Advent II, Year B
2 Pt 3:8-15a
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
(2 Peter 3:8-15a)
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight,’" John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
As we suggest below in the historical-critical portion, the narrative of JTB (John the Baptist) at the very beginning of this good news reflects death, namely JTB’s. Narratively, John’s death does not take place until chapter 6, but Mark’s hearers know his fate already. The reign of death is all thru Mark’s gospel. As the gospel begins, so it will end. The context of the gospel is death, specifically death as the solution to a socio-political crisis, the death of Jesus, the messenger of the God of Life. So it was of John the Baptist and the Prophets before him, so it will be for Jesus. The gospel is the revelation of the victimage mechanism, the mimetic scapegoating mechanism that is the origin of all violent principalities and powers in all of their forms.
Mimesis reigning through death in Mark’s gospel is present to the hearers in the deaths of children, death reigning in the demonic, death as disease and death as the social-political-economic structuring of relationships. Death even reigns in holiness. In all of these cases, Mark writes of Jesus overcoming the reign of death. The beginning of the good news is not some "pie in the sky by and by" salvation, but rather the beginning of the real, here-and-now downfall of the mimetic powers that bring death in all of its forms.
For readers of Mark’s gospel, the focus is on the demise of death in Jesus. Thus the ‘good news’ (euangellion) that “God’s rule was very close” can be seen not only in the displays of power in the ministry of Jesus but is demonstrated ultimately in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead at the end of the gospel. God does not repay violence with violence but in giving life and giving the life-giving Spirit. Thus, the end of Mark’s gospel is also its beginning!
The gospel speaks of ‘repentance’, a changing of one’s thinking with regard to the story of God and humanity. Today, repentance involves what Robert Hamerton-Kelly has called ‘a repentant reading of the text.’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it ‘the view from below.’ Bonhoeffer spoke of the need to view life from the perspective of the outcast and poor and persecuted. Hamerton-Kelly suggests the need to recognize when one is reading the biblical text through the eyes of “myth” and thus the perspective of the persecutor. In so repenting, another option is opened up, to read the text from the perspective of the victim, the One who reveals all myth. From a current perspective the reign of death in the 20th century is difficult to overlook. The call to repentance as a turning from this way of death as the tool of mimesis rings with all the prophetic clarity it had when John first preached it.
(On the socio-historical location of Mark’s Gospel see Advent 1)
Weeks 2 and 3 of Advent in Year A both relate to John the Baptist (JTB). Several issues pop up as we look at the Baptist and his relationship to Jesus.
1. The relationship with John places Jesus within the prophetic tradition at the beginning of his ministry. All four Gospels give the Baptist a critical role as Jesus’ mentor. The synoptic tradition, however, sees John from within its apocalyptic orientation. Even so, Meier (Jesus, a Marginal Jew, Vol 2) notes that JTB is less esoteric than most apocalyptic literature and prefers to refer to John as the ‘eschatological prophet.’
2. The Gospel According to John (4G, for “Fourth Gospel") sees the Baptist in a different framework than the Synoptics. It would appear that the community leaders behind the 4G were also followers of JTB (so 1.35ff). But it is not the apocalyptic message of John that they highlight but his function as witness. The 4G’s implicit critique regarding the ‘[Petrine] structuring’ of the Synoptic tradition (Cullmann, The Johannine Circle) can be seen in that the ‘first’ disciples of Jesus, although followers of the Baptist, do not take their cue from the apocalyptic orientation of John’s message. (Concerning which, see next week’s lesson)
3. This re-interpretation of apocalyptic in the gospel message can also be seen in Luke 4 where Jesus, quoting the Isaiah Targum, omits reference to God’s eschatological vengeance (Jeremias, New Testament Theology; Sloan, The Favorable Year of the Lord). Interestingly enough, the Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85 lectionary texts reflect that the time of punishment is over. God had been angry, but not anymore. This chronological structuring of God reflects the ‘travail’ of the text as God becomes further and further disassociated from violence. This view of God as pedagogue can be found in the views of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria and has value for the peace discussion today.
In Mark 1:1-8 the theme of promise and fulfillment is highlighted. The use of the text from Isaiah concerning the ‘way’ (hodos) of the Lord may be a foreshadowing of the fact that this way will be a via dolorosa, a way of the cross. Both JTB and Jesus will be executed for their message and mission. Mark’s readers would have already been aware that JTB was executed by the Jewish Herod (6.14 ff at the remote desert fortress of Machaerus). They may also have been acquainted with the traditions regarding the deaths of the prophets found in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (e.g., this can also be seen in Hebrews 11).
