A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 28 February 2021.
Last week, we began Lent with hearing of Jesus’ baptism and his time immediately afterwards tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
Mark opens his gospel with these significant stories not just because they happen at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but as with any good introduction, Mark is flagging up key themes in the story he’s going to tell.
At his baptism, Jesus hears 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!’
That Jesus is the Son of God – it’s a key theme for Mark.
What of Jesus’ temptations?
As we heard last week, 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 it’s another key theme for Mark.
After all, the first thing that Jesus does after calling his disciples is to go to the synagogue in Capernaum to teach. But instead of telling us what Jesus said there, Mark focuses entirely on an encounter with a man who has an unclean spirit whom Jesus rebukes.
It’s the same word that’s used here in this robust encounter between Jesus and his lead disciple. Peter takes Jesus to one side and rebukes him. And in turn Jesus rebukes Peter, saying:
‘Get behind me, Satan!’
I think diplomats would refer to this as ‘a frank exchange of views’! This profound disagreement concerns Jesus’ teaching that he must undergo great suffering and be killed – this is the path that he must follow.
And the thoughts that Peter voices are temptations – the voice is a familiar one but it’s not the voice of his Father in heaven, it’s another voice that Jesus has heard before. 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:
‘Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down
from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’
The crowds say.
Jesus is tested, taunted, tempted not just at the beginning but throughout his ministry – it’s a key theme for Mark.
These two key themes are profoundly linked. The testing that happens to Jesus is all about his identity, who he is and what he’s called to do – in other words the temptations arise from his baptism.
Can Jesus trust the voice that he hears speaking to him from heaven?
Can Jesus resist the voices of the disciples, appalled at the prospect ahead, opposing this journey to Jerusalem?
And anyway, why is he making this journey?
The gospel writers all struggle to give a good reason.
John in his gospel says that ‘his time had come’. Luke says that ‘he had to be about his father’s business’. Mark simply says it was necessary:
‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…’
But why? The journey Jesus makes to Jerusalem can’t be fitted into human categories.
And whether it’s with the disciples, the authorities in Jerusalem or the unclean spirits, Mark is quite clear that this is a life and death issue.
So Mark presents it in the starkest possible terms.
It’s a struggle with Satan that starts immediately after Jesus’ baptism, continues throughout his ministry, and reaches a shattering intensity in the anguish of Gethsemane and the darkness of the cross.
That’s where this journey to Jerusalem is heading, according to Mark.
And about its destination he writes:
‘When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried
with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?
Which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you
This is where Jesus is heading and he’s inviting his disciples, and us too, to follow him.
The disciples don’t like it and nor do we.
This is tough, very tough love.