Mark1:4-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
|Baptistry -- St. James Church, Avebury, UK|
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The first Sunday after Epiphany is typically celebrated as the commemoration of Jesus’ own baptism. Both Matthew and Mark have a baptism scene, and Luke and John at least hint that Jesus was baptized by John. This particular Sunday is often given to opportunities for congregants to renew their baptismal vows. It is also an opportunity recognize the important role that baptism plays in the life of the church, for baptism is a very public act of identification with the Christian faith and the Christian community. We see in this brief passage several points that help define baptism. It is an event in which repentance is made and forgiveness is received. It is also an event in which the Spirit is received and a calling to ministry is given.
The chosen text for this celebration comes from the Gospel of Mark, which opens with little fanfare at the moment that Jesus comes to be baptized by John the Baptizer. Having stated that the following narrative will proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, Mark introduces us to John and his ministry, followed by Jesus’ appearance at one of John’s mass baptismal services at the Jordan River. Mark does give us a little background about John, telling us that he was called to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Lord. John’s work is simply to get the people ready for the coming of the one, whose sandals, John is not fit to even tie. He simply offers a form of baptism that confirms repentance and affirms the receipt of forgiveness. The one who comes after him, “the one who is more powerful than I,” will bring not only a symbol of cleansing (water) but empowerment (the Holy Spirit). John’s preparatory work is highlighted in the season of Advent, which is a time of preparation for the coming of the one who incarnates the living God, but he makes another appearance as we get ready to hear the story of the one who manifests the presence of God in the world (Epiphany).
It is true that John gets more verses in this reading, but he is not the focus of the passage. Instead, it is the one who comes to be baptized, not the one doing the baptizing who needs to receive our attention. John’s ministry is one of witness – he points us to the one who most fully reveals the presence of God to the world. Mark’s presentation of the baptismal event is brief and to the point. In his brevity he raises as many questions as he answers about the one who comes to John to receive baptism. What he does say is that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized. Jesus gets in line, just like everyone else, and receives baptism from John. As a Disciple who practices baptism by immersion, I envision Jesus being fully dunked in the waters of the Jordan, which were probably a lot deeper then than today (no diversion by nation states to serve their interests). He comes to receive the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Unlike in Matthew’s Gospel, Mark’s John the Baptist doesn’t try to dissuade Jesus from being baptized (Matthew3:13-17). Unlike in John’s Gospel, the Baptist doesn’t just point Jesus out as the one on whom he has seen the Spirit has falling (John 1:29-34). Jesus simply gets in line, receives baptism from John.
One of the questions raised by this passage is whether Mark understands Jesus to be a sinner. While Mark doesn’t say one way or another, it is clear that Jesus identifies himself with sinners. In this Jesus serves as the bridge between humanity and the holy God.
It is what happens next that separates Jesus from the others who have come to John for baptism. Whether or not Mark sees Jesus as a sinner needing the baptism of forgiveness, by getting in that line and identifying himself with sinners, Jesus gets a word of commendation from God. As Jesus rises from the water of baptism (immersion?), Mark reports Jesus’ vision of 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’” (Mark 1:10-11). From there, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tested (Mark1:12-13).
Yes, Mark raises many questions about Jesus. Did Jesus know who he was prior to this event? Was this his calling to messianic ministry? Was this his adoption as Son of God? Did his calling have to be proven by going the ordeal of the wilderness? The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams suggests that “this Jesus is arguably stranger, more ‘transcendent’, more simply worrying than the Jesus of any of the other Gospels.” [Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent, WJK, p. 25].
From beginning to end, the Gospel of Mark leaves us asking questions. It is unsettling. But, there is a certain freedom that is present in Mark’s presentation. In some ways it is stripped down, but in other ways Mark allows us to focus in on Jesus the actor in history, not simply the teacher or even the miracle worker.
With this baptism event, when the heavens open up to Jesus in a vision that apparently only Jesus receives, the journey to the cross begins. Jesus is anointed for his ministry by the endowment of the Holy Spirit, and receives the commendation of God – with you I am well pleased. Finally, he is declared to be Son of God. The latter is a title that has significant nuance, including the vocation of king. The rulers of this world will conspire against God’s anointed, but God has declared the anointed his son, and as God’s son, the anointed one will achieve victory (Psalm 2). With this baptism, Jesus is anointed and crowned – messiah and Son of God. Thus, it is clear, that for Mark, Jesus is the one who has been called to bring to light the realm and reign of God.
As we remember the Baptism of Jesus this first Sunday of Epiphany, may we remember and reaffirm our own baptisms, committing ourselves to the service of God’s anointed in pursuit of the expanding reign of God on earth as in heaven.