Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 11, 2015
Mark 1:4-11 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
Fans of Peter Jackson’s films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy will recall the opening sequence in the final film, The Return of the King (all this years before Jackson’s—in my humble opinion—disastrous return to Tolkien in his Hobbit trilogy!). As the movie opens, we are taken back hundreds of years from the main action of the trilogy to the time when Smeagol finds the Ring of power, murdering his own cousin to secure the Ring for himself.
The film then moves quickly, covering scores and then hundreds of years in just a minute or two as we witness the Ring’s corruption of Smeagol’s soul and body until he transforms into the shadowy figure of Gollum who spends centuries living in caves to hide his Precious from any would-be thieves. Through deft editing and swift narration, a huge amount of important historical/background material is conveyed in mere minutes before the film flashes forward to where the prior movie had left off as Sam, Frodo, and Gollum progress toward Mordor in order to destroy the one Ring.
The opening of Mark’s Gospel is like that. Mark wastes no time in getting us into the action as John the Baptist appears, predicts the coming of a powerful Messiah, and then that very person shows up to be baptized. The action is fast and furious and fraught with background. In the first 3 verses of Mark 1 we also are told in no uncertain terms that what will follow will be the story of the true Messiah, the Son of God, who will fulfill prophecies like the one Mark goes on to quote from Isaiah. Savvy biblical readers will sense that for all its apparent modesty, this section in Mark is summing up for us nothing less than the whole history of God’s plan even as it launches us into the heart of that plan as the incarnate Son of God arrives on the scene, earning immediately (Mark’s favorite Greek adverb is euthus after all!) the favor of the Father above.
Yet no sooner does God express his love for Jesus and suddenly the Spirit pitches Jesus headfirst into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. (I realize that the Revised Common Lectionary fails to include verses 12-13—it will pick them up in a Year B Lenten lection on Mark 1:9-15—but you cannot really get the full import of Jesus’ baptism without those two key verses and so I will de facto include them here and encourage my fellow preachers to consider doing the same in their sermons.) That hardly seems like a very loving thing for God to do! God no sooner declares ardent love for Jesus and he slaps Jesus into the wilderness, into the realm of death and evil.
Very simply: because such an engagement with evil is precisely what Jesus’ baptism was all about. God did not send his beloved Son into our world just to be nice. No, God was in Christ to reconcile the world to himself and for that very reason task #1 was to engage the evil that holds our world captive. That’s why there are those hints of violent activity in these few verses. In verse 12, although many translations such as the NIV renders the Greek to say merely that the Spirit “sent” Jesus out into the desert, the Greek verb there actually carries with it the notion of being “thrown out” (ekballein). It seems as though the Spirit descends like a gentle dove but suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of hawk who picks Jesus up in his talons and brutally hurls him out into the realm of the devil himself! (Think of a bouncer hurling a troublemaker through the swinging doors of a bar and out into the street if you want to capture the essence of this image.)
It is indeed strikingly dramatic. This is no gentle baptism such as we see in church on a Sunday morning. Clearly something cosmic is afoot. However, having said that, it needs to be admitted that Mark’s text then seems to sputter a bit. Unlike Matthew and Luke who give us a lot of details on what went on between Jesus and Satan, Mark sums the whole thing up in just one verse, telling us Jesus was tempted for forty days, he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. We’re not even told how Jesus fared in his temptations! Did he resist or give in? Mark doesn’t say.
Or at least he doesn’t say in so many words. But if you pay attention there are a couple of hints how things turned out. One hint is obvious: the angels were with Jesus. That probably indicates things turned out well. But the other hint is Mark’s reference to the “wild animals.” It’s an odd detail to throw in. But think about it: when was the last time in the Bible you had one man alone among the animals? It was Adam. The first man lived in harmony with the animals of the Garden of Eden, calling them to his side, naming them.
By taking on the powers of evil, Jesus has begun life again for us all. Jesus is the Second Adam, doing it all over again but this time doing it right in order to set this cosmos back on the course God set for it in the beginning. Jesus goes out into as wild and chaotic a place as exists but instead of being consumed by it, he changes it into an oasis of shalom!
Mark’s action is swift and fast-paced and chockfull of detail for those with eyes to see. Because Mark wants us to know: In Christ a whole new world had dawned.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Herbert O’Driscoll once made a musical analogy to how certain biblical words function in Scripture. He pointed out that in the Bible, there are certain words that do not sound a single note like the plinking of a single key on a piano. Instead, certain biblical words and concepts are so loaded with theological freight that invoking that word is less like playing a single note on a piano’s keyboard and is more like sounding a whole chord. When I was growing up my parents had an old pump organ that my father had refurbished. When a certain stop was pulled out, the organ’s keyboard would automatically play bass clef chords to correspond with and harmonize with notes you played in the treble clef. I used to like playing that organ because I loved to see those other keys go down automatically when I pressed the right keys higher on the keyboard–to my young mind it was almost like magic!
