How a story begins matters.
Matthew, Mark, and John each begin their accounts of the gospel, in one way or another, focusing on the birth of Christ; God becoming flesh. Matthew begins with a genealogy, that’s more theological than family tree, before moving quickly into the birth of Christ. Luke spends the first two chapters discussing the miraculous births of both Jesus and his cousin John, and the events surrounding these births. While John doesn’t have a birth narrative, he begins with a prologue that places Jesus at the very beginning of the world, and then declaring that the word became flesh and lived among us.
Mark, however, is different. Mark begins, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God,” and then moves quickly to John the Baptist and the call of repentance. There is no birth narrative, no visit by the angels, no shepherds or wise men, and not even a mention of Mary and Joseph. For Mark, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is not the birth narrative, it’s the ministry of John and the call to repentance. Why?
Israel in many ways is still suffering from exile. Exile was a horrific moment for Israel. After being promised a land of inheritance and a Davidic dynasty, Israel thought their future was secure. Even though the prophets warned that God would punish their sins, for the most part, the nation never changed. But with the exile, everything began to be questioned. Was God still faithful? Would the promises be fulfilled? What of the future promises? Israel’s identity changed at this moment. Even though they eventually came back to the land of Israel, and even rebuilt the temple, Israel was still under foreign rule. Exile was still real in the hearts and the minds of the people. They were longing for good news; good news that God would act in a way to make the world right again. They longed for good news that God’s reign and rule would be established forever.
Exile, remember, was a sin problem. Israel didn’t go into exile because they didn’t have a strong army or because they made poor economic decisions. Israel went into exile because of sin. Israel went into exile because God was no longer reigning on the throne in their lives. Israel went into exile because they had allowed the worship of false gods (false gods of rock and stone as well as false gods of power, money, and self) to become more important that the worship of the one true God. They were looking to horses and chariots for safety and not God. They were protecting their own possessions instead of sharing with others through the tithe. They were loving themselves instead of their neighbors, especially the foreigner, the sojourner, and the alien. Israel had a sin problem that needed to be corrected. Exile was the corrective mechanism God used to turn the hearts of the people back to their first love.
At the dawn of the New Testament Israel was still suffering the effects of exile. However, God was about to do a new thing. The coming of the Son, God coming in flesh and blood, was about to create a new thing in the history of the world. Never before had God come in flesh and blood. Never before had the divine become human. Peace was coming to Earth. This was a time to celebrate, a time to rejoice. God was going to rescue the people from foreign rule. Not just the rule of Rome or Herod, but the rule of the false gods that had taken the place of prominence in the heats of the people.
This was good news. Not that humans could go to Heaven when they die, but that even now lives did not have to be lived in obedience to false gods. Humanity could regain their role as image bearers of God, created to worship the one in whose image they were made.
Which is why John calls the people to repent, and why Mark begins the Good News with repentance. We can never accept the true king until we repent of the false gods that we have claimed our allegiance. We must repent of the false securities that we have elevated to supreme forces. We must repent of the various gods that we have allowed to rule our hearts (jobs, family time, free time, money, or anything we have made more important than the creator God). We will never be in a position to allow Christ to reign on the throne in our lives until we repent of and remove the false gods that we have allowed to take up dominance in our hearts. So, as we wait for the Christ Child, we repent.
The way stories start matters, which is why Mark begins the good news of Jesus Christ with a call to repentance. Because the only way to end our exile from God is to repent of the false gods that have taken up residence in our hearts so that we be able to allow the true God to reign on the throne of our lives.