Every year our Church embarks on a journey through one of the four Gospel narratives. This year it is The Gospel of Mark, and with this past Sunday marking the start of the series (the first Sunday of Epiphany), we opened the series by looking at Mark’s first chapter.
To help foster some further reflection over the course of this past week, my Church also sent out a question for us to consider-
What is our response to what God does in Jesus as the “kingdom of God being brought near”?
The question comes out of chapter 1:15:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[a]repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
– The Gospel of Mark 1:15
It is the “Gospel of God” proclaimed in 1:14 that we are being asked to believe in verse 15, and this is, of course, the same Gospel that Mark “begins” with anticipation in 1:1. Here in verse 15 we are presented with two ideas that must mark our response to the “kingdom come near”- “repentance” and “belief” in the Gospel of God.
As I spent time reflecting on these two ideas this week, I found my response to the “Kingdom come near” being shaped with greater clarity, beginning with the question, what is the “Gospel of God” that we are being asked to believe in?
The Gospel of God
There are two immediate components of the Gospel that we find in 1:1:
1. The Gospel is the fulfillment of a promise (the promise of the prophet Isaiah)
2. The Gospel of God belongs to Jesus Christ
However, there also appears to be a third component hiding underneath the surface, and it has to do with the question of identity- who is Jesus, the one to whom the Gospel belongs, and who is John, the one who prepares the way for the Gospel of God to be revealed.
Both of these “identity” questions are important for uncovering Mark’s understanding of the Gospel of God, an understanding that moves us from John to Jesus.
Who is John?
- John the messenger
In chapter 1, John is introduced to us as a messenger (vs. 2). His message? To proclaim the one who will follow him, the one who “is mightier than I”, the one whom will come not with water but with “Spirit”. It is the Spirit descending in 1:10 that recognizes this to be the one called Jesus
- John the Preparer
In verse 3, The Gospel of Mark declares that John has been sent to “prepare”.
“Behold, I send my messenger before you, who will prepare your way.”
– Mark 1:2
What is he preparing? “A straight path” to reveal (to us) the “way” of God (vs3), a way that flows out of a Gospel (in Mark 1:1) that is centered on Jesus Christ, the son of God.
- John the Baptizer
In verse 4 John is described as the baptizer, one who has come to baptize in “repentance” and “forgiveness”, two ideas that help define for us what baptism is. Jesus’ declaration of the” kingdom coming near” goes on to share in this call to repent.
And what is repentance? One of my pastors rightly pointed out that the most accurate picture of repentance in the life of the ancients was a complete “turn” in direction, or to turn our face “towards” something new. It is a positive action towards new life, not simply a negative avoidance of destruction, and in the first chapter of Mark the direction we are being turned towards is Jesus.
Who is Jesus?
After thinking through the identity of John, here is where I found myself in the first chapter of Mark:
1. The Gospel belongs to Jesus
2. John (the messenger) came to show us “the way” of the Gospel in order to show us Jesus.
3. To see Jesus we must “turn” our face in His direction and embark on the way.
So if John is preparing “a way” for us to see Jesus, and repentance is the means by which we face ourselves in the “right” direction, this leads me to another question: What does it look like to embark on the way?
1. The Way as “a movement” or a journey
Jesus is the one we are called to turn towards. But, more than simply facing in the direction of Jesus, this new direction also requires movement. “The kingdom of God coming near” suggests that we have not yet quite arrived. It is something we must continually pursue. There is a hopeful restoration in store for this world, and yet it also reflects an opportunity to live in (and into) this kingdom in the here and the now. It is a journey.
Werner H. Kelber puts it this way in his book, Mark’s Story of Jesus:
“The very first time Mark alludes to an aspect of Jesus’ life, he does so in terms of a “way.” The reader knows Jesus will be traveling a way. We shall observe that the Markan Jesus is indeed in constant movement from place to place, from region to region, frequently back and forth, and all the way from life to death. Jesus’ whole career is conceived in Mark as a journey. The reader will understand Jesus, his life and death, by paying close attention to the points of departure and arrival, to the directions and goals of his travels. There is logic to Jesus’ journey, and to grasp that logic is to grasp the meaning of his mission and identity.”
– Werner H. Kelber (Marks story of Jesus)
In a very real sense, this concept of a journey connects us back to the first mark of the Gospel, a promise fulfilled. The original audience of the Gospel of Mark would have connected the concept of a “straight path” not simply to its prophetic origins, but to the whole of their experienced history.
As John J. Parons argues, both the story of John and Jesus in Mark 1 conjure up memories of the Israelite journey through the wilderness and the desert under Moses, and the return from Babylon out of exile. The Hebrew word derekh, the one used for “way”, can refer to a physical road or pathway, but metaphorically it often refers to the journey that brought the Israelites out of exile and into the promised land.
