If you were going to tell the story of Jesus Christ, where would you begin? In an extended series that begins today we will be observing how the evangelist Mark tells the story. This is intended to be a kind of Lectio Divina in action, part of my effort to encourage the practice of Lectio Divina.
As a point of methodology, I will discuss the first 13 verses of Chapter 1 today and then I will cite all the verses at the end, so you can read them in their entirety.
The Story of Those Who Saw
Mark’s Gospel is generally considered to have been the first Gospel account, written probably before 70 AD, likely in Rome. Its author is held to be the disciple named “John who is called Mark,” as Acts 12:12 describes him. This Mark had a unique perch in the early Christian community. He was a cousin of Barnabas, a companion of Paul during his ministry in Antioch and in his captivity at Rome. Mark was even closer to the apostle Peter, who calls him “my son” in 1 Pet 5:13. Throughout Mark’s Gospel we will see a string of pearls, little eyewitness details that Peter has clearly shared with Mark from his life with Jesus.
Mark’s Gospel is unique because of its dense brevity. I mean it is marked by a lovely economy of words that masks a searing potency of impact. In just 16 chapters, Mark provides the quickest survey, of the 4 Gospels, of the terrain of Jesus’ life and teaching. But he does so while also providing intense concentration of details within the stories themselves.
His Gospel starts out suddenly.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.” (Mk 1:1)
Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ.
This powerful verse harkens back to the very first verse of the Bible:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1)
ΕΝ ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν.
The word ἀρχῇ – pronounced arkay – is the Greek word for beginning. It means the person or thing that commences, that by which anything begins to be. The origin. The active cause. You can see this root word in a modern word like archbishop or hierarchy.
Mark knows what he is doing when he begins his gospel with this word. He is sending his reader back to the beginning. He is saying Jesus is at the ἀρχῇ of things. He is part of their origin. He is saying: the point of origin of the entire Judeo-Christian story has its roots in Jesus.
Mark next proceeds to another foundational text of the Bible. The words of Isaiah the prophet. Offered simply, with no fanfare. He gives no explanation why he chooses this particular text. He gives just these words from Isaiah 40, verse 3:
“Behold I send my messenger before your face to prepare your way. A voice crying out in the desert, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ (Mk 1:2-3)
In the Desert
I’m struck by this word ἐρήμῳ, desert. ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, to be precise, in the desert. Isaiah is saying, and Mark is quoting him, that the messenger sent by God to prepare the people’s way to God will be heard in the desert. His voice will cry out from the desert.
This is interesting. This voice that paves the way of the soul to God will come, not from the Temple. Not from the agora, the public places. Not from the praetorium, the halls of government. Not from the gymnasium, the stadium, or the places of recreation.
But from the desert. This word, desert, bursts with meaning and significance. It conveys the full force of the desert tradition of the Old Testament. The desert was the place to which God drew Israel out from Egypt; where he formed them as His people. It was the place where He sealed his covenant with them. The desert was the place where his prophets withdrew to hear his voice in the gentle breeze. The desert was the redolent place, full of mystery, where God promised to draw the soul so He could speak to her, heart to heart.
From the desert, God speaks. To the desert He wishes to draw us. That we might hear His voice. That a way from our heart to His heart might be cleared. Cut back. Paved. Prepared.
What about me? Am I listening for the voice of God in the desert? Or are the voices I primarily listen to coming to me from the streets, the stock market, the stadium, the cell phone, the bar, the media, the gym? That’s a question to ponder.
Back to the text. Verse 4. “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s voice in the desert. He is the realization of that Isaian prophecy. John comes upon the scene, in Mark’s Gospel, in the desert. That’s where he appears before the people of Israel. There he proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Three keys word in this verse to note.
First, the word κηρύσσω – pronounced kay roo so. It means to proclaim. This is the verb always used to denote the ardent proclamation that springs forth from one animated by the Spirit. It’s often a verb describing Jesus’ teaching, but also characterizes the words of the prophets and the apostles. When you see this word, you need think of eyes dancing with fire, words coming forth with authority, conviction, with a weight heavier than the normal word. When one proclaims the word of God in the sense of κηρύσσω, it is with this kind of energy. We sometimes bring κηρύσσω into English by describing the core teaching of the apostles as the kerygma. The kerygma is the core deposit of our faith, that which has been proclaimed in Jesus’ name.
So we have John, steadfast in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of conversion for the forgiveness of sins.
