Into the wilderness with Jesus

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and Lent will begin – an annual season for going out into the desert, metaphorically speaking, away from distractions, in order to pay attention to what God is saying. A season for silence and self-examination, for prayer, self-discipine and renewed generosity, for meditating on the Word of the Lord and for being more intentional about learning the Jesus Way.

This blog will be going silent for Lent, and I will not be reading or commenting on other blogs either. This has been a Lenten custom for me for a few years now, and for me it’s a very beneficial discipline (not necessarily for anyone else, of course; we all need to decide for ourselves about these things).

So: time for me to shut up for a while. Have a holy Lent everyone. I’ll talk to you again after Easter.

‘Listen to Him’ (a sermon on Mark 9.2-9)

There’s a well-known story about a man who fell off a cliff. On the way down he managed to grab a branch, and there he was, suspended a thousand feet above a gorge, with only the branch preserving him from certain death. He cried out, “Help! Help! Is there anyone there?”

A deep voice replied, “Yes”. The man looked around, couldn’t see anyone, and said, “Who is this?” The voice replied, “This is God”. After a moment, the man asked, “Can you help me?” “Yes”, God replied; “Let go of the branch”. The man was silent for a minute, and then he called out, “Is there anyone else there?”

When God asks us to do difficult things it’s natural for us to call out, “Is there anyone else there?” We can second-guess ourselves, wondering if it’s really the voice of God we’ve heard, or wondering if we’re interpreting the Scriptures in the right way. Sometimes we’re right to wonder; we’re not always very good at discerning exactly what it is that God is asking of us, and it’s good to check and be sure. But there are other times when, deep down inside, we know what’s right; we just don’t want to face it, because it’s too costly.

I don’t know whether the three disciples mentioned in today’s reading, Peter, James, and John, were genuinely confused about whether Jesus was truly speaking the word of God to them, or whether they just didn’t want to accept what he said because it was too costly. But there’s no doubt that they had recently heard a very hard message from Jesus, and in the first sentence of today’s gospel, Mark directs us back to that hard message. We read, ‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves’ (Mark 9:2). Mark very rarely gives us time references in his gospel, and so when he does, we can be sure they’re significant. So the first question we should ask ourselves is ‘six days after what?’ To find the answer, why don’t you turn with me to the end of Mark chapter 8?

In Mark 8:27 – 9:1, we have a body of teaching that Jesus gives his disciples near the town of Caesarea Philippi. It begins with him asking the question, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You’re the Messiah” – in other words, “You’re the King God has sent to set us free, the one like David, the one who will make our nation great again”.

In the tradition of the day, the coming Messiah was seen as a glorious figure, a conquering hero like David. But what Jesus says next completely rewrites that script. He says that the Son of Man – a title he liked to use for himself – must suffer and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then after three days rise again. Peter, the very one who has just had a moment of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus in his turn rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, “for your mind is on human things, not the things of God”. He then calls the crowd and his disciples together and says, “If any want to be my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. If anyone tries to hang onto their life, they’ll lose it, but if they give it up for me and the gospel, they’ll save it”.

This is a hard word, like “Let go of the branch”. But the problem is that nowadays we often misunderstand this passage. We think that ‘taking up the cross’ refers to going through suffering in general, so whatever my suffering might be, that’s my cross: it could be my difficult friend, my incurable illness, or even my domineering mother-in-law!

But that’s not what it meant in the time of Jesus. A person carrying a cross was a person who was going out to be crucified, and crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans used for rebels against the empire. Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I know you think I’m going to conquer the Romans, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Romans are going to conquer me! And if you want to follow me, you’ve got to be prepared be seen as a dangerous rebel, and to carry the cross as I’m going to carry it, and let the Romans conquer you, as well!” In other words, instead of killing his enemies, Jesus was going to love his enemies to the point of death, and he was calling his disciples to walk the same road with him. That’s what it meant to ‘let go of the branch’!

So this is the background to today’s passage. Can you imagine the confusion in the minds of the disciples? They’ve gradually come to understand that Jesus is more than just a wise human teacher or a prophet; he’s the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But now he seems to them to be taking a disastrous course. How could he be the Messiah if he was planning to be killed by his enemies? It couldn’t possibly be true. But if he was the Messiah, could he be wrong about this? Well, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah after all?

So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Going up a mountain was full of Old Testament resonances; Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the law from God, and when he came down again his face was shining so brightly that the people were terrified and asked him to put on a veil so that they wouldn’t have to look at him. The prophet Elijah, too, had made a long journey into the Sinai desert to the same mountain to meet there with God. Now, as Jesus and his three disciples were standing on the mountain, we read that Jesus’ appearance was transformed, or transfigured, before them: his clothes, like Moses’ face, became dazzling bright – Mark adds the little detail that it was ‘brighter than any laundry you can imagine could ever bleach them!’ And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared there, talking with Jesus.

The disciples, of course, were terrified, as you would be if you saw a friend of yours suddenly transformed into a figure of dazzling light and talking with two people you knew to be dead! Peter blurted out the first thing that came into his mind: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Mark comments that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’.

