A sermon preached by David Barton on 3 October 2021.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2.5-12.
So we continue with Mark….and Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Here he is moving from Capernaum to Transjordan. From now on this journey and its end shapes the way Mark is telling us this story. But this is an odd passage. The two halves seem very different. First there is a dispute, followed by bewildered disciples needing an explanation, and then, suddenly, that lovely bit about children. Incidents in the gospels are necessarily related. They’re really a collection of many people’s memories, so the time sequence is not always as it seems to be. It could be that Mark thought: Oh here is a story about Jesus with children, and it might fit together quite well with a discussion about marriage, I’ll put it here.
But I think Mark intends a much deeper connection between these two stories than just that. We need to read this passage as a very deliberate whole.
So first: the dispute. And its a marriage question. Marriage seems to be fruitful ground for those who opposed Jesus. There is another question about it later on. Perhaps they thought that Jesus was going to be hard line on this. He might criticise Moses – which would horrify the religious authorities. But also, this is Herod’s territory. Herod’s family was notorious for its many divorces. John the Baptist had been put into prison for expressing a view about that, and later beheaded. A slip up by Jesus here could put him into serious trouble.
Jesus of course sees all that coming. He certainly wouldn’t contradict Moses. So he answers by going back to Genesis and Creation. Marriage is a gift from God. The passage he refers to is from Genesis 2. Genesis 2 is where we learn of the creation of Adam and Eve. And its a very different creation story from Genesis 1. In Genesis 1 there is a glorious profusion of creation – the heavens, the seas, trees, plants, animals, everything. And the animals in pairs, male and female. But Genesis 2 is second creation story, at the end of which God creates “man” ….alone. And God looks with compassion on this lonely man and says: “Its not good for man to be alone.” Man, remember was made in God’s image. Its as if God’s image in humanity was not quite complete if man was alone. So woman is created.
Of course we don’t get the full argument here. But at the very least Jesus seems to be saying that human marriage is deep in the purposes of God. He doesn’t contradict Moses. All of that stands. But always, in whatever circumstances, we should remember that this companionship, this profound bond of love between two people is a gift from God – mysterious, full of grace.
And as always Jesus trying to push us on, to think. beyond the rules of religion. He would of course acknowledge that rules have their importance. But what we long is security and certainty. We can never fully find our way back to God. So our attempts at being religious and being good very often fall back on keeping a set of rules. If we follow the rules and tick the boxes, we can at least be sure we are doing the right thing. And I sometimes think the desire to bargain with God dies hard. Every now and then I catch myself with a prayer that says…Dear Lord, if I do this or that, can you get me through this problem? And Jesus is saying: All of that is foolish. And if we think that keeping the rules will balance us out with God against all the other things we have done wrong – well we’re just kidding ourselves. Of course God knows we are getting things wrong and breaking rules, religious or otherwise, all the time. What was the crucifixion of Jesus all about?
What Jesus wants us to do is to understand just how much God loves us – no matter what we do. Faith is not about being safe, its about being saved. Its not about being good, its about being rescued. Its not about working something out and qualifying, its about catching something of the vision of the nature and wonder of God and the compassion God pours out on us. Catch that vision, and the whole world turns upside down. That’s the message of Jesus Mark is trying to pass onto us.
I spoke the other week about what I think is in Mark’s mind always as he writes this Gospel. He never forgets the end of all this, the crucifixion and the empty tomb. If the tomb can not hold Jesus, then that means that all along the mystery people sensed in Jesus was the mystery of God – the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. The Jesus who walks through Palestine towards Jerusalem is human indeed – flesh frail enough to be broken and killed. But every step Jesus takes is stamped with the glory of God for Mark. He looks back on this long journey with wonder.
All of that is there in that first reading from Hebrews. Jesus, the writer says is “the reflection of God’s glory, the very imprint of his being.” Those two little passages from Hebrews are wonderful. That’s what Mark sees in his mind as he writes this Gospel.
And once you realise all that, you begin to see what Mark is driving at with this passage about the Children. The disciples see children as a problem. Here they are, trying to get their heads round this business of marriage and divorce, and a group of children come barging in at the door. But for Jesus children are a gift. They don’t calculate about life, they represent all those who are unimportant (in their own opinions) and have no skill or status or possessions. They represent the last who will be first. Jesus’ kingdom is for those whose only claim to it is that they have no claim at all. And these children have sensed that Jesus is always glad to see them, and that they give him joy.
And Jesus hugs these children. It’s the second time Mark tells us that Jesus did that. They are the only people in this Gospel Jesus does hug. And I think Mark sees in this action God’s embrace of each of us – an embrace that is there for all of us. We simply need to trust that we are that much loved.