Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Mark 1:1-13

John the Baptist Prepares the Way 

     1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, 

    as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

        “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” —
          3 “a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

     4 And so John the Baptist came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptism and Testing of Jesus

     9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

     12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, 13 and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Today’s gospel reading is the first thirteen verses of the Gospel of Mark, and it covers a lot of ground in those thirteen verses. Our text for yesterday’s Sunday worship was the last part of this reading from Mark, so those who were with us for worship – either in person or online – will find it sounds familiar.

We should probably start with a little review ofn the Gospel of Mark in general: Bible scholars say that Mark was the first gospel, and that it seems to have been written down by a man named John Mark based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter. The scholars believe Peter dictated his account of what Jesus had done and said during his earthly ministry. If that understanding is correct, Mark is the gospel written down closest to the time of the events it records. That might also make it the only eyewitness gospel. (It’s understood that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a framework for their own gospels, and John was published seventy years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, so it might have been compiled by the disciples of the apostle John after his death.)

The other thing that’s worth noting about Mark is that it’s a very brief and straightforward account, without any of the additional material of the other three gospels.

The reading we’re thinking about today is the first thirteen verses of Mark’s gospel, and as we said above, it packs in a lot of information in those thirteen verses.

It starts out by saying that this is the beginning of the “gospel about Jesus.” The word translated “gospel” here is the Greek word euangelion, which means ‘good news.’ But that word doesn’t refer to just any good news – it usually means the good news about the birth or coronation of a ruler. So from its first words, the gospel of Mark understands itself to be proclaiming the coming of a figure of great importance.

Then Mark’s gospel goes on to tell us just who that figure is: Jesus is identified as the Christ, which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew messiah. And he’s identified as “the Son of God,” which means that Jesus is not a person created by God like the rest of us, but rather someone who actually shares God’s divine nature.

Then Mark’s account reminds us that Jesus is the one whose coming had been foretold by the Hebrew prophets. Two prophets are quoted here. One is Isaiah, who was considered one of the most important of the ancient Hebrew prophets – maybe the single most important one. The other prophet that’s quoted is Malachi, the author of the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi had foretold that a prophet in the spirit of Elijah would come to announce “the day of the Lord.”

That idea of one coming in the spirit of Elijah is especially significant. As Mark tells us about John the Baptist, he describes him as dressing exactly as Elijah had dressed and as eating the same strange diet Elijah had eaten. So it’s pretty clear that Mark (and apparently Peter) understood that John the Baptist really was the one foretold by the prophets, and that Jesus really was the messiah John had come into the world to announce.

The passage also tells us that John the Baptist had come announcing “a baptism of repentance,” and that his call had brought people pouring out of Jerusalem and the countryside to confess their sins and be baptized. So the Holy Spirit was somehow reaching into the hearts and minds of the people to convict them of the need to confess their sins and to repent – to see things differently than they had in the past.

In the story, Jesus himself comes to be baptized by John. Ever since the earliest days of the church, its leaders and scholars have argued about why Jesus would see fit to take part in “a Baptism of repentance,” since he didn’t have any sins to confess and repent of. Two answers to that question seem the most likely. One is that Jesus wanted to establish baptism as a sacrament for the rest of us, and to bless it by taking part himself. The other possibility is that his baptism provided an occasion for God to identify Jesus as his beloved Son, and to send the Holy Spirit upon him.

Once the Spirit arrives, it immediately seems to start playing a role in directing Jesus’ ministry. The Spirit ‘sends’ Jesus into the wilderness, for a forty-day period of testing by Satan. Jesus was among wild animals there, and was “attended” by angels. We can’t know for sure whether we’re meant to understand that the angels were protecting Jesus from the wild animals or (and this seems more likely) that the animals are just a sign that this really was the wilderness Jesus was in.

Mark and Peter don’t tell us about the same three temptations we read about in Luke and Matthew. But like them, they tell us the temptation lasted forty days, which the Bible uses to symbolize a period of transition or transformation. In the case of Jesus, we’re probably meant to understand that this was a period in which Jesus made the transition from being a small-town carpenter to being the Messiah – announcing the coming of God’s new kingdom, teaching us how to live as his disciples, and dying for the sins of the world.

This passage doesn’t present the same kind of theological question for reflection as the corresponding accounts in Matthew and Luke – the meaning of the specific tests Jesus faced in the wilderness. But it does present quite a bit of important information about who Jesus was and how he fit into the history of the covenant people, and about God’s unfolding plan for the salvation of humankind. And it tells all that in just thirteen verses.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the faithful work of John Mark and Peter, who wrote down and passed along to us the story of what Jesus did and said. We thank you also for their invitation to stop and think once again about the meaning of what you did when you walked among us in human form. Amen.

Every Blessing,