Almost 7 years ago our family moved to a little cul-de-sac in the west end of NDG. And in that cul-de-sac we have developed great friendships over the years. But this week as I thought about it I realized that I couldn’t really pinpoint the first time I met any one of those neighbours. I know the general timeframe when I met them – it would have been around June or July 2008. But I don’t remember specifically meeting any of them for the first time. At this point we’re all just part of the neighbourhood furniture, whenever it was that we first met. That’s probably the case with a lot of people in our lives. If we stopped to think about it, we might not be able to pinpoint the first time we met them, or the first time we saw them.
Of course there are some people for whom we remember that first encounter. It helps if there was something memorable about the circumstances. It’s easy to remember the first time you met someone if it was at a job interview for example. Or it would probably help if they spilled coffee all over you the first time you met. That would make it memorable. For some people in our lives, there was something distinct or memorable about that first meeting, and so we can pinpoint it easily.
And then of course there are those first meetings that are so precious to us – and so much a part of who we are. Think of a first meeting with someone who became so special to you. Think of that first meeting with your child or your niece or nephew after their birth. A squawking, vulnerable, little baby, naked and then wrapped up tight in blankets – held so close and tenderly.
I’ll never forget meeting Tabea as a newborn – can still picture her in the little white hat they put on almost immediately, with a little green turtle on it. I’ll never forget that first meeting with Reuben who cried so fiercely when he was first born – yay! – and then wouldn’t stop crying for the next month. Not so “yay.” And I’ll never forget that first meeting with Esther who was just a little too purple when she was born, but was so fine after a little TLC from nurses and doctors. These kinds of precious first meetings remain indelibly imprinted on our minds and hearts – seeing those distinct eyes and that face, seeing that wonderful little soul for the first time.
You have probably begun to suspect where all this is going. The question that arises this morning is whether we have any recollection of our first meeting with Jesus – or to use the metaphor of sight, whether we have any recollection of the first time we saw him. For many of us, maybe all of us, I suspect that the answer will be “no” — that we don’t remember our first catching sight of Jesus. Like the neighbours in my cul-de-sac, for most of us Jesus is just part of the neighbourhood furniture. Given our particular moment in history, Jesus has simply been part of the cultural air we breathe and so we don’t remember seeing him the first time. As much as it’s great thing that we live in a culture where Jesus historically had a place of prominence, it’s also a kind of sad moment to have lived, because the possibility of dynamic and memorable first meeting with him has been lost to us.
As difficult as it is – probably impossible – this morning we are going to try and see Jesus again for the first time. And we’re going to try and see him again for the first time as he appears in the opening verses of Mark’s gospel. Mark’s gospel is a good choice for us because it was almost certainly the first of the four gospels to be written. If you want to read the story of Jesus, then Mark’s gospel is a good place to start because Mark’s telling of the story is the first telling the church has.
So where do we see Jesus for the first time? Where is our first encounter him? Contrary to expectations, we don’t see Jesus first as a newborn infant in the town of Bethlehem. We don’t first see him first in swaddling clothes. We don’t first see him as Mary’s child.
As Mark tells the story, there is a crowd of people that has gone out to the Jordan River to listen to this strange preacher named John – some of the people who go to hear him also end up being baptized by him. And there in the crowd, just one person among many, is Jesus. There in the crowd, just one among many, is Jesus, listening to John stir up a storm with his words – a veritable whirlwind of a preacher. He is calling the people to be washed clean of all their wrongheaded living.
As one among many, Jesus walks down to the water’s edge, and then into the water with John – the water is first at his ankles, then at his calves – the water is up to his knees as he goes deeper, and then at his waist. Jesus is unremarkable walking into the river. He’s not the guy who spilled coffee on you when you sat down next to him on the metro – no, he’s the guy a few seats over minding his own business. He’s not the one who wore that unforgettable, crazy and colourful tie, no he’s the one who looked like everyone else.
We are used to hearing Jesus speak. Rather than the metaphor of sight, most often when we come to the gospel narratives it is the metaphor of hearing that we use. We are used to hearing Jesus. We are used to hearing him tell confusing stories about seeds and travellers and vineyards;
we are used to hearing him speak those strong words of the sermon on the mount;
we are used to hearing him say: “Go, your faith has made you well”;
or hearing him say: “You will see the Son of Man coming in his glory.”
We are used to hearing Jesus speak. But here at the outset of Mark’s gospel we do not hear Jesus voice – he does not speak. We only see him as one of many in the crowd, one of many to be baptized.
Water is poured over him and runs down his face. There are still traces of dust and grime on his cheeks and his nose – the desert doesn’t wash off that easily. There is water dripping from his now matted beard. His clothes are soaked. We see Jesus go into the river and we see him receive John’s baptism – but we don’t hear him say anything.
As Jesus starts to come up out of the water there is suddenly something usual about him – something that sets him apart in the crowd. Because as he walks out of the river, we notice a startled expression come across his face – an expression of uncertainty tinged even with awe and surprise. As we watch Jesus it’s pretty clear this is a moment when he somehow realizes something – he somehow sees something – he somehow understands something. We don’t see what Jesus sees – we are outsiders to this moment.
