What are you giving up for Lent?
For Lent 2014, I am giving up writing here about contemporary church events and people. I may come back to that, but right now I want to spend more time thinking about Jesus.
Back to the source!
This Lent I will offer my own historical and contemporary theological reflections on seven themes in our Christian tradition: Jesus’ Baptism, the Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, and Being an Apostle. In no way will I simply rehash old stuff.
I intend to explore and explain who Jesus is for me today: the personal thoughts of a believer and an older historical theologian…..and I invite you to journey with me in your own exploration.
Jesus of Nazareth
Nearly all contemporary scholars agree that Jesus of Nazareth (7-2 BCE to 30-33 CE) was an historic person. There are questions about how closely the biblical Jesus reflects the historical Jesus; but general agreement that Jesus was a first century Jewish teacher, was baptized by John the Baptist; and was crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Believers of course have a much fuller faith-picture of the man from Nazareth.
Baptized by John the Baptist
In the first chapter of the Gospel According to Mark — which most contemporary scholars now regard as the earliest of our existing gospels, written around 66-70 CE, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome — we read about Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. There is no birth story and nothing about Jesus’ childhood. We are told that Jesus was believed to be the fulfillment of the hopes and the writings of the prophets.
Then Mark gives a description of John the Baptist that identifies him with the prophet Elijah.
According to the Books of Kings, Elijah (in the 9th century BCE) defended the Israelite worship of Yahweh over that of the Canaanite god Baal. At the end of his life, he was taken up to the heavens in a whirlwind with fiery horses and chariot. In the Book of Malachi, Elijah’s return is prophesied “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
John the Baptist was well known for calling people to conversion and marking their conversion with baptism, a ritual purification. Jesus, and probably some of his young friends (in their late teens or early twenties), felt a call from God to lead a more devout life of faith. In the beginning they were all followers of John.
John the Baptist, in Mark, wears the clothing of the prophet Elijah and is a man from the desert. He lives on Elijah’s diet of locusts and wild honey. By portraying John the Baptist as an Elijah-figure, Mark directs his readers’ attention to the messianic images that suggested that Elijah must come first to prepare the way for the messiah.
John the Baptist is used by the author of Mark to play this role in our oldest existing gospel. This is not strict history. This is interpretive theological painting; and the audience for whom the evangelist was writing could immediately understand the symbols being used.
Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. Jesus is pictured simply as an adult, a fully human male. Following the custom of the day, Mark introduces Jesus, by name, followed by his home town: “Jesus of Nazareth.” And then we see Mark’s first reference to something supernatural.
Mark says the heavens opened. Biblical authors pictured the earth as a flat disk floating in water, with the heavens above and the underworld beneath the earth. The firmament was a solid inverted bowl above the earth, which kept the waters from flooding the world. (When there was a need for water down below, God could open little windows and let the rains water the fields.) The realm of God was in the heavens above. The realm of humans was on earth down below.(On Ascension day a cloud comes down to get Jesus and take him up to the heavens; but we will explore that a bit later.)
Mark says the heavens opened, God’s Spirit came down and settled over Jesus like a dove; and a voice calls out from the heavens proclaiming Jesus to be God’s “beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Once again Mark draws from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Isaiah 42 we read: “here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” In Psalm 2 we read: “You are my son, today I have become your father.”
God’s Spirit does not come down on Jesus just for a short time. It dwells in Jesus permanently: Jesus of Nazareth becomes a God-infused human person. This was Mark’s way of explaining the source of the divine presence that was found in Jesus. (The later developing supernatural story of Jesus’ miraculous birth had apparently not yet been thought of or composed by anyone.)
Very quickly in the Gospel According to Mark, we see that John the Baptist and Jesus have a very different perspective on how God deals with the world. When John is arrested, we see Jesus and his followers, called by God, taking off in a new direction.
John the Baptist was rooted in Elijah’s vision of “the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” John was a fire and brimstone kind of preacher. When he looked at all the evil in the world, he saw a problem so radical that it would take some radical action from God to solve it. For John the Baptist, the coming of the Kingdom of God would have to be some sort of a divine catastrophic event to cleanse the world: “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
We see something very different in Jesus. In the perspective of Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of God is not what God will do to us in some great and fearful day but what God expects us to do right here and right now. And this is “Good News.”
God is waiting for us. That is what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. We are called to do something in conjunction with God, because we live in the Kingdom of God. And it becomes very clear, as Jesus, after baptism, so quickly begins his public ministry. Living in conjunction with God —being a person of faith — is much more than being simply an observant religious person. “The Sabbath was made for humans,” Jesus tells his critics, and “humans were not made for the Sabbath…”
Throughout his public ministry, Jesus, the God-infused, continually reminds his followers and reminds us about what God is waiting for us to do. The words of Isaiah, a prophet close to the heart of Jesus, become the words of faith.
We see it already in Isaiah chapter one: “What are your endless sacrifices to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sick of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of calves. I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats….Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Take your wrong-doing out of my sight. Cease doing evil. Learn to do good. Search for justice. Discipline the violent. Be just to the orphan. Plead for the widow….”
Good News indeed!