This We Believe: Jesus Is the Son of God

Part 1 of the sermon series “This We Believe
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 26, 2012—First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

Mark 1:9-15 • In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I. BEGINNING AT THE END

Some authors write their stories from the beginning of their tales to the end.  Some of the more interesting authors don’t even know where their stories are going until they’ve been written, allowing the characters to unfold before them.  Sometimes, even the ending is a surprise to the author herself.

The Gospels, however, were not written that way at all.  The Gospels were written backwards.  What I mean is that the authors knew the ending of the story before even setting out to write.  In fact, it’s the ending that determines everything else.

It is important to understand that the disciples were driven by faith in Jesus’ resurrection.  They had encountered the Risen Christ in their midst.  They had seen decisive proof of God’s power and God’s promise not to abandon the Creation to death and decay.  They had seen their hopes vindicated and knew that their world had changed because of Jesus.

But the Resurrection didn’t answer all of their questions—it raised even more.  The two most important questions were essentially these: (1) who was this Jesus who had been raised from the dead? and (2) What had he accomplished?

These two questions together constitute what theologians call “Christology”: the discourse on the person and work of Christ.  Interestingly, much of the early conversation in the Church focused on the work of Christ.  That is, how did Jesus’ death and resurrection save us? What did he do?  Paul spends more time focused on this question than on the question of Jesus’ nature.  The big question of Christology in terms of identity and nature of Christ would come a couple of centuries later.

II. THE TEXT

But there were a couple of answers given from the very beginning.  And we find both in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel.

In the first verse we encounter the first answer, when it reads: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” Christ is not a last name, it is a title.  It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mashiach “messiah” and means “the anointed one”.  Calling Jesus “Jesus Christ” is declaring him to be the Anointed One of God, the long-awaited savior, promised by the prophets, the one who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

Some versions of the text—including the oldest versions—end that first verse right there, with “Jesus Christ”.  Others add a phrase—“the Son of God”—a phrase that provides the second answer to the question of Jesus’ identity.  Even were the original version of Mark’s gospel to lack those words there, the idea shows up soon enough.

In verse 11, we read of Jesus emerging from the waters of the Jordan after his baptism.  He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove.  And he hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Right from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we are told that God has declared him to be God’s own Son.

But what does that mean?

III. THE SON OF GOD

The understanding of Jesus as ‘son of God’ is one of the oldest and yet one of the most perplexing understandings we have of Jesus.  It is the term more than any other that is a stumbling block for Jews, Muslims, and indeed, many Christians.  Does God have children, like the God of Mormon faith?  Is Jesus like some kind of demigod of pagan myth?  Is he merely a Christian Achilles?

The phrase “son of God” isn’t as straightforward as we sometimes think. The Biblical text doesn’t support the kind of understanding that those on the outside of Christian faith are quick to assume Christians profess.

A. Sons of God

The phrase “Son of God” appears 39 times in the New Testament, but only 38 of them apply to Jesus.  In his genealogy, Luke describes Adam as the “son of God”.

In fact, there are a number of other instances of a son of God being mentioned in the scriptures.

1. Israel

Israel is referred to as God’s son: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son.” (Exodus 4:22) and ““When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)

2. David

David is referred to as God’s son: ““I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” (Psalms 2:7)  Many have seen this merely as an instance of David prophesying about his descendant Jesus, but it should also be pointed out that it was common in the ancient world to declare the king to be a son of the local deity.  For example, the name Ramses means “son of Ra”.  In chapter 9 of the Book of Isaiah, we read of the coronation of King Hezekiah and the language used is also of sonship: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us” (Isaiah 9:6)

And so all this could mean that “son of God” was being used as a messianic title, equating Jesus with God’s anointed king and “son” David.  Thus the term could simply be another royal title, designed to reinforce Jesus’ authority and power.

B. Becoming the Son

Such an understanding might explain some of the curious verses in the New Testament about Jesus’ sonship.  See, there are a couple of times in the scripture where it seems to suggest that Jesus became God’s son at various points.

In Romans, Paul writes that Jesus was “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4), suggesting that it was on account of his resurrection from the dead that Jesus is considered God’s son.

In Mark’s gospel, from which we read earlier, the text suggest that Jesus was declared to be God’s son at his baptism.  For Mark’s gospel, which has no birth narrative, Jesus’ baptism is a perfectly fine place to start.

In Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus becomes God’s son at his conception by the Holy Spirit.  This is probably the most common understanding that people have about Jesus being God’s son and is the reason so many outsiders see him as some kind of demigod, fathered by a deity with a human mother.

In John’s gospel, however, we see Jesus as God’s son before the universe is created.  Jesus is the incarnation of the Divine Word of God that was present with God at the Creation.  This is what gives rise to the classical Trinitarian understanding of Jesus’ sonship: Jesus is the incarnation of the co-eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, otherwise known as the “Son”.  This pre-existent and Eternal Son, one of the persons of the Trinity, becomes flesh through Mary.  He is not a demigod, but is truly God in the flesh.

To be quite honest, the Biblical accounts simply do not present one definition or understanding of Jesus as God’s Son.  The gospels themselves have three, possibly four, different understandings of Jesus’ sonship.  And that is a phenomenon that can only mean one thing.

