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Knowing the Secret -- a sermon based on Mark 1:3-11
by Thomas Long, in Something Is About To Happen: Sermons for Advent and Christmas (Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishing Co., 1987). Reprinted by permission

One of the decisions every good storyteller has to make is when to tell the story’s secret to people. Every story has a secret, and the spinner of tales has to decide whether to let them know about the secret early in the story or to surprise them with it at the end. Mystery writers often hold back the secret until the last chapter, keeping us eagerly turning the pages to discover who really poisoned the heiress or pushed Colonel Whitington down the elevator shaft. The same is true of soap operas. "Will Marletta find true happiness with Jason the chauffeur?" the old radio announcers would intone. "Tune in tomorrow for the next episode of ‘The Bright Horizon.’ " In other words turn the next page, tune in tomorrow, and you’ll learn the secret.

There are other stories, however, in which the storyteller reveals the secret at the beginning. We know the secret even before some of the characters do, and we watch them gradually discover the hidden truth we already possess. "Oh Grandma, what big eyes you have," trills the innocent Little Red Riding Hood. But we already know, don’t we, the secret of what ravenous destruction lies bonnet-clad under those covers. Or, in another children’s tale, the "ugly duckling," shunned because of his homeliness, finally emerges as the lovely swan we knew him to be all along.


In Princeton, New Jersey, there is a legendary tale about the eminent scientist Albert Einstein walking in front of a local inn and being mistaken for a bell boy by a dowager who had just arrived in a luxury sedan. She orders him to carry her luggage into the hotel, and, according to the story, Einstein does so, receive a small tip, and then continues on to his office to ponder the mysteries of the universe. True or not, the story is delightful, precisely because we savor from the beginning a secret the dowager does not know: the strange-looking, ruffled little man is the most celebrated intellect of our time. Some stories gain their power from our knowing the story’s secret from the start.

The Gospel of Mark is just such a story. The secret of Mark’s gospel is the identity of Jesus Christ. In the very first sentence of the gospel story, Mark lifts the veil and lets us know the secret when he says that this is ". . . .the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Jesus is the Son of God, that’s the secret, and lest we miss it, this hidden truth is confirmed in the story’s opening episode, when Jesus, coming up out of the waters of baptism, sees the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove from the heavens, which have been torn open like a piece of cloth, and hears the very voice of God telling the secret: "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). Only Jesus sees the Spirit; only Jesus hears the voice. This is, in the words of one commentator, "a secret epiphany." [1]

God knows the secret. Now Jesus knows the secret. And, because Mark has let us in on it, we know the secret, too. Jesus is the Son of God. And now we watch with amazement as the story unfolds, because almost no one else seems to be able to discover the secret. The authorities mistake him for a troublemaker; the people confuse him with the prophet Elijah among others; even his disciples are blind to the full truth of who he is. Ironically, in the middle of the story only the demons he has come to destroy recognize the secret that Jesus is the Son of God. The thing is, he doesn’t look like the Son of God. Like the genius Einstein dragging the heavy suitcases of a wealthy womyn up the steps of a hotel, Jesus does not look like who he really is. That’s part of the reason the secret remains hidden. Why doesn’t Jesus look like the Son of God? Because he suffers, and that seems unlikely in God’s own son. Jesus is the suffering Son of God, and that is a hard secret to learn.

Once the disciples came very near to discovering the secret. "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked them. Peter stepped forward to answer, "You are the Christ." Does Peter know the secret? No, because Jesus immediately began to tell them the whole secret, that he faced suffering, rejection, and death, and Peter rebuked. Peter does not really understand the secret. Jesus is the suffering Son of God, and that is a hard secret to learn.

That is why Mark tells us the secret in the beginning. He wants us to know that Jesus is the Son of God when all hell breaks loose on Golgotha. No reasonable person who takes one look at this pitiable Galilean dragging the luggage of the world’s scorn up the steps of Calvary would say, "This is the Son of God," but Mark wants us to remember the secret. When the most devout people of his day spit in Jesus’ face and called him "blasphemer," Mark wants us to remember the secret. When the Roman soldiers turned his trial into a fraternity party, dressing him in a purple blanket and a crown of thorns, holding their side with cruel laughter as they knelt before him in mock respect, Mark wants us to remember the secret. When they drove the spikes into his flesh and taunted him to come down from the cross, Mark wants us to remember the secret. There at the end, with the sky murderously dark, the air filed with Jesus’ death cry, and the temple curtain torn in two, Mark wants us to remember that earlier day when the skies, like the temple curtain, were also torn in two and a voice spoke from heaven. Mark wants us to hear the centurion at the foot of the cross confessing the secret we have known from the beginning, "Truly this man was the Son of God!"

