The opening of Mark’s Gospel with a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah serves as a brief but important bridge connecting the Old and New Testaments.
This Gospel is holding before us the mission of John the Baptist. John is a bridge between the time of promise (Old Testament) and the time of fulfillment (New Testament). Think of prophecy as promise.
Mark uses a passage from the prophet Isaiah (40:3) to introduce the preaching of John. The text of Isaiah is spoken to the exiles in Babylon as a message of hope in the promises made by the Lord. The imagery is that of a new Exodus – God will the exiles back home as He once led them to the promised land from slavery of Egypt.
John now is pictured by Mark as a voice in the wilderness (wilderness is clearly an Exodus theme) calling Israel back to a renewal of their covenant relationship. In other Old Testament imagery, the friend (John) of the bridegroom (Christ) calls his bride into the desert to renew their love!
The God Israel, speaking through Isaiah, promises a messenger who will herald the arrival of God among his people as Savior. John the Baptist, in Mark’s eyes, brings that promise to fulfillment and hence John heralds the dawn of the Messianic age by proclaiming the need of repentance as the only acceptable way of readiness to meet the All Holy God.
People go out to John “in the wilderness.” The wilderness or desert vividly recalls the first coming of God on Sinai in order to covenant Himself with and form a people. The call of Isaiah, and now that of John, means that a new people will be formed. John’s clothing and diet are taken from the description of the clothing and diet of the great prophet Elijah. In popular thinking of the time Elijah was expected to appear to herald the advent of the Messiah.
John sees the possibility of a new Exodus only in a baptism of repentance. What is extraordinary here is that John calls all Jews to repentance or conversion. This conversion means a renewal of the whole being in a change of direction in one’ life. John remains faithful to the insights of the prophets of exilic period: God will not manifest Himself any longer to a particular people, as on Mt. Sinai, but to all who are converted. Isaiah, in particular, makes it abundantly clear that God will come to a people refined by conversion.
The Hebrew word “conversion” signifies that a person realizes he or she has taken the wrong path and returns to God with a desire of salvation. This conversion is not merely remorse but a positive commitment.
Baptism in the Jordan, called for by John, reminds one of the passage through the Red Sea. This baptism of holiness is not self-administered as many baptisms of ancient religions were but is given by a prophet – a baptizer sent by God.
With this conversion comes a message concerning the kingdom. Conversion is a sign of the final or last divine intervention for mankind’s salvation. John tells us that God Himself will shape the future through the “one who is mightier than I.”
The call to return to the wilderness is, Old Testament Exodus imagery, a call to be tested and to be shaped for the Lord. The “shaping” or formation of this tested and testable community will be done by one who “will baptize, that is immerse you with the Holy Spirit.”
Since John is bridge between the testaments, the Old Testament meaning of Holy Spirit of God’s mysterious power at work in a creative way. Jesus receives – and so do we – that creative and life-giving Spirit to renew all nations according to heart of a loving God.
- Fr. John Krenzke