St Mark Mark 1: 1-15
It’s a wonderful feeling when you start a new novel and the first page absolutely grabs your attention. Maybe it’s an interesting character who intrigues you, a shocking or inexplicable event, or a captivating description of somewhere you would love to go. It’s the work of a skilled writer to engage the reader’s interest in the crucial first page, when there is a danger they will put the book down and choose something else.
Well the opening lines of Mark’s Gospel are certainly attention grabbing ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ Imagine for a moment you’ve forgotten everything you’ve ever learnt at church or Sunday School. Imagine you are reading this book for the first time. Imagine someone is reading it aloud to you for the very first time. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Well hang on a minute you might say, what sort of opening line is that? Who? The Son of God? What good news? And the beginning of it? What happens next?
These are the questions that Mark addresses throughout his gospel, and most importantly the question of who. Who is this person Jesus? Mark skips over the nativity story and begins with John the Baptist, foretold by the prophet Isaiah, who baptises Jesus. Who is Jesus? A voice from heaven tells us. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved.’ The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And what is the good news? Jesus himself tells us as he begins his ministry in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’
Thus in the first half of the first chapter Mark lays out clearly who Jesus is and what he is doing. What is not clear is how this will all work out, what happens next and whether the other characters understand this too. This is only the beginning, there is much more to come.
Mark is the first of the four gospels to be written, dated sometime between 60 and 70 AD, the first to tell the story of Jesus’ life. Mark writes in the Greek of the ordinary street people of the Roman Empire. His language and style is smartened up by Matthew and Luke when they use Mark’s gospel as a source for their own. Marks uses short sentences linked by ‘and’ or ‘again’ and there is a sense of breathless urgency to the way he tells the story, things happen ‘immediately’ or ‘as soon as.’ It’s almost like he’s got a lot to say about this person Jesus and is trying to fit it all in before he forgets.
Mark is preoccupied with this question of who Jesus is, but Mark’s Jesus is mysterious and does not openly reveal his identity. Jesus actually silences the demons who know who he is. When he performs a miracle he tells people not to say anything to anyone about what he has done. He takes the disciples off into a corner and teaches them privately so that others won’t hear and understand. But the poor disciples, of all the gospel writers, Mark is hardest on the disciples. Their failure to understand who Jesus is and what he is doing only worsens throughout the gospel. In fact it is the outsiders who recognise who Jesus is; the woman with the haemorrhage of blood, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the people who bring the little children to see Jesus, blind Bartimaeus and the woman at Bethany who pours perfume over Jesus’ feet.
Perhaps this is because Jesus asks more of the disciples. It’s easy to respond generously to Jesus initially but when difficulties come its’s not so easy. Mark stresses faithfulness in the face of persecution and dignity and humility as opposed to status seeking. He is trying to prepare them for what is to come. This is the beginning of the good news and Jesus is trying to tell them what will happen at the end. After all he prophesies the passion three times and each time the disciples fail to understand. Perhaps they couldn’t. Jesus was trying to tell them something more about himself, something they could never imagine or believe. Until it happened.
Mark’s gospel focuses on the person of Jesus from the opening sentence to the cry of the Centurion at the foot of the cross ‘truly this man was the Son of God.’ His gospel is the working out of what that cry means. And as for that opening line, Mark might well have put it at the end, right after the crucifixion and resurrection; the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Amen.