This is where the good news starts – the good news of Jesus the Messiah, God’s son. Isaiah the prophet put it like this (‘Look! I am sending my messenger ahead of me; he will clear the way for you!’): ‘A shout goes up in the desert: Make way for the Lord! Clear a straight path for him!’ John the Baptizer appeared in the desert. He was announcing a baptism of repentance, to forgive sins. The whole of Judaea, and everyone who lived in Jerusalem, went out to him; they confessed their sins and were baptized by him in the river Jordan. John wore camel-hair clothes, with a leather belt round his waist. He used to eat locusts and wild honey. ‘Someone a lot stronger than me is coming close behind,’ John used to tell them. ‘I don’t deserve to squat down and undo his sandals. I’ve plunged you in the water; he’s going to plunge you in the holy spirit.’ This is how it happened. Around that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the river Jordan.
There was a man on the radio the other day enthusing about a new restaurant he’d just visited. Actually, he interviewed the chef, and got him to talk about the exciting new ingredients he was adding to his salads. Customers loved it, he said. The reporter hadn’t been so keen to begin with, but gradually came round to the idea. The new, secret ingredient, mixed in with the lettuce and cucumber, was . . . locusts.
Well, explained the reporter cheerfully, you get used to prawns and other creatures with legs and eyes, don’t you? And the taste (so he said) was really rather good. We shall have to see whether it catches on.
But I suspect that, even in the first century, the mention of someone, in this case John the Baptist, eating locusts was not meant to make people think, ‘Good idea! Must try that some day.’ Like the description of John’s clothing, it was probably meant to highlight the fact that he appeared as a strange, wild man, living in a way that said, ‘It’s time for a change! Ordinary days are gone – a new age is just about to begin!’
That was the point, of course. We sometimes think of ‘repentance’ as being about going back: going back, wearily, to the place you went wrong, finally making a clean breast of it, and then hoping you can start again. Well, that may be how it feels sometimes, and Ash Wednesday is no bad time to face up to such a moment if it’s got to be done. But John’s message of repentance was essentially forward-looking. God’s doing a new thing, so we have to get ready! If you suddenly got a phone call telling you that someone really important was coming to visit your house – the Queen, say, or even Victoria Beckham – you’d want to whip round the place with a duster, at least. Perhaps throw out that pile of magazines under the armchair. Maybe even do the left-over washing-up. Sort the place out, quick! She’s on the way!
That is the mood John was evoking – and that’s the mood Mark is creating in his characteristically breathless opening. ‘This is where the good news starts’: you can almost feel Mark being out of breath having run all the way up the road to your house. ‘Good news!’ (puff, pant). ‘He’s on the way!’ (gasp, deep breath). ‘Get ready now – he’s nearly here!’
And who is this ‘he’ who is ‘on the way’? Well, here’s the puzzle which will occupy Mark, and us, throughout most of the book. Obviously, we say, it’s Jesus: ‘Jesus, the Messiah, God’s son’. The phrase ‘God’s son’ was used, in some key biblical passages, as a title for Israel’s king. There are no signs in pre-Christian Judaism that it meant ‘the second person of the Trinity’. Or that ‘Messiah’ meant anything like that, either. ‘Messiah’ meant ‘the anointed one’: again, pretty certainly a king.
But the two biblical passages Mark quotes (in his breathless state, he mentions Isaiah before quoting Malachi, and then comes back to Isaiah afterwards) – these two passages don’t seem to be talking simply about a king, a human figure in the line of the monarchs of old. They seem to be talking about Israel’s God himself. Malachi 3.1 talks of God sending a messenger ahead of him to get people ready. Isaiah 40.3 is clear as well. The person who’s ‘coming’ is God himself!
Why? Wasn’t God always, so to speak, ‘there’? Why would he be ‘coming’? Cut a long story very short: the ancient Jews believed that their God had abandoned Israel, and the Temple, at the time of the exile in Babylon, six centuries earlier. They had come back; they had rebuilt the Temple; but at no point did they have a sense that God had returned to live in it. (For a start, if he had, why were pagans still ruling over them?) So the great promises of God’s return remained unfulfilled. And John the Baptist seemed to be saying that now was the time. He was on the way!
So Mark invites us, right off the top, to hold together two pictures. First, Israel’s God is coming back at last! Second, here comes Jesus, Israel’s true king, ‘God’s son’ in that sense! How can we get our heads around that?
John doesn’t give his hearers much time to think. He was plunging people into the river Jordan, but the Coming One – whoever he was – would plunge them in something much more dangerous and powerful. In the ‘holy spirit’! That’s another idea bursting in on Mark’s hearers, making them wonder what on earth he’s talking about. ‘God’s coming back! The Messiah’s on the way! You’ll be plunged in the spirit!’ If you feel it’s now your turn to be breathless, you’re probably in good company. I suspect that his first readers felt the same.
But the point, of course – this is Ash Wednesday, after all – is that you need to get ready. When God arrives; when the king knocks on the door; when you’re about to be plunged in the holy spirit – what is there in your life that most embarrasses you? What are you ashamed of ? Which bits of the room have been quietly crying out to be tidied these many years, and you’ve been ignoring them? Mark is taking us on a pilgrimage this Lent, to the place where, he believes, God has come into our very midst – that is, to the cross of the Messiah. It’s time to get ready.
Wake us up, gracious Lord, by the message of your coming, and help us, in our hearts and our lives, to be ready.