We read today an inspiring story from a prophet of Israel, speaking to the people as they prepare to step into the wilderness, journeying to the promised land. We read this alongside stores about the early period of the ministry of Jesus. Both passages are set at the start of a significant period of time; both stories reveal important things about the nature of God, and the ways that God engages with human beings in their lives. God is portrayed as powerful and sovereign in Isaiah 40; that was comforting and reassuring for the journeying Israelites. God comes with power, also, in Jesus; yet in his humanity, Jesus needs time to replenish and rejuvenate (Mark 1:35). His example tells us that we need to hold in balance the desire to do great things, with the need to care for ourselves and remain connected with God.
Every year at this point of the year, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him. This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together. Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elijah, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven”. This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens. Both stories invite us to look carefully for such moments when the heavenly realm breaks into the earthly; when the barrier between heaven and earth is opened. In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments are called “thin places”—opportunities to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith.
This week we read and hear the beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the beginnings of the public activity of Jesus. Jesus is baptised, immersed into the water, then he emerges changed. Jesus is tested, challenged about his call. Both elements shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. We read this story alongside the account from Hebrew Scripture of God making a commitment to the whole of the earth—an agreement with all humans and all living creatures. Both stories represent the significance of the covenant with God in our faith journey. We place our trust in God; God equips and enables us to live out our faith in daily life.
Crisis and Challenge. Cross words and Crucifixion. The Gospel passage is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise. Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. But Jesus appears quite clear about this: the covenant that he entered into with God (as we read last week) involves suffering, and leads to death. The passage is mirror-reverse of the covenant story from Genesis. Abram and Sarah, even though way past childbearing age, will bring into being a whole new entity, living in covenant with God—descendants who will form the people of Israel. And yet, the Gospel also directly parallels the Genesis story; beyond the immediate, there lies new possibilities—a multitude of descendants for Sarai and Abram, resurrection for Jesus. So the texts are also about Promise and Possibilities; the pathway to a new future.
Dr John Squires is the Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing) for the Canberra Region Presbytery.