John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 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 when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4-11 ESV)
We, the followers of Jesus, know his story as we hear it each year through the Gospel accounts. Today, if people want to meet Jesus we hold up what looks like a book to the world but is actually a library – because in it are 66 books and letters – and we turn to the Gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – good news in a bad news / fake news world – and basically say ‘Here, meet Jesus!’. And people do. Mysteriously, paradoxically, curiously, strangely – the world keeps scratching its head – people are drawn to Jesus again and again – to his humanity and to his divinity – and they discover that Jesus is appealing – challenging at times for sure – but someone you simply want to follow – and they do. What grows, what discipleship is about is the truth that left to ourselves we can’t follow Jesus – we trip, we fall, we doubt, we struggle – but then he’s always there helping us. It’s not so much us holding onto Jesus but Jesus holding onto us.
Now after you’ve read the Gospels a few times – like anything you read multiple times, there can be the skimming, the knowing what happens next. Sure, you’re still enjoying the reading but the eyes can move faster than the brain. One reason for the ancient world reading out loud was that it slowed you down and the words became part of you via your eyes, ears, and mouth. So church people who have heard the story of Jesus’ baptism – and there are four versions in the library – can say, ‘Oh that’s nice – Jesus is baptised – he is publicly announced as God’s Son – let his public ministry begin’. We can imagine the scene because we have imagined it in the past – imagine ourselves there seeing it all – we can try to imagine what it was like for Jesus (we can’t really and I think it is fraught with danger to try) – and perhaps being drawn to something we hadn’t noticed – hadn’t heard! – before!
Mark’s account of Jesus starts with the setting of the scene that the place of repentance, forgiveness, church, prophecy and preaching God’s Word, God’s presence, God’s Spirit is tied to a strange looking fellow – John the Baptist out in the river Jordan. We nod and go ok because we’re used to God being with us but what we might not hear is the battle lines forming. You see the people of Israel already had a place of repentance, forgiveness, church, prophecy and preaching God’s Word, God’s presence and God’s Spirit and that was the temple in Jerusalem. Ancient Israel is a small country. Everyone could get to Jerusalem if they wanted to and the faithful were expected there at the three pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles – but now all Jerusalem was going out – leaving – and heading to the Jordan! Not permanently – everyone goes home of course – but they were receiving something spiritual away from Jerusalem – not authorised by Jerusalem. That is the context – a fight, a storm, conflict, a battle is brewing – where will you go for spiritual blessings – for the spiritual truth?
And in this context Jesus – incognito – no fanfare – is baptised. Mark records that it is Jesus who sees the heavens being torn and the dove. It is Jesus who hears the voice from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’. We have no idea from Mark if anyone else noticed. What Mark is doing is assembling the characters in his account – the people, the context – and Mark is portraying it as a battle. Read Mark and you will find demons – they know who Jesus is and they are terrified – human opposition, rejection, dullness, and finally betrayal, desertion and execution. There is violence happening because – and pause to comprehend this – because God has mounted a counter attack to rescue us – us – who were made in God’s image and who have rebelled – and who have ruined all of creation. God has come among us to battle the forces that plague us, forces humanity has unleashed, forces we can sense in each generation – even in each infant. (Whoever teaches a child to be selfish and stubborn? We’re forever teaching our children the opposite!) Forces we usually describe as our sin, our pride, death, and the demonic.
And the hint that what we are seeing in Jesus’ baptism is the marshalling of the forces for the battle is in the little word ‘torn’. How the heavens or the skies are torn who knows but the action is not gentle and has violent associations. Mark will use this word again at the end of his account when Jesus has died in the cross, the curtain in the temple – we believe Mark is referring to the curtain in the temple shielding the Holy of Holies is torn from top to bottom – as if holy hands have ripped away the old – behold, the new has come.
There is now a new way for God to be present with his people, for God to forgive people, a new focus by which people are repentant, hearing new prophecies and preaching and being in a new presence of God by his Spirit – and it is Jesus! And Jesus makes it clear that he is with his people through words, water, bread and wine – and among those gathered around words, water, bread and wine are his people, his church.
Where should people go for spiritual blessings and the spiritual truth?
Jesus’ baptism aligned himself with sinners – with you and me – to defeat the forces that we collude with and we fear. His baptism leads him to the cross. God’s declaration of ‘well pleased’ is seen again in Jesus’ resurrection – and now the battle is over – sin, death, and the demonic are defeated – and our lives are lived in this victory cry, ‘It is finished!’. This doesn’t mean ‘easy street’ for us – that’s ‘heaven’ in the way we think things and we’re not in heaven yet – instead living in this world is one of discipleship, following Jesus, and having Jesus with us every step of the way.
That promise and presence is given to you at your baptism and Jesus will never break it.
- Mark 1:4 - 11