I started a new sermon series two weeks ago on the book of Mark, and have been struck by the no nonsense, in-your-face style of this Gospel. Matthew, who wrote to a Jewish audience, begins his book with a genealogy, underscoring Jesus' Jewish lineage. Luke focused more on the ministry of the "Son of Man", and highlighted the birth of Christ. His emphasis was on the humanity of Christ, because he knew that his Greek readers would have related to the idea of a perfect Son sent down from the heavens to live a perfect life on earth. John wrote to a very general audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and his message was largely about Jesus' deity, emphasized by the incredible gift of eternal life for all who believed.
But Mark wrote to a different audience altogether. Mark wrote to the busy Romans, a culture know for innovation, progress and greed. Of all the cultures represented in Scripture, perhaps none more closely mimic the values of modern day America more than that of Rome. Though thousands of years of cultural advancement separate us, Rome would be proud of what we've become. Jesus came from the line of David, but we have come from the line of Rome.
In Mark, I have been surprised to see a different Jesus emerge than the one I've grown accustomed to. This Jesus isn't the sanitary and seemingly harmless figure I grew up with. The Jesus of Mark wouldn't dare stick to a flannel board. This guy was on a mission!! Mark's Jesus probably looked more like Pigpen of Charlie Brown fame than the halo'd peacemaker pictured in Titan's Salvator Mundi.
Mark begins with a bang, and without the labored details of Matthew. It opens with John the Baptist coming on the scene in a way that was shocking and probably quite unexpected. This is what I love about the Christian story, and about the Bible in particular. If you were trying to fabricate a convincing story of the coming of the Messiah - The Savior of the World - would you do it like this? Would you basically find the craziest looking dude you could imagine – a guy who lives in the woods (cue banjo music) eats giant grasshoppers and fights bees for wild honey - and make him the one who would handle the Messiah’s PR campaign?
I've always pictured John the Baptist to be a cross between Chewbacca, the Big Foot look alike in the Star Wars films, and Bear Grylls, the go-for-broke survivalist star of Discovery’s Man vs. Wild. He was a big, hairy woodsman, and he’d eat anything! This is the guy who ushers in the Savior of the world! I think that’s pretty incredible. You just can’t invent this stuff!
This man, whom I imagine with a beard that would make ZZ Top jealous, develops quite a following in Jewish circles. People are coming to him in droves to be baptized, and the picture here, as N.T. Wright aptly describes it, is of a man who is rudely awakening the world by “splashing cold water all over them and telling them to get ready for the greatest moment in Jewish history, in world history.” (Mark for Everyone, p. 3)
Mark’s primary audience is Roman, and the idea of a messenger who would go before the emperor to announce his coming and “prepare the way” would have been a familiar one. Roman royalty typically sent messengers ahead to repair roads and announce the King’s coming so that those awaiting his presence would have ample time to adequately prepare for such an event. As the old British joke says, “Wherever the Queen goes she smells fresh paint.”
In the case of John the Baptist, rather than fixing roads and sprucing up homes, his primary concern was to turn hearts away from the deception of the world and toward the fulfillment of the prophecies. The One spoken of in Isaiah 40:3-5 and Malachi 3:1 (among other places) was coming, and the waters of baptism served as a tangible expression of both spiritual awakening and spiritual cleansing. This was the kind of pre-royalty preparation that John was tasked with. Instead of building roads, he was preparing hearts.
So, what we learn from verses 1-8 is that God is up to something new here. As Sally Lloyd-Jones writes in her wonderful book, The Jesus Storybook Bible, “Everything bad is coming undone!” The vast silence since God’s manifest presence left the Old Testament temple was finally breaking. The restless and feverish slumber of a sin-sick people was rather shockingly coming to an end. The Messiah was coming, and a mad man was alerting the world to this jarring fact.
I'll keep you posted on the Mark series, and I'll update my blog as I continue to be surprised by Jesus. Funny how you can be a Christian for most of your life and still stumble on God's surprising truth. And by "funny", I mean "awesome"!!