The season of Advent and the Gospel of Mark often do not find an enthusiastic reception in Baptist churches. Advent—and the rest of the traditional church calendar—sometimes is seen as a “Catholic thing.” And Mark historically has been the least popular of the four Gospels across the entire church.
But both Advent and Mark’s Gospel are quite relevant for all Christians today, especially this year in the time of a pandemic.
Introduction to Advent and to Mark
Many Baptists are largely unfamiliar with Advent. Anglican Compass helpfully summarizes: “Advent is the beginning of the Church Year. It is a time of anticipation, a time of preparation, and a time of remembrance. Advent and Christmas are often confused. The confusion arises because most North Americans begin celebrating Christmas before it arrives.”
Unlike Christmas, Advent is somber and subdued in tone. The Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist figure prominently in the Scripture readings used for Advent, as they are the primary voices that anticipate the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Mark includes both Old Testament prophets and John in a very brief prologue. This type of brevity characterizes Mark’s Gospel and explains Mark’s historic neglect. Why focus on Mark when you have much longer accounts of Jesus in Matthew, Luke and John?
But Mark’s brevity is key to his message. Unlike the other three Gospels, which take their sweet time telling the story of Jesus, Mark is intense and fast-paced. The Greek word translated as “immediately” (eutheōs) has 51 appearances in the New Testament, and 41 of those are in Mark alone. Mark writes with a sense of great urgency, very appropriate for 2020.
“Prepare the way of the Lord”
After providing a brief “heading” for his Gospel in verse one, Mark launches his narrative (1:2-3) with a citation of two Old Testament prophets—Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Mark connects these two texts. Malachi predicts a coming “messenger” who will prepare the people of God for God’s coming. Isaiah 40:3 announces a coming “road” in the desert for God.
The combination of these prophecies foretells a messenger who will arise in the wilderness and prepare the way for God, who himself will come on this desert highway set up by the messenger. At this point in Mark’s narrative, the identity of this messenger is unclear. Will it be Jesus?
No, this messenger is not Jesus. Rather, this messenger is John the Baptist (1:4). With no background information given, John simply “appears” in the wilderness, seemingly from nowhere. He preaches “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which prompts “all the country of Judea … and all the people of Jerusalem” to come be baptized by him in the Jordan River (1:4-5 NASB).
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John’s baptism has no clear precedent in Jewish practices of his day. While Gentiles seeking conversion to Judaism would be baptized, and Jews who had been rendered ceremonially unclean would ritually wash themselves, Jews had no practice of letting another person give them “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Something new is afoot.
“One is coming who is mightier than I”
As exciting and unexpected as John’s appearance may be, his ministry of preaching and baptism is not an end in itself. Rather, John has come as the forerunner of another, greater figure.
John says: “After me one is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to bend down and untie the straps of his sandals. I baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8).
John’s purpose is to point to another figure, to prepare the way for the Lord himself. Bending down and untying the straps of another person’s sandals was considered a humiliating task, reserved only for the lowest of slaves. John uses this imagery to emphasize just how much greater this coming figure is.
But John’s remark about baptism of the Holy Spirit emphasizes the coming figure’s superiority even more. In the Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mark, James Edwards writes, “That is an extraordinary declaration, for in the (Old Testament) the bestowal of the Spirit belongs exclusively to God” (33).
While Mark never comes right out and states it quite this bluntly, he uses various hints and implications to indicate Jesus, the figure for whom John serves as forerunner, is none other than the incarnate God himself. Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, also is the embodiment of Israel’s God.
Mark 1:1-8 and Advent
In eight short verses, Mark has set up an incredible sense of anticipation for the coming of Jesus Christ. And when Jesus arrives on the scene in the next verse, he “immediately” (eutheōs) sets to work.
Mark may not give us nearly the level of detail we find in the other three Gospels, but his unique depiction of the days immediately prior to Christ’s coming is very fitting for Advent this year. The pandemic, combined with horrendous examples of racial injustice and with political turmoil, has left me feeling like the prophet Isaiah, crying out to God, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (64:1).
Mark writes with a sense of urgency and crisis that resonates deeply with the time in which we live. The chaos and devastation of 2020 has torn away illusions of prosperity and peace, exposing the depth of our need for Christ and his salvation.
Advent is not only about the first coming of Christ; Advent connects anticipation for Christ’s first coming with anticipation for Christ’s second coming. I imagine many Christians this year are shaking with anticipation for Jesus Christ’s deliverance from sin and death. I would encourage us to read and meditate upon Mark 1:1-8 as we wait for the coming of our Lord.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.