There is one word that most perfectly sums up the Gospel of Mark – NOW. Mark tells his Gospel with the utmost urgency. He is compelled to write and desperate to waste neither time nor words to share his distilled Gospel-message, Jesus has come, which is evidenced here in the first chapter of Mark. For us reading this Gospel, especially having just celebrated the Nativity of our Lord Jesus, we will note that something appears to be missing from this Gospel. Where is the birth narrative? Where is the trip to Bethlehem forced upon Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary? Where is the manger and the shepherds? Mark includes no stories of Jesus’ birth and neither does Mark include stories of the Magi’s visitation of Jesus that is celebrated on January 6th (12 days after Christmas) every year and is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.
Mark is so consumed with writing his account of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand that Mark has no time to waste in recording his birth. Pheme Perkins notes that it is as if Mark simply does not want the reader of his Gospel to be distracted by ancillary matters, matters that do not matter to his telling of the Gospel story. And for Mark, the birth narratives are of lesser importance. What is of the utmost importance is: (1) that in Jesus, God has acted definitively to fulfill God’s promise made to all of Israel as prophesied in Isaiah; (2) Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God; (3) Jesus invites people to repent and change their hearts and lives in such a way that would indicate their belief and participation in this coming Kingdom of God.
It might seem strange that Mark, who is so all consumed with immediately telling the story of Jesus’ reign, that he begins his Gospel by not mentioning Jesus at all, but by focusing on two other prophetic voices. First, Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah and Isaiah’s prophecy of a coming prophet who’s ministry will help prepare Israel for the coming Messiah. After quoting Isaiah, Mark then proceeds to introduce us to John the Baptist and even before mentioning the name of Jesus or Jesus’ ministry, spends considerable time describing John’s appearance, personality, and ministry.
John is quite the interesting and entertaining character. In fact, if you were to draw up in your mind what a charismatic, religious, ascetic prophet would like, it would be this image of John the Baptist. His clothes were wild and rugged, made of camel hair. His diet was organic and earthy (before such a diet was faddishly popular), he ate locusts and wild honey, and his message was direct and unswerving — the Messiah of God is coming, repent, be prepared for his coming. He spoke with brashness and daring. He wasn’t afraid to insult the Pharisees and religious leaders if he believed their religious hypocrisy needed exposing nor was John afraid of calling out half hearted attempts at religiosity by the people of Israel. Cable news would have loved this guy.
John was dynamic and charismatic, so much so that he had his own group of disciples and followers; in some ways it is fair to think of John as a religious rock star. Crowds flocked to see him, to listen to him, and to receive his baptism. From our study of non-Biblical first century historical sources we know that there were those who thought that he was the Messiah (even the Gospel of John hints at this confusion), some thought he was the second coming of the prophet Elijah (something John himself, in the Gospel of John, denies though he does express his understanding that he shares in the same ministry of Elijah), and once Jesus arrived on the scene some of these tensions remained. There were followers of John who steadfastly refused to believe that John was mere second fiddle to Jesus. Despite the fact that John is very clear, he exists to point people to someone else who is stronger and greater than he, the crowds didn’t necessarily want to believe it because John so perfectly fit their image of a religious leader. John was someone they wanted to follow.
But John is resolute in his ministry. He is here to prepare them for one coming who is:
“Stronger than I…I am not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1: 7-8).
You can imagine just how frenzied the crowds following John would have been to see the one arrive who was greater than John. What would this coming one look like? What would he eat? What would he wear? What shocking and provocative things would he say?
And so it is in this context that Mark literally sneaks Jesus onto the scene. It might seem ironic that Mark, who so desperately wants to be assured no reader or hearer of his Gospel would be distracted by things of secondary importance, gives John a grand and dramatic entrance into the Gospel narrative, but barely mentions Jesus’ arrival. Seriously, if you sneezed, blinked, or looked out the window for one second you would have missed Jesus’ arrival in Mark 1:9, “About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee.” That’s it. No mention of Jesus’ clothes, his diet, his appearance, his prophetic ministry (yet). Mark very casually and silently slips Jesus into the scene and allows Jesus to be baptized and the reader is left wondering, just as the crowds who surrounded John the Baptist that day must have been wondering, surely this can’t be the long awaited Messiah. This dude can’t be the one for whom John has been preparing us.
