The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1-20)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on January 21, 2021
Mark’s Gospel is best experienced as a single piece rather than a series of vignettes stitched together.  As though to tell us this, the Evangelist begins his Gospel already foreshadowing its ending, an ending which will tell us to return to the place from where we started: out in Galilee.  Today, to both honor and hopefully illustrate a little of the integrity of Mark’s Gospel as a whole, I want to read the earliest verses of Mark’s narrative alongside the last.
 
Our Gospel starts with, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ… (Mark 1:1).  But rather than Jesus, we are immediately shown the figure of John the Baptist in the wilderness, proclaiming the repentance of sins and baptizing people as a sign of that repentance (1:4).  Our expectations as to what the center of action will be are shifted, or suspended for a moment.  Jesus himself goes out to John in the wilds (1:9), wanders in the wilderness himself, as though still processing what has just happened at the river (1:12-13), and then returns to Galilee proclaiming God’s kingdom.
 
But it’s not just Jesus who goes out to see John.  Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” (1:5).  Jerusalem, the highest and best of cities, the place to which all the nations will stream, as Isaiah says (Is. 2:2)—apparently this holiest of cities, this center of the universe, is emptying itself out as people leave it, flocking to John the Baptist in the wilderness. 
 
The good news of Jesus Christ begins with the usual center of action no longer being the center.  When Mark says, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way,” he is quoting Malachi 3:1; only he does so at a slant.  Malachi—one of the latest prophets of the Old Testament—says that God’s way-preparing messenger is to arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Yet in Mark, this messenger arrives out in the wilderness, waist deep in the Jordan River.  From the very beginning, Mark forces us and our expectations to move from Jerusalem and out to the fringes.  The good news begins by leaving behind the seats of power and venturing to the periphery.  All this, it seems, is the change of life that repentance means.  This is how the good news begins.
 
This is also how Mark’s Gospel ends.  You remember the story, the one we’ll read on Easter (Mark 16:1-8).  Jesus has been crucified in Jerusalem and buried, and early on the first day of the week some of his disciples—all Galilean women (15:40)—go to anoint his body.  When the women arrive, however, the stone is rolled back and a young man is there who says, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  But go…he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him….” (Mark 16:6-8).   The women flee the tomb, understandably afraid.
 
Do you see what has happened?  On Easter morning, we are still in Jerusalem, and we go with the women to the tomb…only we don’t get a vision of the risen Lord.  Our expectations for where the center of action will be are again shifted and suspended: not here.  Instead, we are told to return to Galilee, to follow the Jordan River back to the neighborhoods of no consequence and ill repute from where Jesus came.  We leave the holy city and venture back to the fringes: Galilee, a place which is socially, economically and politically nowhere.
 
Mark’s Gospel ends where it began: with the gravity of God’s reign drawing people into its orbit, drawing people even away from Jerusalem.  As we leave the tomb, we are now amongst the “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” who are repenting, turning aside, going out to see him—only this time it is not John the Baptist in the river whom we meet at the fringes, but Jesus himself in the small places of Galilee where everything began.
 
Galilee to Jerusalem, Jerusalem to Galilee.  This cyclical motion is one reason Mark’s Gospel is best treated as a whole (finishing at 16:8).  Mark’s first audience would’ve received it in one piece, recited start to finish by a traveling evangelist.  When the story is finished, and we hear it again, or when we try to tell it ourselves, we immediately start connecting to it in a new way.  The second time, or the third time, or the hundredth time, when we read the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, we, too, feel a little of what it’s like to be in that Judean crowd, those anonymous folks emptying out of Jerusalem, journeying to the fringes to behold this new thing God is doing.  We are turning aside.  We are renewing our discipleship.  We are following Christ anew.  We are repenting…again.
 
This is Mark’s intention for us, anyway.  Mark’s Gospel ends with our final instructions from the young man at the empty tomb: “he has been raised; he is not here…he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him…” (16:7), but it’s not clear that the characters in the story actually do what he says: the women run in fear and say nothing to anyone (16:8).  If we are Mark’s very first audience, hearing this story told aloud by a traveling evangelist, then this ending is both ironic and challenging. 
 
