Saturday, December 30, 2017

A Tearing and a Voice

Mark 1:4-11, the gospel lesson for the Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord in the Year of Mark, is a rapid-fire account of Jesus' baptism compared with Matthew and Luke.  John the Baptizer has little to say, and everything gets done in a big hurry.  What takes Luke seventeen verses to say and Matthew twelve, Mark says in seven verses.  It's as if Mark's favorite word - "immediately" - is already being introduced.  I wonder if Mark's urgency is born of excitement or of fear; maybe it's both?

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the basic concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are simply a starting point for exegesis, which can enhance a number of other areas of inquiry.  For more on this genre of preaching see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The whole impression of the text is one of urgency.  John the baptizer appears and all the people from the whole countryside come and are baptized by John, confessing their sins.  John proclaims that One is coming who is powerful beyond imagination and this One will baptize with the Spirit.  Suddenly Jesus appears and is baptized and a voice announces he is God's Son, the Beloved.  This scene is functioning as both Law and Gospel as Jesus breaks into the world and causes both hope and fear.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law which exposes our need for this Christ is hard to find here, although the Baptizer's announcement of the need for repentance is certainly that.  To the reader/hearer of this story, however, a clear word of Law is not forthcoming.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are members of the crowd addressed by John who come confessing our sins.  We are those who hear that One is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and we look forward to this.  We are those who see the heavens "torn apart" and wonder what that means.  We might even be those who hear the voice that this is God's Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well-pleased.  What joy we would take in that!

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A call to obedience always follows a call to faith, so in this text that is not yet present.  We are certainly being called to follow this One who will baptize with the Spirit, but that is not the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the Law is only hinted at here, we will have to use our imagination to come up with couplets.  Some ideas:  unforgiven/forgiven; looking for a Messiah/finding a Messiah.

6.  Exegetical work:  As was noted above, the pace of this story is remarkable.  It is as if everything is being told at a breathless pace.  Because of this it is all the more remarkable that in verse 6, Mark pauses to tell us in detail about the appearance of John the Baptizer.  It's almost as if the action pauses as Mark points out that John wears camel's hair with a leather girdle about his waist, and eats locusts and wild honey.  Clearly the purpose of this is to connect John to the prophet Elijah who is described similarly in II Kings 1:8.  The return of Elijah, tradition had it, would precede "the great and terrible day of the Lord." (Malachi 4:5)  Mark seems to be suggesting that such a day has come.  This would explain Mark's urgency.  Another telling detail in this text is Mark's choice of the word "skizo" instead of "anoigo"to describe the opening of the heavens in verse 10.  Don Juel, in his fine commentary on Mark, notes that this word translates into the heavens being "torn apart."  He notes also that this is in present passive form, indicating that this process is ongoing, not a completed action.  The image, says Juel, is "strong, even violent".  The heavens are "torn apart," and they "cannot be repaired."  "The heavens understood as a great cosmic curtain that separates creation from God's presence, are in the process of being torn open."  "God is on the loose." (A Master of Surprise, p. 34-35)  It is also noteworthy that Mark only uses this "tearing" verb one other time, when the temple curtain is torn apart at the death of Christ.  And there, as in this text, once that tearing happens there is a confession:  "Truly this man was God's Son!" (15:38-39)  The "skizo" of the heavens, in effect, bookends, the entire life and ministry of Christ.  Finally, Kittel, in discussing the use of this word in the New Testament, has this to say:  "Heavens torn open at the baptism of Jesus is a motif in eschatological revelation which God gives at turning points in the history of His people."  See Isaiah 64:1, Ezekiel 1:1, Acts 7:56 and 10:11, and Revelation 4:11 and 19:11. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, p. 959f)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock was always urging us to bring the experience of the text, not just its content to the listener.  One of the challenges for the preacher this week will be to bring Mark's sense of urgency to the sermon event.  How will that be accomplished?

Blessings on your proclamation!

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