Baptism of Our Lord
7 January 2018
Mark begins his Gospel by explaining that his writing is about Jesus the Christ who is God’s son.
To introduce John the Baptizer he quotes Isaiah 40.
This is probably important to establish that Jesus and John are indeed related but that John came to serve Jesus. Similarly, we read in Acts 19 that there were disciples who were more connected to John then to Jesus and so both Paul and Mark just want to set the record straight: Jesus is the One.
That’s the historical explanation. But I think there is more going on. Mark could have been dismissive of John’s ministry, mention it quickly and then get on with things. After all, Mark usually cuts straight to the point.
And so I find it interesting that he tells us about John. He tells us about his diet and his attire.Peculiar details. Peculiar because we are not sure why they matter.
But perhaps Mark tells us that John was attentive to his environment, because you won’t find and get wild honey without being attentive. The same goes for locusts and camel’s hair.
It also would have made John somewhat independent of the economy. He would supply for his own needs from the things that God provided. No salary that made him pledge loyalty to his provider.
He was attentive to the world in which he lived. Attentiveness requires stillness and patience. That attentiveness may have taught him things about himself. Maybe about the recognition he wished he’d receive, or the results he’d like to see, or like Simeon and Anna the deep longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises, a longing you can only have when you also know that things aren’t the way they should be.
And it seems that that was something John shared with others, many others, with all the people of Jerusalem. That is why they came out to be baptized by John, for you cannot undergo a baptism of repentance when you think all is well, because those who are well have no need of a physician.
I grew up in the dying days of Christendom. When I was a child in Germany, most people I knew were members of the church, yet very few participated in the life of the Christian community.
I had a friend two doors down, a year or two younger than I was, who had not been baptized as an infant. He was living with his grandparents because his mother had had him out of wedlock. His mother was now married to another man but he remained with his grandparents. Occasionally we would see his mother and step-father pull up in their large Mercedes. When Stefan was baptized it was in a private service in the afternoon. Family and friends were invited to attend the baptism but there was no congregation to welcome the candidate, or to welcome his family. It was a shame.
The baptism of John the baptist was a corporate affair. There was no reception after the baptism in the Jordan river, there were probably no gifts or cards, but the baptism happened in community. All of Jerusalem came out to John; and there was no distinction between dignitaries and common people, or Jesus. Perhaps not even mothers who had had children out of wedlock were treated differently as all have fallen short of God’s glory and all are loved by God.
In the calendar of the world Christmas is such a happy and harmless time. In the calendar of the church we remember the there was no room at the inn, that he came into his own and his own did not know him. We learn of Herod’s slaughter of the children and the displacement of the Holy Family to Egypt. So, even while we think Christmas is a lovely time of the year we know that what we celebrate at Christmas is serious stuff.
I wonder if that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the baptism by John and the Baptism of Jesus? Mark knows that what he is about to tell is not a cute story but serious stuff. And so you begin with repentance and you anticipate the Holy Spirit. Because you cannot do without either.
It seems that at least in my time baptisms have always been during congregational worship, making it clear that God gifts us with a second family, the church. But while we talk about repentance, particularly during Lent but in previous times also during Advent, we think of it mostly as personal repentance for my sins and moral failings. There is a long tradition of viewing repentance as making room for God in my life, not in the life of the community or the world.
Now the language of our Ash Wednesday service speaks of our sins of exploitation, injustice, and pollution, but I think that we still regard repentance as largely a personal thing. One we do in community, but mostly as a thing between us and God.
And so it strikes me that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry Mark shows us this corporate act of repentance and I wonder what could happen if we could also repent corporately.
This seems ever more important in our time where it is clear that our sins are corporate sins for we are part of a world that is in crisis and has been for a long time. So much so that buying a Tesla or posting our conviction on our facebook page will not change enough.
Corporate repentance means that we are no longer able to point the finger at others, for we are all complicit in the current crisis. We know that pointing fingers leads to injustice and to violence.
The first summer that I worked at Mercedes was because corporations had a feeling that pastors tended to be lefties and so they sought seminarians to work there for a summer because “we” is better than “us and them”.
One preacher, who drew my attention to John’s ability to forage, pay attention, and receive life as a gift speaks of his own learning to forage and how long it took to be able to recognize edible mushrooms from poisonous ones. He the speaks of repentance as the preparation for the gift of the Holy Spirit, much as John does. Not that the Holy Spirit could not come without, but it be harder for us to recognize the Spirit and welcome the Spirit.
When Paul meets disciples in Ephesus who had not been baptized into the name of Jesus, he quickly goes ahead and baptizes them, so that they may receive the Holy Spirit.
It is true then, I think, that the Holy Spirit somehow needs our repentance. We need the Holy Spirit, for we live in a time with few visions and visionaries, and we should know that the Holy Spirit grants visions and that we God’s people may and should be the ones to share God’s vision with the world.