A reflection on Mark 1:1-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord.
King David is, for Israel, like George Washington is for us. He is the noble leader that represents the best of his country. We don’t really want any dirty laundry about George Washington. We like the story about the boy who could not tell a lie and the young man strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. We don’t really want to know that they didn’t have silver dollars in his day and that, even if they did, a dollar was worth a lot in those days and George wouldn’t have thrown that kind of money away – nor do we want to know that the original story is about chucking rocks across the Rappahannock.
We like the myth rather than the reality, because the myth has an important function. The word ‘myth’, in its best sense, doesn’t mean a false or made up story; it means a story that embodies and communicates some important truth. Our first president was indeed strong and honest, concerned about what was good for the republic rather that what might profit himself. And the ‘myth’ of the cherry tree lifts up these important qualities that embody core values of our national identity. The stories are meant to inspire us to our best selves.
The myth is important, but we do not deny reality. We know, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Though technically they belonged to his wife, he would have had the authority to free them had he chosen to do so. So we value the ‘myth’ for what it says to us, but we also acknowledge the truth.
David is the hero of Israel. And the story about Goliath sounds remarkably like one of those cherry tree stories. We respect the story about David’s courage and his trust in and fidelity to God. But the scripture is also willing to tell us that David conspired to order the death of his noble warrior, Uriah, in order to hide David’s crime of taking Uriah’s wife that would have been exposed when Bathsheba she got pregnant.
What makes David a hero, by the way, is that, when confronted with his crime, he confesses and repents. He doesn’t deny and obfuscate and lie and blame. He turns back to God.
But there were consequences to David’s crime. He had allowed power to corrupt him and lead him to betray God and the people by taking what belonged to another – and then to a cover-up that ended in violence. The result would be that his family would be troubled by corruption and violence.
So the scripture tells us that David’s eldest son, Amnon, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and after manipulating her into his bedchamber by pretending to be sick, he took her – by force – and then discarded her.
Tamar’s brother, Absalom, quietly plotted against his half-brother and two years later took his vengeance and murdered him. Absalom fled Jerusalem, but David refused to hold him accountable and eventually allowed him to return, though he would not allow Absalom to come to court.
Absalom got tired of that and sent for Joab who was the head of the army and one of David’s closest advisors. Joab, however, wouldn’t come so Absalom set Joab’s fields on fire to force him to come. Absalom then pressured Joab into making a way for him to return to the king’s presence. At which time, Absalom began to plot to seize the throne. He told the people that they wouldn’t get justice from David but that they could get justice from himself if he were king.
Eventually, Absalom arranged a coup and David and his advisors were forced to flee Jerusalem. (Absalom set up a tent on the roof of the palace for all to see and went in to sleep with his father’s concubines. What David had done in secret to Uriah, Absalom did to him in public.)
War ensued – and now I am getting close to my point. David gave instructions to his commanders that they were not to hurt his son, Absalom. But Joab, his leading commander, knowing the kind of threat Absalom posed, disobeyed the order and killed him. When the battle was over, a young man named Ahimaaz wanted to run back to the king to deliver the good news that his forces had been victorious. Joab tried to discourage him and sent someone else, knowing that the king would be dismayed by the news and would not reward the runner.
The Greek translation of the original Hebrew uses the word ‘euanggelion’ for the “good news” of victory. ‘Euanggelion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘gospel’. That Greek root gives us the family of words like ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’. And it is the Greek word in our Gospel reading today that is translated as ‘good news’.
This is a very long introduction to the fact that the Greek word we translate as ‘gospel’ is a very ordinary word. It is not a religious word. And it has two basic semantic fields. The one is the story I have just told: the news of victory from the battlefield. The other idea at work in this word is that of a royal proclamation. When a new king arises, he issues a proclamation to the citizens of his new lands declaring amnesty and announcing his benefactions to the people.
So this document that is before us from an unknown author who, by tradition, we call Mark – this document presents itself as a royal proclamation and news of victory from the battlefield.
The translation “good news” doesn’t seem like it has enough gravitas to be an effective translation of this word. But we don’t have a word in English that will accomplish all that this Greek word conveys. So we have to remember that the Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the announcement of peace at the end of World War II that has people cheering in the streets and a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet with a kiss.
The Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln to the three million enslaved people in the South. It is royal amnesty, a word that we are released from every debt.
This story of Jesus is ‘gospel’. It is ‘euanggelion’. It is incredible news. It is the end of war and emancipation. God has come to reclaim his world. God has come to drench us in the Spirit. God has come to wipe away the whole history of human sin that began with Adam and Eve. God has come to shatter the gates of hell and set all its prisoners free. God has come to break the grip of fear and guilt and sorrow and death.
This is the ‘gospel’. And when we call ourselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church we mean we are bearers of this proclamation.
Now if someone were hearing this ‘gospel’ for the first time, they would naturally ask, “Who is this Jesus that he should be making a royal proclamation?”
Mark tells us that this Jesus is “Son of God”, which means that he is the person God has authorized to act on God’s behalf. He is the one appointed to reign. This is a culture in which to speak to the son is to speak to the father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. This is a society in which the kings of Israel were referred to as “son of God”. They weren’t gods, but they reigned on God’s behalf.
This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.
This Jesus is the one to whom the prophets bear witness.
This Jesus is the one upon whom the Spirit of God has descended. The heavens have been torn open. A breach has been made in the vault of heaven and the mighty wind and holy breath of God has invaded the world and courses through this Jesus.
Through this Jesus the whole world will be flooded with this Spirit of God.
This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.
And God is delighted. “With you,” says the voice from heaven, “I am well pleased.” This is such a pale translation of powerful words. This is good in God’s eyes. It echoes the creation story when God looks upon what God has created and declares it good.
This is a new beginning of the world.
It doesn’t matter to Mark that armies are marching and it seems like the world is coming apart. It doesn’t matter to Mark that he has seen Rome’s brutal power impale this Jesus to a cross. He has seen the empty tomb. He has seen the sick healed and the lame walk and the blind see. He has seen sinners forgiven and outcasts restored and withered hands made whole. He has seen the unclean made clean and heard demons cry out and flee. This is a new beginning of the world.
This is a new beginning of the world.
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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons