A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany
A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany
Romans 12:6-16 & St. Mark 1:1-11
by William Klock
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
That’s how Mark’s launches into the story of Jesus. He uses that word “gospel” that we use so often that we sometimes forget what it really means. “Gospel” means “good news”. In the Jewish mind it was the word that described the news that the runners brought back from the battlefield when the king’s army had defeated the enemy: “Good News! We’ve been victorious!” In the Roman mind it described the “good news” that was sent out across the empire by official heralds that a new Caesar, a new emperor, had ascended to the throne, also usually having vanquished his foes.
And Mark says that this good news is about Jesus, the Son of God. Again, sometimes we miss the intended significance of this. When we hear “Son of God” we tend to think of the virgin birth and Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, born of Mary in human flesh. And we’re not wrong in that, but long before Jesus was ever born Jewish people were talking about the “Son of God” and when they did they were talking about the Messiah—the one whom God would send to set everything to rights.
And so here at the beginning of the story, Mark sets out that what he’s going to tell us in this book he’s written is the good news that in Jesus the long-promised and long-awaited Messiah of Israel has come, that he has won a great victory over his enemies, and that he has inaugurated a new kingdom—and that Jesus is Lord. What Mark’s going to tell us about Jesus and what we’ll hear Jesus telling us himself isn’t just good advice—as if we might want to try on Jesus for size and see if he fits or that he’s introduced a new way of doing things and we might give it a try and see if we like it or if it works for us. No. This is a proclamation that Jesus is King. It’s not good advice; it’s good news—and that means we have no choice but to do something about it.
Mark then launches into the story by telling us about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Isaiah had prophesied as we read in verses 2 and 3 that the Lord would send a messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah—to prepare Israel to receive him. He described his work in terms of paving a highway in the wilderness, which brings up images of the Exodus and God leading his people to the promised land. And then Mark tells us about John calling the people out into the wilderness and baptizing them with a baptism of repentance.
In Luke’s Gospel we’re told that John’s message was “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. In the Messiah the Lord was coming to visit and to rescue his people, but if the Lord was coming—the Holy one of Israel—that meant that people needed to prepare themselves. Think of all the ways the Law—the torah—had taught the people to keep themselves ritually pure and how to purify themselves should they become unclean, all so that they could live as part of the community of God’s people. They were to be a holy people. And now the Lord himself was coming in the Messiah—they really needed to prepare themselves; they really needed to purify themselves. And this is what John invited them to do in his baptism. He called them to turn aside, not just from sin in a general sense, although that was certainly part of it, but also to call them to set aside every form of hypocrisy and corruption, to get back to the business of holiness and of righteousness and of justice in every area of life.
And when John did this, when he called people out into the wilderness to baptise them in the Jordan River, what they understood him to be saying was that another Exodus was going to take place. Just as the Lord had rescued Israel from Egypt, he was going to rescue her again. But John makes it clear that this time is going to be different. In the old Exodus, God had certainly heard and visited his people. He came and lived in their midst in a pillar of cloud in the tabernacle. But John says that his baptism isn’t all there is. Israel had gone through water before and, while it saved her from Egypt, it didn’t save her from sin and death. No, John says that he’s only preparing the way for another—for the one Mark calls the Son of God—who will baptise them with the Holy Spirit.
I like the way Bp. Wright paraphrases verse 8 in his New Testament for Everyone: “I’ve plunged you in the water,” John says, “he’s going to plunge you in the Holy Spirit.” That, Brothers and Sisters, changes everything. Instead of God living in our midst, but living over there in the tabernacle—and, more particularly, in the holy of holies where none of us can actually go because, no matter how many sacrifices we make and how often we purify ourselves, we’re still unholy sinners—instead of that, God is now coming to live not just in our midst, but inside us. As we read on The Epiphany, he’s building a new temple for himself and we ourselves are the blocks of stone he’s carefully cut and carefully fitted together. In the first Exodus, the Lord took his people through the water, he gave them a law written on stone tablets, and he gave them priests to tell them to do it. And most of the time they weren’t particularly good at living out that law. But in this new exodus, Jesus leads us not only through the water, but in doing so he plunges us into his own Holy Spirit. Instead of giving us the law on tablets of stone the Spirit writes Jesus’ law on our hearts so that it’s not only internal, but that we’ll actually be in love with it and motivated by it and seek to do it—that’s the significance of it being written on our hearts. And so we don’t anymore need priests urging us to do it, because we’ll have the Lord’s Spirit himself in us, making his desires our desires as we feed ourselves on his Word.
Mark then goes on to tell us about Jesus’ baptism by John. In verse 9 Jesus steps into the story. Mark doesn’t tell us about his birth; he starts with his baptism. As much as Jesus was the one for whom the people were being prepared by John, he doesn’t hesitate to identify himself with them in baptism. But Jesus’ experience is unique—of course, because he is the Messiah. As he comes out of the river, Mark says in verse 10-11:
Immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
For Jesus this was divine confirmation of his identity. He grew up being told about the amazing circumstances of his birth, the things the angels had said to Zechariah and to Mary and to Joseph, about the way he was greeted as a baby by Simeon and Anna. His family had those precious and kingly gifts from the wise men. Last week’s Gospel told of that time he’d stayed behind in the temple when he was twelve, because he knew that he had to be about his Father’s—his real Father’s—business. And yet we’re still given a pretty clear sense that Jesus had to sort out his calling and his ministry himself as he studied the Scriptures and saw himself in them. His baptism by John, and specifically the Spirit appearing and the Father speaking, were confirmation that he’d got it right. He really was the Messiah.
