See, for me Mark’s Gospel starts with a desert blurred by heat haze, the distorted image of a man walking towards us and mysterious power chords played on an invisible electric guitar. It’s less the Bible, more Highlander.
And yet there’s something epic and cinematic about Mark chapter 1, because it’s the coming of two of the key figures in the gospel story: Jesus, of course, and John the Baptist. Of the two, John is the unknown quantity, so, in order to establish the Baptiser’s credentials, Mark opens with a prophecy from Isaiah 40. Or does he?
Well, not entirely. Mark actually adds an extra line to his quotation, and so despite what he says, part of the quoted prophecy is actually from Malachi 3.
Now this is interesting.
Look at the context of Malachi: chapter 3 concerns a future time when Israel’s priesthood would be purified and restored. That’s important, because rather than being an eccentric voice in the wilderness, John should have been a priest. After all, that’s what his dad did, and John would have been expected to run in the family. Obviously he broke away from that, not that you can blame him – at the time, the Temple in Jerusalem was dominated by high priestly families who were firmly in bed with the Romans and political expediency. These issues will go on to become one of the central conflicts in the gospels; they’re a central issue here, because although people are flocking to John and he’s carrying out religious duties – in a new form, yes, but for many people, the side of a river is becoming more of a temple than the Temple itself.
Malachi’s also interesting because he ends his prophecy by saying that a new Elijah will one day arrive in Israel to bring people back to God. This is huge, because as prophets go, Elijah was one of the greatest. And, given that one of his defining characteristics was his distinctive fashion sense, there’s a clear link with John wearing a camel-hair shirt. “You know that new Elijah that was prophesied?” asks Mark, “Well here he is!”
The rest of the prophecy quoted by Mark comes from Isaiah 40, which talks about the coming of the Messiah:
“A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”
The image here is of a royal procession, a herald going ahead to tell everyone that the king is on his way – clear a path because royalty is coming. And in the gospels, despite their parade of weak kings and corrupt politicians, images of the true king relate to just one person – Jesus himself, who’s about to make his entrance.
So we’re talking about the Messiah and a successor to one of Israel’s greatest heroes. The level of authority that’s implied by these eight verses is immense, and yet look at verse 7 – John doesn’t even consider himself worthy to untie Jesus’s sandals. Now, we can look at that and say it’s an appropriate level of authority to have when relating to the Son of God – fair enough. But that one line reminds us of another act of humility – Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an act so socially demeaning to someone like Peter that it provoked absolute horror – kings, messiahs, don’t wash people’s feet.
And yet Jesus did – why? Because, in the upside down Kingdom of God, true authority is marked by service and servanthood. You have an important position? Fine, just be prepared to clean some toilets. Service in God’s Kingdom is motivated by love – love for God, love for others. That’s what the religious authorities reacted against by John had forgotten; that’s what John remembered when, further down the line, he watched his own disciples leave to follow Jesus.
Out of the wilderness walks one of the towering figures of the Christian faith; following him is the king himself. We may be driven to follow them, but remember – following means getting on our knees and washing some feet; it means bending down and picking up a cross. John heralds a new kingdom, yes, but it doesn’t work like all those other empires. No; for this is a different kingdom; the kingdom of the Servant King.