January 18, 2015 Second Sunday After Epiphany
Lord of All
Zechariah 8:1-8, 20-23, Psalm 118, Romans 12:6-16, St. Mark 1:1-11
There’s a game I play from time to time with Dr. Cranmer. In this little charade, we’re on close terms; I get to call him “Tom” and pose penetrating questions.
For example, only the other day I was interviewing him on a familiar topic. Why, I wanted to know, did he settle on a certain gospel lesson for a particular Sunday?
Now, I am aware, of course, that Tom’s lectionary is not chiseled in stone, like Moses’ tablets. Not every version of the Book of Common Prayer features the same lections for each Sunday of the liturgical year.
But Tom humors me and plays along. This time, I put the question to him: “Why o why, Tom, did you settle on Mark’s prologue as the gospel lesson for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany? I mean, John the Baptist shows up again.
“Now, I’m as big a fan of the Baptist as the next preacher, Tom, but didn’t we hear enough about him during Advent? And quite properly so. But here we are hardly out of Christmastide and up pops the Baptist again. He was a Jew, Tom.
“In the season of Epiphany – subtitled, as you of all people know very well, “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” couldn’t we see our Lord engaged with, say, the Syrophoenician woman? I mean, is it too much to ask that a single, solitary, puny, insignificant gentile turn up on the Second Sunday After the Epiphany?
“Holy smokes, just one?”
This is where it gets good because Tom habitually comes back with the same answer. He’s like the psychiatrist who always says, “Well, what do you think?”
What Tom says is, “Well, what do you suppose?”
And that phrase is music to my ears because – you probably haven’t noticed this, but – I have a rather active imagination. And Tom has just invited me to kick it into gear and speculate to my heart’s content.
And so, as to why Tom picked Mark’s prologue – the first 11 verses of his gospel – for this particular Sunday, here is what I suppose:
It really hasn’t much at all to do with John the Baptist. He just happens to walk across the stage at this moment. The key is the last verse of the lesson, just after John baptizes Jesus: “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’”
I suppose Tom wants us to see Mark pointing us forward to a passage toward the end of the book, in chapter 15. There we find a gentile proclaiming:
"Truly this Man was the Son of God!" (v. 39)
And not just any gentile, this one, but a Roman centurion, a striking symbol of worldly power, affirming Jesus Christ as God’s own Son.
At Jesus’ baptism God owns Him as His Son; at Jesus’ crucifixion a gentile confesses His divinity. These events are bookends. His baptism is the beginning of the beginning and His crucifixion is the end of the beginning. Tom, you sly old fox.
Note how Mark opens his book: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s impossible to overstate the significance of beginnings in God’s world. The Greek word is arche, from which we get “archaeology” – the study of what was in the beginning.
Biblical Greek uses the same word for “power” and especially the “power of dominion,” often coupling it with the word for “authority.” Here’s the picture: What comes first – in the beginning -- has the authority to rule. Primacy in chronology confers primacy in rank. Apart from the Godhead, the concept emerges clearly in 1 Timothy 2:
“And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
So . . . in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning, He pronounced all that He had made good.
How do we know that Jesus Christ is God? Because He was there with the Father, in the beginning. He is not part of the created order; He pre-existed it. And how will God end this world? By restoring it to the state of innocence He built into it in the beginning.
Yes, beginnings matter immensely. Scholars agree virtually unanimously that Mark wrote the first gospel and that Matthew and Luke used it as a source. In the first sentence of the first gospel, Mark proclaims Jesus Christ “the Son of God.”
A bold assertion. You and I may take this for a settled matter but it was hardly that back then, in the beginning. But the first evangelist shouts from the rooftop that Jesus is the Son of God and then he proceeds to show us how various people – so to speak – respond to that claim.
First up, right here in chapter 1, is not a person but an unclean spirit, who cries out from a man in the synagogue in Capernaum: "Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are -- the Holy One of God!"
Who else? The Lord’s chief apostle gets it. When Jesus asks him for an endorsement, Peter says, “You are the Christ.” Or does he get it? For the Christ has come to die to save mankind but Peter tries to turn him from the way of the cross:
“He rebuked Peter, saying, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.’"
Who else? A hostile high priest at least suspects His true identity: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
Many test Jesus’ identity, challenge it, deny it . . . but it is left to a gentile to offer a full-throated affirmation of the Father’s pronouncement. As Jesus the Jew fulfills the mission of the Jews, revelation comes in the epiphany of a gentile. Quoth the centurion: “Truly this Man was the Son of God.”
Yes, so Mark said that God said in the beginning of the gospel of the beginning.
We must believe the centurion is no stranger to death. He would have seen many men die, but he has witnessed no death like this one. Death is an ending . . . but this death is a beginning.
