Advent 2 · Mark 1:1-8 · December 7, 2008
By Jeffrey A. Oschwald
Advent 2 presents us with the New Testament doorkeeper par excellence: John. This should make it very easy for the preacher to connect this week’s message with the previous week’s and so build on the theme. Instead of using the same format for these “Helps,” however, I would like to focus on several key questions concerning this text, allowing the preacher the freedom to choose which to address with his people.
1. What does Mark mean by his opening words: “The beginning of the gospel”?
If you own more than one commentary on Mark, you will almost certainly encounter disagreement on how to interpret these words. The question, stated baldly, is simply this: Is Mark 1:1 the tide of the book or the heading for the prologue (variously regarded as 1:1-13 or 1:1-15)? Here again, I find a great attractiveness to the response of R. Τ France in his contribution to The New International Greek Testament Commentary, The Gospel of Mark. He argues on pages 50-51 that verse 1 is syntactically connected to w. 2—3; it does not stand alone as a modern title does. He adds, however, that the function of the verse “is broader than its immediate syntactical status.” He explains:
In these words Mark is alerting his reader to the significance of all that is to follow. But it is typical of his urgency and lack of formal concern that rather than constructing a neat self-contained ‘title’ he cannot wait to ‘begin’ with that which he has so effectively signaled in the few breathless (and verbless!) words of v. I.¹
The same point could be made concerning Luke’s beginning to the book of Acts, although few would suggest that he suffered from a “lack of formal concern.” Luke is so eager to continue the story that it is impossible to say precisely where the prologue ends and the story proper begins. Nowhere does Mark pause later on to tell us that was the beginning of the gospel, this is the gospel proper. It may be worth recalling here, too, that Mark’s gospel has a very clear beginning but no clear end.
2. To whom do the pronouns of the Old Testament quote refer?
Mark presents the words of 1:2b—3 as “standing written in Isaiah the prophet,” which immediately suggests two things. First of all, we know the words have been removed from their original context, and we do not expect necessarily to have the grammatical antecedents of the pronouns transferred for us to the new context in Mark. Secondly, the natural place to look for those grammatical pronouns should then be in Isaiah, right? Wrong. At least, partly wrong. The words given by Mark are a kind of Biblical-theological synthesis of at least three Old Testament passages. The most efficient way to see the connections is by laying out the texts in question side-by-side.
|Mark 1:2b-3||Massoretic Text||Septuagint Text
|Mal. 3:1||Behold, I am sending my messenger. That he I may make clear the way before me, and suddenly the Lord will come to His temple…||Behold, I am sending out my messenger, and he will fix his attention on the way before me, and suddenly the Lord will be present in His temple…|
|Ex. 23:20||Behold, I am sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way: A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.”||Behold I myself am sending a messenger before you, in order to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place that I prepared for you.||And behold, I am sending my messenger before I you, so that he may protect you I along the way, that he may lead you into the land that I prepared for I you.|
|Is. 40:3||A voice of one crying out! ‘in the wilderness make clear the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God!”||A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the paths of our God.”|
Notice how Mark blends the original referents of the pronouns so that they now refer to a person who may not have appeared clearly at all in the original passages, but a person who will be both Yahweh and Israel. To borrow even further from Isaiah, we can say that the “you” of Mark’s Old Testament synthesis is Immanuel. God comes to his people in the person of his Son, and Israel finally and forever ends her wilderness wandering through the person of Jesus, the Christ. It’s no wonder Mark can refer to this as the beginning of a new story and then start with excerpts from an old one, for the pieces of that old story are arranging themselves in new configurations to reveal a picture that no human eye could have foreseen or human mind imagined.
3. What is the significance of John’s baptism?
It is my recommendation that a full exposition of the John’s baptism be saved for the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord in January. Most of our most important questions do not have to do with what the baptism means in and of itself, but with what it means for Jesus to receive this baptism.