And then comes another Old Testament resonance. In the story of Moses going up the mountain to meet God, God himself came down on the mountain in a cloud; later, when God led his people through the desert to the promised land, we read that he travelled with them as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’. Now the cloud comes down over the three figures, including the one that looks like a pillar of fire, and they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the cloud fades away, and the disciples see that Moses and Elijah are gone, and only Jesus is there with them.

So what did these three disciples get out of this amazing experience? And what is Mark trying to tell his readers?

Many scholars believe that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome, in the mid-sixties of the first century A.D. During that time Nero was the Roman emperor, and he was the one who launched the first great persecution of Christians. It happened after the great fire of Rome; the rumour went around that Nero had started the fire for his own amusement, and he needed a convenient scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians. “You know those Christians”, he said; “They’re always telling us that the world is going to end in fire! They’re the ones who did it!” And so began a terrible time for the church in Rome. Christians were hung on poles, covered in pitch and set on fire as torches to light Nero’s processions. They were crucified, as Jesus had been crucified. They were thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions. It seems likely that Peter and Paul both died in this persecution.

Mark wrote his gospel in the context of this time of great suffering. Part of his job in writing the story of Jesus must have been to make sense of what the Christians were going through. We can be sure that many of them were tempted to lose their faith. If they really had been adopted into God’s family, as Paul had taught them, then why was God letting the Romans do this to them? Was Jesus really Lord, or was he powerless to help them? And shouldn’t they take up the sword and defend themselves?

You can be sure that when Mark reminded his first readers of the words of Jesus about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, he had their suffering in mind. When he reminded them of Jesus’ words – “If you hang onto your life you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for me you’ll save it” – he knew that many of them were in danger of losing their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. He was reminding them that Jesus walked the way of the Cross, the way of loving your enemies and allowing them to kill you rather than retaliate, and that he had called his followers to do the same thing, because we believe in a God who loves his enemies and causes the sun and rain to fall on the good and bad alike.

So what is this story teaching us about who Jesus is, and what he is asking of us who follow him?

Moses and Elijah were revered figures in the history of God’s people. Moses was the one through whom God had given the Ten Commandments and the Torah, the Law. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets, the men and women through whom God had spoken to his people down through their history. Together then, Moses and Elijah represented ‘the Law and the Prophets’, which was a phrase sometimes used in the gospels to mean ‘The Scriptures’ – the Old Testament scriptures, that is.

So here we have the two revered figures, who together represent Israel’s scriptures, standing there with Jesus. These disciples loved their Master, but I’m pretty sure that until now it had never entered their mind that he could possibly be greater than Moses and Elijah and the scriptures they represented. To put it another way, they would not have expected the voice from heaven to say, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, but rather, ‘Here are the Law and the Prophets; listen to them!’

Nonetheless, the voice from heaven points not to Moses and Elijah, but to Jesus. Mark wants us to understand that he is the one the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to. In his life and teaching he fulfils the Law, and the Prophets foretold his coming. The Old Testament scriptures told the story of God’s people, and he is the climax the story has been leading to. So honour Moses and Elijah, yes, and the scriptures they represent, but ‘listen to him’ – listen to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

My friend Harold Percy was teaching a Christian Basics class once when a woman made the following remark: “I don’t like it when Harold talks about Jesus. I don’t mind him talking about God, because the word ‘god’ can mean anything I want it to mean. But ‘Jesus’ is too close and too specific for my liking”.

In the light of this comment it’s interesting that in our epistle for today Paul puts Jesus front and centre in his message. In 2 Corinthians 4:5 he says, ‘For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake’. ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ – that was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor. Christians were proclaiming that Jesus, and not Caesar, was the true ruler of the world, and in the eyes of the Romans that made them rebels against the empire. And so they were persecuted, as their Master had been persecuted, and they responded to that persecution with love and not hate, just as their Master had taught them.

‘Listen to him’. The one who speaks to us is not just another human religious teacher on the same level as Moses or Elijah. He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Paul says in our epistle that he is ‘the image of God’. And this Son of God speaks to us and calls us to the way of the Cross. “No”, he says, “I’m not calling you to be conquering heroes. In fact, many of you are going to lose your lives. I overcame hatred with love, and I’m calling you to do the same thing. But don’t imagine that you’ll be the loser in this; you won’t. Whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel will save it forever”.

So what does it mean for us to ‘let go of the branch’? Does it mean going around trying to be disagreeable so that people will persecute us? Not at all! It’s first of all a matter of loyalty and faithfulness. If Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, then he’s God’s anointed King. So we’re called to give him our primary allegiance, to put our commitment to him ahead of all the other commitments in our lives, and to be loyal to him, no matter what the cost might be. When he speaks, we are to ‘listen to him’, and if he disagrees with the advice we’re being given by other people, we’re to follow him.

Stuart knew what it meant to take up his cross. He was a friend of John Bowen, and John told his story in a little booklet called ‘The School of Jesus’. In a job interview, Stuart was asked, ‘Since it is clear from your resume that you are a Christian, does that mean that you would not be willing to tell a lie on behalf of the company?’ ‘That is correct’, Stuart replied. ‘Thank you’, answered the interviewer, ‘that will be all’. John Bowen comments, ‘Stuart did not get the job, but he did get a good grade from Jesus on the assignment!’