Second word: βάπτισμα, translated as baptism. When we hear this word, we must hear more than the notion of a few drips of water poured upon on infant’s head. We must hear rather the original sense of the word: immersion. Baptism was an immersion in water.
Third word: μετάνοια. This word is typically translated as ‘conversion’ or ‘repentance.’ It contains those senses, but it is deeper.
The Deeper Meaning of Repentance
This point is important so I want to pause on it.
Meta – noia. Meta, in this context, means with.
Noia comes from nous – meaning understanding, mind, or intellect. The verb form is noew – to perceive, apprehend, understand, gain insight into. The action, in other words, of the intellect.
So metanoia is better understood to mean, not just repentance or conversion, but a state of having nous, a state of right perception, of sound insight. We get there by a conversion or repentance or change of thinking or deep state of mind, away from anti-wisdom into wisdom. The key sense we must recover in this word is the positive sense of state of mind, the state of having nous, light in the intelligence. We could think of metanoia as a state in which the light of true seeing or understanding descends into the mind or falls upon the mind.
So we have John, a man empowered by God to speak to people and to pave a way for their hearts to move towards God’s heart. This John proclaims in the desert a βάπτισμα μετανοίας, a baptism of metanoia. He’s proclaiming, in other words, a physical act – immersion in water – which will signal the immersion of mind in light, in right seeing, in right understanding. A bringing of the physical self, soul and mind before the vista of right seeing.
There’s more. John proclaims here a baptism of metanoia “for the forgiveness of sins.” The reality of sin being forgiven by God is a part of this metanoia that John proclaims. Many of us don’t like the word sin. We might feel it is loaded with the heavy burden of a religion of guilt or a dark medieval view of the person.
But a proper understanding of sin is part of right understanding; it’s part of metanoia. It is seeing the truth of things to understand that the soul stands before God, carrying the reality of sin, but also capable of those sins being washed away in the water, in God’s mercy, and forgiven.
This, it seems, is what the text means when it says: make straight the path of the human heart to God. Remove the obstacle of sin. Forgive it. Wash it away. Cast it aside, like boulders blocking a path, cleared to make ready the way. John makes ready this way through the act of baptism.
John baptizes in the desert to prepare a way to God. This is immersion in water, washing away sin and sparking a shift of mind, a metanoia.
A cleansing of the intelligence. An opening of the intelligence to light.
People Stream to the Streaming River of Jordan
John’s message resonates with the people in his day. People stream to the desert to listen to John, to listen to this message and undergo the ritual act he performs.
Verse 5. “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.”
From throughout Judea and Jerusalem they come. They are baptized. As they are baptized they confess and acknowledge their sins. Here we see human perception, metanoia, right understanding. An understanding of sin and a humble recognition of the reality of God’s mercy.
We see baptism in act, though we may not see the full meaning of this act. Not yet.
Next Mark describes John. He would have been a rare figure to behold. Clothed in camel’s hair. A belt of rough animal leather around his waist. The food he ate was food that fell from heaven. Locusts and wild honey. He lived, like Elijah, by the grace of God mediated through the natural world around him.
John was not vain. Not proud. Indeed, his very ministry was pointed toward someone else, not toward himself. And he charged no admission to those who came.
“After me is coming,” he said, “one who is mightier than I. The very straps of his sandles, I am not even worthy to untie. I baptize you in water. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)
The one John speaks of here is the one whose way he was sent to prepare. That one soon appears on the scene, at the River Jordan. He comes from Nazareth, in Galilee. He is baptized by John, in the sacred act of baptism, immersion of body in the waters of the Jordan.
Jesus Immersed in the Waters of the Jordan
Mark describes this moment. The one is Jesus. He was, at one moment, fully immersed under the cool waters that quietly rustled past, as John, his hand likely behind Jesus’ neck, stood above him, feet planted firmly in the muddy soil of the river bed, hair glistening beneath a warm spring time sun. Suddenly, John lifts Jesus up with a gesture of his arm. Jesus ascends from the water. As he passes up and through it – the waters still running down his face and arms – he looks up. He sees the heavens rent asunder.
“O that you would sunder the heavens and come down,” (Is. 63:19) Isaiah once cried. Now this sundering of the heavens happens. Now this prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled. The veil between the visible and the invisible is split – as later the veil of the Temple would be split at Jesus’ death (Mk 15:38) – and, through it, the Spirit, like a dove, descends upon Jesus.
