The Gospel of Peace
Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2017)
And this was [John’s] message: After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. – Mark 1.7-8 (NRSV)
The Holy Spirit and Dr. Marion Soards inspire today’s lesson.
Setting. Obviously this lesson comprises the opening verses of the gospel according to Mark. Older commentaries were united in their view of Mark 1.1-8 as the “prologue” to the Gospel. In turn, they referred to Mark 1.9-13.37 as the account of Jesus’ ministry. But since the 1950’s, interpreters have tended to view Mark 1.1-13 (some even argue for 1.1-15) as a multifaceted prologue or introduction to the Gospel. Why all this bother? How an author chooses to begin a work is often a crucial clue to comprehending the whole writing. Thus the interpretive question is “Has the story begun, or is it being set ‘up’?” Fortunately, the lectionary’s selection of Mark 1.1-8 gives us a portion of the text that commentators universally agree is introductory material.
Structure. Even this minimal prologue is complex. Verse 1 is practically a title for the Markan composition. Verses 2-3 are a reference to prophecy (specifically Isaiah 40.3 is quoted) declaring the early Christian conviction that John the Baptizer was a forerunner of Jesus. Having explained the significance of John’s activity, the prologue continues by telling of the character of John’s ministry (v. 4), of the popular response to his work (v. 5), and then of John’s striking appearance (v. 6). The concluding verses report the content of John’s preaching. We might ponder, “What is the meaning of the gospel?” And, following the text, the answers come: It is the fulfillment of God’s promises; it is God’s reaching out through faithful witnesses to humanity in a most striking way; it is most specifically God’s work in God’s Son, Jesus Christ; and it has as its focus and content the very person of Jesus.
Significance. One difficult issue related to this text about which every student must make a decision is whether the words the Son of God are an authentic part of Mark’s original text. Commentaries discuss this problem in detail, noting the conflicting textual traditions that are equally well attested in the oldest and best manuscripts. The recent tendency to include the Son of God, despite the absence of the phrase in ancient and authoritative texts, is sane and defensible because of the presence of the phrase of similar words in other portions of Mark’s Gospel. Moreover, the title, Son of God, is an accurate summary of Mark’s essential understanding of Jesus; and it names the central theological theme of the Gospel. The following comments assume that the Son of God belongs in this passage.
A lesson or sermon cannot simply pound the point that Jesus is the Son of God. Even if we agree that the declaration is true, what exactly does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Mark’s whole Gospel is a deliberate effort to define the title, Son of God. He instructs the reader of the Gospel on the meaning of this title by playing it off against another: Son of Man. Through the course of the Gospel, prior to his death on the cross, only supernatural forces – God and the demons – actually recognize that Jesus is the Son of God. To all others Jesus presents himself, referring to himself steadily, as the Son of Man. We come to comprehend who Jesus Christ is as the Son of God only when we follow him through this Gospel as the Son of Man. Who then is the Son of Man? From a reading of the Gospel we can say that Jesus, the son of Man, is the one who does God’s will and God’s work in battling the forces of evil for the salvation of humankind. Above all, Jesus, the Son of Man, is the one who dies on the cross, giving his life in behalf of humanity for humanity’s salvation. Thus, Jesus the Son of God is God’s selfless servant who gives even himself to save others! Jesus, the Son of God, makes provision for the salvation of humanity. He reveals with utter clarity the depth of God’s love and the essential, selfless, serving nature of God. And Jesus, the Son of God, shows human beings the manner of life to which God calls us all.
All the wonderful and interesting information about John the Baptist in the prologue to Mark’s Gospel should not lure us into major meditation on the person and the work of the Baptist. John is a forerunner, and as such he holds a high place in
God’s fulfillment of the promise of salvation. But John is not the Messiah. Rather he points to another, greater than he, who is both the focus of our attention in this Gospel, and, as believers, the object of our devotion. It is Jesus Christ who issues the baptism in the Holy Spirit - namely, the power and presence of the saving grace of God. As we know him, we know God and we come to understand ourselves. Through Jesus Christ we come to have a christologically focused theology that has sufficient content and precision to allow us, in turn – but, only in turn – to develop a theological understanding of human nature and behavior.
Lawrence T. Foster