Those of you who have children will remember when your first child was born. That was a life-changing event. You knew after that life would never be the same again. And yet, while that event was good news, for the vast majority of others in the world, life went on as it usually did. In the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, we read of good news, the kind of good news that would change everything! Beginning this morning we are going to be looking at the life of Jesus as related by the Gospel author Mark. We will be working our way through the whole gospel over the course of the next several months, taking breaks to look at other things as well. We want to learn about Jesus and the radical new things he did and taught that changed the world and changed us as well. Let’s read Mark 1:1-8.
There are several key words to notice in this first verse and the first are the term “Gospel.” Those who heard the word “gospel” it in the ancient world would hear something quite different from what we hear today. The word “gospel” or literally “evangel” was common in pagan and Jewish cultures and among the Romans, it meant joyful tidings. In the Roman Empire, good news was associated with the emperor and his birthday or ascension to the throne would be special “good news” days. “Good news” was an historical event which introduced an important new situation for the world. And so given this background in Mark’s day, the people would understand this “good news” of Jesus the Messiah's coming as an event that would bring about a radically new state of affairs for all of humankind. “Good News” alerts his readers to something really big and life-changing!
That is also highlighted in Mark’s use of the words, "the beginning." These are words that would remind the Scripture reader of the opening words in the book of Genesis: "in the beginning." Mark is saying that there is now going to be a new start, a big new beginning. God created people and now in this new beginning, he is about to re-create them.
And the good news that is beginning is concerning Jesus Christ. There are two main things that form the content of the Mark’s gospel message. The first goal is to show that Jesus is the Messiah, which is the turning point in chapter 8:29, where Jesus is proclaimed by Peter to be the Christ. The climax of the book is reached in 15:39 where Jesus is proclaimed to be the Son of God by the centurion at the cross of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, is the Messiah sent by God to the world to bring a new creation through God's redeeming of his covenant people.
Now you may wonder why Mark’s gospel does not include any stories of Jesus’ birth. The abruptness is important for Mark purposefully introduces the key persons in the good news very suddenly. The time of salvation that has been anticipated for so long has now arrived. Mark intentionally lets the story explode on the scene to make an impact that something big is now happening!
II. Yet the something big is rooted deeply in the Old Testament as we see in verses 2-3.
Here we have a quotation that blends Exodus 23:20, Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. The Malachi passage points to the coming of the prophet, the second Elijah. In Exodus 23, from the Law in the Old Testament, Moses is telling the people that they can expect another great prophet who will lead them to a new covenant. The second part of this quotation introduces a word from the Prophets who also are pointing to the second Elijah. This is what the people had been waiting for thousands of years for and now Mark is saying it is here; it is about to happen! God is sending his prophet, the new Elijah, in John the Baptist.
But what is also key to notice is the use of the word “desert” which dominates the prologue. The voice of one crying introduces John the Baptist whose ministry attracts Jesus. He is in the desert which fulfills the prophetic voice of one crying in the desert. Now think about the key events in the history of redemption and their ties to the desert. The word about the coming prophet in Exodus 23:30, the passage Mark quotes, came to Moses and the people as the people are traveling through the desert. God called them out of the slavery in Egypt to go into the desert in order to be saved and delivered to the promised land. The desert is the place through which they had to go to be saved. Isaiah points to the second exodus and to the final deliverance prepared for God’s people and this too is in the desert. Thus, the desert theme is seen in both the Law and the Prophets and so now as God begins his new redeeming work with Jesus, it begins again in the desert.
Next year is a presidential election and the candidates are popping up all over the place! What I find interesting is how a politician will often go back to their roots in their home to make their official declaration of their intent to run. They may campaign in New Hampshire or Iowa but often when they make that official statement, they go back to the place where they are from and grew up. They are saying that they remember where they were from and where they were forged to be the person they are now. The desert is the place where God’s people were made into a covenant people and this is where it starts again in the new covenant with John the Baptist.
III. Let’s look at John the Baptist’s ministry in verses 4-6.
John the Baptist’ appearance was the most important event in Israel in over 300 years. Many people were still hoping that the faithful prophet would still appear to help them and bring to the final redemption in the last days. John’s coming pointed to that fact that this point in history has now arrived. And again, Isaiah 40:3 explains that the prophet of the Lord will cry in the desert. Again, this is not just geographical but points to the place where God’s people must go for the last stage in their redemption.
Moreover, John’s message was a baptism of repentance. Those who heard John would have recognized the familiar call to repentance. But in response to John’s preaching, John called for an action that was wholly new: baptism in the Jordan River. Now in those days baptism was common in that Gentiles would be baptized upon being converted to Judaism. However, John’s baptism is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” To repent indicates a turn for the people to the original relationship with God. Just as the people of old were summoned out of Egypt and then were separated by a pilgrimage through the waters of the Red Sea, the nation is now exhorted to come out and experience separation in the desert for the new covenant with God.
And so verse 5 says: “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.” Their coming out to the desert is a sign of them recognizing their history of disobedience and rebellion and a desire to begin with God once more. John’s proclamation of the forgiveness of sins provides the assurance that God now extends grace as well as judgment. It is in this context of judgment and grace that the people go out into the desert. John’s clothing and diet in verse 6 emphasize that he is a man of the desert. His clothing and his food characterize life in the desert. The reference to the leather belt about his waist recalls a characteristic feature of another man of the desert, the prophet Elijah.
The desert says that God is going to make it possible for the people to start over. Every Monday and Wednesday, there is a group of between 15-20 men and women who meet here for AA meetings. Those people will tell you that AA gave them a chance to start over. In many cases their lives were well on the way to being destroyed. They came to AA in order to start over and there they found what those who went out to see John found: accountability and grace. They must admit they have a problem and they are loved back into life. John invites the people to come to the desert to admit their sins and find God’s grace that is coming.
IV. John the Baptist’s message is summarized in verses 7-8:
“And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs 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.” John’s message is that a person still to come will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. The phrase “the Coming One” also echoes the Old Testament. Malachi 3:1 and 4:5 gives its warning concerning the Lord who comes suddenly sitting in judgment. Psalm 118:26 announces that one is coming and the people are to praise to the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
But John knows that the one who is coming is far greater than John. John affirms that he is not worthy of performing the most menial task, from which even the most menial Hebrew slave was released: the removal of the master’s sandals. This clearly emphasizes the dignity and mystery of the Coming One. John the Baptist may be the coming prophet but he is nothing compared to the one that they should really be looking forward to.
For the Coming One will not just baptize with water; he will baptize with the Spirit. The reference to the giving of the Spirit is also appropriate to the desert context. Isaiah, in Isaiah 63:11, describes Israel’s journey in the desert as a march under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Isaiah 63:14 says that it was the Spirit who gave the people rest in the desert. As the first exodus had been a going forth into the desert under the leadership of God’s Spirit, John the Baptist announces the second exodus as a time of a fresh outpouring of the same Spirit… and this begins again in the desert. This is the interruption of the world’s order that will bring huge changes to Israel and to the world everywhere.
And so what do we do with this? Let’s thank God that he has come in Jesus to redeem his people in his grace. That is accomplished and finished and nothing we have done or will do will alter that amazing fact. God has sent Jesus to redeem us and has poured out his judgment on Jesus so that we can be saved and enter that new life. Yet, let’s also hear a call to come to the desert, not to be saved again and again, but to repent and remember what God has done. God has called us to be his children and has made it happen. Yet we must still continue to repent.