Mark says that the heavens were torn open. Jesus had a glimpse into heaven. And that doesn’t mean that he was looking up and seeing angels on clouds playing harps. The sense is that he was given a glimpse into the realm of God much as St. John was in Revelation. He was given a glimpse of the kingdom that is to come—the kingdom he was sent to inaugurate. It was either confirmation of what he’d already come to understand of God’s kingdom and its ways or it gave him, in that glimpse, an understanding of what he was to proclaim. Jesus grew up surrounded by the darkness of the world, but as the heavens were opened for that short time, he had a glimpse into the new reality that God has been preparing—like a child getting a glimpse of all the presents being hidden away in the closet in anticipation of Christmas.
This ties in with our Epistle from Romans in the sense that each of us, in our baptism, have been given a similar glimpse of the kingdom. We’ve trusted in Jesus because someone else at some point, whether our parents or a friend or our minister—someone has given a glimpse into the kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated, has given us a glimpse of a life of forgiveness and grace, and a glimpse of resurrection and recreation and we’ve taken hold of it in faith. And now we—you and I—are called to continue giving the world glimpses of the kingdom. We’re called to proclaim the good news. And, along with that proclamation, we’re also called to live by the ways and values of the kingdom, so that the world can see Jesus and can see what the future has in store as it looks at us, as it looks at the Church. Our calling is to show the world what it looks like to have been plunged into the Holy Spirit.
In last Sunday’s Epistle, St. Paul exhorted us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. To do this is the only reasonable response to Jesus having sacrificed himself for us. It’s the only response that makes sense when we think on the Incarnation, on the cross, and on the empty tomb. Jesus gave everything for us; in gratitude we should give our everything back to him. And Paul contrasts this mindset with the mindset that’s all around us in the world. He warns in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this present age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Yes, the world, the flesh, and the devil tempt us. It’s hard to follow Jesus and sometimes we fail, but Paul reminds us that in our baptism we’ve been transformed. John plunged people into the water. Jesus does more. He plunges us into the water and as he does so he plunges us into the Holy Spirit. In doing that he’s transformed our hearts and he’s renewed our minds. Because of the Holy Spirit the desires of our hearts are different now. Because of the Holy Spirit the fog that once clouded our thinking has been lifted. What used to seem foolish when we heard about Jesus and about sacrifice and about dying in order to live now makes perfect sense. The Spirit has taken the things and the thinking and the values and the priorities of the age to come and brought them into our hearts and minds. The world—this present evil age—competes for our loyalty, so we must never forget what the Spirit has done in us.
Paul stresses that we need to live this life of sacrifice by showing humility to each other. This in itself runs contrary to the grain of the world’s thinking of every man for himself. In last week’s lesson, in Romans 12:4-5, Paul gives us the image of a body.
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
And with this he switches gears a bit. In last week’s Epistle Paul was focused on the idea of sacrifice and of humility. In this week’s Epistle, which begins at the next verse, Romans 12:6, Paul shows us how this works out in practise. Keep Paul’s image of a body in mind—a body made up of all sorts of different organs and limbs—as we go on:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8)
The Holy Spirit doesn’t just change our hearts and minds, he also equips us to serve the kingdom. In some cases he gives us gifts that we don’t have by nature, some more mundane and some spectacular. In some cases the Spirit simply transforms the personality traits and the natural gifts we already have so that we can use them for the kingdom. The New Testament is full of lists of gifts and each list is a little different, which ought to tell us that there’s no exhaustive list. People sometimes get hung up thinking that they have to have one of the gifts specifically mentioned in these lists and when they can’t find it they become discouraged. Brothers and Sisters, the Spirit works with and gifts each person differently and according to the place in the body he has for us. Think again of Paul’s analogy of the temple being built by Jesus, each of us is a stone carefully and specifically cut to fit a certain place. Don’t ever think that the Spirit hasn’t equipped you in some way just because nothing in these lists seems to fit. Jesus has work for all and he’s plunged us all into his transforming Spirit. What Paul does here is give some examples so that we can see how we’re called to work together and to serve the kingdom so that the world will see Jesus in his Church.
He begins with prophecy. Prophecy is the gift whereby the Spirit equips us to apply the Word of God to life and to specific situations. Pauls says that if that’s how you’ve graciously been equipped, then get on with prophesying. If you’ve been equipped especially to serve, then get on with serving. If you’ve been equipped to teach, get on with teaching. And so it goes for those equipped to exhort and to give and to lead and to show acts of mercy. If you’ve been gifted in these ways, get on with using those gifts. Don’t short-change the Church by squandering them. And Paul starts out, in mentioning prophecy, saying that, as the ESV puts it, we do this “in proportion to our faith”.
