Prince of Peace: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two
Second Week of Advent (Year B): Mark 1:1-8
1) This year we’ll be walking together through the Gospel of Mark. The journey began last week with a kind of “flash-forward” from Mark 13: on the verge of his descent to the cross, Jesus warns of difficult days ahead, assuring his disciples that all will be well and God will make everything right in the end. This week, we turn to Mark’s opening verses, and from here on out we’ll more forward more or less chronologically. It’s a little bit like when a film starts with an arresting scene from late in the story, a glimpse of the breathtaking drama to come – and then rewinds to begin at the beginning.
2) As we enter Mark’s masterpiece, it’s worth remembering what sort of book this is, since the type of text we think we’re reading changes how we read it. Originally intended to be read aloud, Mark is a kind of story-sermon meant to declare good news – euangelion or “gospel” – in ways that provoke its listeners to reflect, repent, believe, and serve both the gathered community and the wider world. It’s a decidedly practical work of art, layered with multiple levels of meaning and grounded both in Mark’s immediate situation and in the broad, astonishing sweep of salvation history. In short, a “gospel” is a form of strategic storytelling that aims to change your eyes, your life, your community, and your world.
3) For Mark, the stakes could not be higher: he wrote during (or just after) the Jewish revolt against Roman imperial occupation, and that conflict, along with Rome’s subsequent desecration and destruction of the Jewish temple, made everything seem stark, severe, even godforsaken. Accordingly, Mark’s prose is sharp and graphic, and the action is swift (his favorite word is “immediately”). The book’s main themes, the big ideas that drive the narrative forward, are likewise bold and striking:
- Though it seems that evil everywhere has the upper hand (in today's terms, think: rampant racism, sexual misconduct in the workplace, the famine settling in on South Sudan, human degradation of our beautiful planet, and so on) - in fact the tide has turned: the Kingdom of God has come near!
- As promised by our ancestors, God will rescue and restore God’s people, and the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth – the Son of God, the messiah (literally, “the anointed one”) – is the decisive signal that this rescue is now underway.
- But make no mistake: the messiah is neither a military conqueror nor a conventional king. Instead, he is a prophet, healer, and teacher pointing to an even deeper form of liberation. For Mark, Jesus’ primary mission is to suffer, die, rise, and redeem, sending his disciples out to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation “to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). A new era of hope, renewal, and restoration has begun!
4) Traditionally, the second week of Advent centers on lighting a candle of peace, a light to shine against the growing shadows of conflict and war. This theme is especially appropriate to Mark’s wartime context – not to mention our own! Accordingly, this is an excellent week to think, preach, and reflect on war and peacemaking, conflict and reconciliation, a world full of violence and the lion laying down with the lamb.
5) Like other early Christian writers, Mark interprets Jesus and his ministry in terms of themes, images, and stories from the sacred library of Hebrew scripture. This is a poetic move very common in the ancient world (it’s sometimes called “typological” interpretation), and getting a feel for it is essential for understanding how the scriptural imagination works. In a nutshell, the move involves understanding an event or person as a “type” (or “rendition”) of a previous event or person – a little like when we call an up-and-coming basketball player “the next Michael Jordan,” or a new political scandal “another Watergate.” For many of the Bible’s authors, including Mark, God acts in particular, signature ways, and so the present and future can and should be interpreted in terms of the celebrated sacred patterns (“types”) of the past. At least three such patterns are in the background as Mark opens his Gospel: first, the creation story at the outset of Genesis; second, the ancient Israelites’ exodus journey from the wilderness to the promised land, initially led by Moses and then by his successor, Joshua; and third, the ancient prophets’ account of God’s promise to renew, restore, and return Israel to that promised land. Keep these three patterns in mind, and the opening verses of Mark will come alive in new and vibrant ways.
1) Mark begins with “The beginning” – using the same term as the one at the outset of the Greek translation of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”). The typological resonance here rings clear, as if Mark is saying, Behold, just as in the former days, God is beginning, creating, remaking the world...
