Mark 1: 1-11
Good morning and grace and peace, as we move along into the heart of winter, today the 18th Day of Christmas, the Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany and regularly marked on our Church Calendar as the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Thus the cover of our service leaflet.
In the three year cycle of our Sunday lectionary we move on in “Year B.” Today and continuing for the next five weeks with one exception, when we read a passage from John next Sunday, we are going to be reading continuously the first 39 verses of the first chapter of Mark, today verses 1-13, which of course centers on the Baptism and its aftermath, the Temptation in the Wilderness. On January 25 we’ll have Mark 1, verses 14-20, which includes the calling of the first disciples, on February 1, verses 21-28, the beginning of Jesus ministry and first miracle of healing and exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum, and on February 8, verses 29-39, which includes more healings, including the mother of Simon Peter’s wife, and then the beginning of the wider ministry of Jesus and his disciples in the Galilee region.
Mark is a straightforward, to the point, cut-to-the-chase kind of story-teller, and he gets a lot of important business done in just a few paragraphs. He would be one of those preachers of 6-minute sermons that everybody is so fond of . . . . But in any event, an opportunity over the next few weeks for some connected reflection on the opening of what is generally considered to be the earliest of the four gospels. First impressions are always important, and I think it’s Mark’s intention here to say that if you were only to read the first chapter of the gospel you’d get pretty much the essence of what needs to be communicated. Maybe even just the first sentence. The title page.
The Wise Men from the East, as we met them last Sunday in the second chapter of Matthew, preside as patron saints of these weeks after the Feast of the Epiphany and the weeks after. They follow the Star, as it appeared suddenly in the heavens as a sign of the birth of Israel’s promised king. We hear in the background the words of Christmas Eve in the first chapter of John. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And whatever they were—Persians perhaps—the Wise Men are the first of our forerunners and spiritual ancestors, most of us. “A light to enlighten the Gentiles,” as Simeon sang in his Nunc Dimittis in Luke’s gospel. Or as Isaiah foretold, “Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning.” Or as in Ephesians, his coming to speak peace “to you who were far off, and to those who were near.” A reminder that on the calendar of the Church Year in the Anglican world the Feast of the Epiphany has a subtitle, “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The feast day of the year connected to the church’s great apostolic mission, as Matthew 28: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The Bethlehem home the new Temple of God himself, who said through the Prophet, as we picture the Kings and kneeling to present their gifts, “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” Epiphany.
Our reading this morning begins with what we might call the original title of the gospel. The attribution to St. Mark comes from a later time. What Mark himself named the book is here in Chapter 1, Verse 1: “Here it begins: The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Folks who do marketing talk about the “matchbook” statement. We can all write pages and speak for hours about work or business or whatever we have a passion about, but a challenge sometimes to put it briefly. What’s you book about, St. Mark? And he replies, if you’re just browsing in the Barnes and Noble, just passing by, if you’re only going to read and hear and know this much of what I have to share, read and hear and know this: “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
As on the Day of Epiphany we would watch the Magi head down from Jerusalem, led by the star to the home of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, we might hear in the background the question of the Christmas Carol as context for this gospel, “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”
The question to re-center us in this New Year, as we gather our Resolutions and priorities and values—our sense of who we are, what kind of people we want to be. To begin with that question. One last look into the manger. What child is this? Who is he, and most importantly, who is he to me?
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t include in his gospel a genealogy to show the descent of Jesus in the line of King David. He doesn’t spend paragraphs talking about the birth in Bethlehem, Angels and Shepherds and the Manger, the Presentation in the Temple, the Magi, the Flight into Egypt. And he doesn’t follow John’s pattern of a long and theologically ornate discussion of Christology, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But Mark gets all he work done in shorthand pretty much in the title of his book, The good news of Jesus, “Christ,” that is, the Messiah, heir to David’s throne, and “the Son of God.”
And then the story of the baptism, reinforcing these two titles and claims made about Jesus. The Old Testament reference to the prophetic messenger who would “prepare the way” for the Messiah of Israel by calling the people to repentance, to a renewal of the Covenant of relationship with God, and the figure then of John the Baptist, in full Old Testament prophet garb, to show that he was indeed that forerunner.
And then Jesus in the river with John, and the heavens open, and the voice. “Thou art my beloved Son.” Again, what we’re leaning forward to hear now: the good news of Jesus the Anointed Messiah, the only begotten Son of the Father. And then this thumbnail, abbreviated account of what we call the Temptation in the Wilderness. We have the witness of the prophetic forerunner and of the Voice from Heaven, and then immediately also the witness of the Enemy, who knows and confirms the answer to the question—who is this?—and immediately launches his attack.
Who is this Jesus? For the wide world? For us? Word made flesh. Revealing, unveiling. In the midst of darkness, light bursts forth. In the dark sky, a bright star.
The story of the Baptism of Jesus by John in that Jordan River may recall for us our own baptism. Whether we can remember that day or not. Source of our identity, in relationship to him. Place of our first death and our second birth, our new life. We would appropriately recall the six key questions of the baptismal liturgy. Since we’re talking about identity. Who he is and who we are. Echoing as we read these opening words of St. Mark, and through all of our lives. What child is this? Who is he for us? For me? From pages 302 and 303 of our Book of Common Prayer and inscribed in our hearts.
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? I do.
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? I do.
Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? I do.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.