For what is the gospel but the beginning of God’s triumph over time? Or, perhaps better, God’s imposition of divine time on mundane – worldly – time. The ultimate, ghastly marker of mundane time is death, and the gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ is the defeat of death.
Christ throws open the gates of eternity, where divine time unfolds in the eternal Sabbath. Death has no power over the God of life and His triumph over death is the beginning of divine time.
What is the seventh day which we call the Sabbath but a token of that glorious Sabbath which has no end? The rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls that weekly Sabbath “a palace in time.” He tells a story:
“That the Sabbath and eternity are one – or of the same essence – is an ancient idea. A legend relates that ‘at the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, He said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvot, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession.
“’And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou wilt give us if we obey Thy Torah?
“’The world to come.
“’Show us in this world an example of the world to come.
“’The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.’
“An ancient tradition declares: ‘The world to come is characterized by the kind of holiness possessed by the Sabbath in this world . . . The Sabbath possesses a holiness like that of the world to come.’”
So Rabbi Heschel teaches.
When the world is too much with me I may contemplate that glorious day when the world reborn and rebaptized can never be enough with me, when time is my ally, my nurturer, my gracious host. This is the beginning of the gospel of the beginning.
What’s so grand about a beginning? In this beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I watch as God sets before me His miracle of re-creation, of the restoration of all He has made to its primal goodness.
He unfurls an eternity of goodness before me . . . over there, on the other side of death, which has no power over me because it has no power over my Lord. We set sail, my Lord and I, on a sea of light, borne along by the winds of goodness, journeying through a perpetual beginning . . . for it has no end.
Rabbi Heschel again: “For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise . . .
“The love of the Sabbath is the love of man for what he and God have in common.”
Truly Jesus Christ, the Author of the new beginning of time, is the Son of God. But there John the Baptist lurks in Mark’s beginning. Perhaps I dismissed him too hastily. We cannot write him out of the script. Why must we find him baptizing the man Jesus at the declaration of Jesus as God?
Well, Tom, you must want to know what I suppose. I suppose John is there in the Jordan baptizing to remind us of the rehearsal for this beginning.
For the Jordan is where Israel was baptized, more than a millennium before, upon her entry into the Promised Land; where God stacked up the waters and allowed her to cross into her land of destiny.
Now comes Jesus, the true Israel, the One who will purge the land of all who refuse baptism into the people of God, the One who will proclaim the Father’s salvation to all the nations. He, too, undergoes a baptism at the beginning of His work.
Bam-bam-bam! Mark hits us with a staccato burst of Old Testament citations, from Malachi and Exodus and Isaiah:
“As it is written in the Prophets: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight.'"
When is the time right for the Son to commence His earthly ministry? When the Father decrees it so. When the Father has sent His prophets to plow the spiritual ground. John the Baptist is the last of them.
Where does he minister? In the wilderness, a place of judgment and blessing. God’s son Israel rebelled in the wilderness and invited judgment. God’s Son Jesus will obey. With Him the Father is well-pleased. He confers His blessing upon this true Son.
Listen to John as he sets the scene: He is baptizing, which speaks of a personal response to God. He is preaching repentance, the sinner’s change of mind and heart. He is holding out forgiveness, God’s willingness to lift off of the shoulders of His people the burden of their sin.
At the new beginning, as divine time overwhelms mundane time, heaven imposes itself on earth. Jesus rises from the waters, baptized into the human condition. And the Spirit descends from heaven to anoint Him with the Father’s blessing.
God comes down upon man; God rises up to meet God. The God who in the beginning hovered over the face of the waters descends upon the waters to inaugurate the new age. The Father who spoke the world into existence now speaks blessing upon the Re-Creator of His world.
At the beginning of the beginning, the sky splits and the dove comes down. The One who is anointed by God will anoint men, baptizing them with the Holy Spirit and plunging them into the life of God.
All that He does – from healing to teaching to forgiving – is bound up in this. When man enters into the life of God he is finally and fully alive – as Adam was alive at the first beginning.
At Pentecost – because of what Christ has done – the Spirit will begin anew. He will arrive with power, a great rushing wind that fills the elect with the life of God. We enter into that life by the baptism of the same Spirit who baptized our Lord Christ.
At the end of the beginning, the temple veil splits. The One who left the Father’s side to enter the world will depart His earthly tomb . . . that empty tomb, that unimpeachable witness to the death of death.
But before Jesus abandons the tomb the centurion – that representative of all the mundane men known as gentiles – gives his assent to the Father’s proclamation: “Truly this Man was the Son of God.”
Truly, He was. And that, dear old Tom, is what I suppose. Amen.