And here-in lies the great realization. As Parsons continues to point out, the way forward (for the Israelites) in the wilderness was by following in the footsteps of one who had gone ahead. This is how they would know the “straight” path, by trusting and depending in the path already trodden, the (one) who went before them in the fire and in the cloud, and in the messenger, Moses, sent by God to deliver them from their slavery. Trust means not knowing what is ahead. Trust means entrusting one’s self to another even when we don’t know what is ahead.
And the more I think about this the more I realize, the best part about embarking on a journey is the idea of embracing the unknown of this trusting experience. In faith it is the unexpected places, the unexpected surprises that bring light to a God who is on the move. And even when we feel lost, it is learning to give ourselves to these unexpected places that can inspire us towards the most important thing we can do on the way, which is to keep moving even when we can’t see what is around the next corner.
2. The Way as forgiveness
For John and Jesus, this movement begins with the idea of repentance, or a turning towards. But it is the second descriptive that we find in John’s “baptism”- forgiveness- that enlightens us to what this movement looks like. Traveling on the “straight path” means living into this idea of forgiveness.
So what is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is humility:
“The one who is mightier than me.”
This idea might sound off-putting to our modern ears, but for John this means freedom. It is what allows his story in the opening chapter of Mark to move him from a place of prominence (he got to baptize Jesus! How amazing is that), to a place of desolation (seemingly left behind by Jesus to spend the rest of his days in prison), and still keep our sights on Jesus. It is what allows us to find Jesus in the story of a guy wandering the wilderness, eating locusts and wearing camel’s hair even before he ends up in prison.
Forgiveness must begin with humility because this is what gives the Gospel its power. We are turning in a new direction because the direction we are on is desolate and incomplete. We are living into a new Kingdom come near because the kingdom of now is broken. We are hoping for a new way because the current way often feels hopeless.
Therefore, the way, or the straight path, must be mightier, greater, more worthwhile, more hopeful than the path we are currently on, otherwise there would be no need for a Gospel.
Forgiveness is being Forgiven
If forgiveness is about living in humility, it is also about recognizing that we are called to this journey, or “the way”, as we are and in the midst of the brokenness and in the midst of the desolation. This is where Jesus finds John, in the wilderness exactly as he is, and this is where he brings life into John’s ministry even from the confines of his prison.
Knowing that we are facing in the right direction, knowing that we are on the “right” path is not about doing the right things. It is about our ability to keep moving forward even when things feel broken and even when we don’t get things right. It is about learning to see ourselves (the identity of John) and see the one (the identity of Jesus) in proper light.
The first chapter of Mark contrasts the baptism of John with the baptism of Jesus. In John’s baptism we turn in repentance, and in our turning we see our need for the Gospel, the Gospel that belongs to Jesus and Jesus alone. It is when we turn that we then find the Spirit of Jesus’ baptism that breathes life into this Gospel.
The Spirit is what enables us to carry forward in the way of God as we are. The spirit is what reveals our identity to be other than our brokenness and failure. The spirit is what reveals the way of God and keeps the way of God in full view by continuing to reveal our brokenness and our failure. The Spirit is also what enables us to see ourselves for who God made us to be- children of God who share in the affirmation given to Jesus, God’s beloved child.
Forgiveness is Learning to live an undivided life
There is a tension that arises between these two notions of forgiveness- the humility that recognizes our brokenness and the grace that allows us to live beyond our brokenness, that sees us as beloved.
This tension was not unfamiliar to Mark’s audience. In a theological sense, we can recognize this as being saved by works or saved by grace (faith) alone.
In a practical sense, we can recognize this as a need to know that we are on the “right” path. This is where the (necessary) tension begins and ends, and what the opening chapter of Mark teaches us is that to see the “straight path” as anything other than a movement in which we are living into this forgiveness is to see something other than Jesus.
In an article written for the Biblical Hebrew E-Magazine on the word “righteousness”, Jeff Benner helps shed some light on how the ancient Hebrews would have understood the idea of the “right” way or the straight path.
“The Hebrew words tsadiyq (righteous) and yashar (upright) are paralleled many times in the Bible indicating that in the Hebrew mind they were similar in meaning. Upright is another abstract word but it is used in a concrete manner, such as in Jeremiah 31:9 where it means “straight” as in a straight path.”
He then goes on to show, using the context of Psalm 37:17, how these parallels were used in Biblical literature to help us reconcile this tension between the right and the wrong way.
For the arms of the wicked shall be broken; but the LORD upholds the righteous. (Psalm 37:17 RSV)
“Here we find the word wicked (rasha) being used as an antonym (opposite in meaning) to the word righteous (tsadiyq). These two words are also commonly used together in poetical passage, indicating the Hebrews saw these two words as opposites. While the word is an abstract, we can find its concrete meaning in the verb form, also pronounced rasha. The verb form means to “depart” in the sense of leaving God’s way as seen in Psalm 18:21.”