In our Advent proclamation of Mark 1, however, an important part of the answer to the question does find a place. Notice how Mark connects John’s actions with the Old Testament introduction to John in w. 2b—3. A voice crying out in the wilderness is promised, and John appears on the scene as one preaching in the wilderness. This prepares for the parallel that explains the more difficult figure in the Old Testament passage. What exactly does it mean to prepare a way for God? John’s answer to that is to call people to repentance and, through his baptism, to show them how desperately in need of a thorough cleansing they are. This is how the obstacles are to be cleared away. This is how the perversely crooked ways of relating to each other and to God will be made straight. Repentance and the confession of sins are the bulldozers and road graders of this Advent highway project.
4. Can you make straight an application for our text?
The temptation I always have to battle in turning this text into a sermon is the temptation to make it almost wholly historical, that is, past tense. Please don’t misunderstand. There is certainly a time and a place to rehearse and to celebrate all that God has done in the past for us today. But this is Advent, and the eyes of all should be turning toward what’s coming.
One of two possibilities that readily suggest themselves is to simply apply John’s call to repentance to ourselves. There is clearly a strong “underlying reality” that links our situation with that of John’s original hearers. We can no more take for granted our status as the new Israel than John’s hearers could take for granted their status as Israel. Are we ready to meet our Lord? We saw in last Sunday’s Gospel that the “messengers” announcing his imminent return are all around us. Now is the time to prepare. Every day brings us closer to Immanuel’s sudden appearance among us.
A second possibility is to see the underlying realities connecting our situation with that of John himself. This would allow for a closer parallel with last Sunday’s theme of being doorkeepers of the Lord and for the world. Let me illustrate with a personal anecdote.
When I was quite young, it was still more common for my dad to listen to the Cardinals games rather than to watch them. Though I never quite inherited that aspect of my father’s faith, I was amazed at the ability of certain announcers to create the whole glorious (or disastrous, depending on the season) picture of what was taking place in the stadium. A good announcer was able to make the listener fully experience the tension, excitement, wrath, and ecstasy of the fans physically present in the stands. Even after my dad took to watching the games on television, he would still often turn the television sound off and listen to his favorite radio announcer. A good announcer was that important.
The Advent Gospels call the church not simply to be silent doorkeepers for the Lord and his world. We are also to be announcers. We are to be the voices— collectively and individually—that draw the world into the drama that is unfolding around us, to help them see and understand the full significance of the events in these closing Advent innings, to do everything we can to help them see how “late in the game” it really is.
The world needs to hear, and perhaps they are more ready to hear this year than most, that the Advent announcement is not “Game over!” John pronounced judgment upon an unfaithful Israel in terms that few could misunderstand or ignore, but the call to repentance is always a message of hope. The road that was being built now stands paved, and the way that God’s own Son cleared still stands as the Way between us and God. I’ll close with a thought that came to me when preparing to preach on this text several years ago in Taiwan.
More than anything else, wilderness in the Bible is the place you want to journey through. It’s not the place you want to live. It’s the place that God’s people pass through on their way from slavery to freedom. When the gospel writers speak of wilderness they want you to have that story in mind. When Isaiah speaks about wilderness he wants you to have that story in mind. Wilderness is the place of danger. It is the place of temptation and testing. It is the place where it is easy to lose your way and spend the rest of your life wandering. It is the place where you could easily die, and your dreams and hopes could die with you…. It is the place where there are no homes, the place where you cannot make a home. The place where the things you need to live are not easily available, perhaps not available at all…. It is the place where things are beyond your control, where beauty can lure you to your death, the place where you would give anything for the strengthening hand of a friend, or a simple cup of water.
In the wilderness of our lives, a voice now calls. In this wild mess that we have made of our life, a wilderness that constantly wants to turn us back into beasts—beasts of prey or beasts of burden—one voice cries out: “Prepare a highway! A highway in the wilderness! Someone is coming to you! He’s not waiting c in town.’ He’s not waiting until you can find the way out, until you can make your way to him. He is forging his way through the wilderness in which you live. And his road in will be your road out!’
That’s why the road needs to be smooth and level. Your king will walk this road; that is true. But on this road, he will lead you and all his lost ones out of the wilderness to his Promised Land.
That’s news worth announcing. May God bless you as you prepare yourself and your people to be God’s Advent Announcers.
¹ R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 51.