s Christology is the message that, until Jesus, it is only the agents of the powers that have been confronted and defeated (Pharaoh of old, Babylon etc). In Jesus, the very source of that power – the “Strong Man” – is going to be confronted and defeated.
We are used to reading John’s Prologue as an overture, rehearsing the themes of his gospel. Yet Mark’s prologue (1: 1-8) functions in much the same way, if we read it carefully. Look at the following elements:
Euangellion (v1): This is the word we translate as “gospel”, or “good news”. Its appearance here is something new. Mark announces the Good News of Jesus and creates a new literary genre! There wasn’t, in Jewish sacred literature, a category called “gospel”. But euangellion was in recognised use in Roman society. It was used to characterise the doings of the emperor, who was the divine son. So the birth of Caesar Augustus had been announced as “good news”. But in this context, the word is always found in its plural form. Mark uses the singular. In other words, he is saying, “This is the Good News! And it is about Jesus, the Son of God, not some emperor who styles himself divine!” Remember that Mark was writing about a situation of Roman occupation, in which rebellion was a political crime that carries the death sentence. Jesus is finally crucified as a political agitator. This, then, is a bold proclamation that is deeply subversive: the Good News is about a divine figure – but not the emperor! It is about Jesus, who is coming to overthrow the powers. Caesar will be shown for what he is: a pretender to the divine throne. It is the Kingdom proclaimed and brought near by Jesus that will prevail, not his!”
The way (v2): Mark 1:2-3 is not a direct quotation from Isaiah 40:3, but a freely-constructed composite of the LXX version of Isaiah 40:3, Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. Mark’s composition is deliberately subversive. The Exodus text speaks of a way being prepared for the Hebrew people’s journey of liberation. The situation of the people of Jesus’ time was compared to slavery in Egypt. Mark then identifies “the way” with that announced for Yahweh’s advent by the prophet Malachi. The stress on “the way” is not coincidental. “The Way” is a central motif – the way of discipleship of Jesus. The earliest Christians were followers of “The Way”. The time of Jesus’ appearance on the stage was a time of intense political speculation and activity. There were many competing “ways” of confronting the power of Rome in common currency. Jesus’ “Way of the Kingdom” is something more than just political confrontation with the powers; the point is that it is never less! This element of Jesus’ ministry has been emphasised by NT Wright.
The wilderness (v3): Mark does not complete the oracle from Malachi 3:1ff (a chapter which also features in The Messiah). Here, the coming of God is to Jerusalem and the temple, but Mark opts at this point to use Isaiah 40:3, which has the voice in the wilderness (the place of John’s appearance immediately afterwards in v4). The wilderness is a significant place. It is the place of desolation, where people hunger and have to survive on locusts and wild honey. It is the place of a community in flight and liberation. It is a refuge for the persecuted who await God’s deliverance. It is the place where God is to be met, where the prophets come from and speak, and, significantly, the place where rebellion is plotted. There is, again, the hard political edge of resistance, which is part of the significance of Jesus. But also, it is the place where God is doing this last, great, wonderful thing – and it is not in Jerusalem, not in the temple! In other words, Mark is telling us, the way of Jesus is on the margins and in conflict with both the political and religious powers of the day. To be Messiah is to be at a distance from the current political and religious overtones and expectations of that term. Jesus, in other words, will not be as they expect him! This makes sense of the “Messianic Secret” motif in the gospel. Mark announces Jesus as Messiah, but his messiahship will be so unexpected that he resists the title during his ministry. The traditional relationship between the messiah and Jerusalem will be redefined by conflict. It will be most clearly revealed in Jerusalem – but in the deadly conflict between Jesus and the religious and political powers of his day that ends in death on a Roman cross.
“It’s the Messiah, Jim, but not as you know it”
The promised messiah – but one who totally confounds expectations. The Messiah who has come to confront the powers of the day and rob the “Strong Man” of his prey. This is the one announced by the Voice. It is in the very next verse that the Voice is identified as the Baptist. Have you noticed, though, that John pays extraordinary attention to John’s dress and eating habits? This isn’t merely to emphasise that John is not the sort of person you hope your daughter brings home to meet the parents! Mark’s point is to recast John as Elijah, as promised in the very last verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4: 5-6).
In so doing, Mark emphasises not only the importance of John’s ministry, and not only the fact that Jesus’ coming is indeed the Day of the Lord, but that John represents the closure of the old, and Jesus the radically new. However much continuity there may be between Jesus and John, the point we are supposed to grasp, says Mark, is that Jesus is of a different order. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus is far, far greater.
So the Advent message is to wait with eager, breathless anticipation, but also “prepare to be gobsmacked!” Whatever you might have expected, or be able to imagine, the coming of God in Jesus will be far, far greater and marvellous! You stand not only on the threshold of a new dawn: you are standing at the very beginning of a New Way. It is a road that will bring conflict, pain, struggle, conflict, disillusionment and death. But it is also the way to Life, because it is the way of liberation and restoration. The One promised by the prophets is coming. But he is also the One far, far greater than any prophet. This is Jesus Messiah, the Son of God.