The Gospel of Mark does not begin with the story of a baby or the coming of visitors with gifts, but with a voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” (Mark 1:3) Prepare for God’s arrival!
The voice “crying out in the wilderness” (an image from Isaiah 40:3) belongs to John the Baptist, who is a peculiar character. He is consistently declaring to all that would hear, of the need for repentance, for the greater one is coming. In Mark, Jesus arrives quite suddenly on the scene, fully grown, seemingly out of nowhere.
Jesus’ ministry begins in the context of the “wilderness,” the vast, unpopulated desert of Judea, a place that symbolizes loneliness, the unknown, and proximity to death, all of which are features of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story. The wilderness reminds us of the period of time in which Israel wandered in the desert after the escape from Egypt. Other Old Testament books tell us of how the people of Israel, grumbled against God and were ready to turn away from God, repeatedly as they wandered. They were not ready to be God’s people. Before they could cross the Jordan River and enter the promised land, they had to learn to trust God.
The Gospel of Mark echoes this process announcing the arrival of Jesus the Messiah who has come to show them the way out of the wilderness of sin and into the promised land of a right relationship with God.
Baptism is an outward symbol of an inward surrender to God. Mark says, according some translators, that while people were baptized “in the Jordan,” Jesus was baptized “into the Jordan,” and that he came “up out of the water”. Mark uses this image of Jesus emerging up and out of the waters of baptism and the image of him catching his breath as he came out of the water to announce the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Jesus. As Jesus takes this deep breath coming out of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove.
There is nothing subtle about this vision. It is a life-defining moment for Jesus and for those who witnessed it. All would see how completely Jesus immersed himself in God’s will and how clearly God responded.
Jesus, even though he has nothing to confess, surrenders completely to God. He goes into the Jordan and is covered by it. He goes under the surface of the water, as though dying, and comes up renewed, as though resurrected.
Mark illustrates how Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, by depicting him teaching with the full authority of God. Soon after his baptism, Jesus begins to teach and heal powerfully, “as one having authority” (1:21-22). Throughout Jesus’ ministry in this Gospel, we see hints of what some scholars call the “Messianic Secret.” No one recognizes Jesus as the Son of God except the evil spirits and demons, who beg him to leave them alone because they know Jesus represents a danger to them. But the people, do not recognize him. After the crucifixion, when all seems hopeless, the women go to anoint Jesus’ body and discover an empty tomb. But even in this moment of revelation when an angel explains that Jesus has risen from the dead, the women, instead of going and telling as the angel instructed, run away in fear and say nothing.
These fearful women represent all of us: we see the empty tomb but do not understand.
Mark’s gospel is characterized by a sense of great urgency. Why is Mark in such a big hurry? Mark’s urgency is a reflection of his apocalyptic point of view. In the first century, when Jesus’ life and ministry took place, there was a great deal of tension between the Jews and the Romans. Most of Jesus’ followers were Jews. From time to time war broke out as those who were oppressed by the Romans rebelled against the oppression. The Romans retaliated with extreme force to quell any rebellion by decimating the Jewish population – including those who were followers of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark was written some 40 years after Jesus’ lifetime and earthly ministry – during a particularly volatile time, when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem. It must have felt like the end of the world when the Jewish people witnessed the destruction of the Temple and their way of life being destroyed.
It was during this time that the Gospel of Mark was written – to give hope to a community outside of Jerusalem and a community of Christians who knew of the suffering and fall of Jerusalem.
Mark shares Jesus’ words as words of hope to a weary and fearful people, encouraging them not to give up hope. His cry to “prepare the way” is reminder of the Advent of the Messiah.
Mark shows that God’s love and self-sacrifice can be seen clearly, even in times of desperation, struggle, and suffering, when all seems to be lost and everything is changing. “Prepare a way!” The Lord is coming. There is no need to wander in the wilderness of fear and doubt any longer.