Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 16, 2011
As many of you know in the Book of Ezekiel and in the Revelation to St. John, there are visions of the four creatures who have come to symbolize the four evangelists – a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle. I listed those names in the canonical order of the Gospels, and thus the second one listed, the lion, has come to symbolize St. Mark. It is quite fitting that he would have the figure of a lion to personify his Gospel because much like a lion, the Jesus that Mark portrays pounces onto the scene unannounced. Over and over again Mark links scenes together with one word, immediately, and thus the stories bound from one situation to the next. The action moves from place to place quickly, and Jesus never seems to stay still for very long.
Mark’s Jesus, like a lion, simply appears out of nowhere and he begins. There is a feature about the Jesus we hear from Mark’s perspective that is also lion-like that many commentators have referred to as the Messianic Secret. Jesus’ identity is somewhat hidden to those around him, and only those with eyes to see and ears to hear see its disclosure. The king of beasts is also secretive and hidden as he moves about, but the wise are attune to his movements, and are not caught unawares.
We heard just a few moments ago the first eleven verses of Mark’s Gospel. It starts off in a rapid fire fashion with those simple words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is no birth narrative as in Matthew and Luke that we heard over the past few weeks at Christmas. Rather, it begins with a simple declarative statement. As we ultimately know, this is no simple statement.
Following that opening line, we hear a quotation, which actually isn’t all from Isaiah, but is a combination of quotations from the prophets Micah and Isaiah, and a link back to the book of Exodus. We hear that there is a messenger who will prepare the way for the Good News of Jesus, and our discipleship will involve preparation and correction.
A messenger goes forth into the desert, into the wilderness, to announce that the path that is required of the one that is to come must be straight. It is a path that must have the crooked places smoothed out; the twists and turns must straightened out. God created everything in an orderly fashion, and the sin that entered the world through Adam and Eve introduced disorder. That which was once straight has become crooked. God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and walked upon the straight paths that He made. After the Fall, God could not walk with them the same way He had done before, because the straight paths had lost their straight character. Now we hear John the Baptist quoting the Old Testament prophets and telling them that the paths need to be made straight. He says that to them because God has come again to walk and dwell among His creation. The only way that God can walk with His creatures is if there is a straight path for him to travel upon.
The way that we might make those paths straight comes at the end of the passage we just heard. It comes through the water of Baptism.
“And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan.” You can see Mark’s brevity again with his somewhat terse treatment of this most significant event. Lost is the scathing accusation against the Pharisees and Sadducees where John asks them who sent them a warning that they must flee from the wrath to come. Mark does not give us the beautiful exchange between Jesus and John where the Baptist questions Jesus’ intention to be baptized by him, and Jesus declares that it is not just fitting for it to happen that way, but it is in order to fulfill all righteousness as St. Matthew declares.
All that is recorded here is that Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee and he’s now come to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. What happens next is of course the key to the entire story.
When Jesus is coming out of the water it says that the “ he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descended upon him.” For Mark’s brevity in telling a story, there are occasions in which he’s telling more of the story than meets the eye. This is one of those occasions when we study one of the specific words in the original Greek.
At first glance there is nothing significant about the word that describes what happens to the heavens. The significance comes in the fact that Mark actually uses a different word than Matthew and Luke. Mark uses the word skidzo, which literally means rip, or rend, or tear open. We get our English word schism from that word, which is a tear in the body of believers in an ecclesiastical sense. I don’t think that Mark’s change of verbs here is significant just because it is different from the other two Evangelists. I think its significant because of the other time the word appears in the Gospels. Mark has a habit of bookending things in his Gospel and he’s done so again.
When Jesus commended his Spirit into the hands of the Father, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that at the time of Jesus’ death the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom. The same word here, skidzo, is used to describe what happened to the veil. The very heavens were rent open when our Lord was baptized, and the veil that separated God from man in the Temple was rent apart at our Lord’s death.
This is so significant because the avenue by which the paths that have become crooked by our sin have the ability to be made straight through the water of baptism, and through the accessibility of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. All of the barriers to the Divine have been removed, and we have direct access to the Father, by the work of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is also critical to notice the sequence of events. The Spirit of God is not made manifest in the form of a dove until our Lord comes through the Baptismal waters of the Jordan. If Jesus is not baptized, the Spirit does not come. Part of Jesus’ fulfillment of all righteousness is accepting the baptism of John, so that he might bear the weight of original sin upon Himself, and carry it to the cross for our redemption. For us, the critical part of Jesus’ baptism is so that we might be able to receive the coming of the Holy Spirit.
It was not until the Day of Pentecost that the Apostles received the Holy Ghost in full measure when He appeared as tongues of fire above their heads. The comforter manifested himself in a much stronger fashion as an indicator of what they and we are called to do.
As we proclaim in the Creed, the Holy Ghost is the Lord and Giver of Life. It was God’s spirit that was given to Adam that was breathed in him and gave him life. That Spirit was made manifest in the form of a dove when it appeared over Jesus at his baptism. It was a dove that brought the branch of an olive tree back to Noah to indicate that life had returned to the earth following the flood. It was in the form of fire that the Spirit appeared to the Apostles at Pentecost.
Mark’s Jesus, the Lion of Judah, has burst upon the scene, and God comforts us with those words that he spoke from the heavens, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Through our baptism, we receive the cleansing that regenerates us and brings us into a new life of grace that we share with Jesus.
Through the flames of fire of God’s Holy Spirit, we receive the seven-fold gifts to then live out that new life of grace through the laying on the bishop’s hands in the Sacrament of Confirmation. We are reunited in one communion and fellowship again as we prepare to receive our Lord’ Body and Blood in the Sacrament. We come to begin anew; our Gospel opened with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” May we receive this gospel anew each and every day of our lives so that we might joyfully proclaim those wonderful words again, and again, and again.