Baptism, Temptation, Ministry

Reflection on the Lectionary Gospel Text for February 22, 2015: Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

So ends Mark’s introduction to his Gospel (1:1–15). Since I have covered the basic flow of Mark’s introduction elsewhere (http://wp.me/pkPXF-oV), I will begin here by noting that the first half of the introduction dealt with John’s work of preparing the way of the Lord. Now, beginning with v. 9, Mark turns his attention to the hero of his story, Jesus.

The briefness of some of Mark’s stories is startling not only because as readers we want to know more but also because of how much each mini-story contains. These stories, if they be called stories, are more like terse summaries. Tense, packed summaries, to be sure.

I have outline the flow of the stories in our text today as: Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry. There is a certain rhythm or flow here that is true of all who dare follow Jesus. Jesus is the prototype (model, exemplar) of all those who would follow him. Baptism, temptation, and ministry outlines the process through which God’s Spirit remakes and reshapes us into the image of Christ. While there is reason to read them in this order, the experience of baptism, temptation and ministry will be revisited often in the life of a disciple of Jesus.

Baptism. While Mark has already made a connection between the forgiveness of our sins and baptism, here, in this text about Jesus’ baptism, the focus is more on appointment and identity. Jesus is the chosen anointed one. Instead of the oil that was pour on the head of kings and prophets to recognize their calling, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit. John has already clued us that Jesus would also be the one who would baptize others in the Holy Spirit. So in the same way God had anointed Jesus, Jesus would anoint others.

Sometimes when I baptize people, I say something like this: “Based on your confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When you rise from these waters, you can be sure of two things: your sins are forgiven and God’s Holy Spirit has come to live within you.” The certainty of these words rest in the example of Jesus. All of us who accept the invitation to follow Jesus can be assured of God’s acceptance and God’s approval: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Soon, as with Jesus, so with us, our resolve will be tested. Through temptation we prove how deeply we believe the Gospel.

Temptation. Mark’s temptation story is so brief, particularly when compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s. Still Mark give enough to evoke the story of the Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. The evocative words are wilderness (or desert), forty days, tempted, wild beasts, and angels.

Mark point to the divine role that temptation plays in the process: the Spirit of God “drove” or “cast” (ἐκβάλλω) Jesus into the wilderness. Interesting word choice on Mark’s part. This is the word that is often used in the stories about Jesus “casting out” demons. When Matthew and Luke retold this story (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1), they softened the verb to “lead” instead of “cast.”

However, there are times in our lives as followers of Jesus, when we feel as if we have been thrown where we do not want to be. One should not minimize the reality of dark times those who chose to follow Jesus will experience but we, in time, learn how to embrace these as part of the journey. Each time we conquer temptation, our credibility increases as disciples of Jesus, and we learn to minister to other with greater depth.

Ministry. While the acts of ministry are many, the basic shape of Christian ministry is proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ message was simple and straightforward: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” However, woven into the very fabric of the proclamation is exactly what each of us need to hear to stay focused.

The center of the Good News is that the Kingdom of God has come near (see http://wp.me/pkPXF-pS). The Kingdom of God is the basis of our authority to do ministry in the name of Jesus. Or, said another way, we do ministry as representatives of the Kingdom of God.

However, also woven into the proclamation of the Kingdom is the humbling, lest we think to highly of ourselves as representatives of God’s kingdom. The proper response to hearing, really hearing, the message of the Kingdom is to repent and believe the Good News. Whether a beginner or a more mature disciple, the call is the same: repent and believe. And when we get off track as we will: repent, believe, repeat.

To repent is more than stop doing bad things. Rather it is a willingness to throw the whole of oneself before God and to submit to God’s will. It is an implicit confession that our ways are wrongs and that God’s ways are right. As we enter the season of Lent, we have a designated time to allow God’s Spirit to recalibrate our lives and bring them into alignment with the priorities of God’s kingdom. When we have repented, then we can truly believe (trust) in the Good News–which is nothing short of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 1:1).