Jesus said, ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me’. The voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, listen to him’. The voice in my opening story said, ‘Let go of the branch’.

What might it mean for you today to ‘let go of the branch’, to listen to God’s beloved Son? Where in your life today is Jesus challenging you to make a difficult choice out of loyalty to him? And where do you draw the line? Where do you say, ‘This far I will go out of obedience to Jesus’ commands, but no further?’

‘This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him’. Christians are disciples, and disciples are those who have given their allegiance to Jesus. Each day they live their lives in the spirit of the disciples’ prayer: ‘Lord God, help me today to learn to see life as Jesus sees it, and to live life as Jesus taught it’. So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to truly ‘listen to him’, and to put into practice the things that we hear.

Preliminary sermon thoughts on Mark 9.2-9

This is not a sermon; this is simply my study notes as I have been engaging with the Biblical text today. Hopefully they might be useful to other preachers as we meditate on scripture in preparation for next Sunday.

Text (NRSV)

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark begins with a time reference: ‘six days later’. This is six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering and death, and after his call to his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.

Is there more to it than that? The last thing Jesus says in the previous section is “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). Is Mark’s ‘six days later’ meant to connect this promise with the Transfiguration – that the ‘some standing here’ are Peter, James, and John, and this moment of Transfiguration was the time when they saw the Kingdom of God come with power? Some interpreters think so, but I’m not so sure. Verse 1 should not be read in isolation from what comes immediately before it: “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”. Whatever ‘coming in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ means (and I don’t think that’s at all cut and dried; because in the light of Daniel 7:13-14 it could just as easily refer to the Ascension as to the ‘Second Coming’), I think it’s the most likely referral for the Kingdom of God coming with power.

Pheme Perkins points out the links between this passage and the previous one:

The Christological emphases of the previous episode are repeated in the transfiguration story. Jesus’ status as Messiah is confirmed by the divine testimony that he is God’s beloved Son (8:29, 9:7, 14:61); the predicted glory of the coming Son of Man (8:38) is anticipated by the shining white garments of Jesus (9:3). Finally, the disciples were instructed to tell no one that Jesus was the Messiah (8:30), and now those who witness the transfiguration are to tell no one until the Son of Man has risen (9:9).

No doubt the entire conversation with Jesus in 8:31 – 9:1 is still uppermost in the minds of the disciples, like a dark truth on the edge of their consciousness that they are trying to ignore but that just won’t go away. Peter has already tried to talk Jesus out of it once, and has gotten himself royally chewed up as a result (‘Get behind me, Satan!’). Perhaps he and the other disciples are thinking, “Why does he believe he has to do ‘undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed’? The mission is going well; crowds are growing, and before long we’ll be in a good position to claim the throne”. But of course this is all speculation; we can’t really know exactly what was on their minds, beyond what the text actually says.

The Old Testament overtones are clear here. Going up a high mountain is a very Old Testament way of meeting God. Moses met God on Mount Sinai and received the Law there; Elijah also made the desert journey to Mount Sinai to meet God. Now Jesus takes three disciples up a high mountain, and there Moses and Elijah appear to them. Moses is the great lawgiver of Israel, and Elijah is the first and greatest of the prophets; it is as if Jesus is meeting, not only with two of the greatest heroes of his people, but also with the embodiment of ‘the Law and the Prophets’, the phrase used so often to describe the Scriptures. ‘The presence of Moses and Elijah reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the goal of the story of God’s salvation in the Law and the Prophets’ (Pheme Perkins).

Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white just as Moses’ face was transformed when he met the Lord on Mount Sinai. ‘The dazzling white clothing signals heavenly rather than earthly beings (Daniel 7:9, 12:3)’ (Pheme Perkins). A cloud comes down on the mountain, just as it did when Yahweh descended to Mount Sinai to give the Law, and when Solomon dedicated the Temple; the cloud is one of the symbols of the presence of Yahweh.

Peter, James and John often appear as a kind of inner circle of Jesus: they witnessed the healing of Jairus’ daughter (5:37), and they will also witness the agony in Gethsemane (14:33). However, they aren’t exactly shining examples of insight or faithfulness.

Peter has already been castigated for rejecting the necessity of suffering (8:33). James and John will soon show themselves as preoccupied with greatness rather than service (10:35-37). All three will fail to watch with Jesus during the agony in the garden (14:33-41). These failures become all the more striking because the divine voices has instructed them to listen to the Son (9:7), an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15 (‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him’). Jesus is the promised Mosaic prophet. (Pheme Perkins)

Mark gives us no details of when this event took place, although it has traditionally been assumed that it was at night. Were Peter and James and John woken from their sleep by the dazzling light of the Transfiguration and by the appearance of Moses and Elijah? I note that the text says nothing about Moses and Elijah being similarly ‘transfigured’. At any rate, Peter just says the first thing that comes into his head: ‘Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here! Let’s make three tents – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Mark explains that Peter didn’t know what to say, because they were all terrified – which we can well understand, as these two revered figures from the past stand with Jesus in the dazzling light.

