Text Study for Mark 1:1-8 (Pt. 2)

But what does Mark mean by “gospel”?

This bit of dialogue showed on the Twitter feed of “Ana the Distracted Gardener” (@annastayshaa), tweeted at 9:28 PM on Sun, Nov 22, 2020:

My 8yo in the car today: “Do you want me to throw the confetti in my pocket?”

Me: “No not in the car! – why do you have confetti in your pocket?”

8yo: “It’s my emergency confetti, I carry it everywhere in case there is good news.”

(https://twitter.com/annastayshaa/status/1330714827514408961?s=02)

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Emergency confetti, in case there is good news! I love that idea. Perhaps that is what Christians should carry in our pockets. And perhaps we should be ready to toss a handful in the air any time someone might ask why we are (if we are) so joyful in a world so filled with despair. We are, after all, Good News people, right?

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”: what do we preachers mean by “gospel”? N. T. Wright has written a helpful little book on this topic, Simply Good News. He points to three characteristics of something we could call “gospel.”  He says, “What good news regularly does, then, is to put a new event into an old story, point to a wonderful future hitherto out of reach, and so introduce a new period in which, instead of living a hopeless life, people are now waiting with excitement for what they know is on the way” (page 3).

What is this “good news” according to Mark? It is quite simple. God wins – just not in the way we would expect. This will come to full expression at the end of Mark 10, just before Mark’s narration of the Passion story. “In Mark,” writes Larry Hurtado, “Jesus actually brings the kingdom of God into the world troubled by evil powers and disrupts their hold over people, and this direct conflict shows him to be the divine Son who does God’s work of expelling the powers ranged against him.” (Hurtado, 11). God wins – just not in the way we would expect. That last part will be a problem for the disciples throughout Mark’s gospel. Part of the challenge of Mark is that this continues to be a problem for us as well.

The way God wins is that God comes down. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “Finally all the ancient promises are going to come true,” N. T. Wright declares. “And in the middle of it all, at the heart of the good news, stands this promise: this God is coming back in person, and all nations will see his glory. This good news isn’t about a mere human emperor,” Wright continues, “It is about the return of the true king, the God of all creation.” (page 33)

Some years ago, I attended a continuing education event with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary. He spent most of a week drawing the connection between Mark’s gospel and the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. While I don’t need to rehearse the entire argument, the point is important here. “This is central to the good news Jesus announced,” says N. T. Wright. “It isn’t just that God is becoming king, through Jesus and what he is doing, but that God’s kingship is a different sort of kingship altogether” (page 42).

Mark understands the good news of Jesus Christ very much in Philippians 2 terms. The good news is that Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross. Therefore, God has exalted him as the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee would bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the good news that Mark’s gospel begins.

In seminary I was taught to always pay attention to the “grammar” of the gospel. “Gospel is always in the indicative, not the imperative mood,” Douglas John Hall writes in Waiting for Gospel. “It assumes an activity, an event, a new or greatly altered condition that precedes us and has already transformed our real situation, appearances notwithstanding” (Page 6). Not only is Gospel an announcement of what is happening (indicative), it is also always present tense, and in the “second person” – that is, always “for you” (and for me, but it’s up to you to announce it to me, and vice versa).

I’m always on the lookout for contemporary descriptions of the power of the gospel in real life. Bryan Stevenson provides such a description, whether he intends to or not, in his book, Just Mercy. “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving,” he writes in the moving conclusion to his book. “It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration” (page 294).

Mark’s story actually begins then in verse four, and the introduction to the book runs through verse thirteen. We get the first half of that introduction in Advent. We will get the rest of it on the Baptism of Jesus, the first Sunday after the Epiphany.

John the Baptist’s preaching and dunking were not the gospel, but they were preparation for the gospel. People recognized that something was not right and needed fixing. So, they were drawn to places where a “fix” might be found. In Mark’s account John makes it clear that he is not the fix. He is not the Messiah. But he does point to the one who is stronger, who will dunk the world into the life-giving power of the Spirit. The next time we run into the idea of baptism in Mark is in chapter 10 (not coincidentally), when Jesus connects baptism with his suffering and death on the cross. This is the baptism to which Christians are connected, not the baptism of John.

Luther might regard John’s work as expressing the “second” or “proper” or “spiritual” function of the Law. That second use of the Law, Luther says, drives us in despair over our own abilities into the loving and saving arms of Jesus. This is what Timothy Wengert describes as the “new” order, the order of Christian baptism – “from death to resurrection, from terror to faith and comfort; from commandments to creed, that is, from law to gospel.” Wengert sees this reflected in Luther’s reworking of the order of the Catechism, a reworking that turns the Catechism from an inventory of anxieties to a book of blessed assurance. (See Wengert, Martin Luther’s Catechism, page 6).

“So, when Advent comes around every year, we are reminded that God is coming to find us,” writes Mark Allan Powell in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “We have our ways of hiding. But on Advent 2, when John the Baptist shouts, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” it is as though God has just called, “Ready or not, here I come!” And we remember: this is the God who always finds us.” That is the good news that begins with Mark’s telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Be sure to watch, by the way, throughout Mark for that title, “the Son of God.” It will show up at the most important spots in the gospel. We are called to wonder about and explore what that personal title means. For Mark, it is certainly a political title since it is also claimed by the Roman emperors of the time. “Mark calls the Church to abandon its imperialistic dreams on the one hand, and its passive noninvolvement on the other,” N. T. Wright comments, “and to become for the world what Jesus was for the world. That is what discipleship, following Jesus, really means.” (Kindle Locations 568-569).

