A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 10 January 2021.
Mark begins his gospel by setting out who this person is that’s he’s going to be telling us about.
The opening words set the scene:
‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’
Mark is almost certainly the first of our four gospels, written at a time when the Roman emperor ruled the known world.
There was a religious cult that surrounded the figure of the emperor who was referred to as a ‘son of god’. One of these so-called ‘sons of god’ started a fire in Rome in 64 AD to clear the land for a building project; and to deflect attention away from himself, the then emperor, Nero, pinned the blame for the fire on the Christians living in Rome.
Mark may have written his gospel in Rome around this time, a gospel about a new Son of God, utterly different from the authoritarian Roman emperor.
Even Mark’s choice of calling it ‘good news’ is a piece of political theatre. It was the word you would have used to describe an announcement about a significant public event: the emperor’s had a son or a battle’s been won. It was the word used to tell the world that life was about to change.
As we heard tonight, Mark then goes straight into describing John the Baptist, whose sole purpose is to point away from himself to one who is more powerful, and worthy, and who is able to baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit.
The most natural interpretation of these ideas is that John was expecting not just a human being, but God to appear. In the Old Testament it is God who is the Mighty One, it is God who comes in judgement, it is God who pours out the Spirit.
And that’s exactly what happens next. God does appear and the Spirit is poured out but not quite as expected. Instead the person who comes on stage is Jesus. Mark writes:
‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee’
‘In those days’ is a phrase from the Old Testament full of solemnity. The authorised version translates it ‘And it came to pass in those days’ which captures much better the full import of this phrase. Something big is about to happen, and its Jesus’ baptism.
The baptism of Jesus is such a brief story in Mark’s gospel, but it’s packed with theological riches.
The combination of the water and the Spirit echoes the story of creation, and implies a new creation is happening.
The dove reinforces this, sending us back to the beginning of creation, to the Spirit brooding on the face of the waters that we heard about in our first reading.
The Spirit settling on Jesus takes us back to all those others before him to whom the Spirit was given: Samson, Gideon, Saul, David.
The voice from heaven announces who Jesus is. The words used are from one of the psalms in which the anointed king is proclaimed God’s son, and also some words from the prophet Isaiah in which God’s servant is the one in whom God is well pleased.
At the baptism of Jesus the heavens are torn apart and God appears, or as close as it’s possible to describe in human terms.
Mark gives us two other occasions later in his gospel when this boundary between the human and the divine is torn.
Firstly at the transfiguration, another story packed with theological riches – the mountain, the change in appearance, the figures of Moses and Elijah, the cloud overshadowing them and again a voice is heard from heaven:
‘This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!’
But perhaps most disconcertingly is Mark’s account of the crucifixion, when he tells us that the curtain in the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. This time no voice is heard from heaven. Instead, as Jesus breathes his last, a Roman centurion standing at the foot of the cross says:
‘Truly this man was God’s Son.’
For Mark, Jesus is the great disrupter. His ministry is soon to begin with the announcement:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has
drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
In his introduction Mark wants to make clear to us who Jesus is, and as he does that he challenges the Roman emperor and the religious cult that surrounds him.
This new Son of God comes ‘not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’