Especially in light of the recent violence, I would like to start out by mentioning that this is a difficult time of the year for many. The combination of overspending at Christmas, the cold weather, and even the lack of daylight make for a significant amount of pain in the lives of many people. Many will turn to violence, alcohol, or other things to lessen that pain.
Lent is here also to remind us of the pain in our lives. Lent is here also to remind us of the pain in the life of Jesus. And it will last for forty days, a significant amount of time here on earth (with its ‘four corners’).
And although we take a step back chronologically in the life of Christ, the gospel text for the First Sunday in Lent is an appropriate one—Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. And although the account of that temptation in the Gospel according to Mark is incredibly small, it is also incredibly interesting.
Mark 1:12 contains the first occurrence of what is often called the ‘historical present’. Usually something that happened in the past is described in the past tense. But sometimes an author will change the tense and describe certain events as if they were happening in the present. This certainly creates an emphasis, but what kind?
A comparison between the gospel accounts in a somewhat literal translation will certainly help to clarify. (And the Christian’s early use of the codex [or book] for the bible helped to promote these kinds of comparisons.)
Matthew 4:1: ‘Then that Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Spirit….’
Luke 4:1: ‘And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness….’
Mark 1:12: ‘And, straightway, the Spirt throws him out into the wilderness….
Using the same word when Jesus cast out the demons, he himself gets cast out into the wilderness. This work of the Spirit, in a sense, is a significantly brutal action. There is a big difference between leading and throwing out someone—you are on opposite sides of the person! The use of this verb prepares us for some of the violence to follow.
Please pardon me for going back to this theme, but one of the ways in which a king showed his authority is by power, action, and even violence. A king without a power is not a true king.
One of the living creatures of God’s throne is the lion, and you do not want to mess with a lion. The Gospel according to Mark is most often connected to the lion, and this is an appropriate connection. In this account, God will often show his power—still in a unique way of course.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, at the end of the temptation, the text says that the devil leaves him. In the Gospel according to Luke, it says that he leaves ‘until an opportune time (4:13).’ There is no talk of the devil leaving in the Gospel according to Mark. The battle rages on.
The threat of violence is clear. God says that things on earth will get worse, not better. We are not talking about evolution, but devolution.
But Jesus already walked this path. He made it safe for us. And he bids us to follow him.
The last Sunday in Epiphany is always Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday where the focus is Jesus being transfigured or, as the Greek says it, ‘metamorphosed (I don’t think that is a new word)’. In simple words, Jesus is changed.
I think it is interesting that each gospel account has a different way to describe how Jesus looked. This year, in the Gospel according to Mark, his clothes are described as ‘intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them (ESV, 9:3).’ Matthew’s description could be connected to creation (17:2), while Luke’s could be connected to another person (9:29). And Mark’s description could be connected to, of all things, a CANDIDATE!
Since most of the media is talking about politics these days, I thought I would join in as well.
If I knew this before, I had forgotten it—that the word ‘candidate’ comes from the Latin word, ‘candidus’, meaning ‘white’. It described the white toga that candidates would wear when they ran for a political office in ancient Rome. (Since this gospel account was written in Rome, I would think that this is a deliberate connection.)
I hope no one thinks that the ancient Roman politicians were extremely nice people and that we have devolved into a very cruel and ‘heartless’ society. Politics has ALWAYS been political. (Et tu, Brute?)
I can imagine young senators wanting to get their toga the whitest so that they would literally stand out amongst the rest. I can also imagine those people paying a lot of money to do that.
But what is that compared to our Lord and how he looked on that day? Any talk about Jesus—or even simply God—helps to keep things in perspective.
In our two-party system in America, we depend on CIVIL conflict—since we are part of a civilized society, much like the Romans. The conflict between those two parties should often resolve itself into a positive outcome for many, if not all.
It might be nice sometimes to retreat to the mountains and have a vision of Jesus in his intensely white garments. But he certainly did not stay up there very long. And, when he finally came down from the mountain, went up to the cross, and then he went down into the tomb. There were a lot of things on his calendar!
After Jesus rose from the dead, many people who wanted to see him were not able—and that still is true today.
But his unique and precious promises also still hold true in today’s reality.
The Gospel text for this Sunday continues to describe that special Sabbath in Capernaum where Jesus just healed the man with the unclean spirit, then proceeds to heal Peter’s mother-in-law, and then, after the sun had set, proceeds to heal many more people.