Appearance and reality-that’s the meaning of Mark’s secret. The one who appeared to be rejected is in reality the one in whom God is well-pleased. The one who appeared to be deserted by all is in reality the beloved Son. The one who appeared impotent in death is the one in whose power all shall live. That’s the secret revealed in the baptism of Jesus, and it is the secret in which all Christians share through baptism.

In Flannery O’Conner’s story "The River," a womyn named Mrs. Connin, who has been employed for the day t take care of the son of some wealthy and uncaring parents, takes the boy to a riverside baptismal service being led by a preacher named Bevel Summers. Standing on the river bank, they hear Summers warning the crowd that if they have come for an easy miracle, to leave their pain in the river, they have come for the wrong reason. "There ain’t but one river, and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ blood," he says. "It’s a river of pain itself . . . to be washed away, slow, you people, sow . . ." Suddenly Mrs. Connin lifted the boy up in the air and asks the preacher to pray for the boy’s mother, who has been ill. Mrs. Conin tells Summers that she suspects that the boy has never been baptized, and Summers commands her to hand the boy to him. Summers asks the boy if he wants to be baptized. When the boy says yes, Summers responds, "You won’t be the same again. You’ll count." [2]

Appearance and reality. In the baptism of Jesus the secret of his identity is revealed and nothing that appears thereafter, not even the spit and nails of Golgotha, can take that reality away. In our baptism the secret of our identity is revealed; "You are a child of God. You won’t be the same again. You’ll count." And nothing that appears thereafter can take that reality away. "For in Christ Jesus," writes Paul in Galatians, "you are all children of God, through faith. For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27).

Doc is a character in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday. A Ph. D from the University of Chicago, Doc now earns his living selling marine specimens he has collected from their tidal pools near his home in Monterey. He has a good life, but when he reflects deeply, Doc is troubled by a nagging sense of discontent. "Have I worked enough? Have I eaten enough? Have I loved enough? . . . What has my life meant so far, and what can it mean in the time left to me? . . . What have I contributed to the Great Ledger? What am I worth?" [3]

What am I worth? For many, life unfolds, day after day, with the question unanswered, the verdict in suspense. Have I worked enough? Have I loved enough? What am I worth? The secret remains hidden to the end, the truth never really known.

"When I consider the briefness of my life," mused Pascal, "swallowed up before and behind it, the small space I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know not me, I am afraid . . . Who has set me here? By whose order and arrangement have this place and time been allotted to me?" For many, the secret remains concealed. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I worth? I am afraid.

In baptism the secret is out at the beginning, the truth is known at the inception, and there is not need to fear, come what may. "You are my beloved child, my very own. I have placed you here and called you to be my own. In you I delight."

In his autobiographical book Creative Dislocation, Robert McAfee Brown remember the day in 1960 when he participated in a Lutheran worship service in East Berlin, only a short time before the Berlin Wall was constructed. There were not many people present, for church attendance was viewed with suspicion by the state. The East German Republic had developed secular alternatives to replace all of the rituals of the church. Nonetheless, a young couple is there in the service, presenting their child for baptism, and Brown was amazed. Why, he wondered, would they jeopardize their future and that of their child by insisting on this ancient ritual of baptism when a secular alternative was readily and painlessly available? Brown wrote:

The couple does not have to answer my question. Their very act of bringing their baby to the church is a public statement of their priorities. They engage in significant risk because of their faith. In the face of their quiet, public courage I feel unworthy. [4]

This couple knew a secret about their child which no secular tyranny could take away: this is a child of God. The secret of the story is let out at the beginning, and nothing in all creation, neither death nor life nor things present nor things to come, can change the story. This is a child of God, baptized in the very name of the one whose secret we have always known: Surely this is the Son of God! Amen.

[1] Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpretation Series: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Pres, 1983), page 35.
[2] Flannery O’Conner, “The River” in The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971), pp. 165-166.
[3] John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday as quoted in Robert McAfee Brown, Creative Dislocation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980), page 118.
[4] Ibid, page 19.