Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
January 11, 2015
Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
Image courtesy wordle.net
Genesis 1:1–5 • When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day.
Mark 1:4–11 • John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Why does Jesus get baptized?
Have you ever wondered that?
Is Jesus becoming a Christian? It is, after all, the initiation rite for entry into the Christian church.
Is Jesus engaging in a Jewish purification ritual? Sort of, but not really. Ritual immersion was not alien to Judaism, in fact, it is an essential part of Jewish observance for ritual purity and is prescribed in numerous occasions throughout the Jewish law. Even today, immersion in the mikvah is an important rite for individuals preparing for sacred tasks, for marriage, or for conversion. I think we can also leave out whether Jesus was preparing for conversion to Judaism as well.
But what Jesus is doing in the Jordan is clearly more than the ordinary Jewish ritual. Now, John the Baptist is clearly using that ritual as the foundation for what he’s doing, but he’s also clearly reinterpreted it, as we read earlier:
John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.
In more traditional translations, John’s action is described as “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” So, people are going out to see John in the wilderness where he is proclaiming the coming of God’s reign and the coming of the one who will usher in that reign. In response to that message, people are getting baptized—immersed in the waters of the Jordan—as a sign of their repentance, their desire for transformation of their hearts and minds, and in seeking God’s forgiveness.
John has taken a traditional Jewish practice concerned with ritual purity, being in an appropriate ritual state before entering into sacred precincts, and reinterpreted it into a rite concerned with spiritual and moral purity. He is calling on the people of Israel not simply to be ritually pure, but to be pure in heart and mind before the imminent end of the age.
Now, all of this raises an even more embarrassing question: is this what Jesus is doing there? Repenting? Repenting for what? Seeking God’s forgiveness? Forgiveness for what? Either Jesus is not the sinless person we are used to thinking of him as, or, he’s going through a ritual that is ultimately meaningless to him.
II. THE GOSPEL TRADITION
It should come as no surprise to us that we are not the first people to consider this question.
In Mark’s gospel, from which we read tonight, we get a fairly straightforward account:
About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water
A simple description. Jesus comes to the Jordan. John baptizes him. Mark deals with it all matter of factly. But a decade or so later, as Matthew is writing his gospel, suddenly, this whole state of affairs doesn’t quite seem right. Matthew’s version is a little different:
“At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” So John agreed to baptize Jesus.” (Matthew 3:13–15 CEB)
Did you catch that? John actually asks Jesus more or less, “What are you doing here? If anything, it should be the other way around.” And only then does Jesus justify it by noting that it is necessary to fulfill all righteousness. So John agrees.
Now, this is the kind of thing that Biblical scholars love to wrestle with. And scholars who study the historical Jesus will look at this as a prime case of the criterion of “embarrassment”, that is, this is likely true because it’s embarrassing, and why would the church have made something up that was embarrassing? The argument says, in effect, the fact that Matthew needs to come up with a justification for why Jesus got baptized by him demonstrates that even Matthew understood that Jesus getting baptized by John, as if he needed to be baptized, was embarrassing. And therefore, those same scholars will conclude, Jesus’ baptism has a higher degree of historical likelihood.We’re pretty sure that yes, Jesus did, in fact, get baptized.
In Luke’s version, he notes: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized.” (Luke 3:21 CEB) An interesting take. Perhaps Jesus got lost in the crowds and that’s why John didn’t think to object?
Perhaps most interesting of all is the version in John’s gospel, where John the Baptist is baptizing, and Jesus approaches:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.’ Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.” (John 1:29–34 CEB)
John testifies that he saw the spirit come down upon Jesus and that he had been foretold that when that happened, that one would be one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, God’s own son. But nowhere in the text does it say that John actually baptizes Jesus. I mean, it’s can be inferred from the text that it must have happened. But it happens off-screen.
There is just something about Jesus being baptized by John that seems to be an embarrassment to the evangelists, so much so that they have to spend a great deal of time making sure we know that John knows that even though he’s baptizing Jesus, he’s just the forerunner. And that the baptism is out of the ordinary—it’s just a sign of something else. It’s necessary for righteousness or it’s a sign of the true baptism by the Holy Spirit that Jesus brings. There is no shortage of theological justification woven around these narratives to cover this embarrassing fact.
Well, except in Mark’s gospel. He just puts it out there. John’s baptizing for repentance and forgiveness. Jesus comes. John baptizes him.
III. WHAT MARK IS UP TO
Now, I suppose I’m being unfair. I don’t mean to portray Mark as being dry and devoid of deep reflection. We would be making a serious error if we were to claim that. Because closer inspection reveals that there is something extraordinary going on in Mark’s version of the telling.
