The text for the sermon is taken from the Gospel:
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
On the central coast of what we now call call Turkey laid the ancient city of Priene. It was a deep harbor port, situated at the foot of a steep, rocky cliff. It gained prominence when Alexander the Great redesigned the city to be an exemplar of Greek urban design and technology. Despite being built on a steep slope, the engineers and architects seemed to master the environment and build the tight city on a perfect grid, each building the same height and size. It never grew to be a very large city, but the 6,000 inhabitants were indeed wealthy–most of the houses were lined with marble and had running water and indoor plumbing, even for bathrooms. In the middle of the town laid the agora, or market place, which was the civic center, the market place, and where the Temple to Apollo stood. In 9 BC , a lengthy inscription carved on a two foot high stone was posted 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, signalling that his birth brings in a new era.
But Augustus’ political promises, like all political promises, were temporary, and his power, like all political power, finite. The Roman peace, which was predicated upon oppressive violence and power, slowly degenerated into fanatical tyrants terrified of losing their grip on their glimmering sceptres.
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 judgement 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. In that context, Isaiah is referring to an apocalyptic event, and earth shattering event — all of this setting up the stark choice between the Gospels laid in front of us: the Good News of Augustus or the Good News of Jesus Christ. Will you worship Augustus or Jesus?
The Epistle set for this morning by the Apostle Paul to the Romans lays out what the worship of Jesus Christ looks like. Last week, Fr. Glenn helped us understand that the purpose of worship is not to give us a good feeling. Sometimes worship, especially the specific worship we do right here can give us good feelings (you don’t have to feel bad about that), but Fr. Glenn’s point is that worship, true worship must be much deeper. If the purpose of worship is the feelings we get out of it, then worship is just inward looking, self serving. But we are created to worship God Almighty, and He has graciously told us how to worship Him.
The Epistle readings for the first three weeks in Epiphany all come from Romans 12 and13, where Paul lays out what Christian worship or service, should look like. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service.” (Rom 12:1 KJV) I want you to realize that this is first and foremost a deeply sacramental statement. Paul is calling us to live Eucharistic lives. Through the power of Jesus Christ, we can now offer our lives as a thankful remembrance to God–this is the type of worship that Adam lost but now we gain through Christ. Paul calls it our “reasonable service.” The word that Paul uses for service, or worship, is latreia, a Greek word that signified the worship due to God at sacred services such as at the Temple. And the word reasonable, in Greek is logikon, its stem is logos, what we often translate as The Word. Reasonable is not a bad translation, but we fail to see Paul’s connection that our true worship is that which is given us by the Word. This points us to the Eucharist itself where the Word, the logos, made flesh gives Himself to us and we are united to Him. Listen to our liturgy: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”
This is true worship–we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice because we are united to Christ and fed by his Body and Blood.
And at the same time, Paul’s stress in Romans 12 on worship extends not to just the time when we are at Holy Communion but to our whole lives. We now have a new life, a life hidden in Christ. But to give over every aspect of our lives to God is very difficult–Paul urges the Romans not to be conformed to the world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. Our translation uses two verbs that share the same stem — conform and transform as opposites, but we miss that Paul’s Greek words are vastly different. “Conform” has to do with outward form or fashion, showing that the world’s worship, powerful as it may be, is only a fleeting fashion. But the word “transform,” has at its root morphe, meaning a change of our essential nature or form. This is what Paul calls us to since it is what we receive at Baptism and are called to live out the rest of our lives.
What this looks like, what living our life in worship looks like, is different for every person–we each have our different callings, but each of these callings is part of the single calling of the Body itself: to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Paul then gives advice about what our lives should look like as an outcome of our essential change. At the heart of our worship is a humble love that seeks to give thanks to God and to honor those around you.
First to God: “cleave to that which is good;” “be fervent in spirit;” “serve the lord, rejoice in hope;” “continue instant in prayer.” All of these actions point to the love of God.
Second to our neighbor: “Let love be without dissimulation;” “Be kindly affectioned one to another in brotherly love;” “distribute to the necessity of the saints; given to hospitality;” “bless them which persecute you;” “be of the same mind mind one toward another;” “rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep.
What we see in the Epistle is not just a list of moral rules but the description of a way of living. It is a life transformed by the Word, able to offer ones own life as a sacrifice. Worship is our entire lives — living out the effects of our new position as sons and daughters of God. Hear what Paul told the Pagans on Mars Hill from Acts 17: And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. (Act 17:26-28 KJV)
True worship is offered to God in the Eucharist perfectly and then lived out as our lives become caught up in the eternal worship of God Almighty. Every Gospel demands a certain type of worship. Whether its Hail Caesar or We the People, there is allegiance that is demanded. The early martyrs knew this all too well. They gave up their life instead of offering incense to Caesar. They knew that their own person was a living sacrifice and one could offer that to God or to Caesar. The same call stands before you today.