Tom Wright comments:

It’s easy enough (and they themselves must have known this) to dismiss such an experience as a hallucination, albeit a very odd one. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this, when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing the ‘inside’ of a situation is drawn back, and a fuller reality is disclosed. Most of us don’t have experiences like this (nor did most early Christians, as far as we can tell); but unless we allow sceptics to bully us we should be free to affirm that this sort of thing has indeed happened to some people (usually completely unexpectedly), and that such people usually regard it as hugely important and life-changing.

The three watchers and others were of course terrified. Peter…blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, trying vaguely not only to prolong the moment but to hook it into one of the Jewish festivals. That wasn’t the point, but the sheer oddity of his bumbling suggestion is itself strong evidence of the story’s basic truth. Nobody inventing a tale like this would make up such a comic moment, lowering the tone of the occasion in such a fashion.

What went through the minds of the apostles? Up until now, what have they been assuming about their Master? That he is a prophet? That he is a wise spiritual teacher? Perhaps this is where they started. But Peter’s understanding of him has developed further, to the point that he has now confessed his faith that his Master is the Messiah, the king who is going to set Israel free.

But the Messiah, in Israelite belief at the time, was not a divine figure – he was a human king, a descendant of David. And I doubt if people conceived that the Messiah would be greater than his ancestor David (like many traditional societies, people in those days seemed to have the idea that the figures from the past were always greater!).

But now, as the cloud descended, the three disciples heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him’ – a clear allusion to the voice at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) and also, as Pheme Perkins points out, to the command to ‘listen’ the the prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. If this command to ‘listen’ to God’s beloved Son is in response to Peter’s proposal to build three tents – in other words, to treat Jesus and Moses and Elijah as three equals – then it is a firm rejection of it. Moses and Elijah are honoured and revered figures from Israel’s history, but God never said of either of them, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’. Jesus is unique, and the disciples must not succumb to the temptation of seeing him as just another religious figure, on the same level as all the others.

‘Listen to him’. Listen to him in general, or listen to something specific he has said? Possibly the latter – the prediction of his suffering and death that he has made six days before. Don’t listen to your rational arguments about why this is not a good idea, Peter – listen to what my Son has to say, because he’s speaking the truth. It is necessary for him to suffer and die. He knows what he’s talking about.

But also, listen to him as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is the point in the story that they’ve been leading to. He fulfils the prophecies and interprets the Law as God’s anointed Son. He is greater than the ones who came before him – listen to him.

The final verse just gives us a fragment of the next paragraph, the discussion about Elijah and whether he should come first. Here in verse 9 I note that the disciples would have been very confused about Jesus’ reference to the resurrection because their Jewish belief saw the resurrection as something that would happen at the end of time to all the righteous, not in the middle of time to one young Jew. If they had to hold their tongues until the end, that would be a long wait! But no doubt they understood ‘after the fact’, which is why the story made it into the gospels at all!

‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’. Lamar Williamson comments on the command to silence:

The command to silence (v.9) is the last and climactic case in which a Christological confession, whether by demons (3:11), by Peter (8:29), or by God himself (9:7) is to be kept secret. Only here is a time limit set: “Until the Son of Man (shall) have risen from the dead”. This detail offers a fundamental clue for understanding the entire series of commands to silence, or the so-called ‘Messianic secret’ theme. There is no way to rightly understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die, and rise again (emphasis mine).

Reflecting on the significance of this passage, Pheme Perkins has a telling comment:

Christians frequently think of the divinity of Jesus in terms of heavenly glory or the triumph of the Parousia without recognising the real presence of God on the cross. We tend to think that Jesus is most clearly Son of God in glory, not in suffering. This passage challenges us to revise our understanding of how God’s presence comes to the world.

In this way we are like the disciples who assumed that a true Messiah would give evidence of his identity by military victory over the enemies of Israel, and who struggled with Jesus’ sense of call to sacrifice on the cross (‘And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him’ – 8:32). Apparently we are often still tempted to forget the centrality of the cross in Jesus’ mission – probably because we would prefer to avoid its centrality in the call of disciples too – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34) – remembering that the call of the cross is not about suffering in general, but rather relates specifically to the call to follow Jesus faithfully and being willing to pay the price of suffering for that faithfulness.

Lamar Williamson sets the text in context of the other ‘Son of God’ confessions in Mark:

The first is the voice of God to Jesus himself at the baptism (1:9-11), in which Jesus’ identity as Son of God is established. In the second, the transfiguration, that identity is confirmed to an inner circle of three disciples, offering a parallel to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ, a counterpoint to the first passion prediction, and a foretaste of the Parousia announced in the verses immediately preceding. The last in the series is the crucifixion, a sort of reverse transfiguration, in which the sight of Jesus dying in utter abandonment to the will of God wrings from the lips of a Roman army officer the confession, “Truly this man was the Son of God”.

