As I said last week, in this first chapter Mark is laying the foundations of the account of Jesus’ life and mission, he is about to unfold. He is concise and bold in this opening chapter, which will be reflected throughout the gospel. He wants this chapter to be the one through which you read the rest of his account. If you like, these are the glasses he wants you to look through, to understand Jesus’ life and mission. In the first part we looked at the allusions and the foundations in the Hebrew Scriptures to which Mark points. As we go through, ask yourself questions about meaning and raise things you don’t understand and want to explore further on Bible Talk on the FB page.
To begin with today I am going to pick up on three further allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures that will be important for our understanding of Mark’s gospel. When Jesus is baptised Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, comments that the heavens opened, there was the presence of the Spirit symbolised by a dove and a voice confirming Jesus in his role. In Hebrew understanding rending the heavens is symbolic of God communicating with humankind. So at the beginning of Ezekiel and before the visions he had, he testifies that ‘the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God’ and in that context God speaks to Ezekiel. The symbolism of the heavens opening is also apocalyptic. In Isaiah 64:1 it says,
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
In John’s gospel Jesus says to Nathaniel
You will see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and
descending on” the Son of Man.
And in Revelation 19:11 it says,
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse,
whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.
Mark is signposting for all who will take notice, that in the arrival of Jesus God has broken into the world. To underline this there is the confirmation of Jesus’ sonship: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This is later confirmed in front of Peter, James and John at the transfiguration when the voice of God says, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” The designation of Jesus as son would also have been significant to the Jewish mind. If you recall when we reflected on Matthew 2 a couple of weeks ago, when Jesus and the family leave Egypt, Hosea 11:1 was referred to by Matthew: ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.’ Jeremiah refers to God being Israel’s father (31:9). The Jews would have understood that here Jesus is being identified as Israel in relation to YHWH – but he will be the obedient son doing the father’s will and drawing all nations to him. Psalm 2:7 which announces ‘You are my beloved Son, today I have begotten you’ is explicitly referenced here because Mark wants us to see Jesus as the chosen one before time who has come to redeem the nations.
The last allusion I want to refer to is the wilderness, before moving on to consider our understanding of the Kingdom. In Jewish understanding the wilderness or desert place is complex. The desert can be the place of revelation as experienced by Moses when he spent forty days in the wilderness of Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. It can be the place of testing, again the experience of the people of Israel. It can also be the place of covenant as when the commandments were given or there was the renewal before entering the Promised Land. All this is reflected in the experience of Jesus as he is sent out into the desert place and defeats the tempter, committing to follow the path God had set before him. Mark has laid the ground for the rest of his gospel. Here is God breaking in and doing so, God is inaugurating the kingdom. This is the public revelation in Jesus of his kingdom purposes and we are going to briefly consider what ‘the kingdom’ means now.
Mark, in his gospel, spells out what Jesus’ announcement means. However, the Christian church as a whole, as well as individually, has had a problem with this kingdom language. Quite literally, the meaning gets lost in translation. The word kingdom presents an image of a particular area, with borders and its own government and laws. The boundaries are there to mark territory, keep people out, to be defended.
The kingdom could of course be expanded, and history tells us that rulers and governments are rarely satisfied with the area under their control and they want a bit or all of someone else’s kingdom. The kingdom represents power and authority, which can be benevolent if you obey, authoritarian if you don’t. The kingdom can grow to an empire and we think we don’t only have a right to rule the waves, but rule the lands as well. But empires come and go – as we know as a nation. Kingdoms and empires depend on superiority, might and violence. No matter how well intentioned, kingdoms and empires are not the Kingdom of God and can never be.
Historically the church has sought to impose the Kingdom of God – with violence and oppression if necessary. There are some who still think governments should be an arm of the kingdom, imposing God’s will if it is not accepted willingly. There are some who think we have to assert our dominance over others and that is a sign the Kingdom is at hand. However, if we follow this line, we set aside the example of Jesus in his ministry. Let me share with you the reflections of one commentator on this matter:
Many an offering prayer has dedicated the gifts for the building of the Kingdom.
