How Do We Begin? Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
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.’
I don’t remember my own baptism. But I do remember pictures of it... or, at least one picture of it. There were two of us. I was the baby in a long white baptismal gown. My grandmother was holding me, her blond hair crowning her smiling face. Someone, probably my grandfather, had snapped the picture out in the parking lot just before I was baptized. It was a sunny day. I look pretty happy and so does my granny. I would soon be baptized in a honey-colored baptismal font in the midst of a modern, mid-70's sanctuary, complete with yellow glass-paned windows and angular pews. The water was clean and clear and probably made me cry. Pastor Glass, the man who baptized me, always wore a white robe and a black clergy shirt. As I think about my baptism, and, really, most of the baptisms that I have ever observed, and compare them to the baptism we heard about today, I am struck by the contrast.
Our scripture for today is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. You may remember some of the story from the second week in Advent, when we heard about John prophesying about the one who would come after him, the one who would baptize people in the Holy Spirt. I think that it would be hard to find a story of a baptism that is more different than my own. While I was baptized by a clean cut man in clerical garb, Jesus was baptized by a wild man clothed in camel hair. I was a child who had my head soak in a baptismal font. He was an adult who was dunked in the Jordan River. I wore a lacy gown that was roughly twice as long as I was. Jesus probably wasn’t wearing lace, though he might have been wearing white. And, also no story of my baptism ends with me hearing the voice of God and seeing the Holy Spirit descending on me. No, my baptism story probably ended with cookies and punch and a long drive back out to the country with a sleepy, slightly soggy baby.
Certainly, Jesus’ baptism story is a more colorful story than my own. I love a good story about a wild man dunking people in the water. And, yet, it is interesting that we are talking about Jesus' baptism here, three weeks after we celebrated his birth, using the same scripture with which we ushered in the early days of Advent. This story must be important enough for us to return to it five weeks after we last read it. While it's not quite the same set of scriptures... the Advent reading was primarily about the prophesy while this set balances the prophesy with the ritual act of Jesus' baptism... I think it matters that we have been invited to consider this set of scripture once again. I think that this mix of prophetic vision and ritual action can tell us something about how we enact the church together over the coming year. I think this story reminds us that it matters how we begin.
Mark does not begin Jesus’ story with an infancy narrative as we have in Matthew and Luke. Instead, the author began by describing the work of John the Baptist. As we remember from back in Advent, John was quite the character. Reminiscent of that other wild man prophet Elijah, and fulfilling the words of Isaiah, he was preparing the way of the Lord. He preached and offered the Jewish ritual of baptism for “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And, perhaps most importantly for Mark's Gospel, he spoke of one who would come after him. He said “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.” John said that the baptism he offered was limited, but the baptism offered by the one who would follow him was more. He said “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” According to the Gospel writer, countless people traveled to the wilderness to be baptized at his hands.
Among those who travel into the wilderness is Jesus. The first place we see Jesus is in the hands of John, descending into the water. The description of his baptism is strikingly simple. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” No muss. No fuss. No lacey gowns or punch or cookies. And, the only commentary on the occasion would come from God. As Jesus rose from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descend like a dove and then descend into him. As Jesus was being filled with the spirit, he heard, “You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” What weight these words must have carried. Within Jewish tradition, the term Son of God not just a generic term like “We’re all God’s children.” Son of God, according to scholar Bart Ehrman, referred to someone who “had a particularly intimate relationship with God, who was chosen by God to perform a task, and who thereby mediated God’s will to the people on earth.” Kings were Sons of God. Miracle workers and exorcists were Sons of God. Random guys roaming around in the woods were not sons' of God. To hear this title applied to yourself would be to feel a great responsibility being placed on your shoulders.
The baptism is not the end of this part of the story even though that is where today's reading ended. There is a little more to this part of the story that I think is worth sharing. In the next part of the story, just after being baptized, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by God’s spirit and tempted by Satan. Like other sons of God, he would be in the wilderness for forty days and would be tended to by the angels. And, then John, the prophet who told us that Jesus would come, would be arrested. And, then, Jesus, who resisted Satan's temptations and accepted the care of the angels, came out of the wilderness and he began to preach. He would say that the reign of God had drawn near and it was time to repent and believe in the good news. This was the beginning of his public ministry. And, in the Gospel of Mark, this all started with his baptism.
