Ripping Clouds and Hovering Birds
Epiphany is the season of God’s “appearing” among us. We heard this at Christmas in Titus 2:11 – “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…” This verse has the Greek verb from which we get “Epiphany.” Every Sunday in Epiphany we get an additional insight into God’s appearing among us in Jesus, our Lord, Savior, and Messiah. “This text from Mark 1:4-11 and the text from Mark 9:2-9 frame the gospel texts of the season of Epiphany,” writes Paul Berge. “In this season we move from the baptism of Jesus to his transfiguration; it is a season of epiphany in the revelation of the one whose life and ministry foreshadow his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.”
It begins with the coming of the Magi to the manger on January 6. Jesus is treated as a king, and his birth is announced to these wandering Persian mystics – that is, to the whole earth. With this beginning, we understand that God’s appearing is, as Titus notes, “bringing salvation to all…”
You may remember from a previous text study that the first three verses of Mark’s gospel serve as the “title” of the document and the prophetic superscription. The preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus really mark the beginning of Mark’s gospel account. “It is interesting that,” Larry Hurtado writes, “although Mark presents the human characters in his story, even the disciples, as largely unable to perceive properly who Jesus really is until his resurrection, the reader is given in the opening line the titles that prove to be Mark’s favorite terms for communicating Jesus’ true dignity – Christ (Messiah), and Son of God” (page 15).
Lois Tverberg offers some helpful thoughts about Jesus as God’s “Son” in her book Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus. To be a “son” in the ancient Near East, she notes, was to resemble the father in personality and potential. Immediately in his gospel account, Mark describes Jesus as carrying the character of God. This fatherly gift and vocation are confirmed at the baptism when God calls Jesus his “beloved Son.” Jesus carries the “family name” and goes into the “family business” – the reign of God present among us.
Tverberg points helpfully to the ways in which being a child of God work themselves out then in the New Testament. We can perhaps expand on that in our thinking and study. For example, last week we read in John’s prologue, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). If we are God’s children by grace through our faith in Jesus, then we carry the character of God as well. We have been brought into the family business and carry the family name.
In the Rite of Holy Baptism, we remind worshippers of this as we name and mark the one baptized. We utter the person’s name immediately followed by “Child of God.” This helps us, perhaps, to understand John’s words a bit more clearly. A better translation of the text above would be something like God “gave the authority to live as children of God.”
Just as Jesus’ status as God’s Beloved Son is both gift and vocation, so it is for us as well. We are gifted with a place in the family by God’s grace in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. And we are called to grow into that gift as we live faithfully as God’s children. This is affirmed, for example in the words from the third chapter of John’s first letter: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed” (verses 1 and 2).
We as readers of Mark’s Gospel know from the very beginning who this Jesus is and what he is about. “There is a certain secrecy surrounding Jesus in the book,” Hurtado continues, “but the reader is let in on the secret right at the beginning” (page 15). This is true even at the baptism, where we hear the words God speaks directly to Jesus. It seems in Mark’s account that this speech is not a public event (as opposed to reports in the other gospels) but rather somehow “internal” to Jesus’ experience. We, the readers, are the only ones let in on the secret at this point.
Malina and Rohrbaugh amplify this point. “Here the description of the heavens opening makes public what would otherwise be a private and meaningless event. But since no onlookers or witnesses are described as being present,” they suggest, “it is clear that Mark intends his readers to be the confirming public such a grant of honor requires” (page 175).
I am not so sure that Mark is so clear about the public or private nature of the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove. Even if it were public, however, the meaning of that event would have, in Mark’s telling, been lost on those present at the event. It is really only at the crucifixion, when the Temple in the curtain is torn asunder, that a public pronouncement of Jesus’ identity is made. And then, it is the ambiguous report of a Roman centurion.
There is, however, more to this descent of the dove. This is the good news of Jesus, the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God. Tverberg reminds us that in the Hebrew scriptures, “Whenever God appointed a leader over Israel, [God] filled him with his ruach, [God’s] Spirit” (Kindle Location 2601). The Spirit of the Lord was an “anointing” for kings and prophets, sometimes accompanied by actual oil and at other times not.
In particular, Tverberg notes, we can read the Messianic promise in Isaiah 11, that the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon the branch from the stump of Jesse. “The same Spirit of God that hovered over creation,” according to at least one rabbi, “would rest upon the Messiah.” And the Hebrew word used in these passages really is “hovered,” like a bird hovering over a nest. “When you’re aware of the avian imagery,” Tverberg writes, “it’s hard not to think of another scene of God’s ruach fluttering over water, when Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan” (Kindle Location 2678).
This is the link to the appointed reading from Genesis 1:1-5 that we will study in a few days. Keep in mind the Spirit hovering over the water as we go forward. In the meantime, we’ll finish up with more comments on this gospel text in the next post.
References and Resources
Hermann, Erik H. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series).
Juel, Don, and Kiefer, Patrick — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_Juel-Keifert.pdf.
Lose, David — http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/
Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Roberts, Alastair — https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-individual-mark-14-11/
Stjerne, Kirsi. No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.
Tappert, Theodore, ed. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver, BC.: Regent College Publishing, 1960.
Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective can Transform Your Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2017.
Ulansey, David — http://www.mysterium.com/veil.html