He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom,
As Mark recorded the divinely inspired words of the Gospel near the end of the first century, war raged throughout Galilee, southward through Palestine, in and around Jerusalem – all over the land we know and hold in our prayers as the Land of the Holy One. Vespasian, by this time, had been crowned the Holy Emperor of the Roman Empire – after all his competitors for the crown were conveniently assassinated. Vespasian followed Emperor Nero who is best known even until today for his fanatical persecution of Christians, perhaps personally calling for the execution of the apostles Peter and Paul less than a decade before the time of Mark’s writing. War raged for the people of God at the time Mark records his Gospel.
Mark writes as Rome rules in the Land of the Holy One. Amongst the diverse and divisive groups are the Zealots – Jews who are zealous in their beliefs and actions to overcome Roman rule, to restore Judaism as the state religion, and once again to proclaim Israel as the major political power as they believe God intended. The Zealots look toward the day that God will raise up leaders to bring war that will overthrow and drive out the Romans and all non-believers. It was not uncommon for their rage to erupt into public attacks and murder against fellow Jews who were seen as colluding with the Roman authorities.
In addition, the Zealots raged against those who sought peace with the Romans at any cost – deriding those who pursued their beliefs and practiced their worship only in the safe zones of their tightly defined religious communities, being careful never to challenge the Roman presence, going about their daily business by turning a blind eye to Rome’s heretical rule. For the Zealots, this group was just as problematic as the Romans themselves.
And, even more serious division and unrest amongst the people had been created by the life and ministry of Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi from Nazareth in Galilee. Those who followed him had become known as Christians and were intent on furthering his ministry even though this Jesus had been crucified nearly forty years ago in the midst of the ensuing insurrection. Rome frowned on underlings who were inclined to incite uprisings.
Jesus had lashed out at the Romans, calling them heretics, but he had not led Israel toward military superiority as some had hoped. In fact, he had condemned many of the Jewish religious leaders as well and gone so far as to embrace Gentiles not to exclude Roman soldiers. Even so, nearly 40 years after his death, the numbers who followed his teaching were increasing continuously – both Jew and Gentiles. How could Jews and Gentiles – God’s chosen people side-by-side with non-believers – join together? These Christians continued to preach the message of one who died the most appalling and shameful deaths by crucifixion – the means of execution reserved for the lowest most common criminal of Rome? They continued to declare Jesus their Savior – the Messiah whom the prophets of old had foretold would come to set God’s people free.
The message preached by this Jesus was and is a message of peace and unity for a world in turmoil. This message is said to be the Good News – the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Imagine if this message – this Good News – could bring peace and unity to such a world torn by such division and turmoil, as was this world of the 1st century. It is into this tumultuous climate that God’s words, recorded by Mark, emerged.
God’s people needed Good News of comfort and peace during the latter part of the 1st century. And yes, of course, God’s people need these words of Good News equally in this 21st century. Thus, Mark records these words of Good News for all generations past and present and future. They are timeless words that cast the light of the prophetic message, words that declare our salvation through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Mark’s divinely inspired words alert us that we must be prepared for the impact of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Mark begins his Gospel account with John the Baptizer, a wild-eyed hairy man of the wilderness who ate honey and locusts. John the Baptist comes to declare the divinity of the One who is to come. John the Baptist had many followers, inspired by his fiery preaching of repentance and salvation. But, John was clear in his declaration, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We read John’s quotes of the prophetic voices of Isaiah and Malachi. The words of God revealed by Isaiah came long ago at another time in history when God’s people so desperately needed words of comfort and redemption. After years of exile and brutal persecution, the people of the Judah were returning to their homeland. How desperate they were to be affirmed of God’s presence, gathering them, guiding them home again.
“See the lord God comes with might,” says Isaiah – not the military might that was so desired by the zealots of Jesus’ community so certain in their wish to see Israel restored as a military power over Rome insurgence. God’s might is the power of peace through the faith of Jesus Christ – the inexplicable peace that only Christ can bring, peace that surpasses all human understanding – the peace and comfort and sustenance of the shepherd who feeds his flock and gathers the lambs in his arms, carrying them in his bosom and gently leading the mother sheep.
John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness of our journey through this season of Advent. John the Baptist demands our attention – he’s not a pretty sight, but his message is urgent and essential.
Only life of and in Jesus Christ can bring true peace. We know Jesus to be our Messiah; we understand the coming of the Messiah to be the inbreaking of God into our earthly human existence – the inbreaking of God.
As in Mark’s time, our world is tumultuous; it seems it has been always. Perhaps your heart is tumultuous as well; perhaps your heart and soul know no true peace.
Listen to John the Baptist, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” Be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Allow God to inbreak into your life. Make this Advent the time to receive the peace that only Jesus Christ can bring.