Let the gospel make its mark

Week of Sunday December 7 - Advent 2
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

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

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way; 
3 the 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.’

An Introduction
Mark is both a book for our times and a book of another time.

Marks speaks of Good News− euangelion. The gospel begins with a hint of subversion that will be reinforced throughout.

In 9 B.C., within a decade of Jesus' birth, the birthday of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. - A.D. 14) was hailed as euangelion (pl.). Since he was hailed as a god, Augustine's "birthday signaled the beginning of Good News for the world." (James Edwards The Gospel According to Mark pp 24 Quoted by Brian Stoffregen.)

Mark will consistently state the good news is not in the Roman Peace but in the Kingdom Jesus heralds.

This is good news for our time as the 'euangelions' of the United States and all the variations of the American Dream, or of ISIS, or of Vladimir Putin, all pall.

But Mark's world is also worlds away from us. To hear his message most clearly, not to mention bring it to others, we need to own this fact.

In the story, Jesus' baptism is a significant point in his validation as the Christ and in showing his purpose. Announced by John he is now blessed by God. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:11) This alludes in part to Psalm 2:7 where God will give his son the king the "nations as [his] heritage." There is immediate pushback from Satan. (Mark 1:22) Jesus' ministry will stand against the evils of the world I quote Bill Loader at length.

Mark’s understanding of the good news is informed by a conflict model which has mythological roots. The lustful angels of Genesis 6 had impregnated women who gave birth to giants and in popular mythology, preserved in the book of 1 Enoch, these self-destructed in mutual warfare and from their corpses emerged evil spirits, like personalised viruses, to plague humanity ever since. For Mark, to proclaim the reign of God (the kingdom of God) was to announce victory [over] these demons, liberating those whom they held captive through illness and demon possession, but ultimately liberating all from oppressive demonic powers. We see this in the opening scene of his ministry (1:21-28) and in key episodes and controversies (3:23-30; 5:1-20).

Bill then states clearly a point we too frequently soft-pedal or play down because it disrupts our conventional ideas of the authority of Scripture:

… Mark’s good news is thus enunciated within the framework of first world demonology, alien to our own understandings… We don’t personalise viruses. Our understandings of illness, including mental illness, are vastly different. We have the advantage of much more sophisticated analyses of what generates poverty and the role governments can play in alleviating it or perpetuating it…

Nevertheless, the liberation model with its goal of freedom and its vision of life where love and compassion rule makes sense for our understanding both of what hope means today and of what our agenda is in the present. The same God, the same Spirit, brings us the same liberation from the powers which bind us within ourselves and enables us to engage in the same agenda of bringing liberation in our world.

It is our task to understand the powers which bind us today. If we persist in a mythology of evil and an immanence of the divine and other powers in forms that we accept nowhere else in our lives, we will not see the evils and the powers of today. We will be looking in the wrong place, using the wrong diagnostic, and ignoring the best wisdoms of our time.

We need to be as Mark was for his time. Jesus is presented by Mark as a Jew who is nonetheless critical of his own his own religion and his own mythology. This is our task, as well.

Do you see the distinction here?

I can criticise my religion. I can say that our liturgy is lacking, or our worship is worldly. But to criticise my mythology would be to wonder if perhaps worship itself is inappropriate− perhaps because it is based on a model of flattering the all-powerful monarch to get what I want! (I don't have an answer to this, yet.)

Mark's Jesus clearly criticises his mythology with statements like: "By this he declared all foods clean." (Mark 7:19) It was not a question of how to maintain purity; the whole mythology, or story, about foods and purity before God was wrong according to this Jesus.

I suggest that our whole understanding of evil and the powers will be wrong if we insist on privileging the old mythology.

This is not to lessen or abandon our belief or faith in Jesus, which is sometimes the claim of defensive Christians. Today's understanding of the powers that be, and their corporate manifestation, reveals to us far more powerful and pervasive Powers than we might imagine with individual demons. It requires a greater trust/faith in God.

Richard Beck summarises some of Walter Wink's work in this way.

Wink's suggestion is that we reframe how we understand "heaven" and "earth." In the biblical witness these locations were framed in an Up versus Down metaphor. Heaven was above us and earth below… this cosmological arrangement isn't tenable for modern persons. Wink's suggestion is that we reframe the situation using an Inside versus Outside metaphor. The "spiritual" or "heavenly" realm is the "inside" aspect of physical arrangements, the "spirituality" (inner life and logic) of nations, political parties, businesses, institutions, markets, churches, and ideological movements. In Wink's model when we think of the "angel of a nation" we are talking about the inner life of the nation, the spirituality of its inhabitants and political structures. For example, socialism has a spirituality as does capitalism. America has a spirituality different from, let's say, France, Canada or Iran.

So when we talk about "fighting against powers in the heavenly realm" we are talking about waging a war against the spirituality of America or capitalism or other sorts of power arrangements. In this light, for example, consumerism is seen as a demonic power, a form of spirituality, an object of worship, a location of idolatry or spiritual enslavement. Thus, as Paul says, we don't fight against "flesh and blood", the people shopping in the malls this Christmas season, we fight against the Power, the spirituality that enslaves American hearts and minds.

