The Beginning of Mark’s Apocalyptic Gospel

Mark 1:1-15

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Mark’s Gospel begins with this simple superscription in chapter 1:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”  The word “good news” is the same as “gospel.” It is not a literary designation, as in “the Gospel of Mark;” rather it is a word, euaggelion, which means good news.  When the person we call Mark begins writing, he intends to communicate euaggellion, the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

But Mark’s good news is not the kind of chirpy news you would find nestled in a Reader’s Digest. It is not that warm and fuzzy feature that the networks tuck in at the end of the nightly newscast either.  Mark’s gospel of Jesus Christ, his good news, is apocalyptic.  He offers an apocalyptic gospel.

 

Now to us in this great liberal chapel, such news may not sound good at all.  We late moderns may be inclined to think of apocalyptic not as good, but as primitive–perhaps some detachable feature of early Christianity that we can take or leave.  For those of us used to a Christianity that is reasonable or plausible, apocalyptic sounds more like the crazy relative we keep hidden away in the attic.  We know we are related, but he/she seems just a bit too crazy to take seriously, let alone talk about in public.  So when Mark offers the beginning of his apocalyptic gospel of Jesus, we might be inclined to demur.

 

However, a century of critical Biblical scholarship has been consistent on this point.  The high water mark of 19th century liberalism believed that the Kingdom of God, the gospel Jesus preached (Mark 1:15) was about the inexorable march toward progress of the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.  But the critical work of Biblical scholars like Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer made that liberal view untenable.  These scholars reminded biblical interpreters that Jesus’ gospel was not a cover for the liberal myth of progress.  Jesus’ view of God’s kingdom and its gospel was apocalyptic—something strange to our modern ears. Decades later, the great Biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann conceded so much.  Our scientific world had no room for miracles or three-tiered universes of heaven above, earth, and hell below.  Faithful Christians, Bultmann said, would need to learn to demythologize this unwieldy apocalyptic message of Jesus. But then Bultmann’s own student, a scholar named Ernst Kaesemann, had pushed the problem back to the center.  Kaesemann argued that the apocalyptic view was not easily dispensed with.  In fact, he called apocalyptic the mother of all Christian theology!

 

The mother?  Now that hits close to home!  We might be tempted to keep a friendly distance to apocalyptic thinking.  What reasonable and morally sensitive person today has need of mythological horsemen, stories of rapture and being “left behind,” or cosmic conflagration?  Granted, some apocalyptic texts are just problematic and Christians need to learn to think about them and reinterpret them.  But the core of Käsemann’s argument about apocalyptic’s motherly role is still relevant.  The gospel is about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  How can we really speak of resurrection apart from the apocalyptic worldview which gave it currency in the Jewish world in which Christianity emerged?  For those of us who listen for that gospel in a late modern context, we just cannot write off mother!

 

Perhaps the problem is lack of precision about what exactly makes Mark’s gospel apocalyptic.  While the spectacular visions of apocalyptic literature are hard to ignore, lately scholars have been pointing to what apocalypses do.  The word apocalypse itself does not mean “burning judgment” or “cosmic catastrophe.”  What apocalypse means in Greek is “to reveal.”  Apocalypses are about divine revelation.  A brilliant scholar of apocalyptic literature, Christopher Rowland, made just such a case a couple decades ago.  He titled his book on apocalyptic literature:  The Open Heaven. Apocalypses reveal something about God, something that gives a perspective in the midst of life in chaos.  Other scholars point out that an apocalypse is a genre of what is called revelatory literature.  In other words what makes an apocalypse apocalyptic is that it reveals.  Therefore, the purpose of apocalyptic literature is to disclose something from a transcendent perspective…and in a way that helps to make sense of some difficult anomalies of life.

 

In the Jewish and emerging Christian world, apocalyptic is an at least four-century long dialogue about the righteousness of God from the standpoint of some sort of problem of theodicy.  Through the centuries it asks questions like the following:  How can God be just or righteous, and these awful Gentiles have destroyed the Temple?  How can God be just or righteous, and these Greeks force us to abandon our traditional ways around Sabbath, circumcision, and obedience to the divine law?  How can God be just, when those who act in God’s name are persecuted and killed by those idolatrous Romans?  How can God be just when the righteous dead never receive any vindication in this world that is now so clearly in the grip of anti-divine forces?  These are the kinds of profound questions of theodicy and the righteousness of God that writers of apocalyptic texts ask.