That kind of thing happens in the Bible, too. If you press the right notes in one place of the Bible, you find that corresponding chords resonate in other parts. So when Mark tells us in verse 10 that Jesus witnessed the sky being “torn open” (Greek: schizein), we are reading a word that sounds an entire chord’s worth of meaning. The idea of God’s rending the heavens has a lot of Old Testament meaning, of course. But it also has richer meaning within the Gospel of Mark itself if we realize that this same word will get used as a kind of bookend phrase on the life of Jesus. If you look ahead to Mark 15:38, you will see that at the death of Jesus something else gets torn open and this time it’s the temple veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple space. What’s more, that curtain gets torn from top to bottom, letting us know just Who it was doing the tearing: God himself.
So what does it mean that as Jesus emerged onto the scene the heavens get torn open and that as Jesus exits the scene the curtain in the temple gets torn open? According to Tom Long there was an occasion a few years ago when a biblical scholar was explaining Mark 1 to a group of teenagers. This scholar told the teens that when Jesus was baptized, the skies did not just open up, as some older translations said, but in the original Greek of Mark 1:10 we are told the skies ripped open, split in an almost violent way. This was very dramatic and forceful. “Get the point?” the scholar asked the group. “When Jesus was baptized the heavens that separate us from God were ripped open so that now we can get to God. Because of Jesus we have access to God–we can get close to him.”
But there was one young man sitting in the front row, arms crossed, making a fairly obvious display of his disinterest. But suddenly he perked up and said, “That ain’t what it means.” What?” the Bible scholar said, startled. “I said that ain’t what that means,” the teenager repeated. “It means that the heavens were ripped open so that now God can get at us anytime he wants. Now nobody’s safe!”
Whether or not you go along with the idea of being unsafe now, the teen was on to something in realizing what was going on. There is a sense that in Jesus’ baptism, God was tearing open the veil of the heavens because he was now coming to get at us via his only Son and via his Holy Spirit who is now animating and empowering that Son for the ministry before him.
The Year B Revised Common Lectionary will spend a lot of time in Mark’s gospel, and so as we begin this new Lectionary year it is well to focus on some of Mark’s key characteristics, starting in Mark 1 with the first occurrences of Mark’s #1 favorite Greek word: euthus. The force of this word is “immediately,” though sometimes Bible translations blandly bury the word under some boring-sounding phrase like “then” or, as in Mark 1:10, obscure the word from sight altogether by translating it “As . . .” as in “As Jesus came up out of the water . . .” But in the Greek Mark really is saying, “Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn.” And then not two verses later we are told in verse 12 that with equally lightning quick speed the Holy Spirit “Immediately hurled Jesus out into the desert.” Things happen fast in Mark’s narrative style but something of the very verve and vitality of the gospel is in there, too! We don’t want to miss it!
In Jesus’ life a funny thing happened again and again: when he touched the sick, they got well; when he touched the unclean, they got clean. Jesus reversed the conventional wisdom of his day that said it is sickness that gets transferred from the sick to the healthy. Jesus went the other way letting his health flow to those who were sick. Jesus reached out to the sick because he knew that the contagion of God’s Spirit with which he had been anointed was stronger than the contagion of sin. As it was with the wild animals, so with everyone else thereafter: where Jesus went, shalom followed.
But people today have a hard time believing that. In the movie Pleasantville we see a reversal of the Christian story. In the film two teenagers from 1998 somehow get trapped inside a 1950s situation comedy show on TV. They suddenly find themselves in Pleasantville U.S.A. long about 1953. Like the old TV show itself, the entire town and all the people in it are in black-and-white. It’s the typical caricature of 1950s buttoned down, middle class suburbia where Mom wears a dress all the time (even when baking cookies), Dad goes off to some nondescript job every morning, returning home each evening around five with the characteristic, “Honey, I’m home!” And in those pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles days, the teens of the town are all very square and moral and, according to the film, boring.
So the kids from the future set about to inject some enlightenment into the town and they do so through (what else?) sex. But no sooner do they start to spread the sexual revolution around town through seducing basketball players and providing homebound housewives with lessons on what sexuality is really all about and suddenly the black-and-white town begins bursting into color. First it’s just one red rose but soon it is entire persons (the enlightened, sexually active persons, of course) and finally, as the roaring 1990s gets fully injected into the staid 1950s, the entire town is in Technicolor splendor.
Get it? It’s a reversal on the Garden of Eden story. Being moral is dull and lifeless and colorless. Eating the forbidden fruit is what gives life zing. The Garden of Eden bursts into color and full bloom after sin arrives, not before. The story of Jesus insists that we resist thinking this way. Because Jesus was the incarnation of Eden regained. The world into which Jesus was born was black-and-white and lifeless. But wherever Jesus went, whomever Jesus touched, suddenly new life and glorious color burst back onto the scene! Jesus came to restore shalom, to bring us back to God by bringing God down to us.
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