Putting this all together: we need to emulate Mark and Jesus. We need not merely to criticise our religion− the (unfair) stereotype of the Pharisee did that. We need to allow our mythologies, the stories we tell about the world, to be criticised. That will inevitably include time honoured understandings of the nature of the scriptures themselves.

The Gospel of Mark takes a story we know, or think we know, and constantly challenges it. He subverts our mythology; that is, he constantly challenges our received stories about who God is, about how God works, and about how we relate to God. If we do not let him shake the foundations of our knowing then this Gospel will make little mark upon us.

Textual Comments
- the good news: The good news is counter cultural. It is not the good news of Caesar Augustus (see above.) Today that translates to not being the good news of Black Friday or the Boxing Day sales. It is not the good news of Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party. Neither will it be the good news of Labor if they are re-elected, or even The Greens. The good news for life resides in Jesus.

- Jesus Christ: It means Jesus Messiah, which means Jesus an anointed one.  In the Tanakh it refers to "the anointed priests" (Leviticus 4:3, 5, 16, 6:22; 2 Maccabees 2:10), the king (throughout 1 & 2 Sam), even of the Emperor Cyrus, a Persian! (Is 45:1), and for the prophets. (Ps 105:15; 1 Chronicles 16:22). At its root it means one chosen by God for a task.  It developed into the word for the One who would come and restore Israel's fortunes. We have tended to think Jewish people thought the Messiah would be a conquering king. But we should note Amy Jill Levine's words

Jewish messianic speculation was as diverse as Jewish theology and practice. Some Jews expected a messianic king, others a priest, others an archangel or heavenly figure such as Enoch, and others the coming of the world to come by divine fiat; still others were quite happy with the way things were. Nor was there consistency in the details of the messiah’s roles. Some Jews yearned for the removal of the Roman presence from Judea and Galilee, if not from the earth; others were more concerned that fellow Jews who did not follow their particular beliefs and practices receive eschatological “correction” (usually in a quite malicious way); still others looked forward primarily to the end of poverty, disease, and death. There was no single view of a messiah other than the sense that his coming would manifestly change the world. (The Misunderstood Jew pp 124)

- the Son of God: Stoffregen points out that these words are missing in many early manuscripts, but they do form a pair with the words of the centurion at the end of the passion narrative, and it is possible their absence is an early copying error.

In Psalm 2 it is clear that the king of Israel is a son of God.

- as it is written:The prophecy  from Isaiah is about Jesus, not John. Stoffregen  outlines this. Matthew and Luke have changed the text to make it refer to John and, as Brian says, we too easily read Mark in that light.

In Mark, Jesus is the messenger and the voice. There is another Markan paring here: "John is never described as "crying out" (boao), but Jesus does -- from the cross (15:34) where he is forsaken by God -- a wilderness moment?" (Stoffregen)

More importantly, for our age and church, which is fixated on personal salvation, and where Jesus, and 'being a friend of Jesus' is sometimes elevated about God, or where Jesus is used to uphold the status quo,  Jesus brings a message that is against the status quo. He lives the message out, yes. He interprets the message. He blows our world and our mythologies apart with the subversive good news. But the news is not, first of all, Jesus. The news is, first of all, this:  ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:15)

And the news is that the old promise is at last being fulfilled.

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way; 
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’

It's from Isaiah 40, the beginning of the promise of the return from Exile in Babylon. It echoes Exodus 23:20: I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21Be attentive to him and listen to his voice… and Malachi 3:1: See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

The Kingdom of God is about far more than my personal salvation. Indeed, Jesus Christ the Son of God will go on to say

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

- baptised by him in the river Jordan: "John, himself, plunged them beneath the water and earned for that the nickname, the baptiser or baptist, because water rites, including immersion, were usually self administered. Submitting to John symbolised submitting to God, the God who freely cleanses away sin." (Bill Loader) Someone has pointed out (Crossan among others?) that the baptisms happened in the River Jordan. There is a new crossing into the Promised Land, a new start. It requires us to come out of our Jerusalems, out of our old stories and mythologies, and re-enter them as we re-tell ourselves who we are.

- a leather belt: the diet and clothing makes John a typical prophet. The belt would have reminded Mark's readers of Elijah, who it was said would come before the Messiah. In 2 Kings 1 the king Ahaziah asked who it was who had prophesised against him. "8They answered him, ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’" Elijah was no ordinary prophet; the death toll in this chapter for those who do not go God's way is high.

- baptism with water and holy spirit: "John’s prediction of a great baptism to come probably referred originally to the wind or spirit and fire expected at the day of judgement, as his fiery preaching shows." Bill Loader.

And so…?
Will we allow this gospel to make its mark on us? Will we let it shatter our preconceptions? All the way through, from John's expectation of a deadly Elijah, to Peter's undying Messiah, (Mark 8:32) people have their expectations undermined. They need to learn the story of the kingdom again.

Mark will not be kind; there is no resurrection appearance. We need to go back to Galilee, to immerse ourselves in the ministry of compassion to meet the risen Lord. There are no guarantees. But this is the gospel that promises we will say, "Truly, this man was a son of God," even when it seems all has been lost. For all its discomfort, this is a mark and a baptism I would cherish.

Andrew Prior

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!

A note: So what if we meet a "real life evil spirit?" One answer is here.




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