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God's In-Breaking
by Doug in Riverside
based on Mark 1:1-11

Now that all the fervor and anxiety about the millennium and Y2K and the second coming of Christ seem to be abating, it’s a good time to shift our focus from the new century to the first century. It’s a good time for us to revisit the first coming of Christ. It’s a good time to take a closer look at Jesus of Nazareth who is called Christ, and to take that look through the window of Mark’s Gospel. It’s also a good time to take a closer look at ourselves in the mirror of Mark’s Gospel.

This is a task that cannot be done in one Sunday or in one sermon, and so this task will occupy us for many Sundays and many sermons throughout Epiphany and Lent. Actually, it’s more of a journey than a task. For the Jesus we meet in Mark is a Jesus who is on a journey himself. And it sometimes seems to be a breathless journey. The word “immediately” appears 27 times in the 16 chapters of Mark’s Gospel.

In the story world of Mark, Jesus moves rapidly from one episode to the next. And many of the episodes have a dramatic structure, so that we can actually visualize them as taking place on a stage in a darkened theater in which we are the audience. As the audience, we are given privileged information that is not available to the figures on the stage. For one thing, we already know who Jesus is. We have formed our own understandings and our own images of Jesus through years of experience in church and in the wider world. But the figures on the stage in Mark’s drama are meeting Jesus for the first time.

Consider how the stage might be set in the chancel this morning for Act I, Scene 1 in Mark’s drama of and about Jesus. Perhaps there would be a large banner hung high above the chancel, and on the banner we would see the words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There would be a spotlight on the banner so we in the audience could read the inscription. And there would be a group of figures gathered in the chancel, not yet illuminated, so we wouldn’t know right away who they are. Also, the figures in the chancel would not be able to see the banner.

After a few moments of silence, we would hear a voice from the balcony say: “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The figures in the chancel would remain motionless in the darkness, not hearing the voice.

Then we would hear another voice from the balcony, saying: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

As the narrator was speaking these words, the lights illuminating the figures in the chancel would slowly come up. And we would recognize John the baptizer in the foreground by his unique and startling costume of a garment made of camel’s hair with a wide leather belt around the waist. And then John says to the crowd: “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The people in the crowd begin murmuring among themselves. They continue to murmur as we hear again the voice of the narrator: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John into the Jordan River.” A spotlight shines on the rear doors of the sanctuary. They open dramatically, much as they do at the beginning of a wedding service. A lone figure strides purposefully down the aisle and into the chancel, where he kneels before John and prostrates himself before John, symbolizing his baptism by immersion in the waters of the river.

As Jesus struggles to his feet, clutching his wet robe about him, the lights in the sanctuary and the chancel all go dark, except for a low-power spotlight that allows us to see Jesus looking up. We too follow his gaze upward, and with the help of holographic technology, we see the figure of a beautiful dove descending from the ceiling and covering Jesus. And we hear a voice from the balcony, a different voice from the earlier voices, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus bows his head in a gesture of humility and gratitude.

It’s clear from the reaction, or non-reaction, of the other figures on the chancel stage--John the baptizer included--that they have neither seen the dove nor heard the voice. The figures in the drama quietly disperse: Jesus returns to Galilee down the center aisle, the others return to Jerusalem and Judea down the side aisles. Only the banner remains, high above the chancel, as the house and stage lights come back up.

* * *

Let us wonder about what we have seen and heard in this imagined chancel drama. First, the words on the banner. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Is this the superscription only for Act I, Scene 1? Or is it the title of the entire play? Or is it perhaps both/and rather than either/or?

For there is a sense in which Act I, Scene 1 is the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus. But there’s also a sense in which Mark’s Gospel as a whole is more than a story of Jesus, a first-century historical or biographical text. Mark’s story of Jesus is a message of good news which far transcends its historical rootedness in first-century Palestine under Roman rule.

Consider this: the Greek word which we translate into English as “gospel” or “good news” is euaggelion, a word normally reserved for news about the Roman emperor or about a military victory. We are so accustomed to the connection between gospel and Jesus that we need to imagine ourselves as a first-century audience who knew only of the association between gospel and emperor, and who would be surprised by what they first saw on the stage and heard from the balcony: not a military parade led by royal heralds, but a ragged prophet in front of a crowd of ordinary citizens down by the riveside. How could this be good news, they might wonder.

And they might wonder how Jesus, someone from the backwater town of Nazareth in the contentious province of Galilee, could possibly be identified as the son of God: for such a title would be reserved only for someone like Augustus Caesar, the great and powerful ruler of the far-flung Roman empire. You and I know, of course, from the perspective of two millennia of history, that the power of Jesus through the centuries has far, far exceeded the power of Augustus Caesar in the first century. But Mark’s audience didn’t know that. Even less did the figures in the Mark’s drama know that. So what has to unfold in the continuation of the drama of Jesus is the marshalling of evidence for the revolutionary claim that not Caesar of Rome, but Jesus of Nazareth, is the true Son of God.

It’s a sign of the gospel writer’s artistic and theological power that Mark wastes not a word in marshalling the evidence for the claim about Jesus’ divine Sonship. Mark does not begin with a genealogy and a birth narrative, as does Matthew. Mark does not begin with a historian’s prologue and a birth narrative, as does Luke. Mark does not begin with a mystical prologue about word and light and law and truth and grace, as does John. Mark begins with a dramatic event, the baptism of Jesus. And just as Jesus is plunged fully into the river waters by John, so the figures in the drama, and the audience in the sanctuary, are immediately immersed in the story of Jesus the man of Nazareth.

