Note: Most of this reflection was included during Lent. You may wish to skip it or, read the text again and do your own reflection.
John the Baptizer ministered ‘in the wilderness’ (i.e., the desert). The wilderness is an important location in Mark’s Gospel, with both literal and symbolic meaning. It is mentioned nine times in the first half of his Gospel. Jesus often sought out the solitude of the wilderness and other deserted places. Literally, the wilderness was an uninhabited, desolated and marginal place. People who wanted to announce glad tidings (the gospel) to the world wouldn’t choose a desert to do so. But John did. He avoided popular places like the temple in Jerusalem, the hub of religious and political life, and remained at the unpopular outskirts. Right at the beginning Mark prepares us to read about one who will focus his time with those on periphery of society.
Prepare to Listen. Be silent for a moment then pray: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)
Read Mark 1:4-8
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Mark is slow to turn the spotlight on Jesus. After his abrupt and shocking introduction, we meet John, not Jesus. He’s “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” as the ancient prophets had foretold. For centuries, Jews had looked forward to this ‘voice’ and probably imagined what he’d be like. It’s possible they expected God to send someone exceptional; someone who’d dare to stand up to the religious and political powerhouse in Jerusalem. What they got instead was an unknown man who ate weird food, dressed in strange clothing, and who avoided Jerusalem and the temple. A strange messenger indeed! But, reader’s familiar with the Old Testament would make the connection Mark intended them to make. This description of John is almost identical to a description of the ancient prophet, Elijah (2 Kings 1:5-8). Mark doesn’t explain this, leaving us to live with the mystery and keep reading his Story to learn more.
In the summary of John’s message, Mark introduces readers to his two main themes about the good news: 1st, the mission of God’s kingdom (preaching repentance and offering forgiveness of sins); and 2nd, the kingdom’s ‘envoy’ (Jesus himself) (in Binding the Strong Man by Ched Myers, 2015, p. 126). Through John, Mark makes it clear that the good news is not about the rescue of one nation (Israel) rather than another. It has a much broader scope that will, in the end, reach out to all creation and include both physical and spiritual salvation.
There is a second unexplained mystery found in John’s claim that Jesus will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” There are only three other times the Spirit is mentioned in Mark and they have nothing to do with this verse. We have another mystery to live with and wonder about.
People from all over flocked to John for a baptism for the repentance of sin (v5). Imagine joining them. What sin/s do you need to confess? What sin/s does your society need to repent of?
Discern what question Jesus may be asking you to live with today.
Respond to Jesus in Prayer
Lord, I have sinned against you, sometimes knowingly and willfully and sometimes unknowingly. I repent and receive your mercy of forgiveness through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.
Go and live in Obedience to Christ, grateful for forgiveness in Jesus.