St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 7, 2018
By: Aaron Yenney
You need to know that guys with good dads don’t become politicians. Paternal absenteeism creates politicians. This truth transcends partisanship.
Paul Ryan’s father died of a heart attack when he was 16. Barack Obama famously strove to fulfill all the potential his dad never could. Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford were both victims of almost criminal neglect. George W. Bush precariously navigated between living in his father’s impossible shadow while charmingly denying he was doing so. Ronald Reagan’s old man was a drunk.
This isn’t Shakespeare. This is American politics. And presumably by no coincidence, it is “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son,” according to Mark. God’s Son. A term the Old Testament used to indicate kingship.
King Jesus. No dad.
But what about Joseph? After the litany of Advent and Christmas littered with references to Jesus’ earthly father, it may surprise or even frighten you that the gospel of Mark never makes mention of him. Not once.
Matthew and Luke give us these elaborate birth narratives defending the honor of some backwoods prophet. Things aren’t what they seem, they tell us. This guy actually has blue blood. He’s Davidic. The son of Adam, son of God. He comes from heaven.
In Mark, Jesus comes from the wilderness.
And why wouldn’t he? The Magnificat of Luke is completely absent from Mark. Its closest analog is Mary confronting Jesus because he’s quote, “lost his mind.”
“Son, we’re already poor…don’t rob us of our dignity as well by acting the fool.”
And you thought holidays with your family were rough. In Mark, Jesus literally feels so insecure at home that he decides to take his chances on an eight-hour trek across the wilderness to brave beasts and bandits – thirsty for the waters of baptism. What sort of circumstance compels a man to do this?
Guys with good dads don’t become politicians. Little boys without mothers too might become radicals.
So, Jesus runs away. He leaves Nazareth – capital “N” – Nowhere to head to the nowhere of the wilderness. He goes to join up with others whose pain has transcended their politics. Those from Judea and Jerusalem. Urban and rural! Coastal elites and Midwestern teamsters. Vastly different people with uncannily similar issues.
And they all meet up to be baptized into a new family. The fundamental structures of society have so far let them down, so they seek to turn away and towards God. To seek forgiveness in the arms of the Father, and rest as citizens of His coming Kingdom.
Does Jesus know he’s to inaugurate this as he walks toward John and the waters of the Jordan? Does the bringer know as he approaches the harbinger?
We want to say yes, right? We want a Jesus who from cradle to grave knows that he’s God, or at least the Son of God. From angels we have heard on high to “it is finished,” we want this strong Jesus.
But, I’m not so sure Mark gives him to us.
What do I mean by this? Theologian, N.T. Wright argues that Jesus – like us – had to discern his identity and vocation. That, apparently, being born the Messiah doesn’t mean you know it from birth.
The gospel of Mark confirms this.
If we read backwards, Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” The central salvific event in the history of God’s people and its main actor reads it as abandonment.
In the garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me.” Is this faith or doubt? Neither? Both? Is it reluctance? Is it confusion? Whatever it is, it is not reminiscent of the Mighty Name of Jesus we sing of in the hymn.
And from today’s reading, “’You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” We may well assume the crowd surrounding the Jordan was privy to these statements. However, social-science commentators have surveyed other contemporary literature and drawn the conclusion this vision was Jesus’ and Jesus’ alone. A confession, more than a profession.
But why does the Son of God need to hear it? Has this thirty year old not yet discerned his identity?
God’s words imply that he has not. Jesus needs to know that he is Beloved. That God is well-pleased with him. He’s walked through eight hours of wilderness to hear this. He’s been anxious for water in the desert, to enter these waters of baptism. To know that someone (anyone) is pleased with him.
Maybe you’re in the place too. Maybe your dad was a deadbeat. Maybe your mother was incredulous. Maybe you come from nowhere, going nowhere. Maybe it isn’t wickedness or weakness, but uncertainty. Maybe you feel anxiety for the waters of baptism also.
The good news comes in the “also.” The good news is that God took on flesh, joined us in our wandering, our confusion, our anxiety, our uncertainty. Jesus doesn’t solve any of that for us – but is a perfect picture of all that mess directed towards God’s Kingdom.
Jesus may have been looking for an immediate end to his angst wandering out to the banks of the Jordan – just as his ancestors had done generations before him. Jesus’ disciples may have been looking for a conquering king to make Israel great again. But what Jesus will come to find, and begin to teach us is that the Kingdom of God is “near.”
If I’m the inaugurator of said Kingdom – the heavens are rent, I hear God’s booming voice indicating such, and the Spirit alights on me like a dove – my message is not that God’s kingdom is near, but HERE. When the heavens tear, we don’t say “Tut tut, looks like rain.” We grab an umbrella.
Not so in Mark. In Mark, we get a Jesus who’s figuring it out. And our tradition tells us this is precisely what makes him human. The church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, didn’t really like the idea that Jesus could simply be known as the man born in Bethlehem, (even!) the man known as Son and thus encountered as God-and-man. Rather, he argues Christ is defined by His ongoing, relational existence as incarnate Son to his Father. To be made in the image of God is the stuff of creation, the be made in his likeness – like Christ – is the stuff of relationship.
Jungian psychologists distinguish between two types of intimacy – the romantic and the real. The former sees the purpose of any relationship – be it marriage, friendship, or community life – to be pleasurable and make us feel good. Whereas the latter are a vehicle for consciousness and individuation. Wilkie Au writes that in them there is, “the acceptance of the joy and the sorrow, pain and pleasure, conflict and harmony which are the polarities of life.” He concludes that real intimacy is a “crucible of wholeness.” We assume that for Jesus to be the Christ, His relationship to the Father must be more like the former…when really, he is our forerunner into the latter. And so, it’s that other hymn rings true…
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…Nobody but Jesus.”
Part of the good news is that not all grief need lead to acedia, indifference, or the absence of care (an oft forgotten sin), but a more robust relationship with God and others. Because for all of life’s polarities, Jesus remains committed to God’s will.
I do the bulk of my writing at the same brewery every Thursday. On weeks I’m preaching, the first congregation who hears is always a few bartenders and a handful of regulars. This week my friend, Genevieve, looked on incredulously at the idea of this human Jesus…
“Yeah. But what about the miracles?” She says.
And I say, “Well. You’re human haven’t you ever seen a miracle?”
“Yeah, I guess I have…” Her eyes light up, “Like today Ginger (her five-year-old) runs up to me almost in tears, ‘Mom, are dandelions real?’
And I look at her and say, ‘Yeah, of course they are, honey. Why?’
‘Because I just blew on one and wished I could fly. And you said that all wishes come true when you blow on a dandelion, but I changed my mind. I don’t want to fly, mom! It’s too scary!’
‘Oh, sweetheart. That’s a pretty tough wish…I think you’ll be okay.’
Ginger is a picture of directed confusion. Can we follow Jesus into that?
Can we cry out, “God!!!” as Ginger cried out, “Mom!!!”
Because God’s voice at baptism was his alone to hear, presumably Jesus shared this vulnerable moment with a disciple, and Mark has shared it with us. To be human is to live an embodied uncertainty directed towards God’s Kingdom. Jesus was figuring it out. And we can be too. Today’s gospel is only the beginning of the good news.