A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Mark 1:4-11
Happy New Year! We’re going to be spending the first part of this year exploring the first chapter of the first gospel – the gospel according to Mark. Now, if you know your bible well you know that Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, but Mark was actually written about 10-15 years earlier than Matthew and Luke, and about 25 or so years earlier than the gospel of John. So, Mark is really first.
Curiously, and in stark contrast to the season we’ve just emerged from – Christmas – there is no nativity or birth story for Jesus in Mark. Well, perhaps there is, as I’ll suggest in about 10 minutes!
Instead, Mark begins with Jesus already as an adult. We’ll talk about all kinds of features of the writing in Mark over the course of the month, but the first thing you might notice is how direct and matter-of-fact Mark is. Church folks who have spent a long time in rooms like this and have good familiarity with the other gospels will tend to fill in the blanks and spaces that Mark leaves with details from the other gospels.
So it’s important for us to take a moment and remember that at the time Mark was written there were no other gospels!
This was it.
It’s a Spartan and unembellished text. And it will often feel raw and edgy.
That’s probably why it’s my favourite of the four gospels!
Today we get the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism – although the way Mark treats it may seem a bit unfamiliar! I’m going to go verse by verse and amplify the text as I go.
There is so much good theological material here! I hope you enjoy this! Mark 1:4-11.
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness [a place that symbolizes transformation],
proclaiming a baptism [which was not a unique innovation of John’s – baptisms were part of Jewish tradition as far back as Leviticus 13 and 15],
a baptism of repentance [the Greek word is metanoia, which literally means to go beyond the mind you have, to have a change of understanding, a change of heart, to live a new Way]
for the forgiveness of sins [sins are less about singular actions you did or didn’t do, and more about your state of being – a state where you feel you have missed the mark, fallen short, not lived up to the ideal God desires for us].
So, John appears in a transformative place, offering an old tradition for a new understanding to help us live out our ideals that God has inspired in us but that we’re not living up to. That sounds a lot like what happens at New Years every year! Hmm!
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem [obviously an exaggeration, but still!]
were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
To confess is to openly declare, admit, and acknowledge. The first step in making a change is admitting you need a change!
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist [an odd detail for Mark who doesn’t like details, but this is meant to directly connect John to the prophet Elijah who’s described the same way in 2 Kings 1:8],
and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 John proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
There’s actually no definite article at the start of this sentence in Greek, so it isn’t actually “THE one” who’s coming, but rather just “ONE who is more powerful than I is coming after me”. That’s not a big deal, but it’s one of those subtle ways that editors inject their own theology into a text when it isn’t there in the oldest documents.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Enter Jesus. But watch how quickly the narrative moves in Mark.
There’s no dialogue, there are no explanations or descriptions, it’s just down to business.
Verse 9 starts with words that the NRSV left out.
1:9 [And it came to pass, it was brought into being, literally it was begotten]
In those days [of John’s baptism ministry]
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Boom! That’s it. No muss, no fuss!
1:10 And just [the Greek word is eutheos, which means immediately – we’ll discover it’s one of Mark’s favourite words!]
And immediately as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens [the ‘the’ is in the Greek here, and it’s also present in the next verse!]
he saw the heavens torn apart [massively important, and we’ll talk about this in a minute]
and the Spirit descending [we’ll talk about this too]
descending like a dove on him.
[and yes, the dove is a direct reference to the Noah’s Ark story in Genesis 8 as a symbol of new hope and a new beginning.]
1:11 And a voice came [again this is that word for brought into being, or was begotten] from [or out of] heaven [literally, THE heavens],
“You are my Son, the Beloved
[this is a direct reference to Psalm 2:7 which was thought to be used as a coronation psalm for a new king – so it’s God talking to the new king saying, “You are my son; today I have begotten you!” – that’s Psalm 2:7– fascinating, eh?!];
with you [literally it’s “IN you”] I am well pleased.”
Jesus hasn’t really done anything to merit being pleased about, so the message here is that just our being ourselves and giving ourselves over to God like Jesus did for that metanoia, that repentance, that turning around and changing course with a new understanding, that update of our software operating system, is what pleases God – not the stuff we do.
And with that connection here to Psalm 2:7 where God says “I have begotten you” it’s not too big of a leap to say that this is the nativity story according to the gospel of Mark!
