A Homily for Epiphany II
January 19, 2020
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Mark 1:1-11
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Beginnings are an interesting thing, we know this fact because we’ve all started new things, probably several, maybe hundreds, we’ve all set out on new jobs, looked for new homes, moved to new apartments, made new friendships, or even moved to new places in other parts of the world. The beginning can be frightening, and overwhelming, the beginning can be exciting, and hope-filled.
I remember when I started college, I was just a kid from rural Maine. Now, I never considered where I grew up as being rural, not compared to inland Maine, it wasn’t until I was older and had lived elsewhere and became aware, much to my surprise, that there’s a world outside of Maine, that I became aware that even living 30 minutes outside of Portland, our largest city, at 60,000 people, would be considered rural by most Americans.
Like all good Mainers, we’d be in bed by 9 pm, and waking up at the crack of dawn, or in the winter well before the sun rose. My life in that respect was simple.
College was different – for the first time I was around people who stayed up past nine, I had the freedom to explore, I had the ability to walk around campus whenever I pleased. It was new, it was exciting and frightening all at once. Beginnings, and change have the propensity to stir in us great emotion.
I suspect you all know what I mean by that, for we have all started something new.
And what of St. Mark’s words “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” Is he simply saying “I’m starting to write about Jesus,” or is his word choice more significant than that?
The saint is saying – this is the start of something new, gather around as I tell you to story of our God who became man, who emptied himself and dwelt among us, not simply for a neat experience but in order to set the captives free and to usher in a new way, a new covenant, to open the heavens so all who would believe would be able to have fellowship with the Father, so that all who believe would be freed from their sin.
And so – at the center of the Gospel According to St. Mark, and at the center of our gospel reading today stands this very thesis – that Christ has come into the world to enact this new covenant.
Now, this word gospel has become common place in our Christian vocabulary. On our table sits a gospel book, that is a book with the words of the four evangelists, we know the first four books of the New Testament as the gospels, we say I’m reading the Gospel According to St. Mark right now, or I’m telling my friend the gospel. And these are all very good things, but we’ve lost the meaning of the word. I have found from time to time it sort of becomes ill-defined.
Gospel means good news – but more than good news, it means good news about victory in war, or rather that’s how it was used in the secular context and even in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, referred to as the Septuagint. And what is this good news of victory over? It is Christ’s victory for us over sin, for even in this moment that St. Mark is describing Christ is already on his path to victory.
We read in the Revelation of St. John that in the last great battle as Jesus rides out to war he is dressed in victory clothing. Already as Christ commences his public ministry is victory confirmed, already, even as we read this morning, he is turning his face towards calvary, already, is he read to take upon himself the pain, and anxiety, the horribleness of our sins, to die for them that we might live. Already in the beginning – his victory is being declared.
But it is not merely at Christ’s birth or at the beginning of his public ministry that his victory is proclaimed – even as we read of the horror of the fall in Genesis 3, we read of the betrayal of Adam and Eve against God, we read of the deception of the serpent against our first parents, we read of the shame, the heartache, and already, even then – God promises one who will crush the head of the serpent, a son of Eve who will overcome this sin – already at the fall God has a plan of redemption and then this promised redemption is promised again and again in the Old Testament, and foreshadowed through the men whom God has chosen.
St. Mark knows this and pulls not just from Isaiah as the text says but several places to point out the fact that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament, that the prophecies and foreshadowing all point to Him, and that John the Baptist is his necessary forerunner, the one who is doing the groundwork, laying the foundation – preparing the way for the coming of Christ into His public ministry. St. Mark points – that this, what we read this morning – this is the beginning of the new thing, this is the beginning of the good news being finally, fully unveiled to humanity.
St. Mark also shows this through his description of John – his description of John echoes 2 Kings when we meet Elijah the prophet – and Elijah and John are described as “wearing a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” We are meant to understand that John was the second Elijah, who must come to prepare the way for the Christ.
In all this John also foreshadows the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, for we cannot come to Christ on our own, we need the Holy Spirit to make straight the highway of our hearts, we need the Holy Spirit to make our hearts new, we need the Holy Spirit to draw us into Christ. So as John the Baptist preached the repentance for the forgiveness of sins, likewise the Holy Spirit prompts us to repentance both when we meet Christ for the first time, and over and over again, he calls us to die daily to ourselves that we may be forgiven of our sins, that we may rest with joy in Christ. This is the beginning of a new thing.
But just as many went out to hear John and many were baptized we are warned in our knowledge of the life of Christ – that few stood by Christ in his death – perhaps only one disciple, his mother, and a handful of women. So, a full church does not guarantee a church full of converted hearts. Rather – each of us are called to give our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls over to the love of God, that in Christ we may be drawn nearer to him. This is a daily task – a good task – a task for life.
To follow Christ is not a religion of work, it is not something we earn, it is our hearts being turned into new creations by the grace we find in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit in us. The success of the church, therefore, is not measured by bodies, but by changed hearts, it is measured by those being sanctified. And so we like metrics to tell us how we are doing – but in the church we do not have this privilege.
Instead, we as Christians are called to do the hard thing – we are called to have the hard conversations, we are called to stay up all night with the grieving, to hold the hand of the dying, to love the different, to seek to make Christ known in all times and all places.
