The Old Testament Reading Isaiah 52: 7 – 10
The New Testament Reading Mark 1: 1 – 15
St Mark in a hurry
The writer – or editor of “Mark” is someone in a hurry! Mark’s Gospel is breathless, fast paced, its favourite word is “immediately.” In common with St Paul’s letters, Mark doesn’t have any birth stories involving shepherds or Magi, gifts, angels; either the stories didn’t yet exist or both St Paul and Mark didn’t think they were important enough to mention. No long lists of Jesus’ ancestors either, “proving” his descent from David, essential for someone who is to be the Messiah. Mark wants to get on with his own story and dives straight into introducing John the Baptist, who seems to be identified as Elijah by his clothing of hair garment and leather belt; Elijah, who was the one to appear before the Messiah does. John calls the people to be sorry for their current behaviour, and then to change the direction they are going. He also announces the imminent arrival of someone much more important.
In 1st century Palestine, observant Jews and probably a lot of Gentiles in the region were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah seems to have been particularly popular. And there was a lot of messianic expectation at the time of Jesus, the idea of a liberator who would free the Jews from oppression had been floating about for a while. Who would the Messiah be? Isaiah has a lot to say about the “suffering servant” image of one who will come to save the people, who will lead them to something better, who will redeem Jerusalem; all things we associate with Jesus which aren’t prophecies in the sense of fortune telling.
The Hebrew Scriptures don’t predict Jesus – they were used by the post-Resurrection followers of Jesus to illustrate who and what they believed Jesus to be. Someone remembering Jesus might have said to people who had never met or heard him “well, you know that bit of Isaiah where he talks about the Lord anointing me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn; well, that’s what Jesus was like, what Jesus wanted us to do and what he meant to us.”
After dismissing John the Baptist in about six sentences Mark then moves the action onto his main character Jesus who takes over the story very quickly. Jesus arrives, he’s baptised, he has a vision and we’re told God speaks to him. He then immediately heads off to the desert to sort his head out where Satan tempts him and angels keep him alive. Then heads off to Galilee and begins his public ministry. Whew!! If you take it literally, all that apparently in under two months. Take another deep breath and read the rest of just the first chapter of Mark, when Jesus calls his first disciples who immediately drop everything and follow him, performs a miracle in the Capernaum synagogue (morning, presumably), heads off right afterwards and heals Peter’s mother in law (lunchtime), more healing at sundown, gets up before dawn the next morning to pray and then carries on to the rest of Galilee to preach, heal and cast out demons.
Why does Mark portray Jesus as constantly rushing around doing things “immediately.” Why is it that Mark includes a lot of “mighty acts”, miracles and healings, nearly 1/3 of the book. Yes, there are parables and stories, but much less of the teaching ministry with the lengthier embroidery of Matthew and Luke. As we hear in this reading tonight, the Temptations episode is the bare bones of “he was tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts and angels waited on him.” No stones, bread, Temple pinnacle or tops of mountains for Mark. I wonder why the persistent rush to get round and do things. Might it be that Mark is impatient to get to the later core of his story telling about the last days of Jesus’ life – the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection, the section which takes up just over 1/3 of the shortest of the Gospels; but he needs to tell the background to this in the least time possible?
As the first Gospel to be written down, Mark sits in that chronological niche between St Paul’s letters and the later, longer and more developed accounts about Jesus. Paul’s genuine letters mostly addressing specific pastoral concerns often show a belief that Jesus’ return was just round the corner; even if this hope faded away quite quickly as the years passed and nothing happened. Mark, as the first gospel, is a transformation from letters and teaching of Paul into a more structured witness to the life and death of the leader of the Christian movement. It still doesn’t claim to be history or biography as we know them – none of the Gospels do that – but Mark wants to tell more of a joined up story.
When we remember that both Greek and Latin in the ancient world were written without upper or lower case, and without punctuation, the opening of Mark’s Gospel can become very interesting indeed. We’re used to the way that it appears now – with a full stop after the word “God” in the first sentence. But listen to what happens if an early editor had placed the full stop after another word, or if there isn’t any punctuation at all and the reader has to decide where to pause. The opening of Mark could then legitimately read:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah. Or in a more modern translation: The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something the prophet Isaiah wrote.
…and then goes on to quote the words from Isaiah about preparing the way of the Lord.
Mark ties up nicely with Isaiah, the prophet who is perhaps the greatest influence in the Christian understanding of a Messiah. A Messiah who has moved away from Jewish expectations of a political liberator into someone who will bring everyone into a new and better relationship with God, who will announce the kingdom of God; where God is supreme rather than any earthly king or emperor.
Isaiah offers hope to people who have been crushed by conquest and exile: the arrival of a messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ Mark’s Jesus sets out his agenda right at the start of his ministry and the Gospel: proclaiming the good news of the reign of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ And then Mark rushes enthusiastically into telling the Good News with his ever-present “immediately”. He wants us to know who and what Jesus was, as soon as possible; so that we, too can go out to tell others, unlike the women in the original ending of the gospel who just run away when they discover the empty tomb and the angel.
That’s our commission from St Mark – whoever he was. Go and tell. Immediately!
Leslie Spatt 2016