Tetramorph Seraphim, 16th c. fresco, Metéora, Greece
The following sermon was preached by Rev. Dr Thomas Winger in the serminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the Festival of St Mark, Evangelist, 24 April 2015 (transferred).
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: Three ancient prophets were blessed with visions that give us a peak behind the veil separating the worship of God’s people here below from that of the saints above. Isaiah tells us of six-winged creatures that he calls “Seraphim”, or “flaming angels”. In Ezekiel’s mysterious apocalypse, he sees that each of these “living creatures” has four faces: “the face of a man in front; … of a lion on the right side, … of an ox on the left side, and … of an eagle at the back” (Ezek. 1:10). If it weren’t ensconced in Holy Scripture, we might think it was some psychedelic trip, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Such physics-denying anatomy doesn’t exist in the world as we know it. As if to emphasise the symbolic value of the picture, John’s Revelation describes the same six-winged creatures with a different anatomy; though having eyes on all sides, each creature’s body is distinct: “the first … like a lion, the second … like an ox, the third … with the face of a man, and the fourth … like a flying eagle” (Rev. 4:7). These angelic creatures surround the holy God as an honour guard and lead the heavenly worship of God on His throne and the Lamb who was slain, just as we will join today “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”, singing their threefold “holy” before the Lamb upon our altar. Such visions may be mysterious, but they bless us with the knowledge that our worship involves far more than what we see.
As early as Irenaeus, Christian interpreters have seen these four living creatures as symbolic of the evangelists. At first blush this might seem to be an arbitrary piece of allegory; but after the worship of God, the first task of an ἄγγελος was to be the Lord’s “messenger”, to deliver His Word. And if each of the seven churches in John’s revelation had an angel, if Joseph and Mary were blessed with a visit from Gabriel to deliver the news of the coming Messiah, it isn’t too much to suppose that God designated four of His chief ministering spirits to guide the inspired writers of the Gospels. Jerome associates the seraph in the form of a man with Matthew, whose Gospel begins with Jesus’ human genealogy. The ox is Luke, whose Gospel begins in the Temple, the place of sacrifice. To John, whose Gospel soars to great heights, he assigns the eagle. And to Mark the lion on account of John the Baptist, “the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness … : ‘… Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Aside from his living in the wilderness, the association of John with a lion doesn’t sound entirely natural to me. Some have suggested instead that Mark’s unique detail that Jesus was “with the wild beasts” when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Mk 1:13) is a more appropriate reason for the association. I suppose we often think of those “wild beasts” as friendly companions to our Lord in His ordeal, the lion lying down with the lamb, as it were. But I think this misses the mark. The image is rather of Satan marshalling all his forces to attack the Son of God in His time of weakness. Jesus wasn’t only starving and thirsty, He wasn’t only assailed in spirit by the devil’s temptations, but He was threatened by prowling beasts that circled Him in the shadows and harassed Him with howls while He tried to sleep. Perhaps Mark wanted us to recall another wilderness experience, Israel’s forty years of wandering, when they hungered and were tempted and were threatened by beasts, and failed to stay faithful to God. Jesus not only triumphs where they failed, standing firm against temptation, but He doesn’t give in to fear. He trusts His heavenly Father. And as we read of the angels sent to minister to Him in that battle, perhaps we should also recall the angel sent to defend Daniel from his ravenous lions. In this wilderness battle, Jesus, the stronger Samson and great David’s greater Son, defeats the lion with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
For the Christians to whom Mark wrote his Gospel—according to Papias it was in Italy shortly after the death of his fatherly mentor, Peter—for such Christians the threat of the lion had more than just a symbolic meaning. In our recent advertisement for the upcoming course on the Apostolic Fathers we used an icon of St Ignatius the martyr locked in the jaws of a lion. Under the Nero who reigned while Mark penned his Gospel, such a fate was imminent and real to everyone who confessed Christ’s holy name. But the greater threat was to let fear of suffering drive them away from Christ and into the jaws of a more terrible lion. St Peter, writing from Rome to Christians suffering persecution in Asia Minor, warns them:
8 Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. (1 Pet. 5:8-9)
The Gospel reading for today’s commemoration of St Mark was ironically taken from the so-called “long ending”, a text that’s ancient but probably not original to Mark’s Gospel. The oldest manuscripts end with the famously abrupt words about the three women who had seen and heard the angel proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection from the empty tomb: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk 16:8). Could this be the way Mark intended his Gospel to end? I’m not entirely convinced. But this certainly would have struck a chord with the Roman Christians who were the Gospel’s first readers. This Gospel of the lion, that so vividly portrayed the Enemy threatening God’s people, ends with an acknowledgement of fear.
What are you afraid of? How does the lion howl at you from the shadows, robbing you of sleep and pinning you to your bed in the morning? Are you afraid of where the Lord is sending you in your first call or vicarage? Do you worry for your family? Are you afraid of how you’ll handle conflict or failure? Are you anxious about your upcoming wedding? Do you fear for your wife and the child growing in her womb? Do you wonder where you’ll be next year and how you’ll support yourself? Are you afraid for your children, so far away from home and away from your care? Does the pain of surgery terrify you? Our head knows these troubles are light in comparison with martyrdom ancient and modern, but our heart trembles nonetheless. The devil knows our vulnerabilities. He targets the tired and weak and wears them down with his incessant attacks till they crumble under his pounce.
So what are we to do? St Peter concludes his fervent warning with a solemn promise: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (1 Pet. 5:10). But in the midst of the devil’s attacks, while we’re suffering and afraid, what are we to do? “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you” (1 Pet. 5:7). Unload your fears onto God. Don’t suffer alone, but let Him bear the burden for you. Pray with the Psalmist:
1 Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me …. 3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in You. 4 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? (Ps. 56)
It’s impossible to pray such words without experiencing relief. The Psalmist who knew true terror by night teaches us that the Lord can take such things away. In the name of the Lord he comforts us, singing:
5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, …. 13 You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. 14 Because he holds fast to Me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows My name. 15 When he calls to Me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honour him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him My salvation. (Ps. 91)
You may wonder why we pray the psalms every day in chapel, though I hope you don’t. As the lions of fear circle round us, as we feel we’ve been cast into the den of our ravenous Foe, these words are our angelic defender. So long as we are within them, we have rest and protection.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them. 8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! 9 Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear Him have no lack! 10 The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing. 11 Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. (Ps. 34)
The fear of the Lord works against our fears as anti-venom against the Serpent’s bite, as vaccine against his virus. For the lion who slinks around us in the shadows is a cowardly beast, who’s put to flight by the mighty roar of our protector (Rev. 10:3). In this Easter tide we face such fears in the light of Christ’s triumph over death, His crushing the lion under His feet. That’s where the angel sent the women as they fled trembling from the tomb. He sent them to Jesus in Galilee, where He awaited them, risen from the dead, according to His promise (Mk 16:7). At the end of Mark’s Gospel it is for those women as it is for us. Trusting alone in His Word, believing without sight or touch on the basis of the promise and testimony of those who did see and hear (Jn 20:29), we walk towards Him who calms ours fears. Our Aslan awaits. And we trust the promise of the heavenly elder to John: “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5). Amen