The truth is that we do not build the kingdom with our offerings, nor can we advance it with our programmes. We are not the ones who have crowned Jesus as Chrsit and Lord – God did. God’s reign on earth doesn’t depend on our feeble obedience and humans do not bring in God’s reign; God does. God’s action creates and transforms human action…All we can do is decide to stand for or against God; to repent or not repent in response to God’s initiative towards us.
That challenges our perceptions of the kingdom and how it is brought in. Too often we think it depends on us, when it totally depends upon the action of God, which began in the incarnation of Jesus – before the incarnation of Jesus. However, we like to build our kingdoms as individual churches, as denominations and as nations. We lose sight of the fact that God is far greater than our kingdoms – and so is the kingdom he brings in.
It is very difficult to resist the temptation to kingdom building on our terms. If our church kingdoms are successful, we acquire a certain amount of kudos and pride. We can even begin to think that we have the answer everyone else needs and start to market our brands – keeping control of the product. This runs against the grain of the example of Jesus when he inaugurated the kingdom, declaring it was at hand. In fact when we read any of the gospels we can see that his approach to kingdom building was completely counter to that which would be expected.
Let’s consider some aspects of Jesus’ kingdom building.
• He starts with some unlikely characters. The next few verses are about the calling of disciples the initial group may well gell together because they are fishermen who work together. They knew each other and it was likely they would work as a team, but perhaps not the first choice in terms of kingdom building?
As Jesus adds to the team, there are some strange ones coming in: a tax collector and a zealot. That must have produced some interesting conversations! They seem to be an odd fit and not people who would naturally come together as a team, but Mark tells us he called them out in particular for this role of disciples or apostles – sent ones.
• He welcomes some unlikely people – without any rituals. Rituals form part of religion. They grant entry and access and define those who are in and those who are not. Initially the Reformation rebelled against the established rules as reformers rediscovered the Bible, but then their own rules developed. And perhaps that is necessary – people need to know where they stand and what to do. We have our own rules in the Baptist Church, which you have signed up to if you are a church member.
Even the newer denominations have developed their own rules and routines, according to the way they have understood the Bible. The problem with Jesus was that he flouted the rules and conventions in order to give people access to the Kingdom of God. I am a rule keeper so I am not suggesting we throw out all the rules. However, the way Jesus responded to people should cause us to at least question our rules – both written and unwritten. We don’t want our rules to be a stumbling block for the Kingdom.
• He confronts evil. This happened in the desert experience. Matthew and Luke give us more detail. We can learn from this desert experience of temptation. Jesus wasn’t able to overcome the evil one because he was the Son of God. Remember he is also fully human and in order to be the perfect sacrifice humbled himself to become a human. He didn’t overcome the evil one, because he quoted scripture like a magic charm.
He overcame, because he was in tune with God and lived the words he spoke. Therefore even in the face of extreme temptation and provocation – both in the desert and in his ministry – he was able to overcome. As we move into Lent, it would help us to meditate on the temptation of Jesus. We could do this as a church as a focus for a retreat morning in February. some verses we would do well to learn and draw upon in our lives:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a
roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. 1 Peter 5:8-9
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. James 4:7-8
Confronting evil can be unpopular, dangerous and costly, but is part of building
• Jesus met people in their need. When he healed people, he didn’t ask them to go through certain hoops before doing so, but met there where they were. He didn’t hold healing back until people had declared faith in him, he just did it. He didn’t hold forgiveness back until people had declared their faith, he accepted what little faith they demonstrated. See example of the man lowered through the roof or the man lying by the Pool of Bethesda.
• Jesus called people to follow him. They weren’t called to follow Christianity and neither are we. We are part of what is known as the Christian faith, but the focus of that is following Jesus, not the structure, not a denomination, not a local expression. That is quite hard to do – keeping our focus on Jesus as we work to build the kingdom.
• Foundational to the Kingdom is sacrificial love. This is what we have celebrated:
Amazing grace, O what sacrifice
The Son of God given for me
My debt he paid and my death he died
That I might live. Bebo Norman
This is the example Christians have followed since the resurrection of Jesus.
Preparing the Way. The foundation is laid, the purpose is declared and the kingdom unfolds. The kingdom isn’t individualistic and Jesus knew the work of the kingdom could not be done by one person – hence the community of believers. When we try to contain the kingdom and keep it under our control, it becomes stifled and self focussed. The challenge for us is following the Holy Spirit and not necessarily conforming.