Scripture: Mark 1:1–20
If you read the Ottawa University Advent devotional that we have had available this season, you’ll see that I wrote a thing in which I called Mark the “Gospel scrooge.” The meat of the Christmas story that we know of in our songs and stories and Christmas pageants does NOT come from the Gospel of Mark. He doesn’t have any of that stuff, but skips right to an adult Jesus in the midst of his early ministry. If you want angels and shepherds and Bethlehem and the Magi, don’t look to Mark. His Gospel, instead, cuts right to the chase. In fact, here in a moment, I will read the first 20 verses in the Gospel of Mark. In comparison, Luke will arrive at roughly the same place in the story of Jesus’ life at about verse 11…of chapter 5! For Luke to cover the same ground as Mark’s 20 verses, it takes Luke 225 verses!
But, of course, there is still a Christmas message in Mark, even if he looks like a scrooge about it. There is a similar message of the same Incarnation that lies beneath Luke’s, and Matthew’s, and even John’s Gospels. So, as I read here in a moment, I invite you NOT to see Mark as the scrooge that he appears to be. Instead of looking for narrative parallels, look instead for theological ones:
• Listen carefully for the angels and their role in Mark’s story…the good news that they represent.
• Listen for folks like the blue-collar shepherds, and how they respond to that good news.
• And listen for how the people respond to Jesus…the gifts that they offer to him that parallel the gifts of the Magi.
Mark may not be fodder for the Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever. But it is still the Greatest Story Ever Told. Listen now for the message that comes to our ears during this Christmastide season…
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
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,’ ”
4 so John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. 11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Elijah. Hosea. Isaiah. Huldah. Jeremiah. A second iteration of Isaiah. Mary. Since the beginning of November, we have been exploring the words and lives of these women and men who have opened their eyes to the brokenness of the world around them, and powerfully proclaimed, “this is not the way of God.” We have talked about the ways that these people have been holy dissenters…standing over and against the ways that the culture around them has taught. We have talked so much about mishpat and tzadiqah—justice and righteousness—that you all have no doubt cursed the day that I enrolled in Biblical Hebrew. We have noted how these women and men have called the people back to the ways of Torah, back to the things that they were taught in the beginning, and back to the things that make for shalom peace and healthy community. These holy dissenters have been forthtellers…preachers who have proclaimed what is wrong with the current state of things, AND foretellers—predictors who have accurately forecasted that continuing to live this way will mean the destruction of whole and holy community. So now on the last day of the year, we finally end the series, with two more holy dissenters. John the Baptizer. And Jesus.
“Come on, preacher. Isn’t that going a little far? I mean, we’re finally in the New Testament now…can’t we move on?” Aha! But take a look at the language Mark uses to describe these dissenters.
• First of all, John the Baptizer seems intentionally reminiscent of the prophet Elijah. Each came out of the wilderness, a wild look in their eyes. Elijah fed by ravens and John eating locusts and wild honey. John setting things on fire with his words, and Elijah…well, literally setting things on fire with his words, as he called down the power of God. Scholars suggest that Mark’s audience would have been raised on stories of crazy-eyed Elijah, and so they would have immediately connected him to crazy-eyed John.
• Second, Jesus comes along and he first joins John on the edge of civilization to be baptized in the Jordan, and then goes further into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He doesn’t have the same crazed look about him, but his words definitely are meant to evoke the language of the prophets.
• In fact, look at the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” It even sounds like Isaiah or Jeremiah, doesn’t it? Both John and Jesus, in fact, begin their ministry with this language of repentance. The concept would have been a reference to the Hebrew concept of shuv, which was this wonderful idea that was often translated as “turn” or “return.” It could be used to reference a literal 180-degree physical turn, or a spiritual return to what used to be. It meant a new life of going back to the old life. A return to the Torah teachings of mishpat and tzadiquah. It was the language of the prophets. And it was the language of both John and Jesus. In a lot of real ways, this was a continuation of the same message of prophetic dissent.
To dig deeper into that point, let me offer a different list: Assyria. Babylon. Persia. Rome.
For someone to be a holy dissenter, they needed to dissent against something. And for these last two months, we have seen how the values of Empire have crept into the behavior of the people of God, so that the ways of Torah teaching had been ignored, or actually literally lost, to the detriment of the people of God. They were so busy acting like Assyrian people, and Babylonian people, that they forgot to act like people of God.
