Have you ever wondered why the Christian year begins with Advent and the return of Jesus rather than with Christmas and the birth of Jesus? It sounds back to front. And yet from an eternal perspective, the most important event in the future will be the return of Jesus.
It is ironic that much of our time is given to looking back re-living the history of God’s redemptive plan from Genesis when actually the emphasis in the New Testament is upon the future and the necessity of being ready for Christ’s return. The return of Jesus is good news especially for all suffering injustice, persecution, marginalisation today. None more so for the people of Palestine and Gaza, in particular, who are facing genocide and ethnic cleansing this Christmas. While Western churches will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Church in Palestine has cancelled their Christmas services and will instead be praying for his return to bring justice and peace. They long for the vision found in Revelation 21 of God coming to his people and wiping away every tear from their eyes. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation 21:4-5).
How ironic that Christ was born under brutal settler colonial military occupation, which ruthlessly crushed any dissent. So much so Joseph and Mary had to flee to Egypt as refugees to save his life. They very likely will have gone via Rafah in Gaza. The Christmas celebrations and messages this year will therefore expose how vast the chasm is between the authentic and counterfeit. It is timely then that we consider the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel today for the summarise who Jesus is and why he came.
Mark begins his biography of Jesus with these profound if understated words… “The beginning of the good news about Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1). Some translations use the word ‘gospel’. This is derived from the old English word ‘godspel’ meaning ‘good story’ or ‘good news.’
There are three great themes in Mark’s gospel.
They can be expressed in the three most important questions ever asked in the history of the world.
The first great theme has to do with the identity of Jesus.
Mark asks the question, “Who is Jesus?” The second great theme has to do with the Mission of Jesus. The question Mark asks is “Why did Jesus come?” The third great theme of Mark is the Call of Jesus. And the question Mark asks is “What does Jesus demand of us?”
It is really quite amazing when you read Mark’s biography of Jesus carefully – you discover that every single story, every quote, every incident has something to say about one of these three great themes. About Jesus’ identity. About his mission. Or about his call. And we shall see that the first half of Mark, everything up to chapter 8:29 is taken up with the first of these three: With Jesus’ identity. It reaches its climax with the question put to the disciples “And who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). “The Christ, the Son of God”. From then on from chapters 9-16 Mark answers the second question that immediately follows, “If Jesus is truly the Son of God, why did He have to die?” The answers to these two questions are the most important you will ever face and they lead to the third. Having answered the first two we are left with the question, “What does Jesus demand of us?” As we understand why Jesus the King came, we begin to realise his claims over us, and our need to surrender our lives to Him.
Lets look at the first verse again. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1). So right here at the very beginning of Mark’s account, we are told about Jesus’ identity: He is not just a man, he is God. It’s like Agatha Christie saying on the fist page, “The butler did it.” And you might think that would spoil things a bit for the reader.
But the great drama for us as we read the first half of Mark is that we shall see Jesus’ own disciples don’t get his identity right. They don’t see who Jesus is. They are given layer upon layer of evidence that Jesus is the Son of God, the Jewish Messiah, or Saviour – even his name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Joshua’ means that – God saves or God’s Saviour. True, like every other Jew living under brutal Roman occupation, the disciples are desperately hoping and praying for the Messiah to come.
But when he is standing right in front of them, what do they think? Throughout the first half of Mark, like many people today who have never read the Bible, they think he is just a good man. They are totally blind to Jesus’ true identity.
Sooner or later, we realise that we are on the same journey of discovery as the disciples. That is why Mark is such a fantastic book to read if you are searching for life’s answers. So – who is Jesus? As we have already seen, in chapter 1, verse 1, Mark gives us the answer before asking the question. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1). Now in the rest of Mark 1:1-15,Mark introduces us to three witnesses – John the Baptist (1:2-8); God the Father (1:9-11); and Satan the Tempter (1:12-13).
1. Jesus is Announced by John the Baptiser
“as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:2-8)
Mark quotes from Isaiah and Malachi to show that Jesus did not appear out of nowhere. Even his messenger, the one who would announce his arrival was predicted by the Hebrew prophets. When John the Baptist was asked if he was the Messiah, he replied “I am a voice of one calling in the wilderness.” (John 1:23). Isaiah is referring to the coming of the Lord. In the 1960’s Marshall Macluen coined the phrase,
“The Medium is the Message”. There’s a lot of confusion today about the medium of the Good News. How does John describe his role? Read 1:7. An unworthy messenger – unworthy even to untie Jesus shoes. I think sometimes we can become over familiar with Jesus. Do you ever identify with John? If John felt unworthy, do you? Was John unworthy? Of course he was.
