Mark 1:1-15 CEB
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:
Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.
After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”
If your family is anything like mine, around now is the time to start getting out all the decorations to put up around the house. The Grossmans start by setting up the tree and putting a Christmas wreath on the front door. We hang up stockings and finally finish by adding that most precious of porcelain decor to our home, the nativity set. Now, imagine that you go to unpack the nativity, but “you cannot find the stable with its giant star glued to the roof. Nor can you find the shepherds grasping their crooks or any fluffy sheep to group around them. The box contains no regal-looking magi, no weary camels, no winged angels in long flowing robes. You are shocked to discover the box contains no infant Jesus or his little manger bed either.” That’s how it can feel to read the gospel of Mark! We can be left wondering by just the end of the opening verses, “‘Wait a minute,’ [we might ask] ‘Where’s the baby?’” The Jesus that confronts us in Mark’s gospel is not a sweet and tender infant, but an adult, ready to begin his mission of disrupting and transforming our lives by inverting the order of our world!
Looking at the sweep of our four gospel narratives, only Mark begins with absolutely nothing about where Jesus came from in the text. Matthew and Luke give us the familiar stories of Mary and Joseph, of Bethlehem and a star, of toddling Jesus and some far-eastern Magi. Even John, for all of John’s uniqueness, still has a beginning of some kind! John grapples with what is going on in the person of Jesus by describing him as “the Word,” which “became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14 NRSV). John holds up the mystery that somehow God became one of us in the person of Jesus, but Mark has no such origin story. Instead, we get those few opening lines, including those words from Isaiah before immediately moving into Jesus’ baptism.
There in those opening words, Mark tells us that the “beginning of the good news [gospel]” of Jesus, “God’s son,” happened just as Isaiah predicted. While this may not sound like much, in using these words, Mark effectively calls on us to choose, to pick our loyalties. Mark borrows the very words of empire, the words of Rome to introduce Christ. You see, when “the Roman legions won a significant battle, heralds from all across the empire would declare ‘good news’ [gospel] that the peace of Rome (Pax Roma) was firmly intact.” Rome announced the good news that the status quo of Roman power had not been disrupted. Again, Mark calls Jesus “God’s Son,” and the emperor of Rome at this time was known as “Augustus Caesar, Son of God.” Mark says that this nobody Galilean is a rival to the leader of the largest empire that the world had seen to that point. Mark uses imperial language to make a royal pronouncement that the reign of Jesus has begun, and this Christ is the true ruler of the world. Mark confronts us from verse one with a choice: Christ or Rome. No middle option, no gray area, anything short of following Jesus as the ruler of the world, means we “are allied with Caesar and his empire of unrestrained power.” Unfortunately, there is nothing cozy about Mark’s Jesus, right away, Christ challenges the prevailing powers of the day to assert that the true power rests in God’s kingdom.
Prepare! That’s the call of Mark’s gospel! Prepare because God is coming! Mark calls on the words of prophets, the words of Isaiah, Malachi, and Exodus. Isaiah has that wilderness call, to make straight paths in the desert because the Lord comes, but Isaiah continues by saying, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isaiah 40:4 NRSV). Malachi declares, “Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1a NRSV). When this messenger, when the Lord arrives, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance? He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap” (Malachi 3:2 NRSV). God’s appearance in our world will not be gentle. God will tear down the powerful and lift up the weak. God will stamp out injustice and God will answer hope. John standing in the waters of the Jordan in Mark’s gospel is the rumbling of the storm before the lightning strikes!
With this kind of introduction, I can see why we would prefer our nativity Jesus, sweet and mild in the straw-lined manger of our holiday mantels! We are drawn to the nativity stories “because in the midst of a very hard and harsh world, the babe is a gift of tenderness, hope, and innocence.” We need this gift of love in a world that seems consumed by hatred and conflict! At the same time, the baby in our mangers does not have the power to challenge us because we only ever want to see him as “meek and mild.” We create a “soothing, sentimentalized Christmas” with our gentle baby Jesus. Mark shocks us with this Jesus who is instead ready to disrupt and challenge us, ready to invert the world as we know it! Why would Jesus do this? Because, as the words from Exodus promise us, “I’m about to send a messenger in front of you to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place that I’ve made ready” (Exodus 23:20 NRSV). God entering into our world and into our lives seeks to transform, as God is no longer satisfied with the status quo.
Looking at Mark’s account of the baptism, we are told that John dipped people into the waters of the Jordan and is offering forgiveness from sin! John offers something greater than the Temple in Jerusalem, as we are told “Everyone” is leaving the city to see John. “Maintenance of sin will no longer suffice,” something must change, people must be transformed from the inside out to get rid of the scourge of sin forever. There on the banks of the Jordan, Jesus arrives to be baptized, to start his ministry to fulfill what the messenger in the desert has proclaimed. Coming out of the water, he hears these words, “‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’” He hears a statement from God that quotes both Psalm 2 (“‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’”) and Isaiah 42 (“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights”). Psalm 2 is a royal psalm, read over the kings of Israel on their inauguration, and Isaiah 42 is one of the “Servant Songs in which Isaiah describes the suffering and sacrificial nature of God’s servant.” In other words, Jesus is king, but he does not rule in the way of Rome. He is not about power but servanthood, and his kingdom is not one of conquest but of transformation.
Instead of a baby waiting in the cradle, our manger is empty in Mark’s Advent as Christ moves through our world calling to us to follow, to join in his kingdom. Jesus will not let us stay in our “complacent and self-satisfied lives,” and Mark’s Jesus resists our “soothing, sentimentalized Christmas.” Mark’s Jesus confronts us and challenges us. A baby can ask little of us beyond what it needs to live, but Jesus asks hard things of us so that we may live, and live in complete union with our God. Our Advent will be disruptive this year. We will journey with Mark through Jesus’ life and ministry, and we will find that having Emmanuel, God with us, brings apocalypses big and small, conflict, new kinds of family, a hidden Messiah, and finally, the shadow of the cross itself. To be sure these gifts will be disruptive, but in the disruption of our lives and the status quo of our world, we will find that God breaks through to transform us with a transgressive love to bring us to the place that the Lord has promised, a place long hoped for, where true peace and joy can be found, where all may live and act in love forevermore. As Mark has told us, Christ was the beginning of this good news, and it continues to unfold in our lives and world today. Amen.
 Tracy S. Daub, Holy Disruption: Discovering Advent in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022), 1-2.
 Ibid., 2.
 David Fenton Smith, “Mark” in Wesley One Volume Commentary, eds. Kenneth J. Collins and Robert W. Wall (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020), 588-614.
 Ibid., 591.
 Daub 2022, 2.
 Ibid., 5.
 Fenton 2020, 591.
 Daub 2022, 5.
Pastor Paul Grossman