The second reading gives further encouragement for this life of active waiting and intentional following.

Resources and References

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Ben Witherington III overview of Mark: https://youtu.be/EybjWFnj3nM

Seven-minute seminary overview of Mark: https://youtu.be/8J2LP9_f3SY

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-isaiah-401-11-6

Chan, Michael. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/isaiah-of-the-exile/commentary-on-isaiah-401-11

Text Study for Mark 1:1-8 (Pt. 1)

December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. While I don’t recommend a sermon that deconstructs Santa Claus in the presence of tearful children and horrified parents, I do think that the story of Nicholas can be a good sermon illustration and open the door for parents to share a deeper sense of the meaning of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. I think the icon of St. Nicholas makes him look a lot more like John the Baptist than like Santa Claus (This image is in the public domain). The Wikipedia article on St. Nicholas of Myra gives a good summary and some references:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

For me, the season of Christmas really begins with this festival and runs at least through January 6, the Epiphany of our Lord. And since the season of Epiphany is really an extension of Christmas, we tend to keep many of our Christmas decorations up at our house until Ash Wednesday.

Gospel Reading – Mark 1:1-8

To begin…The gospel according to Mark contains the testimony of the best Christian theologian in history. A frantic father brings his demon-possessed child to Jesus for healing. In his desperation, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This father represents, I think, the audience for Mark’s gospel. Mark preaches to people in desperate straits – people who know they need help but who can’t figure out how to get it. It is important to keep that desperate father in our thoughts whenever we try to preach on a passage from Mark.

Last week we heard that the coming of Christ is not the end of anything. Now we get to the real beginning. We will get two weeks of John the Baptist here at the beginning of Year B. There will be significant crossover and perhaps even some duplication from this week to next week. The benefit is that it is not necessary to say everything about John the Baptist in one week. The liability is that we might struggle to have enough to say for two weeks.

Prepare for God’s coming! The good news is that God is coming, ready or not. In a time when we have perhaps been alone too much, God’s coming may be especially good news. In a time when we feel isolated, abandoned, and cut off, it’s a real joy to think that we welcome God into our midst. Advent is the prelude to Incarnation, the good news that God is with us. In this time when we are called to go away from one another, to be socially distant from one another, God comes to us, in the midst of our wild and lonely places. In this time when we are threats to another and threatening to one another, God comes to us with the gifts of healing and rescue.

Verse one has no main verb in it. It is not a sentence but is, rather, the title of this little book. So, the whole of Mark’s work is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Since there is no verb, the phrase is (I think, intentionally) ambiguous. It is the beginning of the story that Mark tells. And the telling of the story can begin the working of the gospel in the life of the world and in the life of the hearer. This also will help us understand the apparent lack of an ending to the gospel text in chapter 16. The gospel has no ending in it. It is all about beginning. The ending gets worked out in the life of the disciple community.

Commentators see the obvious connection between the first chapter of John’s gospel and the first words of the book of Genesis – “In the beginning…” I have not seen, however, the same sort of connection made to the first words of Mark’s gospel. A few commentators have referred to these first eight verses as Mark’s “prologue,” in the same way we might refer to the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel.

Of course, the words in John are a verbal copy of the Genesis language. But I think Mark intends to echo those words as well. Verse one is the beginning (Greek = arche’) of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is also the beginning of life as God intends it. Verses two and three really function as epigraphs for the book – sort of like the quotations that many writers would put on a front page of a book or at the head of each chapter.

Verses two and three set brief anchors and chart the direction of the good news. The creating Word in Mark is spoken through the prophets and recapitulated in the proclamation of John the Baptizer. Again, this is perhaps why the gospel of Mark ends so abruptly in chapter sixteen. The gospel according to Mark is not the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.

I’d like to press this a bit further. Mark’s gospel begins with prophetic words in the midst of the wilderness, a place of chaos. John’s words point to the water of the Jordan and baptism. Jesus comes up out of the water and is declared God’s beloved Son. He is the human being in this new garden. Immediately following this creation, the Son is tested (tempted). In this new creation, Jesus triumphs over the tempter, and the real good news ministry can begin (in verse 14).

“A beginning,” writes Frank Herbert in Dune, “is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” As a lifelong sci-fi fan and a Dune devotee for the last thirty years, I’m excited to hear that a cinematic Dune reboot is in the works for 2021. Herbert understands the importance of beginnings for how a story unfolds and ends up. Mark understands it even better.

Some application questions…

We could ask our hearers about their own beginnings. Next week we will think more about what it means to be a witness. So, if you go that route next week, you might want to hold off on asking for faith stories or other “beginning” narratives this week. But we could ask our listeners to think about other ways in which the Holy Spirit has begun something in me or in us or in the world.

We could remind our listeners that each day is a new beginning in our baptismal journeys as disciples. We could invite our congregants to watch for and even to report back any new beginnings they might notice in the coming week. And it will be helpful to remind folks that this beginning takes place in the wilderness, with the cry of a lone voice of faith.

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