There is a whole lot of healing going on! But I believe it is unique to this gospel account that it never says that ALL were healed. This phrase appears in both the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke. And the Greek word ‘heal’ (where we get the word ‘therapeutic’ from) only appears six times in the Gospel according to Mark (and the last time is in chapter six), and it is at least double that in the other two accounts (and the word also appears much later in those accounts).
While I admit that I might be reading too much into that perspective, I would like to share a little bit about the archeological work going on in Pompeii.
What does Pompeii have to do with Jesus and healing? More than you might think! First of all, there is the tradition that this gospel account was written by Mark, secretary to Peter, when both were in Rome. The tradition was also that Peter died sometime in the decade starting in 60 A.D.
Pompeii is only about a hundred miles from Rome. It was the city that was destroyed by the great volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D (it also had a devastating earthquake several years before this). And, although the eruption of Vesuvius was a great tragedy and many lives were lost, the site provides a unique look into an ancient civilization. There have been some artifacts that would lead archaeologists to believe that some people were Christians.
A strong connection between Christianity and Pompeii has been made by Bruce Longnecker. He has written a couple things on this topic. And, after evaluating the data, he has suggested that the Christians in Pompeii were definitely interested in the benefits of Jesus’ power to enhance their lives, to protect them from evil. And it was almost as if the cross was a good-luck charm.
One of the pictures available from Pompeii is that of a small cross carved out of stone, and it struck me that the cross was quite elegant. It was not an ugly, basic cross, but it was if it had waves radiating out from its center. Again, I might be reading too much into this, but it seemed like a cross that spoke more about power than about love.
I would say that there can be little talk about power when Jesus is hanging there, dead on the cross. But THAT is when the centurion describes him as the Son of God. And, after his resurrection, the angel has the women focus on Jesus’ words—that he promised that he would be seen. This perspective is helpful for those who might want a ‘stronger’ ending to this account—and in their own lives.
I am not surprised that things went so quickly in such a wrong direction for the early Christians in Pompeii. That is the story in Genesis with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, as well as with Abraham, Isaac, AND Jacob. That is also the story of the nation of Israel under Moses, under the Judges and under the Kings. That is the story in the New Testament as well. Peter said he would follow Jesus until death, and then, just a few hours later, denies that he knew him three times.
Thankfully, that is not the entire story. And that is why Jesus, our Savior, showed his great love for all people. He healed many in the city of Capernaum, but then he moved on. The world’s problem is much bigger; his battle will be much bigger.
The Gospel text for this coming Sunday (Mark 1:21-28) has Jesus coming IMMEDIATELY into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and there IMMEDIATELY was a man with an unclean spirit. There is even the same word (although it is translated ‘at once’), after the miracle, that Jesus’ fame spreads EVERYWHERE THROUGHOUT ALL the surrounding region—and here we have another literary exaggeration. But there is no ‘immediately’ mentioned when Jesus heals. That is an extremely painful omission.
That reminds me of the first miracle after Jesus’ transfiguration; this is another delayed healing. This healing in chapter one is the first miracle recorded after Jesus’ baptism—unless if you consider his ability to get four fishermen to follow him to be a miracle! (This was an important aspect to be included so that at least two or three witnesses could attest to these events.)
The following are two painful realities regarding the exorcisms in the Gospel according to Mark: The man with the unclean spirit does not get healed right away, and the boy with the unclean spirit is rolling around on the ground (it happened IMMEDIATELY after the spirit saw Jesus), in desperate need of help, and Jesus asks the father, ‘How long has this been happening?’ The father ends up getting a bit impatient, and so do we. (He even IMMEDIATELY cried out, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’, and, sometimes, so do we.)
At the baptism of Jesus, the way the text came across, Jesus was the only one who saw heaven opened and who heard the words, ‘You are my beloved Son….’ Now comes the good Lutheran question, ‘What does this mean?’ Some people would probably like an IMMEDIATE answer to that question. The demons and the devils certainly did.
It is a fascinating statement of the unclean spirit in chapter one. Literally, he asks, ‘what is it between us and you?’ (Jesus asked the same question of Mary right before he turned water into wine in John 2—his first miracle according to that account.). In other words, what is our relationship? How are we related? Then he says, ‘I know who you are—the Holy One of God.’ Jesus is holy; the demon is not.
Jesus is holy; the synagogue was not. Jesus is holy, and, when we consider our sin, we are not.
It is interesting that Jesus tells him to be quiet. Later Mark says that Jesus would not let the unclean spirits talk when he cast them out. If Jesus would have let them talk, they could have added to his numbers IMMEDIATELY.
I am sure that the early Christians who were getting killed because they were followers of Jesus wanted something good to happen IMMEDIATELY. We are sometimes no different.
