Saturday, January 19, 2013

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Romans 12:6-16a * Mark 1:1-11

The season of Epiphany gives us pictures of Christ that are meant to help us understand the revelation of who He is. Look at an icon of this event, and you get a glimpse of the meaning of this Gospel passage. The Son stands in the water, the Spirit appears in form as of a dove and lights upon Him, and the Father’s voice comes from above. This clear revelation of God is why we should think of today as a companion Sunday to Trinity Sunday. It is why the Orthodox Church sees this scene from the Gospels as the most significant Theophany, for which they name this season.         
About thirty years ago I heard a man preach that when the Father spoke the words, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” that this was somehow necessary in order to meet the psychological need of Jesus, a word of approbation from the Father that, as the preacher’s words still ring in my memory, “His Son needed.” I do not know where people get these ideas, but they do not find them in the pages of scripture. The idea that we can understand Jesus Christ in psychological terms that are based upon the normal condition of fallen sinful people, who need healing or affirmation because of the brokenness of their lives, is a short route to heresy. We must not try to get into the mind of Jesus Christ as if He were subject to the problems that sinful people have. His understanding of His mission is not a subject for that kind of analysis.
Another idea that was popular for many years is that Jesus was suddenly aware of who He was, and of His unique relationship to the Father, because of the voice from heaven and this whole spiritual experience. This interpretation comes from the idea that He was drawn to hear the preaching of John the Baptist, and underwent some sort of personal epiphany akin to religious conversion, the kind that takes place when revivalists preach. According to this interpretation, he emerged from the water a new man, suddenly filled with divine purpose. Again, this would require that we imagine a Jesus who came to John in order to be forgiven his own sins, because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. But, the thought of Jesus having sins of which to repent is wrong. He is without sin.
We need to think according to the actual revelation that is recorded here in the scriptures, and free our minds from wrong ideas. For, the simple fact is, nothing that Jesus did in His public ministry had anything to do with meeting a supposed need of His own. Everything was for our sakes, like the hymn says- “for us baptized, for us He bore his holy fast and hungered sore.” That wonderful hymn begins each line with those two words, “for us.”
For us He prayed, For us He taught, For us His daily works he wrought…For us to wicked men betrayed…For us he rose from death again.” What happened here at the River Jordan did not happen because the Son needed the Father’s affirmation, and it is was not some personal epiphany that changed His life. He knew already exactly who He was, and of His unique relationship to the Father, having expressed it to Joseph and Mary in the temple many years earlier when he was a child twelve years old. He asked them why they had looked for Him when they ought to have known that he would be in His Father’s house.       
Jesus went to the River Jordan in order to begin His public ministry, to appear to the people of Israel, and to be proclaimed by John the Baptist as the Son of God. The baptism itself serves as a prelude to the crucifixion that He, for us, later would endure unto death. For here, standing with sinners in the waters of the Jordan, He is willingly taking on the sins of the whole world for the first time, letting Himself be identified with sinners and with their sins, remaining Himself guiltless, completely holy, and the only person among all of the human race about Whom the Father would say that He is well pleased. God loves the fallen sinful children of men; but He is not well pleased with any of them in their Fallen state. Only His Son, free from sin, was pleasing to God; and here we see him entering the waters of the Jordan to begin his identification with our sins, a voluntary identification that would culminate on the cross.  In John’s Gospel it is after this epiphany, this epiphany to John the Baptist and the people gathered, that the Baptist proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.”  
I remember another strange idea that was expressed in my hearing, only this time it was from a layman. According to this fellow, there was some point when Jesus complained in response to the demands of a crowd that he was only one man, and they were asking too much from him. I do not know what movie this man saw, or what silly story he once heard from a well-meaning relative while growing up, or what dream he dreamt. I pointed out to him that nothing of the sort ever happened; that the Gospels record no such thing. Jesus fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fishes, rose people from the dead, walked on water, healed everyone who came to Him, and never once complained about anything except for how little faith people have. He did not work within the confines of His human nature, but from within His eternal Godhead as the Son eternally begotten of the Father. He did not diminish His Divine nature, but rather he raised human nature. He did not reveal what is possible for a good man, but what is possible with God. The human nature that he took into His Divine Person as God the Son was a complete human nature; but the Person of Jesus the man was that of God the Son.          
The voice from Heaven, and the appearance like that of a dove, all centered upon Jesus in the River Jordan, did not come for His sake. It did not meet some need that He had. It was for the sake of those who stood upon the bank of the river, those who saw and heard. It was for the sake of all of us who have learned about this epiphany, this revelation of the Trinity, about that full and perfect name of God that later would be spoken by Christ after he rose from the dead: “The name of The Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Here is a revelation of God, and of the mysterious relationship that has existed from all eternity, about which we have no right to speculate, hidden and veiled except for glimpses of revelation meant to aid us in our salvation. At no point was the Son alone, for the Father was always with Him, and the Holy Spirit remained upon Him.      
The other people came to the Baptist confessing their sins. But, about this man the Father made a confession, that He was well pleased. The others came out of need. Jesus was there to meet our needs, especially the deepest need of all, to be reconciled to God; to know Him, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. Others came to lay down their sins; Jesus was there to take up the sins they laid down, and to carry them to Calvary where they would be nailed to the cross with Him. The others came to lay down their burdens; Jesus was there to take up their burdens. “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53: 4-6).”   
The Holy Spirit appears as a dove. Now, this is a different kind of manifestation than the physical presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit is appearing in a vision granted to everyone there; His appearing is in a symbolic way, that is to say, it is a Divine writing of iconography in the very heavens. The appearance of a dove is a symbol, and the message is that God’s wrath is over and done. This is the Christmas message of the angel who appeared and spoke to the shepherds of “peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” Not among men, but towards men. We are reminded of the story of Noah, who sent out the dove, which returned with an olive branch in its mouth to reveal that the waters of God’s wrath had abated from off the earth. Noah later offered a sacrifice after he left the ark, and God promised not to destroy man, and hung up His bow, His rainbow, as a pledge. The meaning is this: By appearing as a dove that descended upon Jesus, the Holy Spirit signified to us that Christ is the peace offering that reconciles us to God. This too, just like the very baptism itself, points to our redemption by Christ’s full and complete offering of Himself on the cross.
And, to the ear came the audible voice of the Father, telling us of His pleasure in the Son. This is more than simply His approval of Christ’s holy life. It is the eternal love within the Trinity, wherein God delights in being God, where each of the Persons delights in the perfection and worthiness of the other two Persons. We know this is true, but our speaking of it cannot do justice to the reality as we shall begin to know it when the risen Christ returns in glory. For now, we see the significance in the Father’s words, telling us not only of His Son’s worthiness and holiness, but telling us this in contrast to the pleasure He cannot take in the fallen state of every other human being who was there. Here too we understand why this voice was heard at the Lord’s baptism. As Jesus Christ identified Himself with sinful mankind, the other Persons of the Godhead told us Who He is, and why He is Himself without sin, but standing in for us to save us. The Father speaks of His Son Who always pleases Him, telling us not only that He remains holy and without spot or stain of sin, but even more; that He is the Son Who throughout eternity and before all worlds gives delight to the Father in that Divine love that is beyond our comprehension.