The beginning of the gospel is then the beginning of the Way of the Cross. Much of the research on Mark’s Christology has highlighted this fact. It has sometimes been suggested that Mark perceives Jesus as a ‘divine man’ (theios aner), or that some kind of ‘messianic secret’ regarding Jesus’ identity as a ‘divine man’ plays a dominant structuring role in this Gospel (Wrede, The Messianic Secret; Tuckett, The Messianic Secret). But to us, the opposite seems to be true. Mark’s christology points to a very ‘human’ god who does not come like all the other gods, in violence, in power and glory, but one who comes as healer, peacemaker, reconciler.
Jeff has also tackled the question of the structure of Mark’s gospel and sees this christological motif forming a large chiasmus, a true cross. This suggested Markan structure (which interestingly enough can also take into consideration the “secret gospel of Mark") makes sense when we consider the probable influence of the Pauline theology of the cross. The chiasmus he describes shows how mark actually contrasts the two Christologies of Mark and the different reactions of the “crowd.”
The prophecy of being baptized by the Spirit is never fulfilled in the Markan gospel. There is no breathing out of the Spirit as in the 4G, no Pentecost event as in Luke, no great commission limited to the Eleven as in Matthew. Two things may be at work here:
1. The readers of Mark’s gospel may know that indeed the Holy Spirit has been poured out, they are the heirs of the apostolic ministry, those who brought the gospel and thus the Spirit. Jesus’ relation to the Spirit is all over Mark’s gospel and the members of the community who used this text in worship were recipients of the gifts of this Spirit. They themselves are the proof that this prophecy was fulfilled. They are the ‘ending.’, the end result that the Spirit has been sent.
2. There may also be a bit of Pauline influence here in the editorial process. The absence of an ‘ending’ to this gospel may well reflect the editor’s view that there were many ‘apostolic’ missions, that “apostolicity” was not to be limited to a select few. The absence of a visible outpouring of the Spirit avoids giving implicit authority to the few seen receiving it in the text. (Thus Mark may implicitly challenge purely ‘Petrine’ authority. Paul in I Corinthians 15 records over 500 people who had authority to say they had seen the Risen Lord.)
The theme of the wilderness at the beginning of the narrative accomplishes several things:
It creates thirst in the listener/reader. The average person can only go three days in the wilderness without water. Add the sun to the mix and chances of survival diminish even more rapidly. In a sense, a rhetorical thirst is created and fulfilled with the theme of baptism by water and by analogy, the Holy Spirit.
It recalls the use of the wilderness motif in the prophets as a metaphor for estrangement from God and the land. It certainly recalls the wandering of the Israelites under Moses (Rhoads and Michie, Mark as Story). Mark seems to understand it after this fashion.
The physical description of John the Baptist in verse 6 is unparalleled in the gospels. It is obvious he is a ‘wild man’, a deviant who in terms of the mimetic theory will become a scapegoat for Herod (on John’s and therefore Jesus’ wilderness activities as deviance see Malina and Rohrbaugh.).
Why does Jesus escape/flee to the wilderness so often in Mark’s gospel?
The wilderness from a ‘civilized’ perspective is frightening, lonely and dangerous.
That figures like John, and possibly Jesus, were more at ease with the wilderness is confirmed by John Meier who suggests that “both the clothing and the diet of John point first of all simply to his habitation in the desert” (Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol 2). Meier supports this observation with comments from Josephus on ‘desert prophets.’
It is possible to suggest that Jesus experience of the ‘wilderness’ was of a more positive nature than many of those around him. After all, he shares the deepest elements of his personal spirituality (e.g., the use of Abba for God) by way of nature analogies. (“See the lilies of the field…”).
One crucial contemporary way to use the Mark 1:1-8 text liturgically is to note that the ministry of John the Baptist ties Jesus intimately to the life of the people of God, Israel. Such an intimate bond cannot be severed; therefore anti-Semitism is never a hermeneutical option in a repentant reading.
Preaching this text from a Peace Perspective involves recognizing that the good news involves obviates mimetic rivalry and by extension, the necessity of violence, hatred and death. Something strange is at work here, something so different that it’s worthy of being called ‘good news.’ And even today, it is strange news when it is announced that “God is not violent.” It is worth noticing that John’s message, which can be more easily understood within the context of the people’s apocalyptic expectations, draws “all the people” from Jerusalem and Judea. The message of the young man at the tomb, the “real” good news of Mark is heard by two women who “tell no one” what they have heard. A message of peace does not always bring a large audience! Even though Mark’s text doesn’t have any resurrection appearances, (we use the generally accepted text of Mark that ends at 16:8) Mark’s readers are aware that Jesus did not bring God’s vengeance in his resurrection but the only announcement worthy of God, “Peace be to you.”