The demons were speaking the truth. They knew who he was. They knew he was holy. But that is not good news. Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of God and the gospel of God. Those things belong to God, and through that gospel, God tells us that we IMMEDIATELY belong to him. Now THAT is good news.
The Gospel text for this Sunday starts us on a relatively slow, deliberate journey with the Gospel according Mark. But a slow journey is hardly possible with this gospel account. The writer’s pace is unbelievable at times, especially when you take into account all the times the word ‘immediately’ appears.
I call it a slow journey because we will stay in this account until the third Sunday in Lent. And the Gospel texts for the next few weeks are as follows: 1:14-20, 1:21-28, and 1:29-39; and, if Easter were later (it happens to be April Fool’s Day this year!), there could be up to three weeks of texts which immediately follow after those.
During Epiphany we do not want to get too far into the Gospel according to Mark since, at the very beginning of chapter 3, Jesus’ enemies are already planning to destroy him. In a way, Lent is right around the corner.
Epiphany gives us a little time to enjoy a revelation or two about Jesus. How Jesus reveals himself in this account is certainly unique, and you do not have to go too far into the text to see that.
Mark 1:14-15 go this way (according to the ESV): “After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” It is extremely interesting—and I checked this to be sure—that this is, according to some manuscripts, the first mention of 'God' in the text. And he is certainly mentioned more than once!
Some manuscripts do not have Jesus called ‘Son of God’ at the end of first sentence of this account, and even if it is NOT there, that he is eventually called that in the text is an amazing thing. And even if it IS there, the frequent mention (and allusion) to God in this text is noticeable.
In verses 14 and 15 there is the phrase ‘the gospel of God’; Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of God’, and when he says that ‘the time is fulfilled’, the implication is that this special time is determined by God (cf. BDAG, p. 498). The emphasis on God is undeniable. And it all started after the mention of an arrest (literally, a ‘giving over’ or, perhaps, a ‘passing on’).
The emphasis continues to be one of power. People are used to talking about power. People like to have power. In the same way (as it has always been), people like to be like God—someone with power.
This God of the text has a gospel. This God has a timeline. And this God has a kingdom. Perhaps you can imagine God sitting on his throne in heaven. He decides (given his timeline) to send a messenger to give some important news (and this is the definition of ‘gospel’ in the Old Testament).
God has always had a kingdom. God has always had some good news. That he decides to share it with us is incredible. The WAY in which he did it is BEYOND incredible. That he decided to share it with the harassed, belittled, outnumbered Christians in Rome is also incredible. And sometimes we can feel the same way as they did. That those early Christians were able to pass it along is even more incredible.
As Mark 1:1 reminds us, this is only the beginning of the good news.
The Gospel according to John is an amazing text for many reasons.
At the moment, what is most fascinating for me is that several people are examining this account as a literary work; whereas, with the other accounts, the focus is mostly the historical setting.
I am not saying that all of the accounts should not be seen as historical. But whether you are trying to find the theology, the history, or the literary devices within a certain work, the fact is that all of these accounts are already literary works, and both the theology and the history we are getting are coming out of these literary works. And a good, basic, beginning step is to see how these literary works are structured in a literary way.
Hopefully, eventually, we will see a literary emphasis with all the gospel accounts and especially how they work together. For the time being, we can enjoy the literary treasures that others have found within the Gospel according to John.
Currently, the writings that I am interested in are the ones of Francis J. Moloney. A recent book came out of his collected works on the Gospel according to John: Johannine Studies: 1975-2017. This is one of those books that is not for everyone, but it IS in English, and it CAN be helpful to understand a text within this gospel account.
I enjoyed the context which he gave for the Gospel text for this coming Sunday (John 1:43-51). There is a time reference at the very beginning of this text that is almost always overlooked.
In the previous two sections, they both start out the same way as this text: ‘The next day…(John 1:29, 35, 43).’ The text following this starts out differently: ‘On the third day… (2:1).’ Moloney compares this structure to that of the Exodus and the children of Israel, right before they received the Law at Mt. Sinai. There is the phrase, ‘The next day….’ at Exodus 18:13, for example, and there is also the phrase, ‘On the morning of the third day….’ at Exodus 19:16. And then the Ten Commandments are given in Exodus 20.
In this way, I think the writer tries to emphasize what he was talking about in his introduction, that while ‘the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).’
