“Plaque with the Baptism of Jesus” South Netherlandish, ca. 1150-1175. Currently on display at the Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 304. Public Domain.
Mark 1:4-11 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I 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. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Mark 1:4-11 As your custom and faith dictated, you traveled from your little town in the rural countryside of Galilee to the big city, Jerusalem, three times a year. These pilgrimages celebrated important holy festivals for your people and took place after a regional harvest, where farmers and landowners could bring offerings to the temple and food to the market.
You’ve made these trips for as long as you could remember. The journey was long, taking as much as a week by foot. Usually, you traveled with your family and people from your town, sleeping out along the road by night. Once, when you were twelve, your parents even began the journey back to Nazareth without you, figuring you were with another family. They were pretty upset with you when they had to return to Jerusalem because you had snuck away to the temple to argue with the priests. There was a lot of silence on that trip back. But most of the time, these trips brought you joy. You caught up with neighbors and extended family, learned about current events, and laughed and sang together.
Times have changed, though. Maybe everything was getting worse, or perhaps you notice more now that you’re older. You see that the first fruits of the harvest are smaller, a sign of poverty in the region. Fewer people are making the pilgrimage too, and folks say it’s become the roads have become more dangerous. People talk less openly, worried about Roman interlopers. And as you enter the city, the roads are lined with crosses: so many crosses, so many people, your people, condemned to death by the empire.
You reflect on the journey to Jerusalem during the festivities. You perform your sacrifices in the temple and join your friends and family in singing and conversing around luscious meals. But you notice more this week. You notice poverty in the streets. You notice ill and injured people calling out for help. You see the way everyone walks by them as if they aren’t there. And you notice Rome. It’s standard in the temple; an eagle, a bird of war, stands over the house of worship. Its soldiers are everywhere, scuffling with the locals. Its leaders share a table with city leaders. You feel the joy of this harvest festival, but that joy is damped by the feeling that all is not right.
As the festival ends, you leave the city but take a detour into the wilderness, down to the Jordan River. In the last few years, after each festival, you visit your cousin John and stay with him and his followers for a few days. John lived in the middle of nowhere and was, by far, your strangest relative. He dressed like a wild man or an ancient prophet, and you always made sure to bring your own food because his food was pretty gross. But you looked up to your cousin. He had committed himself to help people and made no distinction between city dwellers and poor rural folks like yourself. He preached the same message to everyone, calling on folks to return to God. He contended that God’s people did not need to live lives of political, economic, and spiritual oppression. He called out the corruption of local leaders. He stated that Rome’s occupation of this God-given land was illegitimate. He talked about how people can repent and not go along with the awful things in this world. They could resist, peacefully even, by returning to devotion to God and the virtues of a loving and just life. He gave people hope, and direction, a little light in a bleak world.
This year, as you made your way down to John, you traveled with an enormous crowd. John’s message was being heard by people in the city and folks from all over the region, but clearly, his popularity had grown since you saw him last.
As you entered the clearing, you saw a familiar sight, John, wearing his characteristic camel’s hair attire and thick leather belt, preaching on the banks of the River. Some of his followers sang ancient hymns from the Psalms and the Prophets, songs of lament, joy, and trust in God. And people responded to his message by entering the water, confessing their sins, and being dipped under the water and raised back up, a symbol of forgiveness, renewal, and a new start.
You had responded in this way too in previous trips. Like the others, you felt compelled to confess those terrible thoughts, feelings of despair, and social injustices you’ve witnessed recently. You felt that each time you were dipped in the water, you have a chance to begin again, to do something meaningful moving forward, something that could help your people who struggled to survive.
And so, this time, you entered the River again. One of John’s attendants came to you and heard your confession, and saw your tears, and held your hand as you plunged underneath the waters. But, when you came back up, something was different. It was like the sky was on fire, ripping with a bolt of lightning. And it felt like the lightning struck you, entering into you, and you imagined a dove, a symbol of God’s spirit of peace. And you heard a voice saying, “You are my child, and I love you, and I am pleased with you, and I choose you.”
You turn to the attendant and ask if they saw or heard anything. They answered only with a blessing.
You stick around on the bank of the River into the evening, considering what just happened. As the crowds disperse, your cousin comes over, greets you warmly, and invites you to stay with him and his followers for a few days.
At dinner, you catch up. John mentions that he’s been approached by local authorities recently and that he fears arrest. His followers are uneasy, too, wondering what will happen if their leader is taken into custody.
Then share your starling experience in the water. John is thoughtful, listening quietly, and intently. After a prolonged silence, John begins to tell you stories about other people who were anointed to do God’s work in the world, how they had similar experiences. He talks about Moses and Elijah about the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. He laughs and jokes about your carpentry skills and wonders if a new line of work would suit you better. More seriously, he talks about the harvest that everyone just celebrated. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. And then he offers advice: “Go deep into the wilderness and fast and pray. Stay there as long as necessary and discover what God will have you do.”
You set out that very night into the wilderness, leaving everything behind to find answers.
This Sunday commemorates the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. Mark’s telling of the story is sparse and based on action. Jesus comes to John, is baptized, receives a vision, and is led into the wilderness. Immediately after, John is arrested. Only then does Jesus begin his public ministry.
We can fill in the story a bit by the baptism stories in our other gospels and other literature from the first century CE. John and Jesus were cousins. John preached and baptized in the wilderness for a while before Jesus came on the scene. John’s popularity grew over the years, and people visited him regularly for messages of hope and ritual purification. