We begin a new series in Mark today, reflecting on the mission of Jesus. Details can be found on the website. You will remember that when we started morning prayer early last year, we began with reading through Mark. It would be worth reading the gospel again as a whole, to get the big picture, looking out for those things that we inevitably miss when we read something familiar, and letting the Holy Spirit speak to us again through this gospel. How does it help you and inspire you as you follow Jesus in 2021?
Mark is the most concise and direct gospel. He doesn’t steadily build up a picture, but jumps in straight away and is off. When you read the gospel, pause at the end of chapter 3 and think about how much has happened in a short space. Think about the different aspects of Jesus’ ministry that come up in these few chapters, the issues they raise and what we learn about Jesus and his mission. When you reflect on the gospel as you read and we follow it through together on Sundays, try to avoid the automatic reaction ‘Oh I know this passage, parable, account and know what it means.’ It is hard to do, but if we don’t rush through what we are reading and ask the Holy Spirit to apply it to us, we will find it helpful for our discipleship.
As with Matthew and Luke, Mark grounds the mission of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are a number of allusions the first readers of Mark would have picked up straight away, with which we may be less familiar. As we read the Bible there are always scriptural or cultural references or allusions we may miss. It’s a bit like me singing (jaws theme) and people will think ‘Jaws!’ Or saying, ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before!’ or ‘The new normal’. Immediately we understand. With the Bible we need to work a bit harder at picking these up.
Mark starts his account of the life of Jesus abruptly. There can be no doubt as to whom he believes Jesus to be or the message he wants to get across. When we read through this gospel, our understanding will be coloured by the banner headline he has set: ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’ This opening is like a trumpet blast that grabs our attention. This is news for now and people should take note. It is a confident beginning and perhaps compensates for the rather abrupt ending in which the women who encountered the angels were left bewildered, afraid and said nothing to anyone.
In the opening we come across one of those cultural and scriptural allusions – the title Christ or Messiah. Jewish readers would have immediately picked this up, although other readers might have needed explanation. We of course are familiar with this and all the implications of the title, as well as how Jesus fulfilled the messianic role in an unexpected and unorthodox way. Perhaps as we read through we ought to be on the look out for how unorthodox Jesus was and ask ourselves if our rules and rituals need to be questioned.
Straight away there is a reference to Isaiah, a book from the Hebrew Scriptures we rely on as Christians in reference to Jesus’ messianic role. However, it is not just a quote from Isaiah. As I said last week, the New Testament writers, in keeping with tradition, mashed together quotes from different places and attributed them to one author for simplicity. Within this quote there is
Exodus 23:20 See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the
way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.
Malachi 3:1 ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.
Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Isaiah 40:3 A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God
They are all messages of deliverance in the face of the oppressor, pointing to a future hope and the prospect of peace living in covenant with God. The desert place – whether physically or metaphorically in defeat and exile – is a significant symbol for the people of Israel. To the desert they would flee for safety; from the desert would come the deliverer. The significance of this mash up of verses is that Mark is saying that the law and the prophets confirm his message that Jesus is the Christ.
The identification of Jesus as the Son of God puts him in the role of Israel, because this is the term used by the prophets about Israel when the people were being obedient and fulfilling the purpose God had for them. It was the term used of the kings of Israel who were supposed to be leading the people in the way of God. It is used at Jesus’ baptism as God gives his seal of approval to the one who has chosen to walk the path of obedience. Here is the one God has chosen to reign. These may be allusions of which we are aware, or need to be reminded about. Those versed in the Hebrew Scriptures would have picked them up. Mark is announcing Jesus as the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Son of God and he will inaugurate the kingdom. This is an apocalyptic moment – God breaking into the world in Jesus. What he does during his ministry is integral to the kingdom, not just what happens at the end of his time on earth and will happen when he comes again. Mark has packed an awful lot into a few short verses.
