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First Impressions of the Gospel of Mark 2009

Part of the Christian tradition is cautious about first impressions. First impressions are often paired with "judging a book by its cover," and equally disparaged.

One should always be ready to reconsider the book. But as my son says, when it has the florid cover of a Mills and Boon production, "You just know what's going to be inside!" Slowly, I am learning to pay attention to my first impressions. There is always more to consider, and insight to seek, but often my first impression tells a surprising amount about a passage of scripture- or about myself! It makes sense. If I am being re-formed by my life in the church, surely my instincts count for something, and have themselves also been a little reformed.

These are the First Impressions from 2009, which was a Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary. They are based in the Gospel of Mark. It is the second Gospel in the New Testament, but was almost certainly the first to have been written. There are some readings from John's Gospel which are also present in Year B. Many of these articles on Mark were written for the churchrewired website at Scots Church Adelaide.

Week of January 11
Lectionary Mark 1:4-11

The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight" '

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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.

Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'

Mark is generally accepted as being the first of the gospels. It is not the first Christian writing we have; that comes from Paul.

Mark begins with these words: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is clearly identified as "good news", something we ought to remember when we feel the church weighing us down, and being anything but good news. He is talking about "good news" in a wholistic, even cosmic, sense. We are talking about more than winning back the Ashes here! At a very deep level he is claiming this Jesus Christ is good for us. I am reminded of a young pregnant woman I once saw on the train. One hand rested over the child is to be born, and the other supported her belly. The words "utter complacency" came to mind. A complacency rooted in peacefulness and promise. That's what "good news" should be.

Mark calls Jesus Christ. That is the Greek word. It translates the word Messiah, one chosen and anointed by God. Jesus is not only Christ, chosen and anointed, as was David the Great King in the stories of the past, but God's Son. This has echoes of the Psalms where the king was recognized as "God's son". (See Psalm 2 for example) It is a claim of inheritance, of authority, and of power. God's son speaks for God.

It is no wonder that the gospels spend so much time repudiating the image of Jesus as the conquering warrior Messiah- Son of God would have reeked of the idea!

In the second verse Mark plants himself, and Jesus, firmly in the traditions of Israel:As it is written in the prophet Isaiah "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;" This is not a new religion. This is fulfilment.

The next- words should speak to we Australians. We are a desert seeking people. As city dwellers (the great majority of us) we have a passion for the "outback." Even our stupid passion for urban 4WDs bears witness to this. Uluru is the Australian pilgrimage. In their great generosity, the Pitjantjatjara elders and guardians let as climb the Rock. On the Rock, Australians are different. For every yob who yells, there is a silent, moved, spiritually touched person.

...the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord," The desert is where we hear the voice of God. It is or the long drives across the Hay Plain, or into Alice Springs, and around the camp fires, that even men talk about faith and belief.

We might now jump to verse 6 where it says Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.... This puts John the Baptiser in context. He is in the mould of the Old Testament Prophet- and this later allows him to be interpreted as Elijah, who must come before the Messiah. But it is also a word to us. The desert is the place of simplicity- we will hear no God if we take our generator, and TV, and DVDs along with us. John's power comes out of solitude and contemplation. That hot silence that pushes down and in upon us when we are in the wilderness.... where we are cowed by the vastness... that is the source of the voice of God.

...make his paths straight,' John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And 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. These next verses begin our education about the content of "good news": Jesus bona fides have been laid out, so now we are down to business.

Jerusalem is the seat of power. It is the site of the temple, it is the centre of the promised land. Authority and authenticity come out from Jerusalem. So too, in Australia, we have a seat of power, based around Canberra, the media, and business. They seek to present to us what is right and meaningful. The churches have largely lost their place at this table and are mostly respected, if at all, for being more efficient channels for government welfare benefits than the government's own agencies.

The gospel calls us to repudiate this if we want the "good news." To begin with, John is not in Jerusalem, he is in the wilderness, seeking a new voice of God. This itself, is good news for those of us who feel we are in the wilderness. Perhaps we are in the right place to find God. A new vision of God does not come from the seat of power.

Then Mark clearly relates the good news to two historical memories. ...make his paths straight, is a direct reference to the Exile in Babylon. In second Isaiah there is the promise of return to the Promised Land. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 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)

In the beginning of Mark there is the implication of another return from an Exile. Jerusalem is exile. We are not in the Promised Land.

The second historical reference is that the River Jordan was the place of entry into the Promised Land. It was the place Israel came when it returned home after centuries of slavery in Egypt. The good news is subversive of the status quo. To receive the good news we have to go out from Jerusalem and return to our roots. This is the beginning of repentance.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And 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.

Baptism is a loaded word in the church. There are millennia of history attached to it. The same is true of repentance.

In Mark, I see John's baptism as a sign, as a way of saying "I repent. I am coming back to the source of my identity as one of Gods people and I am beginning again." The act of repentance is more important than the exact way it was signified. It could have been done with sackcloth and ashes. The water and the way it is used have no intrinsic power. They are not magic which will move God. They signify to John's audience, a decision to act and move and change.