So the movement of Christian discipleship involves baptism, temptation, and ministry. This was the model of Jesus. So as it was with Jesus, so let it be with us.

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No One But Jesus!

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for February 15: Mark 9:1-10

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

The story of Jesus as told by Mark is punctuated by three nodal moments: the baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, and the crucifixion. These stories appear to be of the same fabric. They all speak to the identity of Jesus; they all announce Jesus as God’s special messenger, even the Son of God. They all partake of theophanies, or stories in which God appears.

There are several of these stories in the OT: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Isaiah before the throne of God, and others. Often these stories involve clouds, the voice of God, dazzling white garments, and a new direction or clarity for the one who experienced it. Though the elements vary from story to story, they always involve an encounter with the living God.

Though the reading for this coming Sunday is actually Mark 9:2-9, a larger context is necessary to catch the sense of the text. Therefore, I have included v. 1 and v. 10. The first verse sets up the story of the transfiguration. Here Jesus states that some of his audience would be alive to “see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” While this comment may refer to the founding of the church, Mark does not tell us that story in his Gospel. More likely, then, the comment makes sense within in the immediate context. Mark had already introduced the centrality of the “kingdom of God” to the ministry and preaching of Jesus (cf. Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14–15, 23–25; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43).

Jesus has been very clear that the Kingdom of God was in fact already present in his ministry. In Mark 1:15, Jesus states that the kingdom of God has come near (perfect tense in Greek) and in 4:11 that the mystery of the Kingdom of God has been given (again perfect tense) to his disciples, though they did not understand what he meant. Now, in Mark 9:1, Jesus states that some of his audience would see the Kingdom of God “having come” (another perfect) with power. This text is not predicting some future coming of the kingdom, that kingdom is present in the ministry of Jesus. Instead he is predicting that some of this hearers will experience coming of that kingdom “in power.” (Notice that v. 2 begins with a marker of time: six days later, that is, six days after Jesus said some would see the Kingdom of God having come with power).

The next story, the story of the Transfiguration, satisfies both that some of his audience would experience the kingdom and that it would be a powerful experience. The Transfiguration is certainly nothing short of powerful!

When Jesus had led his closest disciples up a high mountain, he was “transfigured” (μεταμορφόω) in their presence and his clothing became brilliantly white. “Transfigure” is such an ugly English word; the only time we use the word is for this story. The Greek word is the one from which we get metamorphosis, and can just as easily be translated “changed,” “transformed,” etc. More pertinent than the meaning of the word is how Jesus’ transformation sounds like what happened to Moses when experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai. The text of Exodus notes that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29). Just as Moses experienced God on Mt. Sinai, so now Jesus in this mountain-top experience.

Out of nowhere Elijah and Moses appear to chat with Jesus. Scholars and commentators have speculated on why Moses and Elijah and whether there is a deeper meaning to be found here. Here are a few of the better suggestion:

1) Both Moses and Elijah had theophanic exits. In the case of Moses, the text of Deuteronomy say that God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land, and then he died and was buried in an unknown location  (Deut 34:5–6). With Elijah, when it was time for him to exit, God swooshed him to heaven in the wake of a fiery chariot (2Kings 2:11–12).

2) Moses represents the Law and Elijah, as the beginning of the prophetic movement in ancient Israel, represents the Prophets. Thus, the Transfiguration is about how Jesus is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets.

3) In Deuteronomy 18 Moses predicted that one day God would raise up a prophet like himself. The earliest Christians read this text to refer to Jesus (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22). Yet many of the miracles of Jesus sound like those that occurred in the ministry of Elijah. Furthermore, since John the Baptist is identified with the ministry of Elijah (cf. Mark 9:11–13), Jesus would be like Elisha, Elijah’s disciple, who received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit after the latter departed.

In short, the stories related to Moses and Elijah provide a rich pool of images and echoes through which to understand the meaning of the Transfiguration and the mission of Jesus.