Before we leave them to think about John the Baptist, there is one more observation to make. When we read the quote from the prophets about preparing the way, we immediately think of John the Baptist, an Elijah type figure getting people ready to accept Jesus. John did prepare the way by calling people to repentance as the prophets did; calling them back to living in right relationship to God and each other. He straightened or levelled the way by calling Jews and Gentiles to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness – all were in need of repentance; all of Israel and the surrounding lands needed to come. Jews would have only thought it was gentiles who needed cleansing and purifying.
Zechariah in his song about God’s deliverance and John’s role, indicates this sort of preparation. However, it could be read differently. Is it Jesus who is preparing the way for the return of God to the centre of people’s lives. Is Jesus the messenger announcing the news of salvation and preparing the way by example in his ministry and through his sacrifice? Jesus prepares the way and we follow him as his disciples. John is the herald, Jesus is the one who fulfils the mission. Of course John makes that point exactly: one greater is coming, so great John was not worthy to perform the lowliest of tasks. So great that he will do more than pour water over people’s heads – he will completely renew them. We will think about John’s reference to being baptised with the Holy Spirit later. John himself was an odd character – in many ways like Elijah who earned himself a reputation for being a troubler of Israel, a disturber of people’s peace. The picture painted in the gospel accounts is one of a weird, abrasive character – yet people come to hear him and respond to his message.
There is something in the human character that attracts us to the weird, perhaps even be fascinated by the weird. We even allow ourselves to be abused and accept it – think of the way a comedian makes fun of people in the audience, even inviting them up onto the stage to be laughed at – and we willingly do it! Having said that, I don’t think I would be all that attracted to John, but we do sometimes need to be jolted out of our complacency and the ruts we are comfortable with. One thing that is clear to John and he makes clear to everyone else: he is not the one people should look to. Come and be baptised in repentance and forgiveness, but look to the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit. He is more powerful. He is greater.
In Christian circles, is there any subject more controversial than that of baptism with the Holy Spirit. I am not going to add to the controversy – not least because I cannot say anything new. However, I want to bring reassurance to those for whom this causes difficulties and causes them to question whether or not they have really become Christians. Jesus, John, Paul would not equate baptism in the Holy Spirit with tongues, miracles, prophetic words or healing. These things may happen when people follow Jesus and God chooses to use them in this way. However, Jesus, John and Paul all knew that there needed to be more than a splash of muddy Jordan water, or clean baptistry water for baptism to have taken place. There needs to be more than an ecstatic experience. That is just the beginning.
In Ezekiel, the prophet says
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all
your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Ezekiel 36:25-27.
He is talking to people who needed to respond to the call of God, just as John was. There needed to be a change, a reorientation, a transformation.
In Luke and Matthew more detail is given as John points to the practical outworking of the symbol of the baptism to which he was calling people. In a change in attitude and actions there would be an indication of the inner working of God as the Holy Spirit is allowed to be at work. A transformation takes place through the gospel message that recreates, or rebirths people’s hearts. It came about through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, which led to the sending of the Holy Spirit. The disciples experienced it as the church was born and they went out into Jerusalem and eventually further afield. Paul experienced it following his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. The people in pagan towns and cities experienced it as the gospel message was taken further afield and they turned from their former lifestyles.
Well known and obscure followers of Jesus through the centuries have experienced this transformation as they have accepted the gospel of Jesus and followed him. Ordinary people like you and me, in our ordinary daily lives have known this transformation as we became followers of Jesus. The one more powerful to whom John was pointing performs the amazing miracle of giving a new heart, cleansing through sprinkling of water and filling with the Holy Spirit. The invitation, the call, is to all who will hear and respond.
One last comment before we close. The gospel announced was and is a living word. The gospel is a lived word as we follow the example of Jesus. The symbol for the presence of the Spirit is fire. It cleanses and burns up. The fire of the Spirit does its work as we follow Jesus in our ordinary, everyday lives, to enable us to bring others to Christ and to present us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.
We’ve only read 8 verses and scratched the surface of their implications and their outworking. The deeper work happens as we live the life given to us following Christ.