The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Epiphany is a wonderful season though this year it is passing us by quickly! Epiphany fell on a Saturday, which we missed because of the weather, and so was followed immediately by Epiphany 1, and will end early this year because of an early Easter. While Epiphany some years can be six weeks, this year it is only three!
But it is wonderful and a unique season in our church calendar, for as it focuses on the epiphanies of Christ, it specifically focuses on how these manifestations of Jesus came to be known by the whole world — meaning not just the Jews, God’s special people, but even to all nations, the Gentiles of every nation, tribe, color, language, and ethnicity. It is a celebration of our knowledge of the identity of Jesus and a reminder that now that we know **who** Jesus is (the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the King of Kings), we must live out the implications of that knowledge. So each year we relive these manifestations in order to see again His identity and renew the vows we have made to Him as citizens in His kingdom.
You can see this through the lectionary. Each Gospel appointed throughout the season of Epiphany reveals another aspect of Jesus Christ, and each Epistle, all from Paul except one from 1 John, exhorts us to live a certain way in light of that epiphany.
As Bishop Chad noted last week, we witness many different epiphanies of Jesus in this season. We were blessed to have him present as an epiphany, our Apostle. He reminded us of the daily epiphany of Our Lord on the Altar, and how all Christians, those in Holy Order and those in Lay Order, make up the Body of Christ — that we are an epiphany of Jesus ourselves. More to this season, our opening hymn wonderfully expressed many of the different epiphanies of Jesus we have in the Gospel readings. Jesus was manifested ‘by the start to the sages from afar,’ manifested in his birth at Bethlehem,’ manifested ‘at Cana, wedding guest, in thy Godhead manifest,’ ‘manifest in making whole palsied limbs and fainting soul,’ also in the desert ‘manifest in valiant fight, quelling all the devil’s might,’ and ‘manifest at Jordan’s stream, prophet, priest, and king supreme.’
This Sunday of epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus at the Jordan River and his baptism by John the Baptist is our focus. This comes at the beginning of Mark, who wastes no time in getting right to the action. Mark starts with a bold line: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That word–gospel–has become such an ordinary word for us… that perhaps we lose a sense of what it means. How would you define it? Think about that for a minute … yes, it literally means from the Greek ‘good news.’ But what is, as Mark claims, the gospel of Jesus Christ?
It is a tendency in our times to consider the Gospel to be propositional, a list of facts that have happened and to which you make an assent. So for example, you can find a quick definition on those tracts inside bathrooms at fast food restaurants or you can just look up on Google: “_that God provided the way for man to be freed from the penalty of sin_” or “Jesus on the cross reconciled us to God and the good news is that we can be saved in Christ, by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus alone.” Obviously, these ‘facts’ are not wrong, but just agreeing to these facts does not make one have a lively Christian faith nor summarize the fullness of Jesus’ life.
Another tendency today is to say that the Gospel is very simple, but this is misleading. Sure, the facts can be simply laid out, but given that the church had to preserve four different records of the life of Jesus, that it took seven ecumenical councils within a period of seven hundred years to define an outline of Jesus’ identity, that even within the NT we see Paul warning that many antichrists will arise who will distort the Gospel means the Gospel cannot be a simple index card of beliefs — the Gospel, the good news, is the person of Jesus Christ Himself in His Flesh! It is his whole way of life that we witness in all these epiphanies. Our belief *in* Jesus demands a whole life *in* Jesus. This is not a simple or easy proposition for it demands allegiance in every part of our lives, a whole orientation towards our relationship with a man who is God — Jesus Christ.
The word Gospel does have that sort of weight to it, and I don’t think it passed by the original audience like it does us today. In 9 BC , in the ancient city of Prienea which lays on the central coast of what we now call call Turkey, a lengthy inscription was carved on a two foot high stone and posted right in the middle of the market place. This inscription declared the Good News, the Gospel, in Greek euangelion, that a Savior had been born who was to bring peace to the whole world. But if you caught the date, this tablet does not declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what it said:
“Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and \[Providence has set\] the birthday of the god Augustus \[as\] the beginning of the good tidings, the gospel, for the world that came by reason of him.”
Written a few years before Jesus’ own birth, this Gospel declares the wonders of Augustus–the man so powerful, so majestic, that he is called a god for he has brought an end to war and heralded a time of economic prosperity, political peace, and cultural renewal. The inscription honors Augustus’ birth and goes on to declare the start of the calendar will now be from his birth, signaling that his birth brings in a new era and that all thanksgiving for this new era must be given to him. It admits, quite pridefully, that no one in other generations will even have the hope of surpassing his great achievements.
It is with this background that we approach our Gospel this morning, from Mark: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” Mar 1:1 KJV. Mark’s beginning proclamation would not be lost on his audience who were familiar with such ones we found in Priene. He is now declaring a new beginning, hearkening back to Genesis, yes, but also countering the idea that Augustus and all that he stood for was the centerpoint of history. The centerpoint of history is not Augustus but Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And immediately, Mark brings John the Baptist on to the stage, this strange and intense young man, preparing Israel and the readers of the Gospel to encounter the God-man, Jesus Christ. John is calling out in the wilderness for Israel to repent because one must prepare for the coming of the Messiah which, in the Baptizer’s point of view, was the final act of history because it involved both judgment and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. John calls all of Israel, and Mark even exaggerates that all of Judea and Jerusalem come out to see this prophet for whom Israel had been waiting 300 years. John’s mission is completed when Jesus comes to him, and performs what John has called out on behalf of all Israel. In Mark’s narrative, it is Jesus who repents on behalf of all of Israel, Jesus who is baptized on behalf of all of Israel, and now the presence of God descend upon the True Israel Himself, Jesus Christ. The heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descends as a dove descends. Mark is purposely echoing the prophecy in Is. 64 which says that the heavens will be rent when God comes down and visit the earth.
But as the gospel of Augustus focuses on the consolidation of political power through military might, Jesus fulfills God’s intention for humanity from the beginning. The universe is brought back to order, brought back beyond the fall so that all humanity might freely worship God and in that worship be perfectly happy. God always sought to bless his people as we saw in Genesis through his blessings on Adam and Eve, Noah, and especially Abraham. But now that blessing has been extended to us, to all nations, to the Gentiles.
Notice the emphasis from Propers! Psalm 66, 107, 148 all highlight the worship of God by all nations! We have also seen this in our Morning prayer readings all week as St. Paul encourages the Ephesians to remember that while in the past they were uncircumcised Gentiles, they now have hope in Christ Jesus, united to him by His blood.
Now that we all are in the kingdom of God, the recreated kingdom, we need to seek out what life in that kingdom looks like! The Gospel of Jesus Christ demands our full allegiance to Him and next week we will see, through his miracle at Cana and Paul’s lessons to the Romans, just how different that life will be.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;