After the first ‘sign’ or miracle, when Jesus turned water into wine, the text says that he manifested his glory. This fits with the tabernacle that was built and went along with the children of Israel. The glory of God was connected to that tabernacle—and Mt. Sinai. (See Exodus 19:16; the word for ‘thick’, describing the cloud, could also mean ‘heavy’, and that is the same word as ‘glory’.) And now there is a glory that is connected to Jesus.
You could even see the whole of this account as a liturgical year—with the entire liturgy focusing on Jesus, but we can save that connection for another time.
It has bothered me for a while that, within the Gospel according to Mark, the writer states that '... all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and we being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:5).' I am particularly focusing on the use of the word 'all' within the text. I cannot imagine the city of Jerusalem being totally vacant, as well as the area of Judea. Obviously they did not all come out at the same time. But was it really even all?
To be honest, I did not like his exaggeration. (In literary terms, this is called a hyperbole.) If he exaggerates with this, with what else is he going to exaggerate?
That turned out to be a very good question. How else does the writer use the word 'all' within the text?
This verse has the very first uses of the word 'all' within this gospel account. They point to the great successes of John the Baptist. He simply shows up. There is no account of his birth. There is an Old Testament verse, and then he appears. He comes on the scene in a big way, and this is shown in the responses of the people. ALL of them went out.
The entrance of Jesus is different ... and yet the same. He shows up to get baptized. Again, as with John, there is no account of his birth. The results of his baptism are HUGE. How many times have the heavens ripped open like they were at his baptism? The focus of the text quickly and appropriately shifts to Jesus.
Things with Jesus begin to build quite quickly. In verse 32 ALL who were sick were brought to him. (It's interesting that, following this, the text says that MANY were healed--and not all.) But the next time the word 'all' is used is when Jesus went away to pray the next morning, and Peter says to him, 'Everyone is looking for you (v. 37).' In other words, ALL are looking for you. That is the next use of the word.
It seems that Jesus does not like that exaggeration. The implication of Peter seems to be that, if everyone is looking for Jesus, he should go to them. But Jesus does not do what they want. He does what HE wants. And he wants to go to the next towns. He says that is why he 'came out'.
He ends up preaching around in Galilee and getting the attention of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Then he ends up going there and getting killed.
I actually like that exaggeration that all are looking for Jesus. I like that exaggeration, especially in light of the way that this gospel account ends. In Mark 16:8, it says that the women fled from the tomb, 'for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.'
Now THAT is an exaggeration that I have NEVER really liked. And, again, I think I can see a literary purpose within it, especially in light of the situation of the earliest Christians. They were getting killed for the faith. Peter and Paul were both killed at about the same time, and I could imagine this 'double-whammy' being a very difficult thing for those early Christians to handle. 'What is our future?' they were asking.
It is comforting to know that the word 'astonishment' in the reaction of the women is also found in the reaction of the people who saw Jesus resurrect a child in Mark 5:42. (These are the only two occurrences in Mark; literally the word is 'ecstasy'.) The dictionary (BDAG), interestingly enough, defines this as 'a state of consternation or profound emotional experience to the point of being beside oneself.' Now THAT is a long definition. But it also takes a while to get your mind around the death and resurrection of Jesus--as well as our own death and resurrection.
You exaggerate when it is a life and death issue. PLEASE exaggerate when it is a life and death issue. BY ALL MEANS exaggerate when it is an ETERNAL life and death issue.
This is my last writing for 2017. And it focuses on a text near the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke (2:22-40). And in this text, Jesus is only forty days old.
It is with a strong contrast that the speech which goes along with this account appears near the end of the Divine Service. The Nunc Dimittis (In The Lutheran Hymnal, it starts “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word.”) is a hymn that fits with the beginning of Jesus’ life, but it deals with a very important subject—death.
You know a man is significant when the beginning of his life has ramifications for the end of many others. After receiving the Lord’s Supper, we are basically saying that it is okay to die.
Jesus’ life takes precedence over ours; his life, death, and resurrection are infinitely more significant than ours. Jesus’ life gently takes over ours.
The language of Simeon at the very beginning of his speech betrays the huge importance of his God and his promises. A literal translation could be something like the following: “Now you are releasing your slave, O Despot.”
The title he uses seems a bit extreme. But the word has received some negative connotations in the last few years. A despot is essentially the lord of the house. God is called that by Abraham in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, right after Yahweh comes to him and gives a wonderful promise (Genesis 15:1ff).
The word appears at a critical spot within the book of Acts—although there are many such critical spots. Peter and John, after being arrested, were released. The enemies of Jesus saw confidence in them, but they did not harm them. After going back to ‘their own’ (a deliberately ambiguous title), they then say a prayer, asking to speak Jesus’ words with confidence; and their prayer is granted. And this prayer begins with the same title for God.