As Jesus emerges from the waters of his baptism – a resurrection symbol of dying to what was (drowning) to emerging and being reborn into God’s new thing – we get an allusion to Jesus being begotten by God, born of the Spirit, an adult nativity!
Isn’t bible study awesome?!!!!! ☺
Ok, now let’s go back to verse 10 and see something really amazing!
And immediately as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
The tearing and the descending are really important language concepts. In Jesus’ time they didn’t have the scientific knowledge we have, and they conceptualized the universe as having 3 tiers – the heavens where God lived, the earth where we live, and below where death is.
So the symbolism Mark’s gospel is offering us is that the barrier that they thought separated them from God’s Presence was, in Jesus, completely torn open.
Or you might say “broken open” – which is the language we use every Sunday in our prayer of invocation and transformation at the start of our worship together when we say “hearts broken open”.
Imagine how spiritually and theologically ground-breaking this concept must have been for Jesus’ followers! It was an answer to their prayer from Isaiah 64:1 “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
In or through Jesus there is no longer any separation between us and God’s Presence.
Now, I’d argue that the only separation there ever was happened between our ears, but the point remains that this is a radical new way to think about God.
God is not limited to being “up there” in the heavens, far away. God is right here!
The barrier is torn wide open, and the Spirit which may have been understood as distant is free to “descend” and be with and in us.
The tearing open of the heavens means that for Christians the only thing that can separate us from God’s Presence is US!
And experiencing this incredible Presence, which is what Jesus did as he emerged from the waters, is like being born anew.
And when you look at a newborn isn’t the first thing you think “I love you – you are my beloved – I’m so glad you’re with me!”
That’s how Jesus experienced God’s Presence.
And that’s how we get to experience it too – opening ourselves to God, allowing God’s Presence which is all around us to be revealed, and in doing so we are able to hear the blessing that has been waiting for us – God says to US “You are my beloved! In you I am well pleased! Not because of what you’ve done, but because of who you are – whose you are!”
And now I’m going to blow your mind!
Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism and the tearing open of the heavens revealing God’s Presence.
Guess how Mark’s gospel ends?
Mark’s gospel ends with the crucifixion of Jesus. While he’s on the cross, and remember, Mark has no frills, it’s just the plain story, while Jesus is on the cross this happens: Mark 15:37-38
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two!
In Jewish understandings at that time God’s special place on earth – the only place on earth where God “resided” and which made it the holiest place on earth – was in the temple in a special room called the Holy of Holies, which was said to be separated from the rest of the temple by a massive curtain. Only the High Priest was allowed to go in there and only once a year.
That means that only one person was permitted “direct access to God’s Presence” in their understanding.
So what does it mean symbolically that the curtain was torn?
It means that everyone has direct access to God’s Presence – not just the High Priest, and not just once a year – but everyone, every day, and always!
And when you put a tearing of the heavens at the start of Mark and a tearing of the temple curtain at the end of Mark they form what can be called literary bookends.
And that gives extra emphasis and meaning to the two bookended events and signifies that we are supposed to read and interpret everything that happens between those bookends as an explanation of the message that the bookends are framing.
Do you see what I’m saying?
The entire gospel of Mark – framed and amplified by these two bookends – is one giant message telling us that God really is present, right here and right now – not separated from us by anything or anyone – those supposed separations have been torn open, broken open – and that through Jesus’ birth (via baptism) and death we are able to see the most remarkable revelation of that Presence that we could ever imagine.
If you were to scan Mark’s gospel you’d find story after story about learning to “see”! – to see what is revealed in this tearing open of the heavens.
It’s a perfect text for the start of a new year.
It’s the perfect text for the start of the season of Epiphany – a season of awakening, of dawning light, a season of aha’s!
It’s like a Grand Opening!
Have you ever been to the grand opening of something?
A new enterprise is ready, full of potential and promise, and our task is to decide if we want to attend the grand opening of it. And if we let go of our prior plans (repentance) and make the journey of being present at the opening something wonderful happens – the ceremonial scissors come out and the ribbon is symbolically cut, and the new thing is opened up to us. And as we participate in that new thing we are made new, and blessed.
Friends, it’s a brand new year.
It’s a fresh new start.
And here’s some fantastic news to kick it off with!
Jesus tells us that this moment, right here and now, is a grand opening – that the heavens are torn open, and nothing can separate you from God’s Presence.
For surely, God is in this place and every place!
Happy New Year indeed!