Sunday 10th January 2021 – The Sunday after Epiphany
Lectionary Passage Mark 1 vv 4 – 11 and also Matthew 2 vv 1 – 12
I have acknowledged before that I am something of a news junkie. I watch the TV news with my early morning cup of tea, with my lunch and dinner and then again late into the evening. Like many I was transfixed on Wednesday by the pictures of the storming of the Capitol in Washington. Just as I was horrified that day by the scenes of mayhem, I have been baffled by the sway that one man has held over such a significant number of people in the United States for the past four years. Apparently 80% of all Evangelical Christians in America voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and even now, because the Big Lie works, more than a hundred Representatives to Congress still believe that the Presidential Election last November was somehow rigged in favour of Joe Biden and that Donald Trump was the real winner. Sadly, although some are distancing themselves from him and his lies, it isn’t only the white supremacists and the lunatic fringe that still support him.
How do people fail to recognise who that man really is and what he stands for?
As an aside, I believe that, if not already – Society at large needs to weigh up very carefully both the positives and the negatives of social media through which so much miss-information can be spread and believed!
Our Lectionary passage for this Sunday invites us to recognise who that man Jesus really is.
This last Wednesday wasn’t just about headlines in the news relating to the Coronavirus numbers here or the disaster in Washington. Wednesday was the Christian Festival of the Epiphany. Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ or perhaps more understandably ‘a revealing’. In the Western Church the Gospel Reading for the day is from Matthew 2 vv 1 – 12 – the visitors from the East come to Bethlehem with their gifts and their Worship. They are the representatives of the outside world, the non-Jewish world. It is the big picture. Jesus figures on the world scene. He is revealed and revered with royal gifts.
However, still today in the Eastern Orthodox Church it is the story of the Baptism of Jesus that is the central focus of their Epiphany Celebrations on what for them is one of the three most important festivals of the Church. Interestingly there were pictures in the press of President Putin attending an Eastern Orthodox Epiphany Mass.
In his customary brevity, Mark compresses the account of the Baptism of Jesus into just three verses – verses 9 – 11. But in doing so, Mark places at the very beginning of his account of the life and death of Jesus THE critical statement about Jesus. A statement that he goes on to press home through the rest of his Gospel. Jesus is the Son of God.
It is John, towards the end of his Gospel, who is unequivocal in setting out his purpose in writing and recording the Jesus story – a purpose that is shared by all four Gospel writers. ‘These have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life.’ John 20 v31. Although not so explicit, Mark with that statement very near the beginning of his Gospel and also the same statement very near the end of it, allows and encourages us to share the questions and the discovery, as people in all sorts of situations recognise Jesus for who he is.
One of the key elements of Mark’s Gospel is the way that recognition grows. Implicit in his Baptism account is the fact that God’s words ‘You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you’ are words that Jesus, and Jesus alone, hears. It is a private affirmation for Jesus. Neither John the Baptiser nor the crowds of people there (v5) heard God’s voice. Recognising Jesus for who he is has to be worked out by watching him at work. Somewhat surprisingly it is people with severe mental illness who are quick to catch on. In Mark 3 we find a ‘general’ picture of the healing ministry of Jesus. Mark 3 v 10 tells us that he healed many people and that those who had evil spirits in them ‘would fall down before him and scream, You are the Son of God’. That recognition becomes much more specific in the story of the healing of the madman of Gerasa – Mark 5 vv 1 – 20 – who cries out ‘Jesus, Son of the Most High God! What do you want with me?’
In between those two healing accounts we find the familiar story of the stilling of the storm. The disciples, drenched, cold and frightened are astounded and ask ‘Who is this man? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ The way Mark sets out his account of Jesus is that this revealing and recognition is a slow process aided and, in some way, abetted by Jesus who, when people are at the point of recognition command them to keep it secret – Mark 3 v 12 etc. His time has not yet come. Biblical scholars call this the Watershed Theory. The important moment that changes his direction comes when Jesus firstly asks the group of disciples to tell him what people are saying about him and then, much more directly, challenges them ‘What about you? Who do you say I am?’ Mark 8 v 29. This recognition at Caesarea Philippi is followed immediately by the rather curious event we know as the Transfiguration when God’s voice from Heaven declares ‘This is my own dear Son – listen to him!’ This time the declaration is for everyone to hear. The Messianic Secret is out.
There are two other important passages in Mark that reinforce this recognising Jesus theme. In the story of the Baptism we are told that Jesus saw ’Heaven opening.’ As with other passages that we have reflection on, here the original Greek uses a much stronger word that just ‘opening’. It is a word meaning ‘rent apart’ – forceful and dramatic. In the account of the death of Jesus Mark tells us that ‘The curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’ Mark 15 v 38. The Inner Sanctuary of the Temple – The Holy of Holies – which represented the very presence of God, was protected from view. Now, through Jesus, a revealing of even that sacred space.
Then, and again it is an immediate, the Centurion in charge of the crucifixion, seeing the way Jesus died, says ‘This man was really the Son of God!’ v38. Both at the beginning and at the end, Mark makes sure that his readers have an understanding of just who Jesus is.
Of course, ‘The Son of God’ is a theological statement. But it is also a devotional one. The question that Jesus asks of the disciples – ‘And you, who do you say I am?’ is one for us. The heavens and the curtains are torn apart. God, in all his Glory is revealed – no longer hidden or unknowable. In the person of Jesus, in direct and intimate relationship with the Divine, it is God in Jesus who is among us and invites us, with all our questioning, to join with the sages of the centuries in recognising him and offering our Worship and the gift of our love.