The baptism of Jesus is a cosmic, earth shattering affair. Remove all thoughts of cute babies held over a baptismal font and gently cascaded with water. Instead, envision a wild scene of water splashing, the sky being ripped open and God’s voice from the heaven’s. Mark throws us right into the action, but what else can we learn from this simple and straight-forward passage?
Text: Mark 1: 4-11
The Baptism of Jesus
You are probably aware that a new Star Wars movie was released a few weeks ago. If you’ve seen a Star Wars movie you know that they begin with an opening crawl. The first words are normally: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
The screen turns and we are usually greeted by some form of space battle, thrust right into the action as the movie roars to life. This is what I imagine the beginning of Mark’s gospel to be like. Imagine if you will a movie screen displaying a pastoral image of fields, forest and a river with the following words scrolling across it:
A long time ago, in a Galilee, far, far away, 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.”
The screen shifts and focuses on the river. A man is in the river being baptized by the individual who is clothed in camel’s hair. As he comes out of the water, the very sky itself is torn open. It looks as if a great storm is about to come crashing down, but instead we see the Holy Spirit. Descending like a dove, full of life and grace and then a voice booms, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
From this point on the movie moves forward. Galvanized by this initial opening scene. The slow crawl at the beginning sets the scene and then allows the action to begin. This is how Mark opens his gospel. Not with flowery words like we find in John. Not with lineages like we find in Matthew and Luke. Instead, Mark thrusts us right into the heart of the action. There are no spare words in Mark’s gospel, simply the information we need to get to the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
What happens next? Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness by the same Holy Spirit which descended like a dove. He would spend 40 days being tempted by Satan.
Because an engagement with evil and re-establishing the principles of God’s kingdom is what Jesus’ baptism was about. Jesus did not come down to earth to dwell with us because God is nice. This isn’t to say God isn’t nice, but that’s not the reason. The reason is because humanity had gone a little sideways with what we understood about God. Jesus comes down to set the record straight.
In doing so he upsets a lot of people, because they liked things the way they were. They liked profiting off of the poor, of doing the bare minimum and getting ahead. They found it convenient to ignore the widow, the orphan and the stranger in their midst. The focus was only on loving God, they forgot that God wanted us to love our neighbours, just as we love ourselves. Jesus comes to set those things which are crooked straight. He came to open our eyes to the wrongs in the world, wrongs which we still find in our society today. All of this starts for Mark with the baptism of Jesus. From this point on it is a whirlwind affair of healing and teaching.
What we witness in Mark’s gospel about Jesus’ baptism is not a constrained, peaceful affair. It is not a child being held as water is gently being administered. No, what we have is a rather violent encounter with the living God. The sky is torn asunder, in the same manner that the temple curtain is torn asunder when Jesus died on the cross. God’s voice booms from the heavens. Mark’s gospel demonstrates a God who is bent on action. What we feel is the immediacy of Mark’s gospel.
After the baptism we are sent to the desert. Unlike Matthew and Luke’s gospel, Mark doesn’t dwell on what happened in the desert. Instead he simply sums it up in a single sentence. He was in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Mark is also telling us something else. Do you remember the last people in the scripture to be with the wild beasts? Normally, when we think of the wilderness or wild beasts the association is of sin or being outside of relationship with God. However, in this instance I believe Mark is linking us back to the beginning. The last people to be with the wild beasts, not in terror of them but with them, were Adam and Eve.
Mark is telling us something about Jesus and God’s plan for creation which will be realized through Jesus. That everything will be brought back into harmony. Everything will be made new. Everything will be restored. A promise that we have in Jesus Christ.
All of this begins with baptism. With the cascading of living water, the cleansing power of water. The baptism of Jesus was an epiphany. Today on Epiphany Sunday we are reminded that Jesus himself was an epiphany. Everything about his life was an epiphany. He shed light on God’s teaching and showed the error of our ways. That we had fallen out of step with God’s plan and God’s love. It was a revelation that changed lives then and it can change lives today too.
Friends, we need more epiphanies. We need to hear more about those instances where God’s love shines through into the shadows and dark places of this world. Because God’s love is at work in the world and we need to turn out attention to it. We need to be the ones who are pulling back the shutters and opening the eyes of the world to God’s love. To ensure that the light is shining brightly, visible for all to see. When the power of God’s love pours out into the world, when we are at work as God’s people lives are changed for the better. People are restored, healing occurs.
We’ve read the words of the opening crawl. God has set the stage for us and now the camera shifts and focuses in on us. And God the greatest director of all is calling for ‘action’. Amen.