 

So now we come back to Mark’s gospel.  Just what exactly makes Mark’s version of the good news so apocalyptic?  On a general level, we can see some of the more spectacular elements of apocalyptic throughout the Markan story.  When in Mark 1:15 Jesus comes preaching the coming Kingdom of God’s reign, he announces it as gospel/good news of God.  What he means is demonstrated in his Galilean ministry of kingdom proclamation in the following chapters.  Jesus heals the sick as a sign of the dawning kingdom.  Jesus casts out demons with apocalyptic authority.  He forgives sins, offering God’s end-time mercy even now in his Galilean ministry.  When Jesus feeds people, though they start with just few loaves and fish, there is more than enough and everyone is filled: a sign of the eschatological banquet.  Not even nature escapes his concern.  Jesus himself contends with apocalyptic forces as he walks miraculously over the waters of chaos, and rebukes and silences demonic storms with his mere word of command.

 

With all these elements of the Markan gospel story we can see:  this apocalyptic world is not just some neutral space of choice and human freedom.  Elements of human and natural life are vividly portrayed as in the thrall of cosmic evil:  demons, forces, principalities and powers as Paul would say.  God’s good earth has been corrupted by evil forces that require some sort of “strong man” to overcome.

 

Here we see the importance of Mark’s apocalyptic revelation at the beginning of his gospel.  Right here, in this fifteen-verse prologue to the Gospel of Mark, Mark includes his crucial moment of apocalyptic revelation.  In the first few verses, Mark has us focused on John the Baptist, an end-time prophet sent to prepare the way.  But even John confesses–for all the powerful signs of his ministry of repentance–that a “stronger one” is coming.  Then Jesus appears.  The text words it this way translated directly from the Greek:  “and it came to pass in those days.”  “Those days”—that is end-time talk.  When Jesus appears in vv. 9-11, he, too, is baptized by John just as all the crowds are—except when he comes up from the water.  What Jesus sees and hears in these early verses of Mark is an apocalyptic vision.  The heavens are opened, the dove descends, and then a divine voice that only he and we readers get to hear says:  “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  This is an apocalyptic moment of revelation replete with open heavens, cosmic symbols, and heavenly voices.  We who hear the text are privy to Jesus’ own revelation as are no other characters in the text.  We and Jesus know that Jesus has a messianic, prophetic identity and mission.  As he sets out into this difficult apocalyptic world, he does so in light of this divine revelation, in light of this mysterious, transcendent perspective.

 

Please note further what the apocalyptic elements of this revelation point to.  First, the heavens are not merely opened, but ripped apart, schizomenous in Greek.  God in this apocalyptic revelation is breaking down barriers.  As Duke Biblical scholar Joel Marcus puts it, there is a “gracious gash in the universe.” God has committed Godself to entering this broken world to fulfill God’s kingdom purposes.  Second, when the dove descends, it is not just some pretty symbol.  The language of the dove goes back to God’s original purposes at creation, where the Spirit broods over the waters in anticipation of God’s creative act.  God is not yet through with this broken created order.  What of the aural disclosure of God’s relation to Jesus?  This is language of prophetic anointment and messianic kingship, language that reminds us of all the promises of God in the Hebrew Bible:  the psalms and the prophet Isaiah, too.

 

At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, God reveals Godself, God’s purposes and Jesus’ otherwise secret mysterious identity.  We hearers are, right there at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, given a transcendent perspective on the sixteen-chapter apocalyptic struggle that is about to ensue.  What is the point?: in the midst of God’s good creation, which is nonetheless in the thrall of anti-divine forces, God rips open the heavens and places God’s imprimatur on Jesus in such a way that Jesus and we readers are privy to this transcendent perspective.  We now know, even in the midst of life’s most hellish conditions, that God through Jesus is committed to the fight against cosmic evil.  God is revealed as ripping open heavens to break the boundaries that give cosmic evil the upper hand.

 

Of course, Mark’s strange vision of Jesus’ significance may still just seem too far out.  Apart from movies, books, and a few sectarian groups, our world is not that crazy for apocalyptic.  We probably live our lives largely in the light of reason, and in relative comfort.  Mark may offer an apocalyptic gospel, but on the whole, our world, our late modern reality is not buying.  Mark may well defer to Jesus the exorcist, but when faced with struggles of mind and spirit, we late moderns are much more likely to refer to psychologists and medical professionals.  Mark’s Jesus may celebrate eschatological banquets of an apocalyptic kingdom where all are miraculously fed, but for us these matters are better left for the rational adjustment of public policy on food, agricultural production and foreign aid.  Jesus may rebuke storm demons and silence the wind, but we are far more likely to stick with the weather channel and its talk of low pressure systems and the jet stream as we deal with matters meteorological.  In the end, Bultmann was right:  our worlds are different and are not amenable to Mark’s apocalyptic gospel of Jesus.

 

But on a second look, even we find our reasoned worlds interrupted by intractable evil.  We experience this in multiple ways.

 

Personally, we experience this with the struggle with disease.  For all our progress against cancer, there still seems to be something of a strange virulence to it—the body turned against itself.  Cancer may be a describable biological process, but we nonetheless feel compelled with our language to “wage a war” against it, to fight it as if it were something more.

