Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Mark #6 – Jesus’ Prologue and Epiphany 1(2-16)

Jesus’ Prologue and Epiphany – Mark 1 (2-16)

This week, I want to tie up several loose ends that have emerged as we have been looking at Mark’s prologue (preface). Rest assured that I do not mean these comments to be the final word; rather I hope they serve as catalytic remarks that spur further conversation.

Compared to other gospels, Mark’s preface is painfully short on details. In a previous post, I summarized the key action elements found in these initial verses in five brief statements (I have made a couple of changes):

A) Jesus comes to the wilderness (Perea) during the time John is preaching and baptizing there,

B) Jesus accepts John’s invitation to symbolize his own repentance and is subsequently dipped by John in the Jordan,

C) Coming out of the water, Jesus has a peculiar vision that confirms his personal sense of call to ministry,

D) Jesus is driven by a descending spirit into the wilderness for an extended period of struggle and reflection, and

E) Jesus later returns to the Galilee where he begins (perhaps resumes) his apostolic mission until his crucifixion several months later outside the Judean temple city, Jerusalem.

I

And just as he was coming up out of the water,

he [Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and

the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

Mark paints a vivid image – what sociologists of religion would call a moment of epiphany. The very vault of heaven cracks open, a spirit descends like a dove and Jesus hears a voice. Marcus Borg describes moments like this as “thin places.” Reflecting on Thomas Merton’s insight that life encompasses life and that God is always present, yet we don’t often recognize it, Borg takes a different turn.

But occasionally, we do “see it,” do experience God shining through everything. “Thin places” are places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect. They are places where the boundaries between the two levels become very soft, porous, and permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us. (The Heart of Christianity, HarperSanFranciso, 2003, pp.149ff.)

Mark captures Jesus’ experience of this thin place with violent, yet marvelous poetry!

Yes, it is poetry – Neither Mark (nor Jesus) had learned to draw the distinction between fact and fiction as starkly as we do in our age of reason. For us, this is a lesson with which we are burdened with unfortunate consequences. As the late, Paul Ricouer has noted, we must develop a “second naiveté.”

We modernists (or perhaps better, post-modernists) hear the Psalmist talking about mountains skipping like a lamb, and we are prone to ask, “Did that really occur?” Our confused Psalmist replies in the only way he/she can, “I do not understand your question! Don’t you see that I have not participated in the scientific revolution?”

Again, Borg reminds us that we are prone to understand that when we ask whether something is true, we most likely are asking whether it happened. The Psalmist then finally gets clear about our questions and goes on to ask, “Do you think that I am hallucinating? Really? No I am creating a poem, it’s what you call a metaphor and I think it nicely captures the depth and meaning and truth of the moment, don’t you?

The Center for Progressive Christianity stands in contrast with those who cling to the early 20th Century heresy (yes, I did say heresy) fundamentalism that requires that everything written in the Bible be taken as infallible and inerrant. They coined a phrase that I find most helpful – We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.

I too take the Bible seriously, and never only literally. In fact, it seems to me that to take the Bible seriously, we can not take it literally. The Bible tells us so – why do we think that the writer of the fourth gospel mocks the rabbi when he asks how it is possible to be born again – does that mean that he must climb back into his mother’s womb? Hello? Do fundamentalists ever read the Gospel of John? A modern heresy posing as traditional doctrine, fundamentalism has hijacked the four orthodox methods for the study of scripture by elevating the least important. This is sheer idolatry and I think the Bible says something about that as well.

Oops, I just fell off my soapbox!

II

And a voice came from heaven,

“You are my Son, the Beloved;

with you I am well pleased.”

Here our evangelist borrows the traditional image of “beloved son” One has to be tone deaf to not hear these words vibrate in sympathetic harmony with so many of the stories from the scripture as Mark knows it. Isaac is the beloved son of Abraham. Joseph is the favorite child of Jacob. David is God’s son. Here, God (Yahweh) tells Jesus (I don’t think anybody else heard this), “You are my beloved son.”