IV. POETRY AND PROSE

There are times in our lives when we experience a thing and words don’t suffice.  Think yourselves of an experience you’ve had that was powerful: a love, a heartbreak, a triumph, a defeat.  Remember that emotion, that feeling. Now, imagine you have to communicate it.  How do you do it?

Ordinary language doesn’t suffice.  At best we can use language that approximates the reality we’re trying to describe but a direct attempt to do that will usually fail.  This is where poetry comes in.

Poetry manages to capture feeling, significance, and meaning in ordinary language, but language that suggests a more extraordinary reality behind it.  And the significance of the meaning goes far beyond the literal.

Whether or not there really ever was a “yellow wood” in which “two roads diverged” is the lesser point to the power of making a choice to take the road less traveled.

That there was never a talking raven saying “Nevermore” does nothing to undermine the image of loss and the weight of grief upon one’s heart that sits as a shadow that will not move.

Lincoln was not a ship captain.  The United States is not a ship.  Yet, nothing conveys the grief over the assassination of the president who guided the nation through the Civil War like the lines:

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead. [1]

Poetry conveys meaning far more powerfully than prose ever can.  It’s why there are those who think that poetry came first.  Art precedes science.  Song precedes speech.

And what most people miss is that the Bible is primarily poetry.  Now, it may look like prose, but the language is poetic, seeking to capture a mystery greater than ordinary description can provide.  It approximates the reality it seeks to embrace, the same way a path in the woods, a raven, or a ship captain approximate the realities they describe.

And so, “Son of God” is poetry.

V. A RELATIONSHIP LIKE NO OTHER

It is poetry based on the experience the apostles had of the Risen Christ.  That singular moment prompted a reflection in the community, a reflection about who this person had been.  The early church agreed that Jesus was extraordinary.  And they agreed that to encounter Jesus was somehow to encounter God.  They didn’t know how exactly.  They hadn’t formulated any creeds.  They wrote no theological treatises.  But now convinced of his messiahship and having experienced the eternal God in this flesh-and-blood human being, they understood Jesus as the Son of God.

By this they were not declaring him to be a king and “son” of the patron deity.  They were not necessarily making a claim as to his biological pedigree, though those claims became attached to the title.  They were making a claim of intimacy and closeness between Jesus and God that could only be understood in the relationship of a father to a son.  That Jesus should have used the term “Abba”, which means “Papa” or “Dad” to describe God, clearly demonstrated this intimacy during his ministry.  The disciples perceived this intimacy as unique, as previously unencountered.  It’s why they describe his teaching as from “one with authority” rather than the usual teaching of the scribes.  It’s why they understood that something special was happening in Jesus, not just the work of a prophet.  For while prophets preach the word of God, they experienced Jesus as the Word of God made flesh.  And there was only one word that they could use to describe the kind of relationship, wherein one person bears the imprint, the attributes, and the likeness so much of another: Son.

For in him they had seen the love, grace, and healing power of the One who made the heavens and the earth.  They had seen him give life to the sick and the dead, they had seen him share welcome with the marginalized and outcast.  They had seen him reject violence in a brutal, violent Imperial world.  They had seen him feed the hungry.  Eat with sinners.  They had seen him take upon himself sorrow and all the brokenness of the world.  And they had seen him raised again from the dead, triumphant over the powers of death and signaling a restoration of the world that was underway.  Everything they knew about God they saw in Jesus.  The way a Son takes after his Father.

As surprising as it is to most Christians, the biological aspect of this does not seem to have been overly concerning to the early church.  Mark and John have no birth narrative to demonstrate Jesus’ divine paternity.  They declare him to be Son by either adoption or pre-existent nature.  But they were all agreed on this: Jesus was the Son of God.  It was part of the ancient church’s discernment into and reflection on what some call the “Jesus event”, and the effect it had upon them and the entire Creation.

The Church continued in its theological reflection and would go on to develop this understanding over the years.  The Sonship of Christ becomes understood as the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God in human form.  That is, within God’s being are three Persons: Father, Son, and Spirit; living and reigning together, one God, now and forever.  Through the Nicene Creed, the Church would articulate a theology that it was that Son, the eternal Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God, who became flesh in Jesus.  Thus, Jesus’ sonship pre-existed all things.

VI. END

In my class, I teach that Christianity is the community’s reflection on and response to who Jesus was and what he accomplished. That reflection did not stop with the Council of Nicaea, or the Council of Chalcedon.  It  is a reflection that continues to this day.  The word “Son” will mean different things to different people.  For some it will mean a statement of biological paternity.  For others a royal status.  For others a metaphysical divine reality pre-existing the world itself.  But it, unlike any other term, encapsulates the mystery and wonder that we know Jesus to be.

This we believe: Jesus is the Son of God.  Whatever else we might understand, we understand that he is the one through whom we see God most clearly.  He is the one who not only preached but lived love and grace.  Who proclaimed God’s justice. Who became for us mercy.  Who demonstrated forgiveness.  Who stood on the side of love and life not fear and death.  And who invites us all to follow him.

 

Notes

[1http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/walt_whitman/poems/17466

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