We don’t like this, we want things to be black and white, we want simple answers. I remember one day in a class I was taking, a tough subject in contemporary moral issues came up and the question was how to we minister well to people struggling in this area. We started to wrestle with this difficult question when, someone raised their hand and asked “is it a sin?” I think we all would have agreed that there was sin in it, and it comes out of the fall – but that wasn’t the question at hand – the question was how do we love the person who is struggling with the darkness of their own soul? We want to side step that often messy answer and put them into simple boxes like “good” and “bad,” but this doesn’t teach us to love others well and it puts up walls for us to love and nurture those who are struggling.
No, this morning we read about the beginning of the gospel of love – not that we affirm all things but we welcome all people. We don’t accept all actions, but we know all are capable of growth in Christ and because His grace is sufficient for my sins, it is sufficient for others’ darkest sins. It is easy to ban those whom aren’t like us, or to welcome all and never call them to a change – but it is much harder to walk with someone in the dark struggle of their hearts, to help them gain freedom from their sin, and to have abundant life in Christ.
Legalism and license are easy – but sanctification is the better way.
Today – we see the beginning of a new way – a new covenant and a new hope in Christ. A covenant of conversion, of changed lives, of messy times – that draw us to deeper life.
As we read on, we see John promise that there is someone greater coming, someone who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit – in the Old Covenant the Holy Spirit was a rare gift, reserved for the prophets and the writers of scripture, but in the new, he is given freely to all who believe in Christ.
Often, we hear a mischaracterization of corporate worship – that there has to be some sort of experience, but we know the verse from the hand of St. Matthew: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there,” because we read it whenever we pray Morning or Evening Prayer – but it reminds us that even when we are struggling with depression, disappointment, or disillusionment that when we gather together to worship and pray in the name of Christ – that Christ is with us. We know that when we come to Christ, when we are baptized, when we are confirmed, when we partake in the sacraments, we have an outward reminder of the giving of the Holy Spirit.
No, our emotions are important – and worthy of listening to – but ultimately – emotions do not always reflect the deep abounding love that God has for us, and in that they can betray and mislead us. We experience worship and sometimes it feels good, but even if we are tired in our formal times of worship – even if it feels like an off day, even if the priest stumbles through the liturgy, or the music is off, or your neighbor is smelly, or you just had a fight with your spouse – the Spirit is still with us when we do this great act. That is the blessing and joy of the New Covenant.
The narrative then shifts its focus dramatically from John the Baptist to Jesus – no longer is John the subject but he becomes a passive actor in the drama that is about to unfold. The text marks this by describing Jesus’ baptism in passive voice. John does not baptize Jesus, but Jesus is baptized by John.
Perhaps this seems insignificant, but John’s significant ministry becomes overshadowed by Jesus, as we read the rest of the Gospel according to St. Mark – we only see a couple of minor, almost parenthetical statements about John. This begins in Jesus’ baptism – John acts as a servant, as a tool and not as the primary person.
But why was Jesus baptized?
We are told John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance of sin, a turn away, a literally shifting of the mind in its perspective of the world around it, yet we confess that Jesus was without sin, was perfect, was spotless.
Are we wrong? Are we delusional?
Jesus was without sin, Jesus’ baptism marks something else – Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of something new. It marks the beginning of his ministry, the beginning of the formal proclamation of Christ ushering in the new ethos, the new way, the new covenant, and opening the door for our participation in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his formal ministry.
The first thing that happens as he comes out of the water is that the heavens are torn open. Of the gospels, St. Mark’s words are the most aggressive in how he describes this, in fact he uses the same word that he uses for when the temple curtain is torn open at Christ’s crucifixion. He links together these two moments as being fundamentally important in Christ’s ushering in of the new ethos. He links these two moments in pointing us to the fact that in Christ we find intimacy with the Father, that now we can experience the glory of God in a way that we never could before.
And the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and we hear the voice from heaven and here we see the Holy Trinity revealed to us – what an amazing thing this is! For God sends his incarnate Son to redeem those who would believe to Himself, he sends his spirit to direct, and guide, while he is enthroned in perfect and beautiful majesty.
Like Jesus’ baptism we may wonder, why Christ could possibly need the Holy Spirit – but it shows us that Christ was perfectly obedient to the father – where we are rebellious Children, he is the prefect child, and in Him we may become children of the Father, in Him we may know the same fatherly love that says – you are my beloved son, in Him we become beloved children of the Father – what good news this is! Finally – the Father tells Jesus that he is well pleased with Him – but other translations prefer – that the Father delights in Jesus – I favor this later translation as it captures something wonderful.
I think we long so deeply to hear from others that they delight in us, that we have something wonderful and worthy of being excited about – that we can be swept away with awe that God the father Delights in God the son.
But why does God the Father delight in Jesus Christ?
These are some of the points that people have noted that are delightful about the son:
His becoming a man,
his perfect obedience,
his fulfilment of the Law,
his love for the broken and the sinners,
his defeat of the devil,
his defeat of death, his willingness to die for his sheep, and to keep his sheep.
This list is far from exhaustive – but perhaps no other thing – than his redemption of sinners like me delights the Father and this is ultimately what St. Mark is pointing to when he writes “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
In Jesus Christ we have redemption, in Jesus Christ we have freedom, in Jesus Christ the New Covenant is opened up to all who would believe in Him, and we find our incredible freedom.
Beginnings can be exciting, and scary, can be overwhelming and joy-filled – but what we read this morning is THE beginning – the beginning of something new – the beginning that stands as the most significant new beginning – the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the end of the tyranny of sin.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.