He concludes by showing us that, for the ancient Israelite and Jewish people, the word tsadiyq is anchored in this picture of moving forward on a path that is centred on the teachings of God, and figures like Moses, the signs of God given to Israel, and ultimately the person of Jesus revealed, give us a very purposed picture of this path by giving us a living example of how to walk it by keeping our eyes on the one that has gone before us. And for each of these persons, stories, and figures, repentance and forgiveness are the two defining factors that keep this path focused outwards (dependence on God) rather than inwards (dependence on ourselves).
Neil Godfrey pushes this idea further by connecting the way, or path, of God in Mark 1:1 with the efforts of the disciples to make a way for their Lord in 2:23.
“An interlinear translation shows that the words used here for “way” and “make” are the same as we read in Mark 2:23 where the disciples of Jesus are said to “make a way” or path!
I suggest that when the author of the Gospel of Mark opened his gospel with “make a path for the Lord!” and subsequently depicted the disciples of that Lord “making a path”, presumably for Jesus, their Lord, as they plucked ears of corn to eat, this author was consciously linking the action of the disciples with the call of John the Baptist and the earlier prophets to “make a path” for their Lord!
What Godfrey helps to show is that what Johns calls us towards on the straight path is not simply an act of works, as it is in 2:23, but rather an act of faith and trust in the one who has gone before us, as we find being established in the first chapter of Mark.
For John the Baptizer, the way of God is not about earning or working his way towards a morally upright life, but rather is formed by keeping our sights on the work that God is already doing. Just as the Israelite people needed to keep their eyes on a path that had already been paved, so must we keep our eyes on the one that has gone before us, an action that John symbolically portrays in his life as the “preparer”.
Learning to See with a single-eye
It was a study in the Gospel of Matthew (last year’s Gospel) that helped illuminate this idea even further for me. In Matthew, the idea of the straight path that we find in John’s story becomes synonymous with the word “perfect” or the idea of “perfection” that we find littered throughout Matthew’s larger narrative.
Keener, in his commentary on Matthew, explains the impossible call to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” in Matthew 5:48 in the following way.
First, he writes, “Be perfect” and (be merciful) probably represent two ways to translate a single Aramaic term that Jesus used meaning “whole” or “complete”.”
– Keener page 205
He then goes on to connect this to what follows in Matthew 6:22-24, revealing an important wordplay that can help reshape our idea of what it means to live a perfect or morally upright life on the straight path:
“Jesus’ illustration about the “single” (good) eye and the evil eye would immediately make sense to his hearers: a “good” eye was literally a healthy eye, but figuratively also an eye that looked on others generously. In the Greek text of the Gospels, Jesus literally calls the eye a “single” eye, which is a wordplay: The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible also uses this word for “single” to translate the Hebrew term for “perfect,” that is, “single-minded” devotion to God, setting one’s heart on God alone… the single eye is literally undivided, seeing the whole picture.”
– Keener page 233
Recognizing the word “perfect” as seeing a whole and undivided picture of Jesus changes the way we understand Matthew’s familiar Old Testament usage of the good (tsadiyq) and the wicked (rasha) path in 7:14. Rather than being about what we do, rightly or wrongly, on “the way of God”, it becomes about how we are learning to see Jesus more clearly. Rather than being about how others (and God) perceive us as morally upright or morally downtrodden, it is about learning how to see God’s ways more completely, more fully.
Forgiveness is seeing the Whole Picture of God’s Story
The celebration of Epiphany represents the declaration of a Gospel for the world. It is a celebration that finds the Gospel of God moving outwards and into the lives of both Jew and Gentile, breaking down the barriers of what it means to belong in the family of God. We are reminded that God’s movement was set in motion at the dawn of the created order and that in Jesus it becomes fully revealed to his creation.
If it is the Spirit of forgiveness that allows us to freely participate in the way of God, to be participants in God’s story, and if being forgiven allows us to move into shared space with the one who is mightier than us, then it is our ability to forgive that can unite us with the work that Jesus is already doing on this path. As Keener rightly suggests, to see perfectly, or to find an undivided picture of God’s way, shares a meaning with the word “merciful”. When we extend forgiveness outwards it helps us to confidently rest in the inward truth that we are forgiven as well.
It is through the act of forgiveness that the “way of God” sets us all on common ground as beloved children of God, and it is the truth of this forgiven and forgiving life that Jesus calls us to repent and “believe” in.
The Kingdom Come Near
So back to the question at the beginning:
What is our response to what God does in Jesus as the “kingdom of God being brought near”?
There are three things that stand out for me here-
1. The Kingdom of God is near, nearer than we would ever expect, even when it doesn’t seem or feel that way. All we have to do is turn to see it.
2. The Kingdom of God is something we get to live into in the here and the now as active participants in the forgiving work of God. This is the true kingdom-building work. We are forgiven, the Kingdom is already here; we get to extend this forgiveness to others, the kingdom is still at hand.
3. This Kingdom building work consistently reminds me that no matter how far off the path I veer, there is always room to keep moving. All it takes is turning towards the way of God, the way of Jesus, the way of the Gospel, in which we can see the work that God is already doing on our behalf.