Clearly Peter misses the full meaning of the experience, when he said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The point, of course, is that Jesus is the one who now represents the will of God. Jesus, as the Voice from heaven says, is “my Son, the Beloved” and the appropriate response is to “listen to him!” One might say that is Mark’s point throughout the Gospel in seeking disciples who will listen carefully to Jesus. Remember “The one who has an ear to hear should listen up!”

Peter, who may well be Mark’s source for this story, speaks before listening. “He did not know what to say!” So as we are prone to do ourselves when we don’t know what to say, we speak anyway. When we do this, what follows is usually disastrous.

Yet Mark goes deeper into the motivation of Peter and the others: “for they were terrified!” Had I experience what they had, I’m sure I would have been terrified, too. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus elicits two basic responses from people: faith or fear. In Mark’s Gospel, the opposite of “faith,” is not un-faith, or disbelief, but fear. At the end of Mark, this same thought recurs. When the women who came to tomb are invited to go tell of the empty tomb, they don’t, “because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

When the experience was over, Peter, James and John looked around. They now saw no one but Jesus!

And that is Mark’s point: to see no one but Jesus!

What Just Happened?

Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015 (The Baptism of Our Lord): Mark 1:9–11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This reflection follows closely on the last one, “Then Came John,” where the text above was placed in the larger context of Mark’s introduction (1:1–15). Here I showed that the larger context has a loose chiastic (descending and ascending) rhythm or flow. This rhythm might be framed :

Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel

On one side of Holy Spirit is John’s story and on the other Jesus’. The last post treated John. This post will focus on the baptism of Jesus. Mark used John to introduce Jesus and I doubt that John would have disagreed.

Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is short and sweet, but heavily packed. Certainly more than meets the eye is going on in this text so I would like to point out of few of these items.

One might miss the echo from the Old Testament (OT) in modern translations with “in those days,” which the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible captured in it’s more literal and fuller sense, “And it came to pass in those days…” The KJV uses this phrase 396 times to communicate that something’s about to happen! Additionally, by using this way of speaking, Mark continued the much larger story that started in the OT. Mark pick up this story earlier with “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”

And so it came to pass…

While John appeared in the desert (Mark 1:4), Jesus came from Nazareth. Mark seems to make nothing of Jesus coming from Nazareth here. Perhaps he expected his earliest hearer to get the import. Jesus came from a no-place. Percy Walker once called Covington, Louisiana where he spent his last years as a no-place, that is, when compared to nearby New Orleans. New Orleans was, for Walker, a real place. In the same way, in Jesus’ world, Nazareth was a no-place. Jerusalem was a real place. Yet, the careful listener will note that up to this point in Mark’s story, Jerusalem is only mentioned in reference to people come from there to be baptized by John. The real action takes place in the desert, a non-place, a desert-ed place. In contrast, Jesus will be baptized in a named place, the Jordan river, a very significant place in the story of ancient Israel who cross the Jordan when they entered the Promise Land. One might say, “where it all began.” As if Mark envisions Jesus as marking a new exodus.

I believe that Mark’s passive construction, “and he was baptized by John,” intentionally echos the earlier text where all the people (also) came to John and “and they were baptized by him.” It’s subtle, but in a way, Mark is saying Jesus is one of the people, he’s one of us. Again, Mark’s way of telling the story does not spell things out but rather he leaves these connections for the listener to make.

After baptizing Jesus, John must have thought, “What just happened?” The other gospels find the lack of an explanation unbearable and so Matthew and Luke provide more story, but not Mark. Mark allows the narrative to explain what happened.

As Jesus arose out of the water, he saw the heavens ripped open (σχίζω). That Mark seeks to suggest contact with or access to God become clear at the end of his story when Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple was also ripped open (Mark 15:38). It’s the only times he uses the word “ripped open,” and both contexts implies open access to God. More pointedly, God showed up.

Mark is not overly concerned as later Christians would be about Trinitarian nuances. He is more than willing to speak of Jesus as if he is God (see v. 3 where the text refers to YHWH in the original OT context), but here Jesus stands with humanity. Now that access to heaven is open, the Spirit of God as a dove descends on him. Nice word play here. As Jesus arose (ἀναβαίνω), the spirit descended (καταβαίνω). In this way, Jesus himself is baptized in the Spirit or Presence of God, though John earlier in the text had predicted that he would be the one that would baptize the people in the Holy Spirit. But first things first.