The first of these is full of radiant promise, the last a witness to steadfastness in despair, and the middle one – the present text – combined glory (vv.2-8) and suffering (vv.9-13, especially verse 12) to present the paradox of divine power and weakness, lowliness and majesty, in the person of Jesus Christ. Israel’s Messiah and Son of God is the suffering and dying Son of man. For those who have eyes to see, his very suffering in steadfast obedience to the will of God is a mark of God’s own glory; but that glory can only be understood by resurrection faith, and it will become evident to all only at the Parousia of the Son of man. In the transfiguration, then, Jesus is revealed as Son of God, the one in whom is manifested simultaneously the splendour and lowliness of God.

Tom Wright adds:

It isn’t a revelation of Jesus’ divinity; if it were, that would make Moses and Elijah divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think… Rather, as the similar experiences of mystics in various cultures and ages would suggest, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, in the way that music transforms words that are sung. This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It’s the sign that he is indeed the true prophet, the true Messiah.

That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying. Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job. Mark is happy for later Christian readers to hear, in the phrase ‘son of God’, fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard. For them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at the baptism, is that Jesus is Messiah. That’s enough to be going on with.


Pheme Perkins: ‘Mark’ in ‘The New Interpreter’s Bible’ (1995).

Lamar Williamson: ‘Mark’ in the ‘Interpretation’ commentary series (1983)

Tom Wright: ‘Mark for Everyone’ (2001)

To Fear and Trust the Lord – Are They Incompatible? (a sermon on Psalm 147:11

I want to direct your attention this morning to a verse from our psalm for today. In the Book of Alternative Services it is Psalm 147:12, but the BAS has renumbered the verses and in fact in the original it’s verse 11. In the translation used in the BAS it goes like this: ‘But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favour’. However, I think the translation in our NRSV pew Bibles is much better: ‘But the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love’.

You may have noticed two words here that we aren’t used to seeing in close proximity to each other: fear and love. To us, the two are mutually incompatible. How can you fear someone, and trust in their love for you, at the same time? If you fear someone, that means you’re afraid they’re going to hurt you, right? So how can you also hope in their steadfast love for you?

Let’s look at the psalm as a whole to try to get an answer for this. Let’s start by asking, ‘What kind of God are we talking about here? What can we say about God?’ Let me point out three things the psalm tells us.

First, God created everything that exists and continues to care for it. The writer of the psalm points to God’s activity in the natural world; God is the one who ‘determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names’ (v.4). ‘He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry’ (vv.8-9). ‘He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs – who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow’ (vv.16-18).

So if we want to get a sense of who God is, we need to look at the greatness and wonder of God’s creation. One of our Eucharistic prayers talks about ‘the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’. Think about the enormous expanse of time – scientists think it’s about 14 billion years since the big bang, and our earth is only 4 billion years old, and if the days of the earth were compared to a 24 hour clock, we human beings first appeared on the earth at 3 seconds to midnight. Think also about the incredible diversity of creation, the miracle of DNA coding and how it makes life possible, the intricacy of the human eye, the amazing colours of a sunset. Climb a mountain and look down at the vastness of the world below you; watch a prairie storm in the summer time; look up at the night sky and try to count the number of the stars. Whatever else we can say about God, we have to say this: God is big!

God is God and I am not; this is one of the fundamental principles of biblical spirituality. In several places the Bible compares human beings to grass – we’re here today and gone tomorrow. Our life passes in the blink of the eye compared to the years that the universe has existed, and the universe has passed in the blink of an eye compared to the infinite existence of God. God’s power, God’s wisdom, God’s sheer creative skill – all are immeasurably greater than anything I can achieve. As our reading from Isaiah says,

‘It is (God) who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in:
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing’ (Isaiah 40:22-23).

This is part of what the Bible means by ‘the fear of the Lord’ – recognizing that in this relationship, God and I are not equals. God is infinitely greater, infinitely mightier, infinitely wiser, infinitely more patient and loving, infinitely more holy and awesome and good, than me. God is the creator, and I am the creature. God made everything that exists, including me, and therefore I belong to him. God does not exist for our benefit; rather, we exist to fit into his plan for us. And this is not an oppressive thing, because his love for us is infinite and his plan for us is good.

God created everything that exists, and continues to care for it. Secondly, God is the Saviour and Rescuer of his people. The psalmist says,

‘The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds’ (vv.2-3).

‘The LORD lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground’ (v.6).

‘Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem!
Praise your God, O Zion!
For he strengthens the bars of your gates,
he blesses your children within you.
He grants peace within your borders’ (vv.12-14a).

Many biblical scholars think that Psalm 147 was written after the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon. In 587 B.C. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire, the city had been burned, and many of its people had been taken away into captivity in Babylon, where they lived for over half a century. But in time, the Babylonian empire itself was overthrown by the Persian empire, and the Persian emperor Cyrus gave a decree that allowed the Jewish exiles to begin to return home. There were probably several waves of returning exiles over the eighty year period 538-445 B.C., and life was not easy for them as they tried to rebuild their ruined city and nation. Still, they celebrated the goodness of God in changing the political situation to allow them to return to their own land, and that’s probably what this psalm is all about.

