First Sunday in Lent (Year B)

The sheer brevity of Mark’s story seems to offer little material for the preacher.

March 1, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 1:9-15

The sheer brevity of Mark’s story seems to offer little material for the preacher.

Indeed, as we move through the year of Mark, John’s gospel is called on consistently and often to fill out the Sundays when Mark’s story does not have enough texts to go around. This passage for Lent 1 is typical of Mark. In six verses the events of “those days” are laid out, beginning with Jesus’ arrival from Nazareth and extending to Jesus’ first preaching in Galilee.

There is, however, a certain drama in the brevity itself. In a few swift strokes of the pen, Mark sets the stage for all that is to come. Our attention is focused precisely on the man Jesus and the message he brings. This clearing away of extraneous detail, this forcing our attention on Jesus is just what Lent can be about for believers who are too absorbed in their own projects to focus for themselves. Mark’s opening verses invite us to re-focus in Lent.

As an invitation to re-focus our attention, these verses echo Jesus’ own message, “repent and believe in the gospel.” We might translate these familiar words “re-focus and trust the good news.” Mark leaves us in no doubt about the good news that Jesus calls upon his hearers to trust. First it is specifically “good news about God.” And that news is all about timing: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Both verbs (is fulfilled/is at hand) are in the perfect tense. Something has already happened and the implications of that happening are emerging in “those days,” the very same days referred to in verse 9. The time is ripe and the kingdom has come near. No wonder Mark’s gospel is marked by brevity. His message is urgent  no time to spend on unnecessary words.

Besides, so many words had already been spoken. Mark is able to be terse because his words are all so rich and weighty. In these six verses he alludes constantly to his own Scripture (and that of Jesus!), our Old Testament. As he told us in 1:2, the words of the prophet Isaiah resound through the centuries leading us to the fullness of time.

Isaiah provides many references for Mark 1:9-15. The placing of God’s Spirit on his chosen one to bring justice to the nations is part of God’s description of God’s servant in Isaiah 42:1. The “beloved one” (Mark 1:11) does not convey a message of warm feelings on God’s part toward Jesus. Instead, it conveys the message that Jesus is the servant sent by God as promised in Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy also yields a deeper sense of what God’s kingdom may be. Isaiah 52:7 connects the one who brings good news with the proclamation, “Your God reigns.” The coming of the servant who will be exalted is preceded by his being almost unrecognizable as human (Isaiah 52:14).

With these verses ringing in our ears, we hear Mark’s description of Jesus coming (his Advent?) into Galilee wondering what will happen to him. We know, of course, that the story leads urgently to the fulfillment of those prophecies about the servant, as surely as Lent drives toward Good Friday. Yet the promise of exaltation of the servant, as the one who ushers in God’s reign, is there at the beginning.

All this prophetic preparation does not diminish the qualities of loneliness and violence that this passage embodies, a loneliness that will be exacerbated for Jesus as the gospel story unfolds. We are shocked at the unceremonious and “immediate” follow-up to Jesus baptism, when the Spirit literally throws him out into the wilderness. We are put on notice when we hear that John has been arrested. Mark uses the same word to describes John’s arrest as he uses to describe Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, right from the moment Judas is introduced in 3:19 (See also 9:31; 10:33; 14:10, 11, 18, 21, 41, 42, 15;1, 10, 15.) The word is always violent and negative.

The loneliness of God’s servant, a theme that persists throughout the gospel, is already suggested in these opening verses. It all begins in the wilderness, home to prophets of Israel, and to Israel itself in the years of wandering. Jesus will be there too, his meeting of Satan’s temptations witnessed by no human creatures. Then, at his baptism, the voice and vision belong to Jesus alone. The words, “you are my Beloved,” are singular. It is Jesus who is beloved, as Isaac before him and Joseph, men whose lives belonged to God and who suffered much for God’s people. Jesus’ proclamation of the “gospel of God” follows immediately upon the arrest of John who had also been preaching repentance. That arrest will not bode well for John or Jesus.

At the end of Lent and the end of Mark, both violence and loneliness come to a culmination in Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. We ponder the connection between the establishment of the reign of God and the incarnation of peace where wild animals no longer exist in enmity with humans (a foretaste of that kingdom occurs during Jesus’ temptations in verse 13). Something new has begun and Jesus is announcing it as good news. In him, God pulls back, or better yet, rips the veil that has kept heaven’s power and intention hidden (verse 10 and 15:38). This tearing of the veil between God and humankind and the opening of God’s reign among all humans, both begin in this lonely, isolated way. Who will see it? Who will recognize the truth of what Jesus is saying, and how he embodies God’s way of being among God’s people?

Mark’s gospel puts before us God’s own beloved son who announces clearly what is going on in the cosmos. We who hear him will misunderstand, be misunderstood, and even give up completely. Yet, it is good news announced here. It is good news in 4:8 that some seed “brings forth as much as a hundredfold.” It is good news in 4:11 that “to you (plural) has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God…” During Lent, perhaps we can focus our own attention on that kingdom that Jesus bears among us. He challenges us: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen” (Mark 4:9).