Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39
At first glance, these passages couldn’t be more different in terms of God and Jesus’ publicity. The Isaiah passage asks again and again “Do you not know? Have you not seen? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the founding of the earth? Have you not heard? (Isaiah 40:21, 28). The reader of Isaiah is challenged why she or he hasn’t understood what God has done.
This week’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, however, furthers the idea of the Messianic secret. Just as in the case when he drove out an unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum, when Jesus drove out demons at the door of Peter’s mother-in-law’s house (Mark 1:33-34) he would not let them speak “because they knew who he was” (v 34). In the gospel according to Mark, Jesus tried to keep who he is a secret, at least at first.
A few weeks ago, we considered the witnesses of Hannah and Simeon at the temple as well as Nathanael’s proclamation that Jesus was uniquely holy. Those stories are missing from Mark. Jesus’ messiah-ship is something that only God at Jesus’ baptism, and the demons who are being driven out know and proclaim. At least in the case of the demons, Jesus does not want them to tell humans who Jesus is. Why? I think it is about motive and work.
When we look back at the Isaiah passage, God’s work is described in three main categories. God creates and stretches out the heavens (v 22, 26 and 28). God acts against princes and rulers of this world and brings them to nothing (v 23, 24 and 25). And finally God strengthens the weary and increases the power of the weak. These signs should be manifest to anyone observing the world, according to Isaiah’s thinking. Dynasties rise and crumble, the poor and weak somehow have the strength to carry on and the created world exists: all due to the active intervention of God.
The work of Jesus is the gospel according to Mark is not as grandiose. After gaining notoriety around Capernaum, such that everyone was looking for him (v 37), Jesus suggested going somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that he could preach (v 38). The first several disciples must have been perplexed at this. Healing and driving out demons were bringing tremendous crowds and fame to Jesus. Not only would Jesus not let the demons testify to the people that he was the messiah, but he also refused to stay in one place and become a popular miracle worker. Jesus said explicitly that preaching was the reason that he came (Mark 1:38).
Ask most Christians, “why Jesus?” and you will receive many different answers, but probably most will focus on Jesus’ salvific work on the cross. Here in the gospel of Mark, however, Jesus plainly states that his reason for coming was to preach. Being too famous, or letting people know who he was too early in his ministry would have distracted from what he actually came to do: teach how the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Just as when a band releases a new record and goes on tour to promote it, most fans just want to hear the old classics which made the band famous in the first place, Jesus was wary that he would become famous for working miracles or even being the promised messiah, and no one would be interested to hear his reinterpretation of the Law and his new teachings. Therefore Jesus shunned the spotlight and did not proclaim who he was at first, at least according to Mark.
To be sure, Jesus did not refuse to heal people or perform miracles. He did that wherever he went. But Jesus kept his focus on the real reason that he came: teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven that was breaking into the world in a radically new way. The challenge for us, then, is to take Jesus at his word, that the reason he came was to teach. Scripture is a rich library, and there are many different perspectives on the life of Jesus. This multi-vocal witness is a treasure, and we do well to embrace it. So let us, this year at least, sit with Mark’s gospel and consider Jesus’ words in the red letters as the reason for his coming.