“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is how Mark introduces his account of Jesus. He does not begin with the Savior, however. He pays no attention to the stable or the shepherds or the eastern sages. Instead, Mark takes his readers back in time. Before there was Jesus, there was John. And before there was John, there was Isaiah, which is Mark’s way of saying that we need a runway. We need some context. If we are to receive the good news of Jesus rightly, we need help getting prepared.
Each of the four evangelists prepare their readers in different ways. Matthew begins by naming the generations. Luke leads with his journalistic method. John opens with echoes of creation. But Mark is narrower, more particular. In order to prepare his readers for Jesus, Mark draws attention to a voice.
*Sermon series idea: Notice that the Gospel reading for this week, the next two Sundays, and Christmas Eve each draw from the first chapter of one of the four Gospels. You might consider preaching a series of sermons exploring how each evangelist introduces Jesus. The sermons would proclaim the commands and promises of God around teaching about the purpose, theme, perspective, and contribution of each of the four canonical Gospels.
But let us return to the voice. Mark’s voice is unlike so many that clutter the air these days. His voice is silent about COVID restrictions or legal battles over the election. It has no regard for holiday shopping or the adroit voice-coaching of Blake Shelton or Gwen Stefani. Mark makes no effort to impress listeners or win votes. His voice aims only to prepare those who hear it for the coming of the Lord.
There are four things about his voice you might consider exploring. Each could give direction to your sermon by itself, or you could combine several to paint a fuller picture. The goal would be to amplify this voice above all the others for the benefit of your hearers.
First, the voice has been a long time coming. It goes back to Isaiah, the prophet during the great eighth century BC. The lectionary pairing with Isaiah 40 is a natural connection. With the exception of a few specific prophecies, however, Isaiah may not be well-known among your hearers. Without getting completely lost in the historical weeds, you could spend some time investigating the context around Isaiah’s preaching to help your hearers see Jesus as part of a much larger story. If you choose to highlight this point, keep in mind that Mark 1:2-3 is a conflation of Isaiah 40, Exodus 23:20, and Malachi 3:1.
The voice has been a long time coming. It goes back to Isaiah, the prophet during the great eighth century BC.
Second, the voice appears in the wilderness. In biblical thinking the wilderness is not a happy place. It is characterized by desolation, isolation, abandonment, and danger. Sound familiar? John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, and that is the first and most direct connection to the voice in the text. But these unending days of pandemic have a distinctly wilderness-ish feeling to them. The fact that the voice cries out “in the wilderness” is a reminder of how the good news of Jesus appears amid struggle and strain, exhaustion and fatigue.
Third, the voice directs attention away from itself. Now we are talking about John the Baptist, of course. He drew the crowds, but he directed attention away from himself. He wanted the people to think about the One whose sandals he was unworthy to untie. John seems to have taken seriously the advice of his homiletics professors who insisted that any preacher worth his salt sends people home talking about Jesus, not himself. This third point may not be as helpful for this particular sermon, but it serves as a healthy reminder to fight against the urge to put yourself into the spotlight during this season of extra sermons at special services.
Fourth, the voice calls the people to repent. The people—then and now—need to take heed. Repentance is not necessary for Jesus’ sake, as if He needs something from us. Repentance is necessary for our sake. In many and various ways, we have eased into unchristian ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. The objects of our fear, love, and trust are too often something other than the One who came after John. This call to repentance is not merely an attempt to make your hearers feel guilty for a few minutes. It is the prophetic call to straighten our paths by removing those things in our lives that keep us from welcoming the King and His reign into our lives.
And what of that reign? Here is where the promise takes center stage. The reign of the One who came after the voice is characterized by forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit for your hearers. These gifts strengthen and encourage us. They comfort us when weary, sustain us in our exhaustion, and direct our attention away from life in the wilderness to the coming of the Lord. This is good news. It is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 1:1-8.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 1:1-8.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 1:1-8.