In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, loved to play cards in his free time. But he had a problem. He liked to eat a snack while playing and needed to keep one hand free for the cards.
So he came up with the idea of putting some beef between two slices of toast. He could hold his snack in one hand and play cards at the same time. He called his new invention a “sandwich”—two slices of bread with meat in between—and it became one of the most popular inventions in the western world.
That’s a good story. And good stories follow a common framework. Here’s how it goes: there is a person in the beginning, who has a problem, and finds a resolution. Donald Miller writes that:
Keith Quesenberry, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins Center for Leadership Education spent a season studying the effectiveness of over 100 Super Bowl commercials. He successfully predicted the commercials that told the clearest story would be the most likely to go viral. And he was right.
A Budweiser commercial featuring a puppy who made friends with a horse, a 30-second spot that could almost be considered a movie plot condensed into a beer ad, got more traction than any ads featuring scantily dressed women or humorous pranks. “People think it’s all about sex or humor or animals, but what we’ve found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not,” Quesenberry said. He went on to add, “The more complete a story marketers tell in their commercials, the higher it performs in the rating polls, the more people like it, want to view it and share it.”
Stories have pre-decided plots as opposed to a random series of events. The clearer the story, the more our brains are drawn to it. Good stories have a good framework, whether it’s a three-act play or a five-act, it has to know where it’s going for people to want to follow.
It’s no different with the Gospel writers. Some of the best stories we find are about Jesus. And when Mark begins his gospel account he gives us a fast-paced set of stories in the first 15 verses that also follow a framework for the entire writing.
Here’s how Mark begins the stories:
This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The prophet Isaiah had said a messenger would come as a voice crying out in the wilderness. So John came baptizing in the wilderness. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Many people came to him at the Jordan river to be baptized while confessing their sins. John wore camel hair clothes with a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey. It was quite a scene. (1-6)
He told the people that someone more powerful than he was would come. He said, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (7-8)
And it happened. Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. When he came up out of the water he saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased. (9-11)
Right after that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. He was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels came and ministered to him. (12-13)
After this John was arrested and Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God. He said, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (12-15)
The first person we find is John. The problem is sin. And the resolution is the Messiah has come, Jesus, who gives them the Holy Spirit. It’s a clear story. And it has form.
New Testament writers were skilled at crafting their gospels, or their good news. Sometimes we think they just started writing. But remember the people then did not have Bibles as we have either in book form or on apps. They had to listen well. And so the writers would give them ways to remember the story as they are listening to it.
One way Mark does this is through his first few words. He says that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. As the story unfolds we find two main sections. The first ends in Mark 8:29 where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ.
The second section ends with Jesus on the cross. A Roman centurion makes a confession there too. He says in Mark 15:39: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Two great statements about who Jesus is. He is the Christ, or anointed one. And he is the Son of God. Right off the bat the story tells you some amazing things and also gives you a way to remember the sections of the writing.
But the first 15 verses do even more. In the Greek language a literary device called a chiasm was used to alert hearers to themes and key words in the writing. A chiasm follows a pattern that can be likened to walking down the rungs of a ladder and then back up the same rungs. In other words, you may have one word followed by another followed by another. Then, the writer will go back and hit the same words in reverse order until he reaches the first word. In Mark 1:1-15 the chiasm is formed by three words: gospel, wilderness, and baptism.
Notice first the use of the word “gospel” in verse 1 and 15:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (vs. 1)
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel.” (vs. 15)
“Gospel” or “good news” as it can be translated, both come from the same Greek word. When you see that it is the same word regardless of your translation you can also see that this word forms a section of Mark. He is telling us that the arrival of Jesus on the scene is good news for us. “Gospel” was a word used regarding Roman Emperors whose enthronement was regarded as a new beginning for the world. The coming of Jesus is good news.
But what does that mean? In America, the good news of Jesus is often presented as “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That “wonderful plan” is closely aligned with the American Dream: good family, good bank account, good looks, good health, good breath, and good assortment of friends. Hardly anyone would expect to hear anything associated with struggle or suffering in the same context as good news.
But stay with the chiasm long enough and your view of gospel might change. The next word Mark uses is “wilderness” or “desert.” It is found in Mark 1:3 and 12.
“…a voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (1:3)
Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels were serving him.” (1:12-13)
Good news to me would be that I had won a completely paid round trip all-inclusive stay somewhere in Italy. But the desert? It’s called a desert because its deserted. Nothing there but heat. No comfort. No amenities. No luxuries.
In Jewish thought, wilderness is the place God prepares his people for their promised salvation. In the Old Testament, his people spent forty years in the wilderness before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. In Isaiah 40:3 (from which Mark quotes), the prophet speaks of preparing the way for God to lead the Israelites back across the wilderness from exile in Babylon. Throughout history “wilderness” has been connected to God doing something new in the life of his people. In the wilderness there is struggle with evil and a wrestling of trust in God.
Which brings us to the third key word in the chiasm: baptism.
John came baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (1:4)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. (1:9)
Baptism in Mark involves a pivotal point in the life of Jesus. Baptism establishes the identity of Jesus. Mark has told us who he believes Jesus to be: the Christ and the Son of God. He tells us who John says he is. Now he tells us who God says he is. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
Baptism in Mark is not only associated with identity. It has to do with suffering. Later in Mark 10:38-39, Jesus connects baptism with his suffering on the cross. Gospel in Mark has something to do with wilderness and baptism. And both of these have something to do with struggle and suffering.
Right after Jesus’ baptism the Spirit “drives” him out into the wilderness. Jesus goes from one moment when he’s in the water and the heavens open up and embrace him to the next where he is in the waterless wilderness and seems alone. From one moment a dove descending to being surrounded by wild beasts.
You may be able to relate to that. You made a decision to follow Jesus and for a while everything seemed like a honeymoon period. You fell into the arms of Jesus and things seemed safe, secure, peaceful. You read your Bible. You prayed. You even enjoyed going to church.
But then life hit. A job loss. Issues with kids. A spouse left. You found yourself in a wilderness of worry, a desert of disillusionment. Maybe you couldn’t see any wild beasts but they were circling you inside your head. You suddenly were unsure if God were really with you. You doubted whether or not he loved you.
These may have been some of the same beasts that attacked Jesus. One moment he hears that he is God’s beloved son and the next he’s not so sure. If God loves him, why is he in the desert? Why the struggle? Why the suffering?
Early Christians felt the same. They were beginning to experience persecution under Nero after the fire in Rome. The prospect of being thrown to the wild beasts in the arena became very real for them.
Wilderness is something we all know. It is a time of testing. But it is also a place for prayer as Jesus will retreat there from time to time in Mark. And it is a time that God will minister to us. And when Jesus emerged from the wilderness he was ready to be used by God.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18).
That’s good news. That is gospel. In our wilderness Jesus will come to help us. And he can because he has been where we are. He knows the dusty terrain of the desert. He understands the suffering of a baptism that places one’s trust in God regardless of what happens to us or around us.
That’s quite a story. It has a clear form: good news, wilderness, baptism. And if we follow Jesus, it will be our story too.
 Donald Miller, How to Tell a Story e-book at http://www.nustm.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/1.Nat-Article.pdf