To the Jewish people it was almost like a second Exodus. Their ancestral stories told them that God had found them as slaves in Egypt, unable to help themselves, but he had rescued them, delivering them from the hands of their enemies at the Red Sea, leading through the desert and giving them a land of their own to live in. And now he had brought them back from their captivity in Babylon to a place of safety in their own land.

For us New Testament believers, Jesus is the Saviour who has rescued us from the slavery of sin and death and brought us into our promised land, the place of relationship with God. The powers of evil appear to be strong, but Jesus in his life and ministry made war on them, and he won the decisive victory over them through his death and resurrection. It looked like a defeat, but in fact it was a victory, because God’s plan was perfectly fulfilled there. Jesus’ death made it possible for you and I to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit and a new relationship with God, and his resurrection assures us that God’s love is in fact stronger than death, so even death, our last and greatest enemy, is not to be feared any more. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:

‘Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying’. (Hebrews 2:14-15 New Living Translation).

Furthermore, Christian believers down through the centuries have testified many times that when we are desperate, when we reach the end of our rope and have nowhere else to turn, that’s often when we discover God’s love and power in a new way. Not that God always delivers us from our circumstances, although sometimes he does; more often, though, we discover within ourselves resources that we didn’t know we had, and we find that we are strengthened and can go through things we thought would overwhelm us, because we know God is with us. God is our ‘rock’ – that’s the most common metaphor for God in the Book of Psalms – a firm place to stand in the midst of the storm.

Our psalm says that God takes pleasure ‘in those who hope in his steadfast love’ (v.11b). The word for ‘steadfast love’ in Hebrew is chesed; the King James Version translated it ‘loving kindness’, which is quite beautiful, and the NIV just uses the word ‘love’, which I find a bit weak. I like the NRSV ‘steadfast love’; it means ‘love with muscles’, love you can count on, love that’s always there because God has committed himself to making sure it’s always there. God is the Saviour and Rescuer of his people, and we can put our hope in his steadfast love for us.

So we’ve seen that God is the creator of everything and that he continues to care for his creation, and we’ve seen that God is the Saviour and rescuer of his people. We might say that these two themes talk to us about the power of God and the love of God. The third theme might be related to the wisdom of God; the psalmist rejoices in the fact that God guides us through his Word. Look at verses 19-20a:

‘He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his ordinances’.

We might think that Israel might find the law of God to be a burden, but that’s not the way this writer sees it. Rather, he’s full of gratitude for the fact that God has not left his people to wander in the dark without guidance. The all-wise and all-loving God who created everything has given his people the wisdom they need to be able to live the life they have been given, and that wisdom comes to us through his Word. This is the same word that God spoke at creation to call everything into being, and the same word that he continues to speak to order the forces of nature. And now he has spoken it to us as well. Think of it: remember how enormous the universe is, and how many billions of years it has existed, and how short is the life of our species on this tiny planet, but the Creator of all has cared enough to speak a Word of guidance to us!

How does this Word come to us? In the Old Testament it was always a dynamic thing – God spoke to his people through his prophets. Moses and Elijah, Amos and Micah and the rest: most of the time they weren’t expecting it, but ‘the Word of the Lord came to them’ like a burning fire in their heart, and they had to speak.

But the Word he has spoken to us is even greater. Remember what Hebrews says:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

Sometimes we speak about the Bible as the Word of God, and indeed we do find words from God written for us in the Bible. But the Bible itself tells us that it is Jesus who is the Word of God in the highest sense: his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, give us the clearest picture we have of what God is like and what his will for us is. And so if we want to sum up God’s will for us in one word, we could use the word ‘Christlikeness’; God wants us to be like Christ, because that is the way of true wisdom.

So let’s return to the question we started with: How can we both ‘fear the Lord’ and also ‘hope in his steadfast love’? Doesn’t fear mean we’re afraid God is going to hurt us? And how can we hope in his steadfast love for us if we’re afraid he’s going to hurt us?

No, fear doesn’t mean we’re afraid God is going to hurt us. It means that we recognize that God is God and we are not. We have lived for only a few short years, but God has lived forever – not only the fourteen billion years the universe has existed, but infinitely longer, because he existed before time began and he will exist beyond the end of time, if such a thing ever happens. With all our scientific advances we are still helpless against some of the most dangerous and powerful forces that threaten to overwhelm us, and against our own inner demons that threaten to destroy us. But God is not helpless; the God who created everything is also stronger than everything that he has made. Our wisdom and knowledge are limited, but God’s wisdom and knowledge are infinite.

To fear the Lord, then, means to give up our human desire to be the god of our own world, and to quietly and willingly taken our rightful place as God’s creatures before our loving Creator. As we do this, we put ourselves in the place where we can indeed hope in his steadfast love. We will acknowledge him as God of all creation; we will call on his help as our Saviour in our time of need; we will listen to the Word he has spoken to us in Jesus, and we will shape our lives by it. The psalmist tells us that the Lord will see that, and take pleasure in it. I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like a good thing!

