He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit….
These are the words of Irenaeus, a second century church father and apologist. Since the earliest days of the Christian church the four gospels have been seen as four perspectives of one account. During this Advent and Christmas season we will no doubt hear again the most well-known aspects of the Nativity story – a manger, animals, and angels. But I’ll try to offer a little perspective each week as well, presenting some nuance and sometimes overlooked perspective each gospel writer portrays.
Mark: God’s Christmas Calls us to Repent
Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, and is written not by a disciple of Jesus, but by John Mark, the interpreter and scribe of Peter. Mark recorded the teachings and preaching of Peter, compiling the records to create this Gospel. Because Peter’s audience was the Christian Church (both believers in Jerusalem and believers in other parts of the Roman world) it is assumed that Mark’s Gospel was also intended for a wide audience, and that his storytelling style was mindful of the fact that literacy rates were low in Mediterranean cultures at the time, and that oral readings were likely. More obvious is the message Mark intends to get across. He is essentially shouting: “DO NOT MISS THE MESSIAH!” Mark’s Gospel points out the waywardness of doubting Jesus, and instead calls people to repent of their sin, and turn to Jesus as the true savior and Son of God.
The Gospel of Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist and not the birth of Jesus. While this might spoil our excitement to hear again the nativity story that we so closely associate with this time of year, Mark’s emphasis is worth making time for. It is easy to get wrapped up in a nice story, giving gifts, cheerful music, and all the other busyness associated with this season, but first and foremost, Christmas and the Gospel are about changing the hearts of those who hear this message.
By placing the story of John the Baptist first, Mark reminds us that before Jesus, John was sent by God to prepare the way. So how did he do that? John showed up as an unusual character. Out of place in the then modern Jewish world, John was reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets. He lived a cloistered life in the desert, he wore simple clothes and ate whatever he could find. As people streamed out to see him from the towns and villages, it is clear the attraction of John was not himself (except maybe as a spectacle) but rather in what he was saying. He spoke with power given by God to call the people of Israel to repentance. He was essentially washing and baptizing a generation, forgiving them of hard-heartedness and preparing them to meet the savior “whose sandals he was not worthy to stoop down and untie.”
As Mark sets this scene at the beginning of his Gospel, he is also giving us a common pattern for our weekly worship services. John comes first, at the beginning of the story, to prepare the people to meet Jesus. Just so, in many churches today the worship service will begin with confession, taking time to acknowledge our own shortcomings before God, and are again reminded of God’s forgiveness and prepared with a right heart to meet him in the rest of the service.
By verse 9 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is introduced as an adult, coming out to John to be baptized. Jesus was then prepared and anointed with water and the Word to begin his ministry. Mark’s complete omission of the story of Jesus birth may seem like a let down – we nostalgically love to hear about babies, and wise men, and angels – but the beginning of Mark’s gospel is a great reminder that the story of Jesus only really matters if we are willing to be changed, if we are willing to have our heart worked on by God.
So, are you willing to be changed? Are you willing to admit that you are not as you should be? Are you able to acknowledge your need for a savior so that you might properly welcome him and rejoice in his birth this season?
If so, then let your heart be prepared again now, during this Advent season, with prayer and preparation for the one who has come, and who will come again.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”