Southern preacher and Civil Rights activist, Clarence Jordan translated this verse in his Cotton Patch versions of the Gospels by rendering it (and you need to hear it with a regional drawl) – “Jesus, I am real proud of you!” Mark, at least at this point, begs the question, why?

 

In recent televised interviews of the current democratic candidates for President on how their faith informs their politics, presidential contender former senator John Edwards was asked one of those questions that is both serious and yet painfully discomforting, The event was a remarkable forum initiated by Sojourners community founder, the Reverend Jim Wallace. This particular question was posed by Rev. Sharon Watkins, the newly elected head of the Disciples Church USA and Canada. Edwards was asked how when he prayed he could recognize God’s voice – and moreover, how he could tell the difference in prayer between when God spoke telling him what to do and when what he heard was his own disguised voice avoiding the question.

As privileged readers, Mark has already told us that it is surely God (Yahweh) who is speaking. At just two places in our gospel Yahweh is given direct lines to say. However, perhaps one of the reasons that Mark tells us that the spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness is that Jesus has to wrestle with making this tricky distinction! As we get into the full text, when we meet some unclean spirits, and perhaps, this will begin to make more sense.

III

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan;

and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Matthew and Luke will fill in their versions of Jesus’ retreat to the dessert with what they think happened, but Mark will simply tell us that Jesus is tested by Satan [and the demons], and he is sustained while surrounded by wild animals by the angels. As Candler professor Carl Holladay notes highlighting our evangelist’s distinct use of summaries, Mark only writes a part of what he knows.

Speaking of wild beasts echoes the apocalyptic imagery lurking just below the surface of this gospel. Both in Daniel, 7 (3, 7) and again in Revelation 11 (7), 13 (11ff), etc., the powers of the world are described as wild beasts. Ched Myers suggests that in his baptism, Jesus becomes an “outlaw” rejecting the powers operating unjustly in the name of righteousness in the world. Myers suggests that a modern day equivalent might be the act of burning one’s draft card in the late 60s, publicly disavowing one’s continued participation in the imperialist activities of the American establishment during the Vietnam War.

Of course, other images so special to Israel echo through the entire preface as well – baptism and crossing the river Jordan, 40 days/years of testing in the wilderness, all struggling with the consequences associated with becoming God’s chosen one. It is all there at so many levels.

IV

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee,

proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;

repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark summarizes the essential point of Jesus’ proclamation rehearsing that the Empire (Reign) of Yahweh is at hand. If there is a question of ones recent loyalties, now would be a fine time to rethink them (repent). Such a statement is probably what John preached as well. While some speculate that Jesus might have been a disciple of the Baptist, later passages will tend to tell a different story.

What most interests me about Jesus’ return to the Galilee has to do with the question of what occasions this decision.  What is the precipitating event? We often overlook how Mark’s answers these questions – He notes, “Now after John was arrested….”

I mean when Jesus proclaims the rather immediate overthrow of any notion that Satan and his forces might be in charge, what is Jesus watching on the news? Galilee is probably the last place one might preach this message. Jesus, what signs are you looking at? Jesus’ proclamation is a kind of “intelligence report” analyzing the state of the war. In spite of…yes, in spite of our recent experience – Jesus’ prophetic word for the people of Israel is that the outcome of the battle has already been decided.

A few weeks ago, I had the rare chance to sit at the feet of retired Methodist Bishop. Peter Storey. Back in the United States from South Africa to receive an honorary degree from Duke, he took a short detour to Atlanta. Storey was reminiscing about working with Desmond Tutu. He recalled one special moment (perhaps in the darkest period of the struggle against apartheid) when Tutu was speaking to a hostile group of Afrikaner pastors. Tutu looked them eye to eye and proclaimed, “Brothers, why don’t you come over to the winning side?”  There is a sort of cognitive dissonance between one’s faith and one’s experience of danger in these times. What informs the prophet is that he/she knows Yahweh’s track record.

So now, our story begins. We should not be surprised that in the face of this pending danger, when we expect the worst for John and know that the situation in the Galilee can’t be much better for Jesus, his first task is to build a team that can continue his apostolic work in the event of his death.

Grace and Peace,

John

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