John's offering of baptism is itself subversive. It happens outside Jerusalem. These baptisms offer forgiveness of sins outside of the boundaries of the ruling cult. He had no authority for this. He was saying Jerusalem was wrong.

The big word in all of this is "repentance." We have a tendency to see repentance as meaning to be sorry. It is more. The root Greek word is metanoia, which has the sense of complete change. We use it of the immature form turning into the butterfly: metamorphosis. So it is not enough to be sorry. A complete change is being called for. In fact, many of the liturgies say, We repent, and are sorry for our sins. It would be difficult to repent of something and not be sorry, but we could say "I'm sorry, but I'm going to do it again," and there is a world of difference. The abusive spouse who is sorry after the event, but makes no real attempt to change, has never repented.

John's baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. The people going out to him were confessing their sins. Repentance involves an admission of shortcomings, and of guilt. We cannot repent of something, or be forgiven if we are not honest enough to own up to it.

What does forgiveness of sins mean? There are times we simply don't measure up to what is the good. We can think of the good as what God wants. Less religiously, we could call it our failure to be complete. There is a line in Ephesians (5:48) which says Be ye perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect. The word perfect is troublesome, but has an appropriate weight for the demand. We should understand it as complete (the Greek root is teleos) and it means complete according to our circumstances; what I understood as good and complete, and God's will when I was twenty, I now see is actually not good enough. There is more I can be and do.

I suppose, technically, there is an absolute standard of human completeness. The church, especially in its more conservative forms, is terrified of relativism. But practically, we cannot know that standard, but only live towards it. Discipleship is growing into greater wholeness and completeness as a person. Where completeness is closely defined, beyond generalities, and where it is enforced, then it becomes another sin: judgementalism. Strict moral codes with no give and slack are someone's idea, not God's will. So perhaps we just haven't measured up to what we know, and believe, is right. Sometimes we may have acted in ignorance. But there are also many times where we know what is good, and still choose to do what is not good.

One of the areas where sin is poorly understood is the notion that the good is defined by Jerusalem's elite: if the Prime Minister or President does it according to the law of the land then it is not sin.

But John and Jesus, and the whole Gospel, begin with a discussion of Sin outside Jerusalem. The gospel says at its very beginning that "Jerusalem" is wrong about sin. My "civic'' upbringing (what I was taught at school about being a good boy, a good citizen, and being respectful of the law) was not the gospel. We see this problem over and over when bible study participants read and talk about justice and compassion, and agree, but then pull back when they realise this will have them criticising the Prime Minister. (On the other hand total cynicism towards Jerusalem and the civil authorities is not the answer: seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.... Jeremiah)

Sin is not just about traditional personal piety. Sin is about corporate behaviour. Sin can be committed against the earth. Sin is global. The fact that I did not steal or cheat on my taxes does not make owning a gas-guzzling V8 4WD in the suburbs any less a sin. My ownership of this has implications for the earth, and for the people who I am not able to help because I need to buy all that petrol.

Finally, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is freedom to start again, freedom to keep going, freedom to still speak and act even though I was wrong before. Even freedom to repair and make reparation, and heal and be healed. It is freedom to go on.

When Jesus comes to be baptised, the heavens open. Jesus is affirmed by the story we are reading, and by John, but in the end he has only his only experience. It says he saw the heavens open, not everyone else. The voice from heaven speaks to him. This is where his authority comes from; his own experience of God. He is not the Messiah because someone in the church chose him or gave him authority. He has authority from himself and his experience of God. Whatever confirmation and support we receive from our community, it is finally the same for us. It is this experience that forces him into the wilderness.

Forty days is shorthand for a long time; a long time where God is working on us, too! It was forty years Israel spent in the wilderness until it was ready for the Promised Land, which John's baptism was recalling by being done in the Jordan. The call, the challenge, even the blessing of God, leads to a wilderness experience until we are ready to live out the calling. The message here for me is that it takes time to answer the call. It is not easy to answer the call.

The presence of the wild beasts and the angels in the wilderness says something about the basic, raw, existential nature of the temptations. They are real temptations. They are not some head thing, but a very real struggle between answering the calling of God and the desire to go another way. But the struggle is in the presence of God; this is the message of the angels.

The Satan which opposes the call of God is a real force. We may not choose to personalise the Satan in our time and world view, but we are making real choices when we choose to answer or ignore the call. It's not a game. And only when Jesus has conquered the temptations of Satan does the Kingdom of God come near. Only then can he proclaim it.

Luke's Gospel has an added realism; Satan leaves Jesus until an opportune time. But the central message about temptation is in Mark. If we are divided about our call we cannot reject the Satan. If we are divided, the Kingdom will not come near, or stay with us, to proclaim from the seat of our reality.

I understand by "the kingdom" what people often call "the realm of God." It is the counter cultural, outside of Jerusalem, against Jerusalem and the "powers that be," living of life in the way that God wants. What God wants, is what the Jesus story will show us.

Spong says somewhere that Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan when the Israelites entered into the Promised Land. When Jesus goes down to the Jordan and is baptised, he does not part the waters; the heavens are parted. This second Jeshua / Joshua / Saviour is much greater than the first.

Andrew Prior (Adapted from a previous posts at One Man's Web)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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