Sermon: Lent 1, 18 February 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 18th February 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

BEGINNING A UNIQUE MINISTRY

 (Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15)

Most of our Gospel readings this year will come from Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke present broadly parallel accounts of the life of Jesus: they share many of the stories, although they each put their own touch on them, and they each have their own interests. John takes his own distinctive approach.

Matthew presents great blocks of teaching, almost as if Jesus were the new Moses: we are particularly familiar with the Sermon on the Mount. Luke has a particular interest in the outsider, the unexpected follower of Jesus, and he also includes the largest number of parables. Mark takes us directly through his narrative, almost with a sense that we must keep going to take in this story of Jesus. All of them, as well as John, give a great deal of attention to the week from Palm Sunday through to Good Friday and Easter Day. In fact, around a third of each of the Gospels is focused on this one climatic week. Each year in turn, we take most of our Gospel readings from one of these three Gospels, along with some selections from John.

So here we are in Mark’s Gospel as Mark tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew and Luke, we don’t reach these events until Chapters 3 and 4. Those two Gospels give great attention to Jesus’ birth and associated events, but Mark never touches Jesus’ birth and earlier life at all. Here in this short passage, only a few verses into Mark’s Gospel, we cover the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of his ministry. You will find much more detail in Matthew and Luke, but Mark includes those things that he wants us to be aware of.

What happens nowadays when someone is to take up a new ministry, or perhaps to be ordained? There is a service of commissioning or ordination. There is often a retreat or time of reflection. And of course, there is a new task to undertake. In a sense, that’s what Mark describes in these few verses.

John the Baptists’s base was the River Jordan, near the wilderness area north-east of the Dead Sea. Jesus’ home town of Nazareth was further north-west, in Galilee. John had been calling people to repent and be baptized, and he had also been telling them of someone who was coming soon, for whom they must be ready. John baptized with water, but this great one would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is baptized by John. He identifies himself with those repentant sinners who responded to his message, and he also identifies himself with John’s message about the coming kingdom of God. As he does this, Jesus also foreshadows his task of bearing the sin of the world and bringing forgiveness to sinners everywhere. But this baptism is not just an act of Jesus and John: for God himself breaks into the event. The heavens are torn open, and the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus as a dove. We think of the dove as a beautiful symbol of peace. The sending out of a dove by Noah after the rains have stopped points not only to the restoration of peace to the world, but also to the establishment of new life in God’s creation. It echoes the opening of Genesis 1, where the Spirit of God hovers over the chaos like a dove as the creation story begins.

The Spirit comes down on Jesus to empower him for his ministry, but there is also a heavenly voice. “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We heard similar words from the cloud at the Transfiguration in last Sunday’s Gospel. But here is the divine Father honouring his Son Jesus as he commences his public ministry. Whatever Mark’s readers believe about Jesus, here is God himself identifying Jesus as the Son of God – in fact, the Son of God, the unique Son of God.

These words are echoes of words in Psalm 2, which speaks of God’s chosen king as God’s Son, who will rule over the nations and establish justice. And they also link up with words in Isaiah 42, where God acknowledges his chosen and beloved servant. Jesus’ ministry is foreshadowed in the Old Testament scriptures. They point to a ministry of faithfulness, suffering and triumph. And so this baptism of Jesus is also a commissioning for service.

But then comes something unexpected. The Spirit who has come down upon Jesus drives Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. This is not a quiet time of reflection and meditative prayer. It is a time of intense temptation by Satan. Mark doesn’t tell us those famous stories found in Matthew and Luke. He just wants us to know that Jesus went through hard testing.

Mark does tell us that Jesus was “with the wild animals”. Is he simply pointing out that Jesus had no human company at all? Or is he pointing out that the wilderness was full of danger? Or is he perhaps reminding us of the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were comfortable with the animals before they were evicted from the garden. Perhaps this is a hint that through Jesus there will one day be a new creation where all creatures as well as people will live together in harmony once again.

But why is Jesus tempted this way at this point? Because temptation will keep coming back to him. We know that the tempter is already questioning him. “If you really are the Son of God, why don’t you make that power you are supposed to have work for you? Don’t take the hard way. Take the popular way, the way that works, the way that feels good.” Jesus resists the temptation then, as he will continue to resist it. He confirms who he is as the faithful Son of God. He determines right from the beginning that he will go that difficult way chosen for him, and not take the way that seems easier. In a sense, this is a time of spiritual training, of spiritual preparation. And as the Spirit has come upon him at his baptism, so Jesus also has the help of God’s angels ministering to him.

Well, Jesus has been commissioned, and he has gone almost through a spiritual “boot camp”. Soon afterwards it is time to commence his public ministry. In John’s Gospel there is the indication that he has already done some preaching and healing by now, but for Mark this is the real beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The event which starts it off is the arrest of John for denouncing Herod’s gross immorality. The forerunner is now in prison. Now the one who fulfils John’s promise must take up his role. And so he does, although it is in his home territory of Galilee.

And his message, his exhortation is essentially the same as John’s: “Repent and believe in the good news”. But he no longer needs to say that there is someone coming: now “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.”

In Jesus, God is acting in a new way; in Jesus, God is fulfilling his promises. God is asserting his kingship in a new way – through his Son, Jesus the promised one. “It’s time!” says Jesus.

And of course, Jesus’ challenge is familiar. “Repent”, he calls. “Change your mind, your outlook, your direction in life. Turn back and start drawing closer to God rather than keeping him at a distance.”

Now in a profound way, that is what we all do as we become true Christians. But there is also a sense in which we must keep doing it as Christians. We mightn’t be in the wilderness, worrying about the wild animals. But we all face temptations – our natural desires, our comfortable lifestyle, our tongue which is not always well controlled, our quick temper, our selfishness, our prejudice. As we keep on having to confess our sins, so we need to keep on repenting.

We can get distracted from the demands of faith, or let other things get in the way. And so we need to keep turning to Jesus with our questions or our uncertainties or our weaknesses and telling him: “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.”

If we have challenges to face as we follow Jesus, we also like Jesus have the Holy Spirit poured out on us. We mightn’t have seen that dove, but as we open up to God’s forgiveness, so we open up also to God’s empowering through the Holy Spirit within us.

Jesus was commissioned and tested, and he faithfully did whatever it took to fulfil God’s purposes and sacrificially serve his people. In baptism and by faith, we are not only forgiven, but we too are commissioned to serve Christ and to serve his people. May this Lent be a time in which we renew that commitment to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Amen.

Paul Weaver