Who Is This? (sermon on Mark 1.21-28)

Tom Wright begins his commentary on today’s gospel with this story:

Not long ago there was a great disaster at sea. A tourist boat, loaded with cars and holidaymakers, had failed to shut its doors properly; the water began to pour in; the boat began to sink, and panic set in. People were screaming as the happy, relaxed atmosphere of the ship turned in minutes into something worse than a horror movie.

All at once one man – not a member of the crew – took charge. In a clear voice he gave orders, telling people what to do. Relief mixed with the panic as people realised someone at least was in charge, and many managed to reach lifeboats they would otherwise have missed in the dark and the rush. The man himself made his way down to the people trapped in the hold. There he formed a human bridge; holding on with one hand to a ladder and with the other to part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he enabled still more to cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed – the authority by which many had been saved.

Our gospel reading for today is all about the authority of Jesus. Like the man in Tom Wright’s story, he wasn’t ‘a member of the crew’ – in other words, he hadn’t been properly educated by the rabbis, and he had no formal position of authority in the recognised religious structures of the day. Today we might say that Jesus was a layman and was never ordained as a priest. And yet, as Mark tells his story, we get the picture of Jesus as a man whose words have unusual authority, not just in teaching, but also in confronting the forces of evil.

We all instinctively yearn for this, because sooner or later all of us begin to get the sinking feeling that our lives are out of control. We’ve been going along quite nicely, thank you very much, proceeding with our plans for our career and our family and our retirement, but then life throws something completely unexpected in our direction. Suddenly the global economy goes into free fall, and the investments we were relying on for a comfortable retirement lose a huge amount of their value. Or, just as it looks as if our plans are shaping up, a visit to a doctor reveals the unpleasant truth that we’ve got a serious, perhaps life-threatening illness. Months of unpleasant treatments lie ahead, and even after that the outcome is not guaranteed.

‘Forces beyond our control’ – that’s the phrase that so often is used. Reporters ask the chairman of the board of the corporation why they’ve had to lay off so many workers. “It’s the global markets”, he replies; “We’re subject to forces beyond our control”. Governments pass stimulus packages, hoping that something can turn the ship around, but even then there’s no guarantee that it will work. This is bigger than one human being, even if that human being happens to be the president of the most powerful country on earth.

That’s what Mark’s story is about today. People are used to human impotence in the face of the forces of evil, but suddenly, to everyone’s astonishment, a man strides onto the stage and begins to say and do things that they thought no mere human being could say or do, and the forces of evil have to sit up and take notice of him. Who is this man? That’s the question Mark wants us to consider.

Let’s remind ourselves of the context. Jesus has come back from his first struggle with the devil when he was tempted in the wilderness. He’s begun to announce the message that the kingdom of God has come near – in other words, God is taking authority again in his world and confronting the dark powers that have enslaved his creation. Jesus has called his first disciples to follow him, promising that he will make them fish for people. Now it’s the Sabbath day, and as loyal Jews and worshippers of the God of Israel, it’s natural for Jesus and his followers to go to the weekly service at the synagogue.

In the synagogue Jesus begins to teach. We’re not told how that came about. The synagogue was governed by elders, and it was their responsibility to make sure someone was there to interpret the scriptures for the congregation. On a similar occasion Luke tells us that Jesus was invited to come forward and read a passage from the scriptures and explain it to the people; we can perhaps assume that something like that happened here.

But when Jesus begins to speak, the crowd notices right away something very different about his teaching: ‘for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ (v.22). We can perhaps guess what that means. It was the custom for the scribes to appeal to other authorities when they were explaining the scriptures to the people. “Rabbi so-and-so says this about the text; Rabbi such-and-such disagrees with him and takes this line…” and so on. I believe this is still true today in orthodox Judaism; when rabbis are teaching from the Talmud they will often appeal to the writings of great scholars from years gone by.

But we remember from the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus didn’t teach like that. The formula he sometimes used was, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you’. In other words, if he thought that the interpretations of previous generations were wrong, he wasn’t shy about saying so, and he felt no need to back up his opinions by appealing to a higher authority. He simply stated the truth as he saw it: ‘This is the way it is; end of the story’.

We can imagine that some people were offended by this, and were thinking to themselves, “Who does this man think he is? Where did he get these big ideas about himself?” But just as they were starting to ask themselves this question, something dramatic happened. Look at verses 23-26:

‘Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him”. And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him’.

What are we to make of this story? All of Jesus’ contemporaries would have accepted without question the existence of the Devil and of lesser evil spirits, sometimes referred to as demons; Mark here refers to an ‘unclean spirit’. Indeed, all of the writers of the New Testament assume this belief – that, behind all of the evil in the world, there is a powerful and malevolent force which is in rebellion against God, and is determined to impose its will on human beings and use them for its evil purposes. Jesus simply takes this for granted and acts accordingly, and so do the other New Testament authors.