From Mark’s storytelling we know that in this moment Jesus receives a vision. But since we are outsiders to this moment, how do we know the content of his vision? Since we don’t see what Jesus sees, how does Mark know what has happened? More than likely, Jesus later told his disciples about this experience – shared with them what he saw. And Mark describes three distinct moments in this narrative of surprise and revelation down by the river. The first moment is as follows: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart…”
We see Jesus standing there at the water’s edge with surprise and uncertainty written on his face. And in this moment, Jesus is seeing the heavens torn open. Jesus sees the barrier between God and the human broken apart. Jesus sees the barrier between the heavenly and the earthly pulled aside. What exactly did this look like? We don’t know. But perhaps it looked something like the tearing of the temple curtain that is described at the end of Mark’s gospel. Here at the beginning of the story Jesus sees the heavens torn open – heaven and earth open to each other in a new way. And at the end of Jesus’ story we see the temple curtain torn in two – free access to the very presence of God through this Jesus. These two moments of tearing open serve as kind of bookends in the gospel of Mark. At the beginning and at the end, heaven and earth are brought together in Jesus – that’s what the story is all about.
Mark gives us the second moment of Jesus’ vision: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending upon him like a dove.”
We don’t see the heavens torn open. We don’t see the Spirit descend upon Jesus. Rather, we see Jesus receiving this vision. This is his vision – the Spirit of God comes to him. In this moment he receives his vocation to service in the Spirit; in this moment he is equipped for ministry in the Spirit; in this moment he is affirmed in his gifting by the Spirit – he is reminded of the purpose for which he finds himself as one among many in the world.
As one theologian reminds us, in Mark’s gospel the incarnation of Jesus, the drawing near of God, is not expressed through a virgin birth – the incarnation is not expressed through the child born in Bethlehem – the incarnation is not expressed through the worship of this child by angels and shepherds and magi and mother and father. No, in Mark’s gospel the incarnation, the drawing near of God, is expressed in this moment of Jesus standing there in the water, this moment of Jesus seeing something we cannot see. The incarnation is expressed in his vision of the heaven’s torn open, and the spirit descending on him with grace and strength for service.
Mark adds the third and final moment in this vision – and here we move from seeing to hearing. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.” This voice doesn’t speak to us – this voice speaks to Jesus. The voice of the Father doesn’t speak to those who were gathered there on the riverbank – the voice speaks to Jesus. And the voice declares him to be the beloved, the one who delights God, the one who is pleasing to God, the one who is in a unique relationship with God. Imagine having such a vision – imagine seeing what Jesus sees – imagine hearing that voice speak to you from the unimaginable reality of heaven: “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
On a theological note, we could quickly say that here we have a first inkling of what would become the doctrine of the trinity. The doctrine of the trinity is this idea that if you take the story of Jesus seriously, you end up having to speak about God as God the Father, God, the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Here in the first gospel, at the outset of Jesus story, you have a first inkling, a first expression of that threefold nature. Jesus the Son walks out of the Jordan river – the Spirit of God come upon Jesus – and the voice of the Father speaks to Jesus with compassion and love. Over centuries this leads to such words as those of St. Patrick’s breastplate: “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the trinity, by invocation of the same. The three in One, and One in Three; Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
This is where we see Jesus for the first time – one among many on the riverbank – one among many baptized in the river. One who is given a vision that sets the stage for his life and ministry. One who is given a vision that reveals and affirms to him who he is.
What does this have to do with us? Well in the first place perhaps it has nothing to do with us. Maybe this first moment of seeing Jesus is just about seeing him in all of his particularity – becoming observers of him – becoming those who simply notice him because he is worth noticing.
As human beings we live through sight and vision. And our particular culture is hyped up with visual distractions – images bombard us.
Everywhere we go, images accost us.
Everywhere we go, images are strategically placed to grab our attention.
And we ourselves generate more images than we can count.
Even our meals are now multiplied as visual clutter. This week I was reading about the instragramming of meals – and how restaurants are responding to the fact that so many people post images of their meals. Restaurants are now prioritizing the photo-worthiness of their dinner specials. We are bombarded with images – our culture has no doubt reached the point of visual supersaturation.
If ever there was a time to unplug, this is it. If ever there was a time to intentionally close our eyes, this is it. For the sake of our sanity, perhaps, but for another reason also. That in putting aside all of the visual clutter, we might see Jesus again for the first time.
To see Jesus not as someone who meets our needs.
Not as someone who tells stories that make us think and understand.
Not Jesus as someone who challenges our conventionalities.
Just to see Jesus. To see Jesus as just one among many there in the desert. To see Jesus as just one among many soaked and dripping with water. To Jesus there on the riverbank – enthralled and more than a little surprised at what he sees and hears. To see Jesus as someone who is worth noticing again for the first time.
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.”