The words that Mark uses to portray this dramatic event are used carefully and purposefully to set Jesus apart from the rest of the people who are baptized by John. The crowds come from Judea and Jerusalem: the leading province and the capital city of Israel. But Jesus comes from Galilee, and “to those from Judea and Jerusalem, Galilee was a notorious region. It was populated by non-Jews, separated from the ‘true Israel’ by another notorious state, Samaria. Galilee was a hiding place for guerrillas, a hotbed of [rebellion]. We should be warned! If Jesus comes from Galilee, he is likely to be trouble!” (Peter B. Price, in Sojourners Magazine, Jan-Feb 1997 <>)

Mark tells us that the people from Judea and Jerusalem were baptized in the river, but Jesus was baptized into the river. Jesus was totally submerged in the water, in a symbolic death. And when he emerged from the water, it was in a symbolic resurrection. So the heart of the story of Jesus--death and resurrection--is already prefigured from day one of his public ministry. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t just descend onto Jesus: it descends into Jesus; so we could say, borrowing a phrase from Luke’s description of the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary, that Jesus after his baptism is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And finally, Jesus’ identity, at least for those of us in the audience who are privileged to see the dove and hear the voice, is confirmed by the voice of God.

Just as Jesus’ baptism confirmed his identity and his vocation, so too our celebration of the sacrament of baptism confirms our identity and vocation as disciples of Jesus. However, as a cyber colleague of mine, Gary from New Bern, reminds us, “we cannot rush too quickly to equate Jesus' baptism with ours. John's baptism was not a ‘Christian’ baptism at all, but a baptism of repentance, a calling of the people of Israel back to their roots in the [Exodus and wilderness experience]. Our baptism is, in many respects, different from Jesus'. Ours is not a baptism of repentance. Ours does not define a career of Messiahship (although some pastors seem to think theirs does on occasion!). So we have to be careful about drawing too many conclusions [for ourselves] from the text, which is really about Jesus' [identity and vocation] - an epiphany.

“We can, however, bring the two baptisms together as signs of identity and vocation: As Jesus' baptism reveals who he is, so ours reveals us, also, as God's children. As his defines his ministry, so does ours (even if it is very different, in many respects, from his!). We have to be careful to hold onto the uniqueness of his baptism and ministry, and yet we can see the ties as well; after all, ours is also an immersion into his life, death and resurrection.” (Gary in New Bern, <>, 06 January 2000.)

As the privileged audience watching the scene of Jesus’ baptism, we know that his status as God’s beloved Son will lead not to a coronation, but to a crucifixion. So too our status as God’s beloved Children does not prevent us from facing suffering and death. Our status as God’s beloved children does, however, give us the power to transcend suffering and death, to know and to trust that resurrection overcomes crucifixion.

Another of my cyber colleagues, Nail-Bender in NC, writes of going to visit a friend of his, a young woman lying in a hospital ICU bed. His friend Marcia, a dancer and a mime, had been struck down by illness, submerged in a coma. “And now I stood there before her. She was silent again, this beautiful mime - Marcia, my friend. But this time there was no [sacred movement,] only the buzz and hum of all the monitors, the soft electric whirring of the motors which changed her bed position every few moments. Her breathing was deep, in and out, the steady patterned rise and fall of ventilator-induced respiration. She was quiet, yet this silence was not found in the joy of a mime, but in the brutal reality of a coma.

“I had received the message earlier in the evening. The news was bad. The family had already gathered. "Prepare for the worst," they had heard. No one could believe it. After all, it was only pneumonia. After all, she was still a young woman. "How could this happen? She had been fine only days before. How could this happen?"

“It was after visiting hours when I had entered the Intensive Care Unit. Angels in blue coveralls, moving about with sure purpose, directed me to her small equipment-packed room. And now I found myself echoing the same question. The drapes were almost drawn and we were alone, me standing beside her, and she lying there, lost in the depths of unconsciousness. I talked to her for a bit. I told her of nothing important, my comings and goings of the last few months, of the life I had seen and the truths I had learned. I talked, maybe more for myself than for her, wanting desperately to make a difference.

“After awhile I began to pray. I stood beside her bed praying, asking God for that which I have seldom asked. Asking God to spare her mortal life. Asking God to deliver her back to us. I pleaded with God, if for no other reason, than to spare her children the death of their only remaining parent. How could they lose her when they had lost their father only a few short years before? I pleaded, and I cried. I cursed and I demanded. I stood by Marcia's comatose form and the deaths of so many past friends washed over me. Please God, not again.

“Just when I thought I would drown, suddenly, I heard a voice. It was just as clear as if someone was standing in the room with me. "She will be okay." Nothing more, just simply, "she will be okay." I was stunned, shocked, and then, overwhelmed by peace. Completely overwhelmed. I did not know if she would live or if she would die, but I knew, to the very fiber of my being I knew, that she … that we … would be okay.

“I think we oftentimes create our own truths, that our perceptions will most assuredly create our reality, for certainly it can be no other. And though we rarely see that which we deem miraculous, our very existence is immersed within the realm of miracle. Our corporal reality is continually awash in the coming of the Spirit, the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the dove. For the dance of life, found in the created beauty of our communal nativity, and ever-present in the surety of mortal endings, remains our constant reminder of God's in-breaking Spirit and God's baptism in and with the world.

“Then sometimes, if we are truly fortunate, we might even hear the voice of God. And we will know that we are indeed, beloved.”