Friday, July 10, 2009

The Good News

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.’

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

- Mark 1:1-13

The good news begins, Mark tells us, with the prophecy of Isaiah. John the Baptist is an important component in the gospels, because he helps to create the continuum between the old and the new - the scriptures are united in part through the role that John the Baptist will play. As we have just seen in yesterday's daily reading, Jesus' last appearance to his apostles just before Ascension included his proclamation to them that they are witnesses to the fulfillment of scripture through Jesus' life. So, Mark begins with the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in John the Baptist, and John's announcement of the One who is to come.

Why do we think of repentance as a kind of preparation? Especially, here, repentance is a preparation for the one who will judge. Let us examine the word for repentance in its original Greek: metanoia. Metanoia means, literally, "change of mind." It has a neutral connotation in its original tongue, as opposed to the more negative that we are colloquially used to. It indicates that its purpose or function is transformation within the individual, a reconsideration of some sort of previous choice, a decision, a way of behaving, anything that involves personal choice. To practice metanoia is to turn away from something toward another. I believe repentance is entered into simply by reconsidering, opening the door to change - this is a practice that involves a kind of self-consciousness or self-awareness, the ability to consider whether or not some choice we've made for our way of thinking should possibly be modified or reconsidered in light of something else.

John's baptism of repentance is practiced here under the Law. It is clear what sinning is and how it is defined. But he is preparing the way for another who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. So, the annunciation of the good news is all about the One who is coming who will baptize in Spirit. This also is predicted and prefigured via scripture. Repeatedly scripture has alluded to the law that is written on the heart, and the one who will put it there. This is the One who is coming, for whom John the Baptist is preparing the way. And this great event, this good news, will change the way that we think of sin and repentance. To "change our mind" will have far more to do with the laws written on the heart, in relation to Spirit, and to Christ.

But for now, Jesus' baptism is the great signifier of his public ministry. It is also the first revelation of the Holy Trinity, in the voice of the Father, the naming of Jesus as Son, and the appearance of the dove as the Holy Spirit.

Jesus' first act is to be "driven into the wilderness" where he is on his own, yet ministered to by angels, we are told. There he will face temptation, and we will get the first notion (in this gospel) of what it means to turn from sin.

There is much symbolism here in this opening chapter of Mark that tells us hidden meanings in the reflection of scripture. John the Baptist's clothing is similar to that of Elijah, so it is an allusion to the return of Elijah and the fulfillment of this prophecy. We are given to understand John's great impact on the population. Jesus' "coming up" out of the water of baptism is the same word used for his Ascension; the sign of the dove descending prefigures the Spirit descending at Pentecost. The divine proclamation of the voice of the Father combines a messianic psalm (Ps. 2:7) with the first song of the Suffering Servant of the Lord (Is. 42:1) and so Jesus' identity is revealed for those who can understand it or "hear" it.

Jesus' kingdom, as a "new creation" is begun with his first act of turning to the wilderness, where he is like the "new Adam." This Adam will be tempted in ways that befit his own situation, and even ours. His temptations are not elaborated in this particular gospel, but they consist of all the "shoulds" of social rank or success - wealth, power and fame. Jesus begins his ministry with the commitment to the will of God, the plan the Father has in mind, and we are ready to understand what the laws of the heart teach us about what it is to repent, or to "change our minds."

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