Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2021
Sunday Between January 7 and January 13 Inclusive
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Mark 1:4-11, The Message or Mark 1:4-11, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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This text begins our Epiphany, Year B, readings. For the next several weeks, we will read through Chapter 1, verse by verse (with one exception next week).
The Gospel according to Mark is fast paced, and action oriented. It is the shortest of the Gospels, and believed to be the first written. Both Matthew and Luke include - sometimes word for word - most of Mark. But whereas Luke was written to present Jesus to a non-Jewish gentile; and Matthew was written for Jewish new converts or those considering becoming followers of Jesus, Mark reads like an early family history - the writing down of already familiar and often spoken stories that are told at family gatherings: "Remember when ... and then ...and then ..."
For some reason or other, the lectionary leaves out verses 1-3 and 12-13, but I recommend including them.
For one thing, Verse 1 tells us what Mark's "message" is (using this in the contemporary political communication meaning of: What's our 3 second, memorable, sound bite: "Yes we can.")
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Note that Mark says this is the "beginning." Is he simply meaning, "this is the opening sentence of my book?" Or is he is implying, "This is the beginning of an as-yet-unfinished proclamation of good news?" His writing certainly does not finish with "This is the end of the good news."
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh - and other scholars - helpfully point out that the underlying Greek word for "good news" was commonly used for a royal proclamation of "good news" such as a victory in war; the marriage of the emperor; the birth of an heir; etc. That the followers of Jesus used this word for their story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a political act of daring. Daring to provide an alternative to the Roman Empire as an authority and source of "Good News."
Malina and Rohrbaugh also point out that the title, "Son of God." was not uniquely used only for Jesus. Notably, the Roman Emperor was called, "Son of God." And occasionally, the phrase is used in Scriptures to refer to folks who are manifesting qualities of God in their behaviour or being.
Indeed, "son of" is probably better understood as meaning, "having the qualities of," and certainly NOT as "genetic descendant of." And so, similarly, "son of man" means having the qualities of a human; and so, "sons of thunder," (see Mark 3:17) means "loud, boisterous, energetic."
Nonetheless, naming Jesus as "Christ" (the Anointed, the Messiah), and Son of God sets out two bold claims that the rest of the story is going to have to justify.
Throughout Mark the only references to Jesus as Son of God come only from the spirit world (i.e. the voices from heaven at his baptism and at the transfiguration (Mark 9); or from evil spirits that Jesus is casting out.) Except, finally, at the conclusion of Mark, a complete outsider to the story and one who participated in executing Jesus, a Roman centurion soldier who was at the cross when Jesus dies - that person is the first to say of Jesus, "Surely this man was the Son of God." (NIV)
All four Gospels make a connection between Jesus and John the Baptist, and many scholars wonder if Jesus might have been a disciple of John's. In any case, Jesus is clearly not simply one of the crowd who have come to hear John. And his baptism would not have been entered into from their context.
And so, we might understand the baptism of Jesus as a selfless aligning/embodying of self with the desires of God. Rather than a "functional" baptism - that is, being baptized so that some function could happen - the forgiveness of sins - this is a "revelatory" baptism - that is, enacting, confirming and making visibly real what is already the case: You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
And just in case anyone thinks this story is going to be a piece of cake: beautiful doves, lovely voices from heaven, etc., the next thing that happens is 40 days of hardship and testing. And this is just the beginning of the good news.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 145-148; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See link below.
Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark 1:4-11 (The Message)
1 The good news of Jesus Christ—the Message!—begins here, 2 following to the letter the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Watch closely: I'm sending my preacher ahead of you;
He'll make the road smooth for you.
3 Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God's arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
4 John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. 5 People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. 6 John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.
7 As he preached he said, "The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will change your life. 8 I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out."
9 At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God's Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. 11 Along with the Spirit, a voice: "You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life."
12 At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. 13 For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him.
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.