“ The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:1-4).
St. Mark opens his version of the Gospel saying it is “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…” Then note – he doesn’t start talking about Jesus but instead mentions the Prophet Isaiah. The story of Jesus Christ does not begin with his being born (Mark doesn’t mention the nativity at all!). Rather, Mark takes us back to Isaiah the Prophet who lived 700 years before Christ. In a sense Mark does the same thing that St. Matthew does at the beginning of his Gospel when he presents the genealogy of Christ – Jesus does not begin the story, rather He is the culmination and fulfillment of a long story of prophecies and promises initiated by God. St. Mark wants us to understand that the entire story found in the scriptures of the Jews is both understood and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:1-3)
Note again that the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ first mentions the Holy Prophet Isaiah and then mentions St. John the Baptizer. There is much that needs to be understood about the beginning which actually goes back many centuries in time and involves many people, not Jesus alone.
Mark also begins his gospel by dealing with a problem – John is calling people to repent. The chosen people of God are sinners, not following God’s way. How can this be? The Jews have the Torah, the commandments of God, why do they need to repent? Mark is offering his version of what St. Paul argues – the Law was not enough to bring people to holiness. The Law could not cure what is wrong with humanity. Neither 10 Commandments nor the 613 Mitzvot (Laws) of the Torah could bring about in Israel the holiness which God commanded of His people.
Mark is presenting the Pauline Gospel – something is wrong with humanity, including Israel, God’s chosen people. Humanity is separated from God and in need of God’s forgiveness. Having the Law/Torah has not resolved the basic problem of the world. Paul’s conclusion is the Law cannot heal what is wrong with humanity. God must intervene in the world to save humanity, including Torah keeping Jews.
God gave commandments and humans didn’t attain holiness. God punished humanity, expelling them from Paradise, destroying creation in a cataclysmic flood, allowing His people to be enslaved and sent into exile. Yet nothing healed the sinful and wayward heart of humans.
There is in this Good News – not further threats of punishment from God but rather God pouring forth His full grace and Spirit to save humankind. As Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant and Messiah of God:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
So St. John the Forerunner is needed to call people to repentance because they obviously cannot stay on the straight and narrow path to the Kingdom of God. The Law was not sufficient for salvation. Forgiveness from God is needed – and it is offered to all who repent. Faith, not law keeping is needed, and as St. Paul presents it, Abraham, not Moses is the real hero of the Old Covenant. Abraham as a man of faith– not a law giver, keeper or enforcer – is the model of which Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment as a man of faith.
We need repentance and forgiveness, this is the basis of the Gospel of St. Mark and St. Paul: for those who never knew the law, those who rejected the law and those who tried but failed to keep the law, God offers forgiveness to all. Come, and embrace this gracious gift of God through the faith of and faith in Jesus Christ. As Abraham’s faith made him righteous in God’s judgment, so too Jesus is faithful to God, humbling himself to be a servant and even to dying on the Cross.
The Gospel – the good news that God forgives sinners: both those who do not know the Law as well as those who have the law but failed to keep it perfectly – is welcomed news and goes back all the way to the time of the prophets. For the prophets chastised Israel for its lack of faith and for its faithlessness and foretold that God would deal with Israel’s sin and would create a new heart in humanity (Ezekiel 18:30-32,36:25-27).
“Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the LORD; look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you … For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. Listen to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. … my salvation will be for ever, and my deliverance will never be ended” (Isaiah 51:1-6).