There is an odd juxtaposition in Mark’s Gospel. On the one hand, we have John the Baptists words assuring us that there is one coming with excessive spiritual power and dynamism, however, on the other hand, we see Jesus, the supposed bearer of this power, practically invisible and nearly overlooked. If the title of this sermon is, Now…God is Revealed, the subtitle is most certainly, “But Be Careful That You Don’t Miss Him.” It seems so odd. Why would God allow Jesus to make his entrance on the scene in such a forgettable and overlooked manner? Would God not want a little more glitz and glamour for the arrival of God’s Son?
“One more powerful than I is coming after me…” of course Jesus is more powerful than John the Baptist. We who call ourselves Christians know this and our lives are marked by Jesus’ power, but the Gospels reveal, and Mark’s introduction of Jesus’ ministry is a perfect illustration of, the fact that Jesus specializes in subversive and hidden power. Jesus doesn’t look powerful or flashy. In fact in Isaiah 53:2 we read the Prophet describing the coming Messiah as one who, “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” John 1:10-11 recounts, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him: yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not recognize him.” Even John the Baptist confesses he didn’t recognize Jesus as God’s anointed one when Jesus first arrived on the scene, “Even I didn’t recognize him…” (John 1:31).
God’s plan was that Jesus be forgettable, hard to spot, and be both so unassuming in physical appearance and social import that he would be hard to recognize. Simply put, Jesus does not match our world’s definition, understanding, or physical portrait of power. Jesus’ power, the power of the Kingdom of God, is humble, subversive, and is easily missed… And that’s the way God designed it.
Jesus was poor. He was homeless. He was a preacher and a religious leader. Stop me when you hear something that matches some of the characteristics you would ascribe to someone who is powerful. He didn’t drive a Maserati, didn’t live in a gated community, didn’t earn six figures, nor did he wear hats that said “Make America Great.” He didn’t belittle, insult, or demonize his enemies. He didn’t grand stand, wasn’t prideful and arrogant, wasn’t entitled, didn’t use other people or his followers for his own gain, he didn’t take advantage of people, he never lied or manipulated. He never won a super bowl, didn’t have a six pack abs, didn’t get botox nor was he perfectly tanned, fit or beautiful. And yet that is exactly our world’s vision of power. Because we constantly see images of power as depicted and attributed by the world our challenge as followers of Christ is to actually believe that Jesus possess real, true, and authentic power. Do we believe Jesus possess real power?
Jesus’ power is different – because he was different. Jesus was God-in-flesh. He didn’t have to posture or pretend to be powerful, he didn’t play powerful out of his own insecurities; he was the creator, redeemer and sustainer of the world. He didn’t need to impress or puff himself up. He didn’t have to dress up his power. He could be ironic, honest, challenging, funny, witty, lonely, sorrowful, and frustrated. He spoke plainly and truthfully. He deliberately looked counter to our culture’s vision of power because he was quite literally counter-cultural because he was of the culture of the Kingdom of God.
And Now…Jesus is here. Now…God has been revealed. Now…God’s power has been made manifest in Jesus. And Now…everyone, including John the Baptist and his band of followers, is scratching their heads trying to make sense of this power that looks so vastly different, trying to make sense of this Messiah that looks nothing like any of us would ever expect. We are invited to let go of our desirous grasp of the world’s vision of power that leads to assaults, abuses, boasts, as it consumes others for personal fulfillment, advancement, and achievement. Hear the good news, the world’s vision of power is not power at all, but wickedness and insecurity masquerading as power. We are invited to experience freedom in Christ as we follow Jesus, learn his ways, and are shaped in the ways of his subversive and true power for the transformation of our souls and of this world. Amen.