It’s ironic because if there is a traveling evangelist standing in front of us telling us this story, then clearly the women at the tomb must have told someone; otherwise how did this traveling evangelist learn it?  But this ending is also a challenge: are we, the evangelist’s audience, going to keep this good news to ourselves?  Are we going to run in fear and terror and keep it secret, as the women at the tomb (allegedly) did?  Or are we going to join Jesus in Galilee, where the work of the kingdom continues?  Will we surrender to this great longing for God which the good news of Jesus Christ has (re)kindled within us?
 
That final scene is key.  It’s as though when the stone is rolled away from the tomb, the fourth wall of the narrative is rolled away with it, and we are spoken to directly.  Is this young man at the tomb an angel speaking to the women from Galilee, or is this Mark the Evangelist himself speaking directly to us?
 
The narrative of the Gospel begins with the announcement: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.  But the final scene at the tomb is the beginning of our direct involvement in the good news of Jesus Christ.
 
The whole thrust of the Gospel is to have us end up precisely where the Gospel begins: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” we read in 1:14, and the Gospel ends with the audience being told to “go to Galilee,” presumably to proclaim the good news of God there.  This is what Mark’s Gospel is for: it tells us about Jesus, but it does so in such a way that it makes us proclaimers of Jesus.  This is a play whose ending turns the audience itself into actors in the drama.  Mark is enlisting us as lifegiving members of God’s community surrounding Jesus.  Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee and calls Simon and Andrew from their nets (1:16-20), yes, but Jesus also speaks through Mark the Evangelist’s young man at the tomb to call us from our seats (16:5-7).
 
Thus, when Marks’ Gospel opens with a quotation from Malachi that says, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,” there are at least three layers of meaning.[1]  One is the most straightforward: “See, I [God] am sending my messenger [John the Baptist/Elijah] ahead of you [Jesus] to prepare your way.”
 
But as we read the story, we quickly learn that Jesus himself is concerned to make sure his disciples take up their own crosses and follow (8:34), and that the Gospel itself ends not with a vision of the risen Christ, but with instructions to his disciples to rejoin him in Galilee, where Jesus has gone ahead of them.  So perhaps we should read the beginning of this good news like this: “See, I [God] am sending my messenger [Jesus] ahead of you [the disciples] to prepare your way.”
 
Yet there is no limit to the number of people who can be Jesus’ “disciples.”  Thus, there’s a further turn to this cycle.  We just saw that the ending of the Gospel poses a challenge to Mark’s original audience: are they going to keep this good news to themselves, like the women at the tomb do in the narrative, or are they going to share it and become evangelists themselves?  So we see a final layer in how this good news begins: “See, I [God] am sending my messenger [the traveling evangelist] ahead of you [Mark’s audience / us] to prepare your way [i.e. by writing this Gospel].”
 
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ: when we open Mark’s Gospel, we really are just beginning.  And when we finish the story, we are still only beginning.  This narrative turns and turns, generating momentum that involves more and more of us in it.  God starts something out there in the wilderness, and Jesus himself gets caught up in the momentum drawn to John the Baptist.  Not long after, we see Jesus as the real engine of this narrative, emerging as the center of a growing movement.  He calls Simon and Andrew, James and John, and not long after Levi and countless unnamed others—until, at some point not related in the Gospel, Mark the Evangelist himself is caught up in the movement.  And others with him.  And others with them.  And eventually, us.
 
Maybe Mark’s Gospel really is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.  Here we are, amongst the crowds from the Judean countryside, anonymous faces of all Jerusalem going out to see…well, who or what exactly?  What awaits us in Galilee? 
 
I look forward to finding out as we read Mark together.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] This insight is from Ched Myers’ book, Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (20th anniversary edition, 10th printing, Dec 2017) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008.  See especially pages 124-125.
 
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