We see the Trinity in this report of the Lord’s baptism that day. The vision of the Holy Spirit was for our sake; the voice of the Father was for our sake. Here we see and hear the Trinity with eyes and ears, and we see also that only in Jesus Christ and His offering of Himself do we have salvation from sin and death. And, we can say, from all this, that the revelation of the Trinity tells us, in the words of Saint John the Apostle, “God is love.”

The revelation of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, is a necessary part of our salvation. It is not about abstract and difficult academic theology, but about how God, who is Love, saves us from sin and death and promises to raise us up in His Son. He has made Himself known in our world- not perfectly understood, but known. What was revealed that day at the River Jordan was a revelation to every human being except Jesus, who alone already knew.


Anonymous said...

Fr Hart,

How do we know that God the Father spoke the words, "This is my Beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased"? Could it not perhaps have been the Holy Spirit speaking, since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit?

It is interesting to draw a thread from the dove motif in the Baptism of Christ to the Song of Solomon, Chapter 2, verse 14: "Oh my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely." The dove here is the Bride, the female, the beloved. She is to be seen (let me see thy countenance) before she speaks (let me hear thy voice).

The Church is the Bride of Christ in Revelation. The Holy Spirit formed the Church by baptizing all believers into the Body of Christ at Pentecost. In Ephesians, we are called to "be imitators of God, as beloved children."


Fr. Robert Hart said...

That Jesus Christ is the only and eternally begotten Son of the Father is about His eternal Divine Person, Who He is as God "before" the Incarnation.