The First Sunday of the Epiphany
11 January 2015
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
Our Gospel text today is a highly compact description of the events leading to the launch of Jesus’ public ministry. Mark’s style produces a kind of startling, staccato-like version of the Jesus-story. All in one breath, he’s gone from a surprising opening (the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ), straight into a pastiche of three OT texts, to the appearance of the Baptizer and description of his activity, his immediate popularity, and even a description of his dress and rather interesting food preferences, only to follow this up with an unexpected prediction about the Greater one who was coming after him, his better baptism, and Mark does not stop. Onward, immediately, he goes to Jesus coming out of the north country to be baptized by John, which of course he is, and, Mark still on his budget of 25 Greek words or less, somehow manages the rending of heaven, the descent of the Spirit as a dove, and the heavenly affirmation. I’ll stop here, but just so you know, Mark’s next two words are “and immediately,” and on his Gospel races. I suspect the issue may have been a shortage of papyrus or ink, or perhaps Mark had to contend with a draconian editor. Matthew and Luke, John too, supply some of the background that Mark omits, which, had Mark chosen to include such details, might have given a more leisurely, pastoral atmosphere to the story which instead appears as so many lightening strikes. Yet I must say, I like Mark. With Mark, there is no pretense; no beating around the bush; no empty cocktail-party banter. But let us not think for a moment that his story lacks depth or power: Mark’s theology is profound (as is also true of the other Evangelists, though in different ways). He reaches levels of surprise, newness, and potency by telling the story of Jesus within another, complex and multi-faceted story of redemption. And he invites his audience, who are themselves preoccupied with another story altogether, into a forest, dropping clues to direct them along the way; and he asks them to take up those clues and make sense of them.
Now I think I could demonstrate this in any number of ways even before we get to the seventh verse of this first chapter of Mark, which is where our reading today begins. We could explore the opening statement, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”—especially in the light of three facts: one: that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome; two: that this language used to describe Jesus is the very sort of language used to describe the Emperor, his victorious reign and Roman power; and three: that, besides demons, the only other person to name Jesus “son of God” in this Gospel is the centurion that watches Jesus die. Viewed in this light, Mark’s story is a subversive story, designed to interrupt other current stories.
Or we could explore that pastiche of Old Testament material shaped to identify the eschatological event taking place in John the Baptist: Isa 40 and Mal 3 refer to the long awaited coming of the Lord, the Creator God of the covenant, to redeem his people and to John who will prepare the Lord’s way; but the quoted material is prefaced with an allusion to the passage in Exodus, in which God’s promises Moses an angel to lead him in the wilderness. When Mark connects the dots, all of this becomes a promise to Jesus of a forerunner to prepare the path through this latter day wilderness. And viewed in this light, Mark’s story is a retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, of redemption out of slavery.
Or once more, now arriving at our text proper, we could explore the rich, though sometimes allusive, expectation of outpouring of God’s Spirit as the mark of the age to come. “I baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And viewed in this light, Mark’s Gospel is the story the culmination of promises made in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Joel, and further developed in Jewish theology: that one day the Messiah would come and give the Holy Spirit, who would write the Law on the hearts of his people. Mark’s message is a message swirling in the midst of other messages.
But above all, in a Gospel designed supremely to answer the question, “Who is this man, named Jesus?”, in the midst of all these stories, the central puzzle to be solved is is the puzzle of Jesus’ identity. Son of God, perhaps: but what does this really mean? Mark will show how the disciples can only respond to this question in a superficial way, leaving the last word to a Roman Centurion. But this question of the identity of Jesus is Mark’s real agenda from the outset. And it is the voice from heaven that is most startling of all.
“And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” I’m afraid that tip of the hat to the English of the King James Bible can be a bit misleading. It makes this event seem a bit too cozy, too proper . . . all a matter of good taste. A sort of Elizabethan “high-five,” to set Jesus on his way. Not quite.
