Gospel: Mark 1:4-11
Epistle: Acts 10:34-38
Lesson: Isaiah 42:1-7
Psalm: Psalm 45:7-9
CLB Commentary on the Gospel Text by Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen
“And so John came…” With these words, Mark indicates to us that what is about to share is part of a continuous and ongoing story, and not just any story: it is the cornerstone piece of the structure that we call the redemptive mission of the Triune God, a saving narrative that runs from Genesis through Revelation. This unique and Spirit-directed story doesn’t start here with John, or even with the birth of Jesus, but much, much earlier. The verses immediately preceding our text underscore this by showing us that John came in fulfillment of God’s Word spoken through the prophets. Mark calls us as witnesses to the truth that God’s Word accomplishes what it speaks, much like we see in the first chapters of Genesis (“And God said…And there was”). This redemptive story has its source in the mind of God, even before time, and it is continually moving toward its consummation. “History is not a random kaleidoscope of disconnected events; it is a process directed by the God who sees the end in the beginning” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1975. p.11). Even John’s dress and actions take us back to an earlier period. His dress is like that of the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs. 1:8), and his desert diet was of the simplest fare, serving as a prophet’s protest against self-indulgence calling us away from the pursuit of the treasures of this world. True to his calling, John did not deliver his message from a place of comfort or with a full stomach—he lived what he preached. The prophet did not get in the way of the message. A man like that captures our attention.
And what is John’s message? Everything that the Old Testament pointed to, the promised redemption that was long hoped for is now upon them in Jesus Christ. But are we ready? John’s message contains a warning and a promise—bad news and good news. The bad news is that we are all lost in a wilderness, and there is no road through it. Furthermore, the wilderness is full of mountains and hills. Can anyone build a road in such a forbidding place? Yet it must be done—we are commanded to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” But this project is humanly impossible. Who can conquer sin and death? Who can make the unrepentant heart receptive to the reign of Christ? The power of sin is like unmovable mountains before us. Paul understood this when he cried out, “What a wretched man I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24) This task requires superhuman power and grace.
So how is the way to be prepared? How are we to respond to this command of the prophet? As Luther put it, “Such preparation is spiritual; it consists in the deep conviction and confession that you are unfit, a sinner, poor, damned and miserable with all the works you are able to do. Where this conviction is wrought the heart will be open for the Lord’s entrance with his forgiveness and gifts” (quoted in R.C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the St. Mark’s Gospel, Mpls: Augsburg Pub. House, 1961, p. 27). Thus John announced to Israel that they were going in the wrong direction, and needed to make a U-turn in the right direction—in short, to repent. Repentance requires that we undergo a Divinely wrought change of heart, to turn “from sin and guilt to cleansing and forgiveness by God’s grace” (Lenski, p. 30). This is the meaning of John’s baptism, and it is not only for first-time converts, but it is something that the believer returns to and receives on a daily, ongoing basis.
John’s good news is grounded in Jesus Christ. After calling for repentance, John pointed to a Greater One to come. He spoke of “one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John understood his role as one sent into the world with the message of redemption—he was to point away from himself to the One through whom our eternal redemption comes. In essence, the gospel is always inseparable from Jesus, in whom the grace of God reaches its summit.
The One who came—the Savior, the Christ—did so in order to stand in our place, that we in turn might stand in His. He stepped down into the water in identification with all of sinful humanity, taking all that we are, that we in baptism might also receive all that He is. For all who are in Christ, the words of God’s approval that rang out from heaven that day also apply—you are mine, in you I am well pleased.
In this picture of Jesus’ baptism we again get a picture of the entire Trinity being involved in this redemptive mission. In this ongoing narrative, we see a continuous flow of participants actively involved in God’s sending acts. We see John sent with a message of preparation in repentance. We see Jesus who is sent to be our sin substitute and to conquer death, to restore God’s creation. But the story doesn’t end there—we too are privileged to be in this continuing salvation story. We too are sent to cry out in the wilderness to all who will hear, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” And as Luther reminded us, this preparation is spiritual, beginning with a conviction that because of what we are by nature, we are powerless to do what is commanded, and, “Where this conviction is wrought the heart will be open for the Lord’s entrance with his forgiveness and gifts.”