As I read this story, I cannot help but realize how foreign it seems to me. It is not the baptisms that I have seen. And, I would hazard a guess, that this baptism that most people imagine. Who here would follow a strange man shouting prophecy out to the Cobboseecontee to be “cleansed?" Who here would be willing to be chased by God out into the wilds to struggle with the weight of God's calling on our lives? Who here would trust that the angels would come to our aid? The intensity of these few verses is quite the far cry from that sweet picture of me and my granny. In my picture, I see promise in that smiling baby face. In this scene of baptism, even as I rejoice in the presence of God, when I see Jesus driven into the wilderness, I sense something far more foreboding.
I am apparently not the only one that has found this story a bit troubling. This scene seems to have a long history of being theologically problematic for Jesus' followers. Even the other Gospel writers felt like they had to work harder to explain what was going on that Mark did. For example, in Matthew, which was written after Mark, John initially responded to Jesus with resistance. He said, “you should be baptizing me,” thereby giving Jesus the opportunity to say that John had to baptize him in order to fulfill the prophecy. And, in Luke, which was also written after Mark, the author chose to bypass the issue of who’s baptizing who by noting that Jesus was baptized but never saying who did it. The Gospel of John just omits the baptism as a whole.
One scholar offers a few explanations of why some might have found Jesus' baptism problematic. Some worried that if baptism was intended to symbolize repentance from sins, that meant that Jesus would appear to have sin, an image of Jesus that many would find troubling. Also, to be baptized was also to identify oneself as spiritually subordinate to the one doing the baptizing. Being baptized meant putting oneself in a very vulnerable position, at the mercy of the one officiating the ritual act. Placing anyone, even John, in a more powerful role than Jesus would have been unacceptable to some people, and possibly a scandal to the whole Christian movement.
It is interesting that the Gospel of Mark does not seem to share these concerns. The same scholar who explained why some people might have been scandalized by Jesus' baptism, Richard DeMaris, also has one theory about why the author of Mark isn't concerned at all. DeMaris says that it goes back to the power of ritual in community. The scholar notes that baptism would become a central ritual for the Christian community, and the manner in which one joins the community matters. How one participates in a ritual act indicates how one will later function in the community and shapes how members of the community interact with each other. As we have already discussed, one could view baptism as inherently subordinating. This is why so many people may have been uncomfortable with Jesus being baptized to begin with. But, Mark chose to show Jesus willing be in that place of vulnerability. While some might argue that Jesus would have difficulty being a leader if allowed himself to be treated himself as inferior. DeMaris argues that Mark has a different vision of leadership in mind.
As we will see over the next several weeks as we read through the book of Mark together, Jesus will do many things that are unexpected, starting with his baptism. Later in the book, well into his public ministry in chapter 9, when his disciples begin to argue over who was the greatest, Jesus will tell them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In chapter 10, when James and John asked for seats of honor on either side of Jesus, he will say “ whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus will never call on people to follow him so they can be superior to everyone else. He will not say “Follow me and everyone will do what you say and they will bring you punch and cookies.” He will say if you want to be first, you must be willing to be last. You must be willing to give up the place of privilege in order to feel the presence of God. Jesus first set the example for this kind of servant leadership when he allowed himself to be baptized by John. This was his first truly radical act in Mark’s eyes. This was the place where he began to redefine the role of Messiah.
I would hazard a guess that most of the people in this room had a baptism that looked more like mine. There probably was no wild man and the aftermath of your baptism may not have been so fraught with danger and angst. Even those of you who may have been baptized as adults would likely describe is as a comforting and loving event where being radical was the last thing on your mind. But, today, I encourage you to think of this ritual as a radical ritual act of vulnerability and servant leadership. I think we use this model of prophetic visioning and worshipful ritual as a model for our own life as a church community. We are in the time when we plan our budget and set forth our priorities for the coming year. As we plan our next year together, I hope that we can ask the question: how is our communal ritual life reflecting Jesus’ model of servant leadership? How can our own worship and service reflect this sense of vulnerability and willingness to forgo privilege in order to better serve God? What place of privilege are we being called to give up just as Jesus gave up some of his? And, are we prepared to be in a place of wilderness as we discern how to live this life of service and vulnerability?
These are not easy questions. They are certainly not the questions that were on my family's mind 35 years ago when they took me to be baptized. But, these questions matter. My prayer as we discern our next steps together is that we can hear this Gospel challenge and make it live in our worship and service together. Learning to live more fully into our Gospel calling... now that is certainly worth all the punch and cookies in the world.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Pulpit Fiction #97 Baptism of Jesus, After Epiphany 1B: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/97-baptism-of-jesus-after-epiphany-1b
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.