Modern people are more sceptical about this; they tend to see it as a superstitious holdover from a pre-scientific age. According to this way of thinking, ancient people believed that mental illnesses and diseases were caused by demons, but nowadays we know that they are caused by germs and by childhood traumas. So a modern interpreter of this story is more likely to see this man as suffering from some sort of mental illness, and Jesus as being somehow able to reach into his tortured psyche and bring him some healing.

I want to say quite clearly that this is not my view. I think that if the Lord and his apostles accepted the existence of unclean spirits and acted accordingly, then I have no reason to disbelieve. Furthermore, without going into details, I’ll simply say that I’ve seen enough in my thirty years of pastoral experience to know that, as Shakespeare says in Hamlet, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt in your philosophy’. Interestingly enough, at least one modern psychiatrist, Dr. Scott Peck, also believes this; in his book The People of the Lie he fully accepts the traditional belief in evil forces and even in exorcism, and he defends this belief from the point of view of a practising psychiatrist.

However, even if we follow the path of modern interpretation and see this as a confrontation with a mental illness, what is happening in this passage is truly amazing. Most doctors, when confronting some mental illness such as Multiple Personality Disorder, have to spend long hours in counselling sessions over periods of months and years to even begin to bring some healing to these troubled souls. But Jesus simply speaks a word of power, the man goes into convulsions, and then he’s at peace. So even if we take the modern line of interpretation that this is mental illness of some kind, the question still remains: ‘Who is this? Who is this who has the power to bring healing to these suffering people with just a word?’

And this is exactly the question Mark wants us to ask. Modern readers of this passage tend to fixate on the question of whether or not evil spirits exist, but ancient readers wouldn’t have done so – to them, there was no question about it. To them, the emphasis would have been on the authority of Jesus, and Mark emphasises this by using the word ‘authority’ twice in the text: Jesus’ teaching is authoritative, and so is his confrontation with the forces of evil.

What exactly is that authority? Today we live in a pluralistic age and a lot of people would much prefer us to reduce Jesus to the level of just an ordinary human teacher. Many human beings have founded great world religions, and Jesus is just another one like them – very wise and good, no doubt, but still just a human being.

But the point that Mark is trying to make for us in the first half of his gospel is precisely the opposite: Jesus is doing things that no other man could do. Whether or not he has the right to do so – and of course, that’s a controversial issue for his first hearers, just as it is for us today – he’s teaching people directly with the authority of God, rather than appealing to human authorities to back up his opinion. But just as people are asking themselves who he thinks he is, he shows by his easy victory over the unclean spirit that this is not just empty chatter: he has real power, a power of the sort his hearers have never seen before.

Mark is painting us a picture of the strong Son of God, God’s anointed king, who is boldly walking into a world full of lies and evil, speaking the truth and setting people free. He can do things no one else can do, because he isn’t just like anyone else. The unclean spirit is actually telling us the truth for once: this is the Holy One of God, God’s anointed servant, the Son of God himself. This isn’t just another religious philosopher giving us timeless religious wisdom on the same level as the others who came before him and after him. What is happening in Jesus is unique, and the further Mark gets on with his story, the more we’re going to realise that we are called on to give some sort of response to this man. Who do we think he is? And what are we going to do about it?

Which of course is where it gets personal for you and me. Apparently the unclean spirit had no choice in the matter: Jesus wanted to set a suffering human being free, and his authority was so strong that when he spoke a word of command, it had to come out of the man. But God in his infinite grace and mercy has given you and me a choice. God has no desire for us to obey him out of compulsion; he wants us to freely surrender our will to him, because we love him and trust him for ourselves. And so the strong Son of God gives us a genuine choice in the matter. In last week’s gospel reading we read about him coming into Galilee, announcing the good news of the kingdom and inviting people to turn away from their sins, to believe in him, and to follow him. Whether or not people respond is up to them.

So this is the challenge Mark is bringing to us: who do we think Jesus is? We’ve already seen him casting out an evil spirit with a word; as we go on in Mark’s story we’re going to watch as he heals people of all kinds of diseases – as he claims to be able to forgive a man’s sins and then backs up the claim by raising him from a bed of paralysis – as he calms a huge storm on a lake simply by speaking a word – as he raises a little girl from the dead. In each instance the hearers ask the question, ‘Who is this man?’

Mark is asking us, ‘Do you think an ordinary man can do things like this? And if not, who is this man? I’ll tell you who he is – he’s the Son of God, the Messiah, the one whom God has sent to be the true King, and he’s calling people everywhere to turn away from their previous allegiances and follow him as their Saviour and Lord’.

This is nothing new for us Anglicans, of course; we hear it every time we have a baptism service. The baptismal candidates are asked, ‘Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?’ In each case, they reply, ‘I renounce them’. They are then invited to affirm their faith in Jesus and their commitment to him: ‘Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to obey him as your Lord?’ and in each case they reply, ‘I do’.

 This is our baptismal commitment to Jesus. We are those who have renounced the powers of evil, accepted the Christian teaching that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, and committed ourselves to following him and obeying him as not only the Lord of all, but our Lord as well. So as we listen to this gospel reading that underlines the authority of Jesus in such a dramatic way, let’s renew our own commitment to joyfully submit to his authority and to follow him as his disciples day by day.