Out of thin air came the voice, the Word of God: “You are my son, the beloved, in whom I delight.” However, these words are not original with this event. Again, our clues for understanding the deeper significance of these words is the OT. In same way that the earlier citation of the OT was a composite of Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi, God’s commendation of Jesus is a blending of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.

“I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psalms 2:7 NRSV).

and

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” (Isaiah 42:1 NRSV).

The Psalms text is a coronation psalm celebrating the enthronement of a new king. On that day the new king was declared to be God’s son. In a similar way, baptism marks a new relationship with God. Additionally baptism is often presented in the bible as a new beginning, even, new birth. Here at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the two are brought together: new birth, new beginning. From another angle, it marks that God is doing something new in the baptized.

In the text from Isaiah, the messiah is portrayed as a suffering servant. This one is chosen (beloved?) and upheld or sustained by God. God is pleased with his servant and has put his Spirit on him. This text fits well the story Mark is telling.

However, tension remains between these two visions of God’s messiah. In the Psalms text, the messiah is a conquering warlord who will make the world right by force, but in Isaiah, the suffering servant wouldn’t hurt a flea, wouldn’t even bend a reed in the wind.

So what just happened? Through baptism, Jesus has been invited to struggle through two competing images of what it means to be the Messiah. Is the Messiah a conquering king or a suffering servant? Which one would ultimately be the way of God for him?

Mark’s gospel invites use to struggle with the same dynamic. Which one will ultimately be the way of God for us?

Then Came John

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015: Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He 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.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:9   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The rhythm of the larger context (Mark 1:1–15) of this text on John the Baptist is

Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel

The centerpiece of the text is the Holy Spirit and though Mark rarely says another thing about the Holy Spirit in his Gospel, he begins he Gospel with the confirmation that Jesus is not only baptized (immersed) in the Holy Spirit but, more so, Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Later in this context, Jesus is the one who is “cast out” by the Holy Spirit into the second desert of our text.

On one side of Holy Spirit is John and on the other Jesus. And though Jesus is certainly more important, John gets some attention in the text. Later in chapter five of the Gospel, Mark  gives an extended account of John’s martyrdom but that story belongs to another time.

Back to our text. The NRSV quoted above states that John “appeared.” Not a bad way to translate the Greek “came” or “became” (ἐγένετο). In literary terms, Johns arrival is not unanticipated. Mark had previously quoted a blended text from Isaiah, Exodus, and Malachi to prepare the reader/listener for the one who would herald the way of the Lord as the voice in the wilderness (desert). Then John came in the wilderness . . . to prepare the way of the Lord.

John’s clothing and life style mark him out to be a prophet, or at least, someone claiming to be a prophet. He wore the same clothing that the ancient prophet Elijah had (2 Kings 1:8) and like prophets of old, he depended on what God provided for his food, locust and wild honey. But more exceptional than this clothing was his message.

From the beginning John preached that what God was doing was not about him. It was instead about the one that would come later. That one would be more powerful and so prestigious that John saw himself as unworthy even to be the slave that would remove his master’s sandals.

Yet the central contrast between John and the one to come was that John came baptizing people for the forgiveness of the sins in water–not an unimportant job, to be sure. His job description was clear: prepare the way of the Lord. His task was to get the people ready for the one to come. And this he did. However, he notes, that the one to come would do more than baptize the people in water as John had done, the one to come would baptize them in/with/by (the Greek can do all these, so pick one) the Holy Spirit. Through this one to come the people would experience the very presence of God in deep ways. They would be plunged into the Holy Spirit

Just before John leaves our text he has one more job to do. He baptizes Jesus. Even after that, I’m sure John would still say he was unworthy of such an honor.

John then is a model for our ministry today. Our job remains pointing to the one who was to come and the one who came.

John did his work, then came Jesus.

We do our work in the hope that Jesus will come again, now and for the last time.