Second Sunday after Epiphany
The Gospel. Mark 1. 1.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the Prophets; Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight; John did baptize in the wilderness and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; and preached, saying: There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him; and there came a voice from heaven, saying: Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
As is evident by the bulletin this morning, we continue this week in that season of the Church known as “Epiphany-tide”, being as it is, the second Sunday since we celebrated that particular feast of Our Lord. To those of us who are directed to preach on the Gospel, this presents the opportunity to expound further on the “Manifestation” or “appearance”, of Christ to the Gentiles. But in today’s lesson from the opening of St. Mark’s Gospel, we are given a seemingly different definition of “Manifestation”; a more “complete” appearance, if you will, of God’s Revelation of Himself.
Before I begin, I want to say that when defining the word “Manifestation”, I dislike using the word “appearance”. To me, that sounds too much like some sort of cheap magic trick; “Now you don’t see Christ, now you do”! And so I must beg your patience as I return to my oft used practice of consulting the dictionary. The word “manifest”, is primarily defined as something “readily perceived by the eye or the understanding”. But for our purposes today, I wish to offer this additional definition; “to prove beyond doubt or question”. I submit that with this opening passage to his Gospel, St. Mark does indeed accomplish this.
Now first of all, I have to admit that I find the way in which St. Mark begins his Gospel to be somewhat amusing. He starts right off by quoting the Old Testament prophecy about the messenger who has to come to announce the imminent arrival of God’s Anointed One. It’s as if Mark is saying, “heads up folks, this is going to be interesting”! Of course, this divinely-inspired messenger is none other than St. John the Baptist, whom Mark describes in terms that are less than flattering.
But regardless of The Baptists’ crude appearance, he is also obviously something of a holy man and he has attracted quite the following. However, in his quotations from John’s preaching, St. Mark makes no mistake in declaring that this man is not the promised one; rather, there is another, a greater, than even this pious esthete who presumes to call men to repentance. There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose
OK, now let’s get this straight; here’s a man, the Baptist, who has renounced the world and, obviously, any worldly goods; who follows the Mosaic Law to a “T”; who has lived his life so righteously that it seems not terribly scandalous that he can call others to repentance; yet there exists someone else for whom even he isn’t worthy to perform the most menial of functions? What could possibly make that guy so special?
I indeed have baptized you with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. Oh, that. Now think about this for a second; the concept of the Holy Ghost would not have been totally foreign to the Jews of that time, though it would not be understood in precisely the same way that we know it today. Nonetheless, the basics were there; The Holy Ghost was God’s Spirit. So what John was saying was that the one who would come, who would be greater even than the Baptist, would be someone who could, at least on some level, command God’s Spirit. Yeah, I guess that would qualify as being a person around whom John would feel unworthy.
Now did John know exactly who that person was? Did he know that it was his cousin from Nazareth? In St. John’s Gospel, the Baptist makes it obvious; at his first sighting of Jesus he declares, “behold the Lamb of God” (ch. 1:29). But St. Mark is silent on the matter. Instead we are left to infer that Jesus came to John like any other man, and received his baptism, like any other man. But what the Evangelist describes next shows us that this was not just any other man.
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him. Now I think that we can safely assume that even in those times, the heavens didn’t open for just any reason. Far more seldom did the Spirit of God descend upon anyone; particularly on someone who supposedly was submitting to a baptism by some itinerant locust-eating preacher.
And indeed, this passage has caused a great deal of confusion (and not a few heresies) among theologians over the centuries. The question these theologians get caught up in is a logical one; was Jesus of Nazareth always the Christ, or did he “become” the Christ at the moment of his baptism?
I spoke to you all about this in my sermon on this same Sunday last year, but I think that it bears repeating; The answer to this question may be found in Our Lord’s own words from the Gospel of St. Matthew (3:15); “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness”. Or as I like to interpret it, “John, YOU know, and I know, but THEY don’t know, so we need to show them”.
At this point in Our Lord’s life, we needed to be shown, they needed to be shown, so that all might believe; Or as the dictionary might primarily define it; so that all may “readily perceive by the eye or the understanding”.
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him This is not only an affirmation of Jesus pre-existent status as the anointed one, but also an indicator, a “marker in time”, if you will, that announces the end of the ministry of the Baptist, and the beginning of the earthly ministry of Christ. This is not a “passing of the torch”; this is not Jesus of Nazareth “becoming” the Christ; this is a declaration that Christ has come, and that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Of course, as if we needed any further proof or any other proclamation on the issue to get it settled in our minds, God Himself provides it for us; and there came a voice from heaven, saying: Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
So there we have it, right from the mouth of the Almighty Himself. But this pronouncement was not just an acknowledgement that this Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son; rather it was a declaration that all that had happened on this day was and is a “complete manifestation” of God, a “proof beyond doubt or question”, in and of itself.
If any of you are now thinking that I have described the Holy Trinity, then you’re on to me; There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. The one who was foretold in the ancient prophecies has come to us in the great Mystery of the Incarnation; to imbue upon us that indelible mark of God, through His Holy Spirit and through our Baptism into His Body, the Church.
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him. He has Revealed Himself to us in a way that we can comprehend; that we can “readily perceive by the eye or the understanding”. and there came a voice from heaven, saying: Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
By His Manifestation, God has “appeared” to us in a form that we can understand. By His Manifestation, God has shown us that the way back to Him begins with this; “for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness”. By His Manifestation, God has proclaimed His full and complete Revelation; By His Manifestation, God has “proven beyond doubt or question” His Eternal Triune nature, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”, and has forever joined Himself to His Creation.