This voice was not exactly out of the blue, but then again it was, sort of. We are already well into a very distinctive stage in the Jewish experience, in this time of the Baptizer’s appearance, during which the prophetic voice had fallen silent. Prophecy had ceased, or this is what the theologians believed. In the place of the prophetic voice was the Bath Qol, the daughter of the voice, the mere echo of the voice. God was not speaking directly to his people; and some held that echoes, murmurs of God’s voice could still be detected, though never accompanied by divine appearance. But now, out of the blue, there appeared the prophet predicted by Isaiah and Malachi; God’s voice boomed out of the heavens acknowledging the very visible Jesus to be the Son of God. No murmur, no echo; rather God speaking plainly to his people in the very midst of his people. But there is more to Jesus.
As I said, Mark’s message works as a story unfolding in the midst of ,and in intentional conversation with, other stories. And his meaning is grasped as these multiple conversations are listened to attentively. In the words of divine identification, three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures are teased into a conversation, resulting in a quite unexpected picture. Psalm 2 is a royal psalm and a Messianic psalm, speaking of the Christ who will rule the nations in divine power. This in itself is not complicated; this psalm had been understood by Jews to speak of the Messiah for at least three centuries already. But the voice from heaven strikes another chord, a most unexpected one, by also drawing Isaiah 42, and the first of four Songs of the Servant, into the conversation. These four Servant Songs seem to speak of the faithful remnant of Israel, about to come back out of Babylon. In the first of them, as we heard in our OT lesson, the dominant theme is: “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” And this theme holds through the first three of the Songs. But the dark climax to the story told by the Songs comes in the fourth, in which the Servant is forsaken—forsaken by people, struck down and forsaken by God. Does the voice from heaven, heard by Jesus and John, which opens the door onto the Servant Songs, foreshadow this surprising turn? I might say no, were it not for the fact that in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel Jesus himself will take to himself the identity of this Suffering Servant of Isaiah. God’s voice is audible; prophecy has resumed; Messiah has come but not as expected.
Then, there is the last note struck as this voice identifies Jesus, which comes from the story of Abraham and Isaac. What it contributes to Jesus’ identity is surprising, speaking both of the Son and the Father. The rabbis had already begun reflecting on the deeper meaning of the Abraham-Isaac story. What had been a story illustrating depth of faith and obedience, began to be, in the “Binding of Isaac” tradition, a story in which the aborted sacrifice of Isaac came to bear the value of a necessary and completed sacrifice. What the voice from heaven does, in its most subtle echoing of this Abraham/Isaac story, is to make the readiness of Abraham to slay his only and beloved son a prophetic illustration of God’s love for the world: as Abraham explained to Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb.” The voice has sounded; it has been heard; and it has signified, and along with all else it says, it promises an eternal king; a Servant of the godforsaken; and a sacrifice. God the Father will do what he ultimately did not require Abraham to do. God will sacrifice his son.
The voice from heaven identifies Jesus, binds him to his Father, as tightly as Isaac was bound by Abraham. The voice says, there is sacrifice ahead; there is “godforsakenness” ahead; and this is no accident; it is the heart and soul of the Son of God whose identity was manifested in and through his submission to baptism. Why baptism? He had no sin to confess; no need to turn back to God. But in his baptism he signaled his solidarity with the godforsaken human race, a status that may be symbolic here, but in after three short years would be enacted, embodied and experienced in utter completeness on the cross, when the Father in heaven who cannot experience death, would turn his face away from God incarnate who could.
Stories within stories. And we know the ending of the Jesus-story already, and thanks to that unnamed centurion, we know who Jesus is. But who are we? At about the same time that Peter was speaking with another Centurion, named Cornelius, people throughout the Roman Empire were beginning to notice a strange sort of people who seemed to be obsessed with a man-God who had died and, oddly enough, risen to life again. This people did not fit any of the ready-made categories: you could not call them Greek, though some of them were; you could not call them Roman, though some of them were; you could not call them Jewish, though some of them were; you could not call them barbarians, though some of them were. They called them, Christianoi--Little Christs. As we enter Mark’s story—as we re-enter the story of Jesus Christ—we take our identity from those same words that boomed from heaven. Now, through the Spirit given by the Messiah, we are his presence in the world. Where Jesus went, we must go: to the margins, to those left behind, to those pushed to the side, living in darkness, in bondage to sickness, poverty, or sin. Amen.
© 2015 Philip H. Towner