You are not your own; you were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). It takes a while for those words to sink in.
The text for this Sunday (Advent 4) has to do with the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. Obviously, with a story like that, Christmas is not too far off—but you did not need me to tell you that.
Instead of talking about the ‘meaning’ of Christmas, it might be more to the point to talk about the meaning of the angel’s greeting to Mary (Luke 1:28). Gabriel said, ‘Hail, having been graced one!’ In this sentence there are only two words in the original language, and the translation is quite literal, so we are obviously going to focus on the second word.
This greeting shakes up Mary in a significant way (again, a literal translation). What is so unusual is that the word, the noun, that we as Lutherans treat as very familiar, grace, is also found in a verb form.
I should say that this is EXTREMELY rare. To give you an idea about HOW rare, it appears one other time, in Ephesians 1:6. Once again, a literal translation gives it in this way: …for the praise of the glory of His grace, with which He graced us in the One having been loved….
In this use, the verb form flows from the noun. In much the same way, St. Paul starts his letters with the word ‘Grace’, and then ‘peace’ often follows soon after. This use of grace as a verb happened much earlier, it happened with a humble young woman, and it all started with God.
The word in the Old Testament has the idea of a favorable attitude that shows itself in actions. Unfortunately some people have gone in the wrong direction with this.
The ‘Hail, Mary’ prayer is largely based on this text from Luke 1, but unfortunately, in about the 15th century, it was added that Mary should pray for us. It was also added that Mary was immaculately conceived, and that was the way she was able to give birth to the Son of God. People unfortunately put themselves on thin ice (an appropriate illustration for this time of year) when they add to the Word of God something that is unsure.
Having grace as a verb come from an angel makes it really come from God. The messenger is never the important thing. It is a wonderful story to see that this verb turns into such a wonderful noun. And it is also a wonderful story to think that the word ‘gospel’, which in Luke only is given as a verb, finally is used as a noun at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7). That word has a long history, and it is important both as a noun and a verb.
The noun makes it concrete and sure. And that is what we have in Jesus.
It is nice to have gospel texts from the first chapters of different gospel accounts. Last week the text was from the Gospel according to Mark. This week it is from the Gospel according to John. And next week it will be from the Gospel according to Luke. Unfortunately all the texts are not from the initial verses of each account.
The starting point of a text is an important thing. And it probably should go without saying that the ending point is also important. And the beginning and ending of the Gospel according to John is, in a word, incredible.
I used the word 'incredible' because, first of all, the writer speaks to the present day person. Twice, near the end, he writes some words so that YOU, the reader or listener, may believe. It is almost as if there is a voice inside of your head--but THIS voice is OUTSIDE your head. Your head can get messed up, just like the rest of you! This voice cannot get messed up.
I also used the word 'incredible' because, in the first chapter, John goes back to the VERY beginning and tries to relate how God could take on flesh and be born as a man. And, if that is not incredible, I do not know what is. We need help to get our minds around it.
John the Baptist was, as the text says, sent from God, and he tried to get the people used to something significant happening--the Jesus event. Last week, in the Gospel according to Mark, John described Jesus as powerful. This week, John connects Jesus to the God of the Old Testament, but he also describes him as standing in the midst of the religious leaders and saying that, unfortunately, the religious leaders do not know him (John 1:26; and the text makes it emphatic that it is the religious leaders who do not know him).
It is unfortunate that many people think of the Gospel according to John as a 'spiritual' gospel. The reason for this is usually attributed to Clement of Alexandria. Eusebius writes about it in this way: 'Last of all, John, aware that the external details had been recorded in the Gospels, was urged by his disciples and divinely moved by the Spirit to compose a spiritual Gospel (Eusebius: The Church History, page 218; edited by Paul Maier).'
Unfortunately this quote has distracted people from the wonderful reality that this gospel account shares--that God became a man, a physical man. And the ramifications of this are huge.
A nice, new book that heads in this direction (although the author uses a different language to do that) is Gott wahrnehmen by Rainer Hirsch-Luipold. He examines some of the texts in John that affect the different senses and points out some of the wonderful ramifications of the incarnation. The taste of good wine (2:1-11), the smell of a dead body (11:1-12:11), and the eyes that see the resurrected Jesus--with blessings to those who do not see him (20:1-29) are all good things he writes about.
This kind of Spirit gets involved on our level--just like Jesus. Now THAT is Spiritual (with a capital 'S')!