Let’s look again at how Mark tells us the story:
While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
There are four major actions in this passage: (1) Jesus comes up out of the water, (2) The heavens split open, (3) the Spirit comes down on him, and (4) a voice is heard from heaven.
Now, here’s where we as Westerners living on this side of the Enlightenment will often miss what’s going on in the scripture. Because we read it like it’s a story, or worse, like a textbook. We read it with Greek eyes that ask, “Did it happen like that?” We become obsessed with the details of the who, what, and where that we miss something altogether profound about this text. Because we’re not reading it like a First Century Jew would have, like a midrash.
Now, a midrash is a Jewish story that often fills in the blanks of a Biblical narrative. In the rabbinic tradition, midrash was used to flesh out certain narrative or legal ideas of the Old Testament law. But midrash was also something else; it was riffing on a theme. It was like a jazz improvisation version of an old standard. But that’s what this text is. Indeed, some have argued that the entire New Testament is a midrash upon the Old. And all this time we focus on the individual notes, and miss the melodies that are lurking in the background. The familiar themes and motifs that are playing in the background that we lose because we’re focused on the wrong thing.
Because if we are to step back and look at Mark’s story this way, we realize that we can recognize the melodies of a much earlier story. A story that we read here tonight:
When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day.
Here, in this very familiar creation narrative found in the Book of Genesis, we also encounter a number of distinct actions: (1) God’s wind (sometimes translated Spirit—it’s the same word) hovers over the deep waters, (2) God speaks, (3) light appears and is separated from the darkness. And when we look at Mark’s passage, we find the same elements: water, spirit, word, and light in the heavens.
The baptism of Jesus is a midrash on the creation story. In it, Mark is telling us that Jesus is beginning a New Creation by giving us all the elements of the first creation: word and spirit, water and light.
IV. CREATION AND NEW CREATION
See, we get so distracted by wondering why Jesus would get baptized by John that we miss the point of the story. It’s not about what John is doing. It’s not about what Jesus is having done to him. It’s about what Jesus is doing. For us.
And that is the lesson for us. We begin our year together as we always do, with Baptism of the Lord Sunday. We use it as an occasion for remembering our baptisms, for celebrating the powerful sacrament of God’s loving welcome for all.
But it is also a chance for us to remember that our baptism is an invitation to be re-created. Made anew. Born again. Wipe the slate clean. To start afresh. That is an offer that does not expire with our baptism. That is a lifelong process of being remade. Of reclaiming the tarnished image of the one who made us.
When we remember our baptisms, we can remember the promise that comes with it: the promise of transformation of heart and mind. The forgiveness of sin. The wiping the slate clean.
So, here we are at the beginning of another semester together. Another calendar year has begun. A time of resolutions and recommitments. And a time to open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit among us.
As we approach the River Jordan in our own lives, we may have another source of embarrassment, an embarrassment that comes from deep with in us. For we may not be the people we would like to be. There may be much that we would cast off about ourselves, if we could. Much that we would pick up if we could. A sense that however we were made, what we have become is something less than what it ought.
But here at the baptismal font, we are reminded of the grace that attends our own baptisms. In our tradition, there is no requirement, no precondition for God’s grace made known to us in baptism. That same grace at baptism is available to us even now. Accepting us as we are, with all the brokenness we have.
John Wesley understood that God’s grace accepted us as we were, without precondition. But Wesley understood that having been saved by God’s unmerited favor, God’s grace did not leave us alone. God’s Sanctifying grace began to work within us, remaking us, recreating us. Helping us to grow in holiness and perfecting us in love. It is a re-creation, a re-working of the clay of our souls.
That sanctifying grace can reshape us. Remake us. Recreate us.
At the beginning of worship, you all received some Play-Doh, and by now you have no doubt fashioned it into some kind of creation. I invite you now, in the time remaining, to refashion it into something new. To rework the clay, and as you do, to reflect on the grace of God that is even now capable of reworking you. Of inaugurating in you a new creation, just as Christ inaugurated a new creation at his baptism.
In a few minutes, we will have an opportunity to remember our baptisms. For most of us, that is not an actual memory, and for those who are not yet baptized, there is no event to look back upon. But for those of us who do not remember the event, or cannot, we can remember this: that in our baptism, God in Christ is remaking us, inaugurating a new creation.
God invites us into relationship as we are to receive the free gift of grace. God calls us further in this same grace to be re-made, re-created. To allow our lives to become jazz improvisations on the melodies we had heretofore sung. To be reworked and remolded like so much Play-Doh. To receive love and grace that will transform us, and that through us, can transform the world entire.