The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent, 21 February 2021
One could read the entire prologue of Mark in a few minutes. The prologue is very tightly structured and crafted in bringing us those incredibly important few words for us to hear. We start reading the prologue on the first Sunday of Advent.
With Christmas season and the Feast of the Transfiguration on the winter calendar, the lectionary spreads out the fifteen verses of the prologue over two months. It is divided up and read on or near the beginning of the seasons of Advent, Epiphany and now Lent. Because, as we talked about last week, the beginning of the gospel or most any story is telling, we would be well advised to reflect upon the prologue, and assemble it one unit to do so.
First, it is important to remember just how much Mark wants to get right to the start of the ministry of Jesus. Recall that he skips over the genealogical and birth narratives of the type conveyed by Matthew and Luke. There is a sense of urgency on the part of Mark—when Mark does things he does them quickly, immediately. So, it is ironic that we have to wait months to finish reading the entire prologue. It might be a case of hope being deferred.
You might recall, that on the first Sunday in Advent in December, we read from the gospel of Mark, the first three verses.
It starts off: “The beginning of the good news.” To begin the gospel in this way, reminds us: this is all about the good news and the coming of Jesus Christ. Like a good warm up act at a concert that know how to make a mark but not too much, John left an impression. Some people even confused him for the main act, Jesus.
Mark’s use of the word beginning is also clear reference to Genesis, which starts of “In the beginning” suggesting or rather, indicating that what John is heralding is connected to the first creation, but this will be a follow up, in essence a “new creation” and like the first creation, the power behind it will be none other than God. There will be a cleansing and judgement, but in a world gone wrong, a serious housecleaning was a good and needed thing. Something new was desperately called for.
Over a month later on the second Sunday in Epiphany, we returned to the prologue and picking up at verse 4 and reading through verse 8.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This deceptively simple text, again just a few words, points to Jesus, but upon closer inspection, the text is not so simple at all.
For starters, what exactly does Mark mean by a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” What is the connection between baptism, repentance and forgiveness of sins. What is our role versus God’s role?
Scholars have spilled tons of ink dissecting this complex phrase. As for me, I think all three are connected in a way we don’t have to split hairs over. What the text seems to suggest is that the spirit will be the initiator and the force behind: Baptism, repentance and forgiveness.
This highlights why it is important to keep the notion of the new creation in mind. The Spirit was ushering in a new creation, and these three things are expression of the movement of the Spirit. We cannot do it alone, but the Spirit is there to move us forward in a life giving way.
This also answers the question about why John calls Jesus the more powerful one. Jesus is more powerful because he comes endowed by and infused with the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus is able to baptize people in the Spirit, unlike John who works with water.
This brings us to today’s gospel and the final verses of the Markan prologue, the Baptism of Jesus which we read about today. Mark records the story in a way very distinct way from Matthew and Luke. In it, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he came out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. God speaks claiming Jesus as his Son.
It is interesting that the baptism itself is pretty routine or uneventful. It is what the baptism sets in motion shortly after that is unusual. The tearing of the heavens strongly suggests a world changing event. A rip in the heavens is never normal, but forebodes something huge to come. It is interesting that a dove accompanies the tearing, which connects us to the account of the flood, part of which we read today. The dove signifies the time after the great flood waters are receding.
And, when God claims his Son, it is certain that Jesus is linked not only to the Spirit but to the Father.
Immediately, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, or rather to a different part of the wilderness. He is tempted there.
Even Jesus must undergo his trials. No one is exempt from that kind of tempering experience, but he is able to withstand the temptations. Mark again curiously says very little about the temptations, almost nothing.
And then finally, after John is arrested, Jesus proclaims the good news. We have covered the entire prologue. Pretty easy to go over? Yet, we have only scratched the surface of the meaning, detail and imagery packed in fifteen verses. The prologue tells the tell of Jesus, the one who comes to bring a new creation, powered by the Spirit. He will overcome all temptation and he will proclaim the good news.
In our baptism, we are just as Jesus was, are named and claimed by God.
We are called to see that the time is at hand for the Kingdom to come near,
We are called to repent.
We are called to face our temptations during these forty days, just as Jesus did.
We are reminded to believe in the good news, that the Spirit of God which defeats all the powers of evil and defies Satan, that Spirit is with us at all times, in all the circumstances of life.
I am grateful that we are able to embark on this Lenten journey together. This is year which has felt like Lent in many ways even before the season of Lent began. We have been waiting and wating for a return to “normalcy.” But with the Spirit in our midst, if we attend to the words of the prologue of Mark, the waiting will be worth it, because we will come out the other side closer to the promised land and life as God intends for each of us having repented, been forgiven and free from all that diminishes us as part of the renewed creation.