The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you,
Who will prepare your way
The voice of one crying in the wilderness
Make ready the way of the Lord
Make his paths straight. Mark 1.1-3
This Sunday is the first Sunday that we will begin considering the gospel of Mark, which is one of the four books about the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. One of the interesting things about the Gospel of Mark is that it doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ childhood or birth. At Christmastime, we often celebrate Advent which is a time that we reflect especially on the birth stories found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. This has the potential to make Christmas into a-not necessarily bad-but sentimental sort of holiday. Mark, though, has something else that is beneficial for us to meditate on during this Christmas season.
Instead of beginning with the infancy narrative, Mark begins with a prophecy which is a combination of three Old Testament texts. It is actually one of the only times in the gospel that Mark quotes prophecy explicitly to frame the life of Jesus. What this means is that verses 2-3 are formative for the whole rest of the gospel and we should pay attention to what it says and remember it as we read through and meditate on the gospel. Although Mark’s gospel is the shortest and seems like the simplest, in a lot of ways his way of writing is like a woven tapestry that paints a picture; but it takes time to understand all of the intricate pieces and allusions to the Old Testament and the cross-references within the gospel even. In other words, Mark was a very deliberate and artistic author.
So this heading of Mark is quite important then. He specifically mentions Isaiah (chapter 40.3), but it also is quoted from Exodus 23.20 and Malachi 3.1. This web of texts gives us in a way a Markan Christmas prophecy. It is first of all one of anticipation. This whole prologue is filled with it isn’t it? The beginning of the gospel…I send my messenger ahead of you…prepare your way…make ready the way of the Lord. These are words of anticipation for Jesus Christ the Son of God. We are not reading about him but are being encouraged to anticipate him. You could say our hearts and minds need to be prepared to hear about the life of Christ and Mark does this with these essential prophecies.
So what are these prophecies about? They tell of the coming restoration. All throughout the Old Testament, the prominent picture is the failure of Israel and the lingering hope of one who would restore righteousness. So Isaiah 40.3 alludes to Exodus 40 as he prophesies about a New Exodus. ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’ In tying this prophecy to Malachi and Exodus, Mark is referring to the angel or messenger of God in the wilderness who led them by day and night to the Promised Land. But the Isaiah passage develops the image so that this messenger doesn’t simply lead to the Promised Land, but he prepares the path for the Lord himself to come (advent). That is, John the Baptist as God’s messenger is preparing the way: preaching repentance and faith.
In Malachi, a third background is developed and that is one of God’s impending judgment. ‘Behold, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, he is coming.’ Now this doesn’t sound like it is much about judgment. But then in reading verse 2, we see a turn to include it. ‘But who can endure his coming and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers soap. He will sit as smelter, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness.’ Although Christmas in our day is often about gifts and joy and peace on earth, Mark also reminds us that we must not neglect God’s just judgment. It’s part of the whole package. In our day and culture, the best judgment we can come up with for evil is ostracism from everything and anything associated with it. It’s a pretty poor judgment at that, but we see in the advent of Christ that God’s judgment is mediated through his compassion. Jesus, the son of God, comes to earth and lives as a human, extending forgiveness of sins to those who repent and believe. So this Christmastime prophecy in Mark proclaims both God’s judgment and the hope of restoration, both found in the appearing of Christ.