Like a dove. Does this mean in the shape of a dove? Or does it mean white, bright, pure, mobile in air, gentle, peaceful? We might think of it as the latter; though there is no harm in also thinking of it as the former. In either case, we may conceive of the Spirit, in luminous brightness, an image of purity, gentleness, peace, coming from above to settle upon Jesus as he ascends from the waters of the Jordan. Still dripping.
There was a voice. Not a voice from the desert, as was John’s voice. But a voice from heaven. The voice says to Jesus, over Jesus:
“You are my beloved Son, in whom I delight.” (Mk. 1:11)
This moment crackles like a fire; it is incandescent, like a flame. It is a dawning of wonder upon the face of the earth. A revelation. An apocalypse – for that is what the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις means: revelation, a disclosure of truth.
That is what this moment is. It’s a disclosure of truth, a rendering visible and audible of what actually happens in the sacred rite of baptism. This is what happens when the pure of heart are baptized. Jesus’ experience of baptism validates the act of baptism and reveals its inner nature.
This is it’s nature: at the touch of the waters the heavens are rent. The spirit descends, gentle, peaceful, luminous. The Father sees. The Father speaks. He names his child. He speaks over his child His love. He gazes in delight upon His child.
Baptism is a child of God standing clean in the presence of God. Receiving the love of the Father. Being the delight of the Father. Being visited by the Spirit that proceeds from the Father.
In Baptism, the Father opens the intelligence of the child, the nous, and into the nous He pours this fundamental light as to the nature of things, as to the wellspring of existence. This light brings metanoia. It brings right perception.
A Baptism That Ushers in a Confrontation with The World
Yet this moment is but a blink. With haste, suddenly, says Mark; at once, in the haste with which the Israelites departed from Egypt, in the thick of night; in the haste with which Mary hurried from her encounter with Gabriel to the aid of her cousin, Elizabeth; with this same haste, Jesus is driven out. Driven, mark this word. Jesus is driven out deeper into the desert, by the Spirit.
This gentle, peaceful, dove-like Spirit, descended from the Father, now drives the Son deep into the desert to confront that which, upon earth, opposes the action and dominion and tender love of the Father.
Jesus the first born, the monogenos (Jn 1:14), is driven by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days. Driven to confront the devil and exercise dominion over him.
Just us the Israelites, God’s “first born son” (Ex 4:22) on earth, were sent out into the desert to face down their former ways of slavery to sin, resistance to God. Sent out to construct on earth a dominion of spirit over matter. To model in the desert the kingdom of God before they crossed the Jordan and journeyed to establish a land where they would build an image of this kingdom on earth.
So now Jesus, named and revealed by the Spirit and God’s voice passing over Him; named and revealed as God’s beloved Son in the waters of the Jordan; so now Jesus is driven out into the desert where he confronts the arch-priest of darkness, the one who opposes the work and dominion of the Father on earth. Confronts him. Exercises dominion over him. Establishes the fact that the powers of darkness hit their limits here, where the power of the Son stands.
Like the waters of the ocean that hit the shore, sometimes in a mighty roar, but only reach so far and then recede.
So it is in the desert when Jesus is sent by the Spirit to confront Satan. It is a primordial moment. A kind of re-creation. Jesus is in the presence, the text says, of the wild animals, tested in the desert for 40 days, as Adam and Eve were tested in the garden, as the Israelites were tested in the desert for 40 years. But this Jesus triumphs. He re-capitulates, in the desert, the experience of the Israelites, with the difference that He fully realizes the purpose of this confrontation with darkness. Jesus fulfills what the 40 years in the desert of God’s first-born son foreshadowed.
What was that purpose? That light might be tested and revealed. That light may rise and dispel the darkness. That light from heaven might bring light to earth. That order and dominion from heaven might establish the order and dominion and kingdom of the Father on earth.
This Son is our new Moses. Leading us into right understanding, right worship and right existence as children of the Father.
As John puts it in his Gospel: in the Son, we are given power to become children of God.
“To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” (Jn 1:12-13)
The Full Gospel Text
We close with a reading of the full text of these verses from Mark, then a prayer.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.”
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Mark 1: 1-13
Father, as you gaze upon Jesus; as you immerse him in the great love of your Spirit; as you speak over him your fatherly word of love and delight: so you look upon me. So you give me to be and to live as one of your children. Invest me, Father, with the truth of who I am. Invest me with your Spirit that I too can face that which, in my heart and in this world, opposes your love, your truth; that I may say, to the spirit of the world, ‘stop here;’ that I may say, ‘here, today, the kingdom of God arises and shines.’ Amen.