 

Socially, we bump into this with the mysteries of life together.  We experience an inability to find ways of even talking with each other about solving problems like gun violence after another massacre of innocents—situations where we cannot only not do something, but even imagine talking about doing something.  In such moments it is as if we felt we were in the grip of something that is bigger and different  than our capacity to reason and act as free persons.

 

At the broadest level of our shared humanity in this world, there are also those powerful experiences of corporate evil that force us to recognize the very limits of enlightened reason among free citizens to do what is necessary.  The 20th century was supposed to represent the triumph of reason, technology, and astounding feats of human accomplishment.  For all that, it was also the century of repeated, bloody wars and a holocaust.  For all the talk of “never again” in both warfare and silence about mass extermination, the incomprehensible bloody trail marches forward to Cambodia, the Balkans, and beyond.  Is it any wonder that Quebec General Romeo Dallaire, the head of the UN forces in Rwanda in the 1990’s, mysteriously titled his book about that awful event, “Shake Hands with the Devil:  the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.”?  We sometimes experience evil in just such a way.

 

It is true that we may not have the same mythology.  Yet we still deal with the mystery of intractable evil, ask questions of our mysterious selves, and yes, pose questions of theodicy to a mysterious God.  Here Mark’s strange apocalyptic gospel registers:  good news for a good creation gone awry.  It is good news in the face of the struggle with intractable evil.  And the good news is this:  in the face of these intractable realities, God has not given up, but comes closer.  In Jesus’ baptism, the apocalyptic news revealed is that God is not staying behind the cosmic curtain of the heavens.  God has transgressed the very boundary between heaven and earth. In Jesus, God has been mysteriously revealed as the uncontainable other.  This God does not remain in the holy separation of eternal otherness.  Instead, in Jesus God is revealed as coming close with a divinely authorized risky love that leads all the way to the cross.  This is no triumphant fix-it God.  It is also not an aloof God of aseity and impassibility.  This is a God who apocalyptically reveals Godself precisely as the mystery for us in the face of our broken realities.

Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall captures this apocalyptic mystery in a helpful way.  Here I paraphrase him:

 

God’s revealing is simultaneously an unveiling and a veiling.  God conceals Godself under the opposite of what both religion and reason imagine God to be, namely the Almighty, the majestic transcendent, the absolutely other…. God’s otherness…is not to be found in God’s absolute distance from us but in God’s willed and costly proximity to us.

 

In her article “Preaching to Horror-Struck People,” Rebekah Eckert, saw a deep connection between Hall’s thoughts about the mysterious revelation of God’s otherness in risky proximate love, and the story of Victor Munyarugerere. Victor is described years later in a newspaper report about his actions during the Rwandan Genocide.  Amidst the bloody context of extermination in the 1990’s we hear this unexpected news story of his risky proximity:

 

Victor Munyarugerere, a Catholic lay counselor married to a Tutsi woman, used creative tactics to save the lives of about 270 people.  Dressed up as a priest and doling out bottles of whiskey and wine to soldiers at checkpoints, he shuttled carloads of children, women and men to safety at the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali.  “I decided that I preferred to die saving people,” said Munyarugerere. “Tutsis and Hutus are all children of God.”

 

This risky proximity however is never just for times of extreme social and political duress.  It is also for personal lives lived under difficult circumstances.  Rev. Samuel Proctor, BU grad and eminent preacher and homiletician tells the story of a mother who, “working for Mrs. Cartwright from sunup to sundown every day and then coming home to cook and do laundry for her own children without a mate or the inspiration of a faithful companion.  We saw that,” Proctor said, “and we heard her singing Zion’s songs in the dark.”

 

This revelation of a God who in Jesus rips open heaven to come close is itself the core of Mark’s apocalyptic gospel.  Mark begins his gospel with this revelation to show God’s loving abandon for a good creation gone awry.  It is not an apocalyptic gospel of easy answers.  It is, however, a word about God’s love, a risky proximity, in the midst of the darkness.

 

In the early 20th century a group of artists formed a collective in a small community just north of the German city of Bremen.  The town of Worpswede was of no great repute.  It sat on the edge of a long sparsely inhabited swamp-like region known as the Teufelsmoor, the Devil’s moor.  One artist, a painter in the group, crafted a painting he called, “the Sower.”  In the picture, the sower casts his seed on the ground—it is a typical motif and theme in painting from the period.  But this artist’s sower casts his seed across the landscape he came to know in the collective:  the Devil’s moor.  As he does so, the sower casts his seed in the dark, but toward a small dawning light.

 

I suspect the writer of the first gospel written would have understood.  Mark’s Jesus offers the beginning of his apocalyptic gospel.  It is a song in darkness, a seed cast across a dark landscape.  Yet, amidst the darkness, Mark’s gospel speaks…a promise of dawning light.

 

~Rev. Dr. David Schnasa Jacobsen

Professor of Homiletics, Boston University

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