John the Baptist Prepares the Way

Advent 2B

Mark 1: 1 8

Introduction

This reading is part of the prologue to Mark (1: 1 — 13) and is laid down for the second Sunday in Advent: a time of personal preparation to celebrate the coming of the Messiah. The previous Sunday's Gospel opened Advent encouraging us to be ready for the final coming of the Lord and the close of time as we know it. Now we turn to the preparation of Israel for the commencement of the ministry of Jesus.

St. Mark's Gospel, being based on the reminiscences of Peter, begins with the public ministry of Jesus, or, rather, with His connexion with the Baptist, through which Peter and other apostles first became acquainted with Him. It therefore omits the birth narratives, although it is possible that St. Mark was acquainted with them.

J. Dummelow (Ed)

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 1

The beginning of the gospel about
Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is clear that at first the elementary preaching of the gospel by the Apostles began with the baptism of Jesus by John, and that it was only subsequently, and to the initiated alone, that the secret of our Lord's miraculous birth was disclosed. The reasons for this prudential reserve during the Virgin's lifetime are obvious.

J. Dummelow (Ed)

Most translations consider this verse as a heading or title, since it is not a complete sentence. The translation above has, "gospel about Jesus Christ…" Literally, the text says "of Jesus Christ", but it is not so much the gospel that comes from Jesus Christ, as an account about him. The Jerome Commentary goes further and adds that it is more "a proclamation of the Risen Christ in which he is again made present."

The word "gospel" (Greek, euaggeliou) meaning "good news" does not refer to a written document but the living word of hope from the lips of an appointed messenger (Lane). Lagrange defines it as, "the proclamation of salvation in Jesus…. The announcement of the salvation contained in the words and acts of Jesus." Only later did the word come to mean a book.

By the time this account was written, the name Christ (Greek, Christos) the Annointed One had become more like a surname.

Verse 2 and 3

It is written in Isaiah the prophet: 
"I will send my messenger ahead of you, 
who will prepare your way

voice of one calling in the desert, 
'Prepare the way for the Lord, 
make straight paths for him'."

This is not actually a quotation from Isaiah alone, but includes a sentence from Malachi as well, who, being the "lesser" prophet is not mentioned (a common custom at that time). Mark based his verses 2 and 3 on the following:

Exodus 23: 20 

(chosen by Mark from the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament)

See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared.

Malachi 3: 1 

(chosen by Mark from the Hebrew version)

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.

Isaiah 40: 3 

(chosen by Mark from the Greek Septuagint version)

The voice of one crying in the desert: prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God.

As Lane informs us, "The blended citation functions to draw attention to three factors which are significant to the evangelist in the prologue: the herald, the Lord and the wilderness.

Going back to Mark's blended quotation it should open with the word "Behold, I will send…etc." This is not just a call to look, but more correctly to listen carefully and reflect on the words. After the word "behold" the next is "will send" (Greek, apostello), a very important term in the New Testament.

Some other words to note:

Messenger: 

a prophet, one who speaks the voice of God,

Desert:

a wilderness rather than arid sand, and largely uninhabited.

Prepare:

prepare now and keep in readiness

Make straight:

do everything possible to make his travel easy (unimpeded) and rapid.

Summing up, Mark sees the coming of John and Jesus to the wilderness as the fulfilment of the promised salvation of which the prophet Isaiah had spoken.

Verses 4 and 5

And so John came, baptising in the desert region 
and preaching a baptism of repentance 
for the forgiveness of sins. 
The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. 
Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River.

Again, we clarify the meaning and significance of some terms used in these two verses.

John:

(Yehochanan) Grace or mercy of the Lord.

Baptising: 

(ho baptizon: the one baptising) dipping, immersing. There is no clear proof John's baptism derived from the Jewish practice of baptising new converts. It seems he adopted it as a hallmark of his prophetic ministry.

Repentance:

(metanoias): a deliberate and chosen turning, involving heart, mind and will. It always means turning away from sin towards God; "a coming to one's sense, resulting in a change of conduct." (Moulton and Milligan)

Sins:

in the Biblical concept, disobedience to God's revealed will.

All the people:

people of all classes (Weymouth)

Confessing:

 while they openly admitted their sins.

Lane helps us see clearly the three elements of John's ministry:

  • He was a man of the wilderness
  • He performed his ministry of baptism in the wilderness, and so prepared the way of the Lord.
  • He announced one greater than himself.

In the context of John's preaching, Mark highlights the Biblical understanding of true repentance:

  • It is a call to return to the original relationship with the Lord.
  • This means a return to the beginning of God's history with his people, a return, therefore, to the wilderness.
  • It is a call to renew sonship in the wilderness.

Achtemier adds, that John the Baptist calls for a return to faithfulness to God — the same faithfulness that had been typical of Israel in the wilderness. Just as Israel would finally return to the desert and to faithfulness to God in the last times, so John, in the desert, calls all Israel to repent and be washed clean of their sins, so they will be ready to greet the One who will come — clothed in God's own Spirit. (Invitation To Mark by P. Achtemeir, Image Books, DLT 1978).

Thus, these few verses set in place a major underlying theme throughout the whole of Mark.

Verse 6

John wore clothing made of camel's hair, 
with a leather belt around his waist, 
and he ate locusts and wild honey.

John is a true man of the wilderness, an ascetic, in fact a Nazirite. His clothing was similar to that of Elijah: course, tough, and suited to the harsh environment. His simple uncluttered lifestyle matched the message he proclaimed. And we would say, he practised what he preached.

Verse 7 and 8

And this was his 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 baptise you with water but 
he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit."

John is saying, "While it is God's will for me to baptise, I do so with water. But the one who will take over from me will baptise with and in the Holy Spirit."

Again we point readers to the renowned work by Professor W. Lane:

The reference to the bestowal of the Spirit is appropriate to the wilderness context of John's proclamation. Isaiah describes Israel's trek in the wilderness as a march under the guidance of the Spirit of God (Isa. 63: 11); it was the Spirit who gave the people rest in the wilderness (Ch. 63: 14). As the first exodus had been a going forth into the wilderness under the leadership of God's Spirit, the prophet announces the second exodus as a time when there will be a fresh outpouring of the Spirit (Chs. 32: 15; 44: 3). With this concept in mind John calls the people to the wilderness in anticipation of the fulfilment of the prophetic promise.

(The Gospel According to Mark by W. Lane, published by W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1974)

We will return to this theme often as we proceed through the rest of this Gospel account over the next twelve months.

Conclusion

There is something very reassuring about this stark and piercing call from a man we may still find a strange enigma: the fact that we can go back and start again. It is a message about repentance, but it is full of hope.

The call comes to us as individuals, as well as to the Church collectively. Advent reminds us that it is not only possible to go back to our original relationship with God, but that we must respond to this call. It is then we can recover the vision and sense of purpose we sometimes feel intensely aware we have lost. Plenty around us beat the drums and shout victory for the Lord, but have no intention of first repenting of personal sin and listening to him in the desert place; the place he calls us into where we leave the noise and affairs of the world to be able to hear, the "still small voice.

Now is the time to listen!

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