2) In this opening sentence Mark calls the heart of his book “gospel,” but he didn’t invent the term. In the ancient world “gospel” could refer to any major good news, but typically it was used in the context of military triumph, as when a messenger would return from the battlefield to announce the “gospel” of victory. Or again, shortly before the time of Jesus, an official imperial inscription hailed Caesar Augustus as “Son of God” and declared his birthday as “a beginning of good news [euangelion or ‘gospel’] for the world.” Mark’s appropriation of these terms – “Son of God” and “Gospel” – to apply not to the emperor but to a peasant from Nazareth is a strong, subversive signal. Especially given the fact that Jesus eventually gathers no army but rather a small, misfit band of ordinary fishermen to be preachers and healers, Mark’s co-option of imperial terms is a direct rejection of the way of violence, war, and domination. Against Caesar and his “pax Romana,” Mark sets Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
3) Speaking of Isaiah: Mark’s opening lines of prophecy are actually a combination of images from Exodus 23:20, Isaiah 40:3, and Malachi 3:1. The Exodus image is of divine guidance along the way to the promised land; Isaiah’s image is the promise of a joyous return home from Babylonian exile; and Malachi’s image is of a messenger sent ahead of God’s imminent arrival. Taken together, these prophetic words introduce what for Mark are the keys to understanding what Jesus of Nazareth is all about: his presence inaugurates a new exodus, a new return from exile, and a new era of peace, justice, and restoration for all.
4) Likewise, Mark’s account of John the baptizer resonates with these ancient “types” or patterns in salvation history. Baptism was a Jewish practice associated with purification and initiation (new converts to Judaism were sometimes baptized), and John’s reference to “water” and “Spirit” recalls the prophet Ezekiel’s image of Israel’s renewal: first with water that cleanses, and then with God’s Spirit that transforms the heart (Ezekiel 36:24-28). As a prophet renewing Israel in the wilderness on the far side of the Jordan, John is cast as a “type” of Moses, the original wilderness prophet who journeyed as far as the Jordan but no farther. Before his death, Moses passed the leadership baton to Joshua, who then led the Israelites across the Jordan into the promised land (the Hebrew name “Joshua” means “God saves”). And to whom does John pass the baton? To Jesus, whose name comes down to us in English by way of Greek; however, if we follow the same name down through Hebrew into English, we get – you guessed it! – “Joshua.” So: as Mark frames the story, John is a new Moses; Jesus is quite literally a new Joshua; and the story as a whole signals a new crossing of the Jordan, a new entrance into the promised land. The music is ancient and familiar - and Mark has transposed it into a new key.
1) Both because this week’s traditional Advent theme is “Peace” and because Mark is a subversive Gospel of peace written during a time of war, this may be the perfect week to name and explore the realities of conflict in our lives today. God is calling us toward greater peacemaking (between peoples and between individuals), and Advent is a season both to long for God’s shalom and to become lights of shalom in the darkness (try closing Sunday’s service with “This Little Light of Mine”).
2) Likewise, since this week we begin walking through Mark in earnest, this may be the perfect week for an overview of the Gospel’s main themes and how they’re introduced by these opening verses.
3) To understand the deep poetry in Mark (and elsewhere in scripture), bear in mind these three ancient patterns of the biblical imagination: the Genesis story, the Exodus story, and the prophets’ radiant promises. For Mark, in Jesus of Nazareth we find a new creation, a new exodus, a new restoration of God’s people. Not that the older narratives are replaced or set aside; on the contrary, they are crucial for illuminating what Jesus is really all about, in Mark’s day and in ours.
4) Once we have entered the shadows of violence (both intellectually and emotionally), we can proclaim the good news of God’s coming shalom in the midst of a war-torn, conflict-ridden world. In Jesus, God has inaugurated a new era of peace and restoration! The messiah is coming – not on a warhorse like Caesar, but rather as a humble prophet, teacher, and healer, a Prince of Peace born homeless in a stable.
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