A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 25 February 2018
Last week, we began Lent with hearing of Jesus’ baptism and his time immediately afterwards tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
Mark begins his gospel with these hugely significant stories not just because they happen at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but like any good introduction to a book, Mark is flagging up key themes that he will return to throughout his gospel.
At Jesus’ baptism, we heard a voice from heaven saying:
‘You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.’
Some time later at the transfiguration, a turning point in Mark’s gospel, again a voice is heard from heaven saying:
‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
Then at the end of Mark’s gospel, when Jesus breathes his last, the centurion standing at the foot of the cross says:
‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
No wonder that the very first sentence that Mark opens his gospel with is this:
‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God.’
That Jesus is the Son of God is a key theme for Mark!
What of Jesus’ temptations?
Mark’s account is very brief, simply telling us that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan. Unlike the later gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t go into any detail. But Jesus being tempted by Satan is another key theme in Mark’s gospel.
Take the robust encounter between Jesus and his lead disciple that we’ve just read. Peter takes Jesus to one side and rebukes him. And in turn Jesus rebukes Peter, saying:
‘Get behind me, Satan!’
This profound disagreement between Jesus and Peter concerns Jesus’ teaching that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed – this is the path that he must follow.
And the thoughts that Peter voices are temptations that Jesus has heard before – the voice is a familiar one and Jesus knows that it is not the voice of his Father in heaven but another voice – hence the sharp rebuke to Peter:
‘Get behind me, Satan!’
The temptation to turn from the path that Jesus is called to walk continues to the very end of his life. Nailed to the cross Jesus is mocked and derided:
‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the
Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the
cross now, so that we may see and believe.’
Jesus is tested, taunted, tempted not just at the beginning but throughout his ministry – a key theme for Mark.
These two themes are profoundly linked – the temptations arise out of the baptism. The testing that happens to Jesus is all about his identity, who he is and what he’s called to do.
Can he trust the voice that he hears speaking from heaven?
Can he make the journey to Jerusalem believing that it is his Father will?
Can he resist the voices of the disciples, arguing with each other, appalled at the prospect ahead, rebuking him as he tries to articulate why they’re doing what they’re doing:
‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering….
It’s a testing that starts immediately after Jesus’ baptism, continues throughout his ministry and reaches an extraordinary intensity in the anguish of his prayer in Gethsemane:
‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible;
remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want,
but what you want.’
Judas then arrives to betray Jesus with a kiss – and Christ’s passion begins.
Theologians and spiritual writers of previous generations are more comfortable than we are in referring to Christ’s passion and death as the decisive battle in which the struggle is won and victory assured.
Many of our hymns though still contain these ideas – take, for instance, the Easter hymn:
‘The strife is o’er, the battle done;
now is the Victor’s triumph won.’
Alongside our hymns many of our set prayers too come from a previous generation and are all the richer for that – they too use phrases such as:
‘that we may triumph in the power of his victory.’
And while Mark’s gospel never explicitly uses this language, I think he would agree with its thrust.
The struggle with Satan that starts immediately after Christ’s baptism and continues throughout ministry, culminates on the cross:
‘Death’s mightiest powers have done their worst,
and Jesus hath his foes dispersed,’
goes that same Easter hymn.
Of course this language has to be used with care – it can be all too humanly used with terrible consequences. But it is too important to be dismissed. Why else does Mark write of Jesus’ death:
‘When it was noon, darkness came over the whole
land until three in the afternoon.’
Christ’s struggle was to discern and follow the voice of his Father in heaven – and that meant not listening to the voices of his disciples and the passers-by at the cross.
The battle won by Jesus was over human failure – won by remaining faithful to his calling as Beloved of God, no matter where it led him.
This is the wonder of faith in Christ – the decisive victory over the powers of darkness has been achieved.
It won’t be long before we can shout our Easter ‘Alleluia!’