Epiphany 1 / Year B
The Gospel of Mark is the first of four written accounts of Jesus’ life. As the earliest testimony, it is the initial source to which people turned to learn about who Jesus was and what Jesus did. Unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, and unlike the Gospel of John, which begins with the soaring theology of the Word becoming flesh, Mark begins his story at the Jordon River with John baptizing Jesus.
By any measure, the beginning of Mark’s Gospel is lean: a few verses about John and then Jesus walks onto the stage and into the water. At this point in the narrative, we know more about John (what he eats, what he wears, what his ministry looks like, what he preaches, and how his role is the fulfillment of Scripture) than Jesus. About Jesus, well, we know nothing. In fact, by the end of this morning’s brief reading there is not yet even a record of a single thing Jesus says.
In Mark’s account we actually hear God speak before Jesus says or does anything except to be baptized: “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased!” These words mirror what God says at creation: “‘Let there be light.’ And God saw that the light was good.” Clearly, “well pleased” far surpasses “good.”
From a literary perspective we ought to be puzzled. The announcement “You are my Son” makes sense. It informs the readers (and Jesus) about his identity. “Beloved” also makes sense. Every parent knows what it is like to be overwhelmed with love from the very first moment you hold your child. Our bewilderment lies in the statement “With you I am well pleased”. Well pleased? As readers we ask how can this be, given in what we have read so far Jesus has done absolutely nothing. “You will do amazing things” would make sense, as would “Your time has come.” How can God be well pleased with Jesus when he is yet to speak or to act?
Now, I suppose you could say God is referring to all the things Jesus did before he was baptized – how he grew up and how he has conducted himself up until this point in time. That Mark elects to tell us nothing about Jesus’ life prior to his baptism suggests this is not the source of God’s pleasure. As literary device (at least to my thinking), “With you I am well pleased” serves as a foreshadowing. It alerts the reader to pay attention to what lies ahead. Pay attention to what Jesus says and to what Jesus does because these things will be well pleasing to God.
While God’s pronouncement, “You are my Son, my beloved”, discloses Jesus’ identity to the reader, what we read of Jesus following this moment discloses God’s identity to us. Those of you who join me for on-line Evening Prayer know each night I read a passage from the book Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year. Last Monday we read this passage from a sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th Century Benedictine monk:
When God emptied himself and took the form of a servant, he emptied himself only of majesty and power, not of goodness and mercy. For what does the Apostle say? ‘The goodness and humanity of our Saviour have appeared in our midst.’ God’s power had appeared already in creation, and his wisdom in the ordering of creation; but his goodness and mercy have appeared now in his humanity.
So what are your frightened of? Why are you trembling before the face of the Lord when he comes? God has come not to judge the world, but to save it! Do not run away; do not be afraid. God comes unarmed; he wants to save you, not to punish you.
I like Bernard’s notion we are able to see aspects of God’s true self more clearly in Jesus than we could see before. It is popular to say the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, but the God of the New Testament is a God of love. I think Bernard would say God has not changed, but our ability to see God has. Jesus shows us things we could not see before.
So, to each of us God says, “You are my child, my beloved.” Nothing – and I mean nothing – can alter this aspect of your identity. God’s compassion and mercy are everlasting. What can change is what is said next about each of us. It might be, “With you I am well pleased.” It could be, “With you I am pleased.” Perhaps it is, “There are couple of things we need to talk about.” At times it is, “Right now I am not at all pleased with you.” No matter what is said, the first thing God says stands, “You are my child, my beloved.” You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to maintain it. You can never lose it. It is who you are because it is who you are to God. The question is what will you do with this love? How will you welcome it into every aspect of your being? How will you allow its warmth to bathe over you? How will you allow it to transform your experience of life? How will you express it as you live and move and have your being?In my own experience, I find the truth I am a beloved child of God to be the cornerstone. Everything else about my life I build on it. No matter what happens, no matter how I fail or fall, no matter how I experience humiliation or rejection, I come back to the faith I am God’s child and beloved and I begin to build again where God has placed me and with God has given to me. I pray this is your story too. I pray you are able to move forward every day of your life knowing you are God’s child and beloved.