26 February 2012/Lent 1B – Genesis 9:8-17/Mark 1: 9-15
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Are We God’s Beloved?
When times are difficult, really really bad, it seems as if there is a barrier shut between heaven, the household of God, and earth, the dwelling place of humankind, men and women created imago Dei, in the image of God. The barrier seems impenetrable, precipitating what seems like a drought of divine assistance, communication and intervention into whatever current crises we have wrought by our own hands and behavior. Where is their God? Where is our God? Human alienation from the divine sends us into the wilderness of our hearts and souls. Helplessness and despair describe our feelings in such times.
Mark is written against such a background. The Jerusalem Temple, Jerusalem itself, and most of Israel is in ashes, burnt to the ground by the Roman Legions crushing the attempted Jewish rebellion of 70ce. Just four years earlier the Emperor Nero had rounded up Christians, blaming them for the burning of Rome, and condemned them to the beasts, throwing them into the Roman arenas to be devoured by wild animals in 64ce. Out of these recent “current events” Mark offers this rather terse account of Jesus’ baptism and forty days in the wilderness “with the wild beasts,” and angels “waiting on him.”
Just a few verses before, John the baptizer is holding a revival meeting down by the river, urging people to be cleansed from sin, urging people to repent, literally to turn or return to the ways of God. Surely, John preaches, it is our chosen departure from The Way of God as handed down to us from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah and the Prophets, that has resulted in our being under military occupation. Surely, our lack of Love for God and Neighbor has alienated us from God, from each other, and ultimately from our own selves. Be submerged in the waters of baptism, wake up, renew a right spirit within yourself, go and sin no more.
Jesus, already identified by Mark as the Christ (Anointed), the Son of God, makes his first appearance in Mark not as a child in a manger, but rather as an adult in full solidarity with the thousands of others from Jerusalem, all of Judea and all the surrounding countryside, undergoing John’s rite of repentance and renewal. Jesus, God made flesh, aligns himself with that part of humanity seeking to realign themselves with the God of the Exodus, the God of Israel, the God and Father of all.
As he comes up out of the water, the seemingly impenetrable barrier is breached –"torn open" are the words chosen to describe the moment when the drought of divine assistance, communication and intervention comes to an end! The plea issued by the prophet Isaiah 600 years earlier, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” is answered (Isaiah 64:1). God’s ruach, God’s Spirit, God’s very essence, descends “like a dove.” The same Spirit-Breath of God that hovers over creation returns to anoint the newly washed Jesus the new Adam of a new creation, a re-creation of God’s kingdom. Like the dove that confirms the end of the 40 days destruction of mankind by flood – wherein God, in our portion from Genesis, announces a covenant with every living creature never to solve the problems of sin and alienation again with such destructive fury - placing the rainbow in the sky to connect God to man, man to God. How ever did we allow such an elegant and beautiful gesture of covenant promise and connection to the divine to be cheapened into our hope to find a pot of gold at our end of the rainbow?
Then there is the announcement – “You are my Son, my Beloved – with you I am well pleased.” Do we recall that earlier beloved son, Isaac, who was nearly sacrificed by his own father Abraham? What God, in the end, did not require of Abraham, God will require of God’s self, the sacrifice of God’s own beloved Son to rescue us from ourselves. God did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all!
The phrase, “with whom I am well pleased” recalls Isaiah’s servant songs (Isaiah 42: 1-9, 52: 13-53:12), a further suggestion that the “way” of this beloved Son of God will entail suffering on behalf of all humankind, joining in Israel's repeated periods of vicarious suffering on behalf of all mankind, while at the same time expressing God’s pleasure that his Son has aligned himself with sinful humanity as they undertake John's serious program of repentance and redirection for their own lives and responsibilities as stewards of God’s creation.
This rending of the heavens will not be reversed, as we saw last Sunday in our Lord’s moment of Transfiguration while he converses with the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah. In these scenes of divine revelation we witness Father, Son and Holy Spirit on the stage all at one time in One Person seeking to liberate human lives from the grip of that which is demonic and evil. Indeed, from one end of Mark’s gospel to another, Jesus is portrayed in constant battle against demons and human devised evil. Lest we think such a world view is primitive, let those with eyes see and those who have ears hear.
Then comes the test – a far better translation of the Greek peirazein, which can be test or tempt. Note the absence of Satan and a series of three temptations in Mark's account. Mark only allows that Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness with wild beasts on the one hand, and angels on the other. Forty years the Israelites were tested in the wilderness. Abraham was tested on the “Mount of the Lord.” God tests God’s chosen vessels for God’s mission to God’s creation. Such testing places one in an extreme situation where in the absence of the usual human resources the strength of one’s adherence to God’s calling may be assessed and refined. Deuteronomy describes the testing of God’s son, or child, Israel, in the wilderness through the image of a father’s disciplinary testing or training of a son (Deut 8:5, 32:10).
Then just the spare details that Jesus is with “wild beasts” and “angels” – demons and God’s own messengers. The sense of danger is expressed on the one hand, with Jesus devoid of any and all human resources, and yet attended and sustained by angelic protection on the other. This sense of disciplinary testing is one way that Biblical thought interprets the experiences of suffering visited upon those who are otherwise devoted to God’s cause. One can well imagine that those Christians and Jews who themselves had just been tested by Nero and the Roman legions' scorched earth policies of submission most certainly would have found comfort in Mark’s portrayal of this testing. We too are meant to take comfort not only in the meaning that can be found in vicarious suffering, but even more so in the divine disclosure that we are God’s beloved and that God is well pleased with those who live in solidarity with God’s Son.
Jesus receives this divine proclamation on behalf of all humankind. For it is Jesus, God made flesh and blood, who chooses to enter into our divine rite of repentance and renewal – God in Christ chooses to join with us. Those who unite themselves with him through faith and baptism share in the divine address he receives. “You are my beloved Son, You are my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” We have forty days to accept this divine address – forty days to internalize just what it means to be God’s beloved – forty days to see that the doctrine of the Trinity, for all its mystery, is not about the remoteness of God. In this Trinitarian inauguration of Jesus’ ministry we see the heavens indeed torn open, God's Spirit coming down, and the Trinity opening its arms to gather humanity into the divine communion that is the essence of God’s kingdom – gathering us into the household of God’s divine Love. May the things we do this day and this Lent enable us to know this in ways that will release us from the grip of suffering, alienation and evil, and make us to become his apostles sent to bring divine comfort to an anxious and alienated world of human suffering and sin. Amen.