11 January 2009 at Mentmore
Baptism of Christ. Commemorated in eastern church last week at Epiphany, but in Anglican communion a week later.
Mark – earliest gospel – probably written in the 70’s AD – some say as early as 60AD. In his gospel, Mark keen to present a picture of Jesus as Son of God who suffers and dies. Theme of suffering and discipleship important to him.
Verses 1-13 form introduction. No birth or infancy narratives. Dives straight in with John the Baptizer who announces the good news – evalgelion – gospel.
In Mark, John has little life of his own – no preaching – no message except baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins – and function of acting as messenger, pointing ahead to the Messiah.
Clothing deliberately like Elijah. Elijah supposed to come again before final Day of the Lord predicted by the prophets. Like Elijah, John operates from the wilderness.
In v9 Mark says Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptised. He explains Nazareth is in Galilee, so Mark’s readers might not be familiar with geography of Palestine. Mark’s geography is hazy in places too.
Jesus sees vision of heaven torn apart and a dove descending. Notice in this reading Mark makes clear not everyone sees the vision of dove descending. Not shared by others?
Characteristics of a dove: Faithfulness. Loyalty. Gentleness (Christians are sent out as sheep among wolves – told to be wise as serpents but harmless as doves) Peace - one of fruits of Holy Spirit.
Not clear at this stage what is meant by Son of God. Phrase routinely used for monarchs in OT. Difference is the heavens are torn apart – clear reference to theophany – manifestation of God to human beings. Other examples are Transfiguration, burning bush.
Why should Jesus, sinless Son of God, be baptized by John for forgiveness of sins? Matthew is clearly embarrassed – in other gospels no such reticence. Mark makes no attempt to explain. Baptism in this case is clearly not for forgiveness of sins. Most likely that this episode is an opportunity to mark the start of Jesus’ ministry with a theophany – marking Jesus as Son of God in whom the Father is well pleased – a seal of divine approval to start his ministry.
John says Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit, whereas he can only baptize with water. No record of anyone being baptized by Jesus, although his disciples do so. Baptism by Holy Spirit and with fire may refer to Pentecost.
Shortly after the baptism, Jesus is sent into desert for 40 days and tempted by Satan. When he emerges victorious, John has been thrown into prison. Jesus takes over, travelling into Galilee and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. ‘Repent and believe the good news,’ he says.
Immediately afterwards he calls the first disciples, Simon Peter and Andrew, then the brothers James and John. After that he starts his ministry of healing and teaching, not evangelism. He chooses and develops a small group of people, rather than preaching the coming of the Kingdom to large crowds.
So the Baptism of Christ is more about the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry than it is about baptism as we understand it. Jesus may have set an example in agreeing to be baptised, but really the account is about the descent upon him of the Holy Spirit and the start of his work on earth.
It may also be about submission. Jesus is not the kind of Messiah to exert authority over others, but to be meek and humble. In this sense it’s not surprising he should submit to baptism by John, as others had done in large numbers. He did not want to set himself apart, but associated himself with the popular religious revival movement led by John.
In doing so, he sets us an example of humility. There were no bright lights and booming voices – Mark makes it clear only Jesus himself witnessed the vision of the heavens torn apart and the dove descending. He was glorified by God, but not in view of others. Most often, this is the way it is. We glorify God through the quiet services we offer others, not seeking recognition or thanks, not wanting to be singled out for praise.
So once again things are not quite as they seem. The passage is not so much about baptism as the inauguration of Christ’s ministry. Not so much about a theophany, manifesting God in human form as humility and service. Not so much about leadership and glory as submission and following.
As it says in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.