What does that mean? Well, it helps to go back to verse 3, where Paul warns us to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith God has assigned. He is not saying that we are given different measures of faith. That would mean, in verse 3, that some would think less soberly than others and that some are called to be more humble than others. No, what Paul is saying is that we do all these things in accordance with the faith, referring to the content of what we believe: that Jesus is Lord, that he has died, and that he has risen from the dead. We treat each other humbly because that is what we see in Jesus, who humbly gave his life for us. So with our gifts: we use them not for ourselves and we use them not willy-nilly for whatever reason might seem good at the time. No, we use them in accordance with the faith, with the Good News we’ve been given.
The one who prophesies has not been equipped so that he can spout off anything that pops into his head. No, he must speak in accordance with the faith we have been given—what he says must be in harmony with the message of the cross and the empty tomb, it must be in harmony with the rest of Scripture, and it must work to build up the body, not the speaker. And this principle applies across the board with all the gifts and all the ways we serve. Does the one who teaches teach in accordance with the faith and with the Scriptures? Does he teach to build up the body, or is he tearing it apart or building up himself? Does the one who exhorts or the one who shows mercy do so in a way that reinforces the Good News, or is there no thought for that?
Some time ago I was reading an article was written by a woman who gave up Christianity for paganism and considers herself a witch. She and some of her fellow witches visited a healing ministry run by Bethel, a wildly popular church that currently has a massive influence on large swathes of Charismatic Christianity. One of the things she wrote about were the prophecies and exhortations spoken over them while they were there. Everything that was said affirmed them in their pursuit of paganism and told them that God was pleased with them and that they were on the right spiritual path. They were given words of peace, despite being on a path away from and at odds with the Prince of Peace. The people working in that church were obviously well-meaning and I’m skeptical about the legitimacy of the gifts they claim to have, but the reason I bring them up is that they’re misusing the gifts of prophecy and exhortation and mercy. They’re proclaiming “Peace! Peace!” where there is no peace. God’s gifts must be used in accordance with the faith he has given us. They’ve been given to us to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom and to declare, “Repent, for the kingdom God has come!” If, instead, we’re using our gifts to affirm people in their unrepentance and in their rejection of the kingdom, then we’re abusing those gifts. We need to use the Spirit’s gifts with discernment and with discipline.
I think it’s also worth noting that Paul stresses at the end that the one who “does acts of mercy” do so with cheerfulness. As the discernment and discipline he connects with prophecy apply all the way down the list, this cheerfulness applies all the way back up. We may not always feel like doing these things, but we need to remember that in God’s economy, in biblical thinking, love is not so much about feeling as it is about doing. The world tells us that you should do what feels right, but God tells us to do what we know is right and that right feelings will follow. Again, we too often allow ourselves to be conformed to the present age rather than surrendering to the transforming work of the Spirit in us.
After giving these specifics in terms of gifts, Paul then goes on to write in more general terms about the gospel principles at work here. Look at verses 9-16. There’s a long list here. I noticed that my Bible happens to give this section the heading, “Marks of the True Christian”. Think about that and notice that it starts with love at the top.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
We don’t have time to cover each of these in detail, but think of them in terms of giving the world a glimpse of Jesus and the kingdom. We’ve seen real love in Jesus. In him we’ve seen what it looks like to abhor evil and hold fast to good. In him we get a sense of what it looks like to show honour to others rather than grabbing it all for ourselves. We see in him what humility and lowliness toward others looks like. We—especially Gentile believers—have seen what Jesus’ hospitality looks like as he welcomes us in to Abraham’s family. In Jesus we’ve seen the greatest example ever of what it looks like to bless those who persecute us. And Paul ends this list in verse 21, writing, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Brothers and Sisters, this is what it looks like to be faithful stewards of the grace of God. This is what it looks like to live the life Jesus has given us. This is what it looks like to be people who have been plunged into the Holy Spirit. This is what it looks like to be the new Israel, rescued from our bondage to sin and death and given hope for a new life. We love each other as Jesus has loved us and as he specially equipped us to love, and as we do so we show our love for him, because in loving each other we are loving the people whom Jesus loves. But it’s not just the Church we love. Jesus was sent to redeem because “God so loved the world”. We witness what love looks like as we love each other, but we also witness the love of God as we give ourselves for the sake of the world, as we give ourselves to be light in the darkness—even when the darkness is hostile and seeks to snuff us out. In Jesus, God overcame evil with good and we are called to be his witnesses by doing the same. And so let us proclaim the message of John and Jesus: Repent, for the kingdom of God has come. But let us also live in such a way that in our lives and the life of the Church, the heavens are opened to give all those around us a glimpse of the life and the kingdom that await all those who will trust in Jesus.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in the baptism of Jesus you revealed him to be your Son and you anointed him with the Holy Spirit. May we who are born again of that same water and Spirit, we ask, be faithful to our calling as your children by grace, living and manifesting in our lives the love and mercy you have shown to us as we proclaim your kingdom. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.