Today I set off on my walk to Lindisfarne. The publicity team have been doing their best to drum up interest in the project and have been making contact with people, so hopefully I will be met by people along the way. It will not be as exciting as the Olympic torch, but you get the idea.
Today we also set off on a three month journey through Mark’s gospel. We begin at the beginning. Mark is a master story teller. This is not a detective story where we are to be kept in suspense; we are told in the opening words that this is the story, the good news, about Jesus. He is the Messiah – the long promised deliverer who would come to his people in their servitude. He is the Son of God. We are told this at the beginning, but we are going to work it out together as we follow Jesus in his journeys and meetings with many different people.
Mark presents John the Baptist as, in a way, Elijah come back from the dead. He quotes the words of Isaiah, spoken to Israel at a time when they are in exile and defeat, longing for a deliverer. John’s words obviously strike a chord because the response is tremendous as crowds come out to him; he is echoing the words of Isaiah, to prepare our hearts by repenting of our sins and being baptised. Also as in Isaiah, he announces that God is coming to deliver them, except that he talks of an individual who will be mighty, and who will baptise not just in water but in the Holy Spirit. We are to be plunged into, immersed in, God himself!
We are agog. How will this play out. Who is coming?
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John on the Jordan. It’s a man. But not just any man. As Jesus was coming up out of the water he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ There is no indication that anyone else saw or heard this, so we presume that Jesus told his disciples about it later. But we know because Mark has given us privileged access. We are going to observe over the coming weeks how different people respond as they encounter Jesus and try to understand who he is and what he is about. This is a major theme, sometimes spoken of as the Messianic Secret; it is a striking feature that Mark presents us with different audiences for Jesus’ activity and wisdom; different reactions to the authority of this teacher, prophet and healer, this quiet revolutionary.
The first thing that Jesus does is to respond to the Spirit’s impulsion to go into the desert and confront Satan and wild animals. Jesus will later speak of himself as the ‘strong man’, and we see here the beginning of the authority that Jesus claims as God’s representative here on earth. This is made explicit when the arrest of John seems to fire a starting pistol for the open public ministry of Jesus. He returns to Galilee and announces the good news of God.
The good news is the coming of the authority, the kingly rule of God himself. Just as when there is a takeover in a company and new bosses arrive. Just as when a football club is taken over and the new regime bring in their own manager and style. Just as when a new head teacher is appointed and everything we thought we knew about a school can change. (Digression: should this apply when there is change of leadership in a local church community?). Just as when there is a coup and the old king or president is deposed and a new regime takes over. So Jesus is announcing that God is ruler of this world, and that his own arrival is making this obvious. He is God’s ‘taking charge’ personified.
What are his commands?
We are to repent and believe the good news.
To repent is to have a complete change of heart and mind, that leads to a change in direction and behaviour. It is not just to turn over a new leaf, or to make a resolution to be good. It is to have such a changed view of the world and our place in it, that we just cannot conceive of life going on as before. All sorts of analogies come to mind. Entering a new relationship, or one coming to an end. A sudden and terrible bereavement. A calamity such as war or earthquake or tidal wave. When the Berlin Wall fell and the former East Germany was reunited with the West, a whole lifetime of repression and double speak was swept away. It is too soon to know how the events of the Arab Spring will play out, but many were dreaming of a new start and a better future. In Syria today, we see a tragedy being enacted with many longing desperately for relief.
My point is that when something so momentous happens, everything must be revaluated and we must be prepared to change. The coming of Jesus was, and is, such an event that we are shaken to the core. Our comfortable lives are held up for examination. We will see this many times in the coming weeks as Jesus encounters various people in the gospel, and they respond to him. Just as Jesus was led by the Spirit into a place of examination and testing, so are we.
To believe the good news is to embrace it, to fling our arms open to embrace any and all things that God sends us. We may not understand everything. We may doubt our ability to live up to the high calling of being a follower of Jesus. We will see, though, that there are many who encounter Jesus who suspect or reject him, and we are invited instead to welcome him into our lives.
Mark then recounts the calling of some specific named followers. Simon, Andrew, James and John all receive their call, and we will follow their journey. It seems to me that we are also to understand that Jesus is giving to each of us the same invitation: ‘Come, follow me.’ As we repent and believe, we are engaged in a lifetime’s journey of discovery and growth, seeking to be truly open for all that he has for us. We have little power to achieve anything, but as we follow the king and serve him, so we can be part of the bringing in of his kingdom, and seeing his will being done here on earth as it is in heaven.