Abrupt beginnings

10 December 2017
Second Sunday of Advent
Advent IIB (RCL)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

It is well know that Mark’s Gospel ends abruptly. Mark 16:8 ends “ephobounto gar“, for they were afraid. The trouble is, gar is a post-positive conjunction, which can never, but never be the last word in a phrase, let alone a sentence or a book. This was so troubling so early in the transmission of the Gospel that several authors have composed alternative endings to the Gospel.

I recently heard a lecture (I forget where or by whom), in which the lecturer suggested that if you remove the opening phrase of Mark’s Gospel (The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ [Son of God], which has a troubling attestation in ancient manuscripts), you get an equally puzzling beginning of the Gospel — just as it is written Isaiah the prophet. The incipit doesn’t seem to fit, and does nothing to explain the difficult beginning of the next sentence with the phase “just as”. Scholars are now wondering if the autograph (original) codex (a booklet of folded and sewn sheets) lost the outside folio before any other copies could be made. The outside folio would have contained the first and last pages, and this would explain the abruptness of both beginning and end.

Of course, we will likely never find the autograph first and last page, so we have to deal with the Gospel as we have it. Mark’s whole Gospel is abrupt: “and immediately” is his favorite connecting phrase. A sense of urgency permeates the whole. Things are happening soon and fast.

The Gospel as we have it begins in mid-sentence with a mash-up quote of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. I’ve read one commentary that suggested that Mark wasn’t very familiar with what we would call the Old Testament, and was confused in his attribution of this to Isaiah. I think Mark is cleverer than that. He mashes these two citations together for a reason. Malachi 3 speaks of the return of Elijah as a forerunner to the return of God to the Temple. Mark portrays John the Baptist as looking a lot like Elijah. Mark also carefully misquotes the passage from Isaiah. In Isaiah, the voice cries out in Jerusalem telling the people to prepare a way in the desert. Mark has the voice crying out in the desert; again making the reference fit John the Baptist. Isaiah 40 goes on to suggest that it is God who will return to God’s people along this newly prepared road. Mark has carefully set the stage for the appearance of Jesus as God. In one short paragraph, Mark has summed up all the hopes of the people of Israel and shifted them to the person of Jesus. In our day and age, we would say, “mic drop.” Even without the first page, we know Mark’s intentions.

And then, there is John the Baptist. He lives in the desert, alongside the Jordan. He is dressed in camel’s hair and eats locust and wild honey. In all respects, he is an outsider. Leviticus, chapter 11 says that locusts are clean food, available to be eaten. In some parts of the Middle East, they were considered a delicacy, roasted, ground and mixed with wild honey. However, they cannot be presented as sacrifice at the altar, because they cannot be domesticated. John has isolated himself entirely from Jerusalem and the Temple cult.

And, he baptizes in the Jordan. He was making a political statement. This was a reconquest of the land like Joshua’s first conquest. People were re-crossing the Jordan from the wilderness toward Jerusalem. He was making the claim that the current occupants of the land (and of Jerusalem) were as illegitimate as the Amorites and Canaanites originally displaced by Joshua’s advance. Again, Mark’s care in the craft of his narrative is apparent: Jesus is simply Joshua transliterated into Greek.

But at the Jordan, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Most scholars agree that this is not an individual repentance, but the repentance for the sins of the nation. John is organizing a new people of the covenant in the wilderness for a new conquest of the land, repenting of the sins of their compromised leaders in Jerusalem. And at the head of this new people is the new Joshua, Jesus. That’s a lot to accomplish in eight verses!

Homiletically, these readings raise the questions of where our desert is, what our Jordan is, and who are the illegitimate occupants of Jerusalem. And also, who are the John the Baptists of our day, who are those who have opted out of the systems of power and are calling us to repent our sins. Black Lives Matter and #metoo come to mind. It can seem hopeless to head out to the wilderness to organize — what power do we have against so massively entrenched a system? Who was Jesus against Rome? The centurion at the foot of the cross recognizes Jesus as divi filius son of the divine, Caesar. Not the conquest we might expect of the new Joshua.

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