If John was, so am I, so are you. Yet, Jesus wants us to be his messengers. He is willing to entrust his gospel, his good news to you and I. Isn’t that amazing? Jesus is announced by John the Baptist.
2. Jesus is Affirmed by God the Father
“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)
In his very helpful commentary on Mark, David McKenna observes, “Dare I say that all we need to know about our relationships with God and with each other is summed up in this declaration? God affirms his Son by saying, “I claim you, I love you, I am proud of you.” How simple! How basic! To belong, to be loved, to be praised! Nothing more is needed in our relationship with God, our families and with one another.
To Belong. God says to Jesus, You are my Son” Each one of us has a desperate need to belong to someone. If that need is met, we have the strength of self-identity. We know who we are and no one can take that identity from us… God sends a similar message to His Son and to the world at the time of Jesus’ baptism. To Jesus, He gives the assurance, “You are my Son. I claim you. You belong to me.” To the world, God gives this warning. “This is my Son. Never forget it.” Biblical scholars tell us that the adoptive principle is at work in these words… When God claims His Son by choice as well as by nature, He sets the stage for our adoption. By nature, we are not the sons and daughters of God. Sin so separates us from God that, by law, we are unclaimed orphans and unmanned rejects. And that is what redemption is all about. In Galatians 4, we read,
“Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.” (Galatians 4:4-7).
We are to whom we belong. “You are my son”, “you are my daughter” is God’s affirmation to us that we belong to Him. With Jesus, we have an identity which no one can take from us.
To Belong. To Be loved. God also says to Jesus and to the world, “whom I love”. Closely linked to the need to belong is the need to be loved. Tragedy stalks any relationship where belonging is without love. Marriages that hang together on legal grounds without love are hell on earth for the partners and the children… When God tells his Son, “I love you” He puts his self-sacrificing, unchangeable, inseparable and controlling love on the line. Jesus has the security of a love that is willing to take a risk as well as a family identity that cannot be broken.
Now we come to the most fulfilling moment in the father-son relationship. God must have glowed when he commends Jesus “in whom I am well pleased.” In speaking these words, God completes the triad of belonging, love and praise. Scripture and psychology reinforce the importance of praise… When God says to His Son, “I am proud of you, He commends his character, honours his achievements, and encourages him for the future. We can learn the same truth. Our family, our friends and our colleagues grow faster in the direction of our praise than in the path of our criticism. If we could learn to be more generous with “thank you” we would release in others the confidence that God releases in His own Son. Our lesson is simple. God not only anoints Jesus for service, but gives is Son the strengths of identity, security and confidence when he says “I claim you, I love you, I am proud of you. Jesus’ credentials now include the announcement of John the Baptist and the affirmation of God the Father.
3. Jesus is Acknowledged by Satan the Tempter
“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:12-13)
Here in the temptations, Satan is indirectly acknowledging Jesus to be the Son of God, a very real threat to his power and dominion on earth. Announced by John the Baptist. Affirmed by God the Father. Acknowledged by Satan the Tempter.
The Kingdom comes near (Mark 1:1-13) – because the King is now here (Mark 1:14-15).
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)
Here are the first recorded words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Isaiah had predicted that the King was coming, and Jesus is now announcing that the King had come. That is the Good News. The rule of God and the ruin of Satan is the good news.
The rule of God was becoming a visible reality on earth by the very presence of the King himself. The King of the Universe has come, and He can be known. Immediately after this announcement Jesus begins to call people to follow him, to enter God’s kingdom, to submit to God’s kingdom rule.
The Gospel then is first and foremost about the rule of God. God’s rule now extends over our rebellious, lawless earth.
The good news is that the world is not out of control. Tyrants and despots, war criminals and terrorists will not triumph.
The Lord Jesus will return to claim what is His. He will judge both the living and the dead. That is why we should long for the return of Jesus at the beginning of the Christian year in Advent.
For “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18).