Commentary on Mark 1:1-20
One of the striking things about the four Gospels is that each of them seems to think of the “gospel-genre” a little bit differently.
Or perhaps better, each of the Gospels uses the word gospel – euangelion – differently, and that difference can be instructive in our reading and preaching of their respective texts.
First things first, John doesn’t use the word at all. So there’s that. This doesn’t mean, of course, that John’s Gospel isn’t interested in the good news; quite the contrary, John’s approach to the good news is just markedly different than those of the Synoptic Gospels.
In Matthew, “gospel” is what Jesus comes preaching. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matt 4:23). For Matthew the gospel, the good news, is at least in part the content of Jesus’ preaching and teaching.
In Luke, “gospel” is what the angel Gabriel brings, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (Luke 1:19). For Luke, the gospel is first and foremost the announcement of the birth of the Messiah.
In Mark, “gospel” is a summary of the whole of the book. Mark begins with a summary statement, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1). For Mark, the gospel is the whole of Jesus’ story, the whole of what he does, says, is.
None of this is to say that the distinctive ways in which each of the Gospels uses (or doesn’t use) the word “gospel,” is exclusive. But they can offer us angle or lens for approaching the various periscopes of a given Gospel.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark’s “messianic secret” has long been recognized as one (if not the) of the distinctive characteristics of his Gospel. I prefer to think of the Gospel of Mark as the Bible’s “stage-whisper.” That is to say that this “secret” is not only not very well kept, it is essentially not a true secret at all. The “stage-whisper” is delivered in a play in such a way that everyone hears it, but it nature as “secret” or private discourse is preserved; there is irony there. And, in the Gospel of Mark, the irony is that absolutely everyone (even the demons) knows who Jesus is; and everyone who is told by Jesus to keep his identity quiet, not to tell what he has done for them, does exactly the opposite. This is a secret that it no secret, that is shared over and over again, and invites sharing.
Which brings me to Mark 1:15. After announcing the beginning of the Good News, Jesus declares the beginning of his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
In our overview of this Narrative Lectionary year as a whole, my brother and I have suggested that Mark 1:15 serves as the lens for every selected reading from Mark. As preachers, we may be well served by asking of each text from Mark, questions raised by this first reading:
How is God’s time “fulfilled” in this story/text?
How is that in this story/text, the kingdom of God is coming near?
How is one brought to repentance and faith by this story/text?
In a broad, summary sense, Mark 1:15 serves to draw us into reading and hearing the story of Jesus and, in response, recognizing the truth — the promise — that in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, God’s plan for creation are come to fruition. We are invited to hear in this stage-whisper an echo of Creation’s creation, and be made (a)new ourselves, to change our minds, and believe that the time is here for us as well.
Each of the pericopes from Mark’s Gospel may be fruitfully preached to point us to this promise, the promise of Christ at the center of our worship, through our preaching, and in our daily lives.
One last thought. As a set-up for the move into Mark’s Gospel as the core of the Narrative Lectionary, running up to Easter, I would suggest that the beginning of the beginning of the Good News According to Mark offers an interesting challenge for one’s preaching, and for those who hear our preaching. Here is the question, If Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of the good news, then what is its continuation? we are, this is: the proclamation of this, the worst-kept secret of all time. If Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, then our proclamation of Jesus, our repenting and believing in Jesus, our lives lived by faith in the promise that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, is the continuation of it.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Heavenly God, when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, you claimed him as your son. Claim us as your children, inheritors of your glorious kingdom. Amen.
Nunc dimittis, Robert Scholz