This has been the constant theme of our series for these last couple of months. We, like the people of God thousands of years ago, are often in need of a reminder of the ways that we so easily fall into patterns like those of the Empires long ago. We have talked about the ways that we are also in need of holy dissenters, those who will stand over and against the values of the culture around us: Colonizing greed. Making people into commodities in dehumanizing ways, especially the vulnerable and powerless. Embracing destructive violence in the ways that we relate to one another and the world. The prophets proclaimed the danger of these values, tending to speak to multiple audiences at multiple levels. They would often stand against the kings and political leaders, but in so doing, they were also teaching the people to change the way that they lived their daily lives. Challenging them to stop participating in a system of Empire rules. In the same way, we have asked what it looks like for us to live in ways that challenge those Empire rules. How in our living we might even be like modern-day prophets.
But then there is this shift when we get to Mark. While a lot of the prophets were really good at diagnosis, they didn’t spend as much time talking about what to do next. Not a lot of life application stuff. Which kind of makes sense…they were simply pointing back to the Torah teachings of Moses, so they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. But this is where we see something different in the teachings of Jesus.
Let me take a crack at this with a metaphor. Some of you have unfortunately had some kind of medical event, and one that has landed you in the hospital. So, you know that there are a couple of different kinds of folks who visit you after this event. Some are the doctors, perhaps a surgeon, who come into your room and tell you what has happened. What they saw on the operating table. And what might have caused it. They are rather backwards-looking. And then, those folks leave the room, often to save another life, and then a second round of folks come in. These are the forward-looking folks. Dietitians, nutritionists, occupational therapists. They tell you the things that you will need to do now to live differently. If the first group diagnoses the cause of the heart attack, the second tells you to stop eating bacon.
Jesus is the dietitian. The occupational therapist. If the diagnosis of the disease is Empire-centric values, the life change is God-centric values. And Jesus is here to tell us how to live those values. Many scholars, including it seems the Gospel writers, have suggested that Jesus’ teaching is actually a reteaching of the Torah. A 180-degree shuv return to those words once again: Love the Lord your God with your heart, mind and strength. Deuteronomy. Love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus. Care for the poor and vulnerable. All over the place in the Torah. Living according to these values are the life-changes that all of us have to make. And while you don’t read a lot of that stuff from Isaiah or Jeremiah, it is core to the ministry of Jesus. Healing. Teaching about forgiveness. Eating with people that you aren’t supposed to eat with. These are the life-changes that Jesus prescribes for daily living. Life-changes not just for the high and powerful, but for all of us.
In the Gospels, Jesus seems to be starting over again at the beginning. He seems to be saying that the way we change the world is not by complaining about those in power, or even voting them out so we can complain about the next person. Instead, by living out these life-changes, we become like embedded secret agents, quietly and stealthily changing the culture around us. Jesus says in Mark that “the kingdom is already here.” God is slowly transforming the world—through us—a day at a time, a decision at a time, a relationship at a time. The shift with Jesus is that instead of us simply listening to the prophets, we become the prophets, and Jesus teaches us how.
According to Mark’s Gospel, these life changes are going to be hard, and they aren’t going to make you a lot friends amongst the Empire-value crowd. But, he says, this is who you were created to be. In today’s passage, Jesus calls the fishermen to leave their nets and become like fishers of men. I have heard a lot of preachers tell us that that means that we should all do a better job catching people for Jesus. Bait our hooks more invitingly. Pursue and proselytize more aggressively. And that might have been part of what Jesus meant, but scholar Robert Williamson suggests a different interpretation. He suggests that perhaps Jesus was not using a universal metaphor about fishing, as much as he was inviting and challenging those specific fishermen to use their gifts…for the kingdom. To see the gifts that they have as opportunities to join his life-changing work. That if Jesus had been calling teachers, he would have invited them to teach in ways that build up the kingdom. Or stockbrokers to invest in ways that build up the kingdom. Or retired folks to live in ways that build up the kingdom. We are the prophets, through which Jesus is changing the world! The kingdom is already here. We are the embedded agents, ready to be mobilized for the work that we have been gifted for.
Which brings us back to the Christmas story in the end, doesn’t it? Mark the Gospel scrooge doesn’t begin with a story about rough and ready shepherds coming in out of the wilderness to see Jesus, but he does write about a rough and ready prophet coming out of the wilderness to proclaim Jesus’ mission on earth. Mark doesn’t talk about angels in the fields proclaiming the birth of the Messiah, but he does tell us about the heavenly messengers who attend to that Messiah in the midst of his temptation and preparation. Mark doesn’t write about Mary joining God in the work of birthing the Savior, but he does talk about fisherman laying down everything to join that Savior in his ministry. If you squint hard enough, the Christmas story is in there…in that God joined the world in remarkable ways then, and that God is still joining the world in remarkable ways now.
Christina Rossetti knew it, when she penned her Christmas poem, turned into an amazing Christmas song, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It tells the story of God joining the world in remarkable ways, then and now, and ends with a very Markan verse of commitment:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him, give Him my heart.