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Mark 1:1-8

Lesson Focus

Each Advent is a chance for us to have a new beginning, heading the call of God’s grace to join ourselves with the work that God is currently doing.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that Jesus brings new beginnings.

  2. Understand that our new beginnings do not undo the past.

  3. Be encouraged to give ourselves as redeemed messengers of God’s good news.

Catching up on the Story

The book we know as "The Gospel According to Mark" was likely written sometime between 60 and 80 C.E., though this is an estimate. Mark was also likely written to a certain community, addressing its context, concerns, and hopes.

Nevertheless, because Matthew and Luke's gospels likely use Mark as a source, the current work was not limited to a single context. Still, it was widely circulated among a network of churches in and around the Mediterranean (Boring, 14-16).

Mark’s purpose in writing this work was to establish a reliable account of the life of Jesus and its continuity with the rest of the biblical witness.

Eugene Boring suggests that whoever Mark was, his account was not composed by drawing on a personal or even second-hand witness or from someone who was intimately acquainted with Palestinian Judaism but by someone who makes extensive use of the experience and faith of the already established Christian community's teaching (Boring, 20).

Though Mark was not likely a disciple but a teacher within the Christian community, his account of Jesus’ life has stood the test of both tradition and time (Boring, 21).

The Beginning...

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." That's how the beginning of the story of God's relationship to and with the world starts. Of course, these words from Genesis 1 are familiar to us. They make a very distinctive case regarding the nature and purpose of the world in which we live. The One who initiates this beginning in Genesis does so not through a cosmic battle between good and evil but through a creative and lovingly spoken word.

Beginnings are wonderful by virtue of the openness of what follows. Beginnings and the newness they bring inspire us to wonder about what comes next. Intuitively, we do this with each new act of creation or with the newness that comes with the flip of a calendar page.

At the birth of a child, we might ponder what this new child will become? Who will he or she be? What will their life entail?

Or, seeing that we are at the beginning of a brand new liturgical year and on the cusp of a brand new calendar year, we might ask, what adventures await us in the coming days and months? Beginnings are anticipatory.

And yet, there is always a sense of continuity involved as well.

The newborn child doesn’t emerge from nothing but carries the genetic makeup of its parents, along with their culture, traditions, and religion. As much as we might hope, the change of a new year doesn't do away with what has transpired in the previous one.

Who we were and what we did in the previous year works to shape the next year. Beginnings are always contextual.

Mark begins his work with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There are many remarkable things about this opening line.

First, in the original language, there are no verbs! It's likely that this first verb-less line functioned as a title of sorts, with the title we often see in our English translations coming later.

However, this title seeks to make some serious claims, leading to the second remarkable observation. Mark intends this work to communicate "The beginning of the good news..” In styling this work as “The beginning...” Mark wants to establish two things.

First, Mark wants his hearers, for this story was likely to be read to the gathered body of believers, to understand that what follows is entirely consistent with the biblical witness that preceded it.

Mark wants us to understand the narrative like we might read Genesis. This story about Jesus is a creative one. Something new is on the horizon. God is at work in this newness, too.

The work that Mark uses for beginning can also mean “authority.” Not only does Mark point to the creative newness that comes with Jesus, but he is also establishing the authority that comes with this good news about Jesus.

Mark is no TV preacher declaring that your best life will happen in the new year if only you believe hard enough (or donate enough money to his ministry). The newness of the story about Jesus’ good news has validity and authority because the story’s central character is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The second thing Mark wishes to establish is the content of this good news.

Of course, "good news" is literally the gospel. In Jesus' day, the word gospel meant "good news of victory from the battlefield," extending into the promise of peace and prosperity (Boring, 30).

Mark appropriates this term for the sake of his story, which actively opposes the imperial claims of peace and prosperity that the Roman Empire claimed to bring.

Mark's story is truly good news from the field of battle. It is truly a story of victory over the forces of darkness and evil, ushering in the beginning of a new kingdom, God's kingdom of peace.

And yet, Mark isn’t just telling a story about what Jesus did. Because Mark’s gospel is “The beginning...” a beginning whose ultimate end has not yet transpired, we are invited to take our place alongside all the other faithful characters in the story.

That’s a lot of things to say for a five-word, verb-less sentence.

As it is Written...

What Mark does next further his attempt to show the story's continuity with the parts of the story of God's love for creation that have already been written. "As it is written in the prophet Isaiah..." sets off the true beginning of Mark's prologue.

The portions of scripture quoted next don't all come from Isaiah's pen. In fact, verses 2 and 3 are a mash-up of three different Old Testament texts, Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. Combining scripture passages this way was a fairly common practice in Jewish interpretation.

By quoting these passages, passages that were often interpreted in a messianic way, Mark provides the critical link between the newness of what Jesus will do and God's action in and through Israel.

In a way, Mark is saying, “The gospel of Jesus Christ, and the following narrative, are in accord with what God spoke through the prophet Isaiah...” (Boring, 36).

The off-stage voice of verses 2-3 draws on some powerful imagery from Israel's past.

First, God always seeks to prepare his people for the work that he wants to do. God's salvation isn't capricious; it is always a process of proclamation and preparation.

Throughout God’s relationship with Israel, God sent messengers to proclaim what God was going to do. These messengers always began to prepare God’s people to live faithfully.

Second, God's work in the world is always a path. God is preparing a way for salvation to arrive here and now, and God is always preparing a way for us to walk faithfully into salvation and toward faithful obedience.

Third, "the wilderness" plays a crucial role in Israel's collective memory. The wilderness is a place of new beginnings and complete dependence on God.

It is in the wilderness that God forms and shapes Israel to become his people. In the wilderness, Israel received the Law, manna from heaven, water from a rock, and clothes that did not wear out. And God's salvation comes as he leads his people out from the wilderness into the promised land.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus comes from the wilderness.

John the Baptizer...

Mark’s divine off-stage narration ends, and the story begins with verse 4 and the introduction of John the baptizer.

Like so many of Israel's prophets, John emerges from the wilderness. Dressed like the Bedouin herders who live in the desert wilderness, with a leather belt around his waist, which for Israel would have immediately made them think of Elijah, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Notice that in John's message, grace comes first. All of Israel was invited to partake in God's divine grace before they were called to clean up their act. Of course, there must be repentance.

Repentance is crucial for living in this new story God is telling. John's baptism was the beginning of that repentance. It is God's grace that makes repentance possible.

So, John is preparing the way. He is the beginning of the proclamation of what God is doing, and he is also the preparation for faithful obedience. Still, he is not the bringer of salvation. One who is more powerful is coming. He will provide a baptism with the Holy Spirit.

So What?

Even though we are more than two thousand years removed from the time of Jesus, we are not excluded from experiencing the same new beginnings about which Mark wrote. Each Advent is a chance for us to have a new beginning, heading the call of God's grace to join ourselves with the work that God is currently doing.

But even though Advent gives us this new beginning, our past is not undone. While we can anticipate the life-giving strength and grace that comes with Jesus at Christmas, and eventually, with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, our new beginnings are also always contextual. Who we have been shapes who we are becoming in Christ.

Who we were this past year or years isn't wiped away. To be sure, it's been redeemed as God seeks to work all things for the good of those who love him. G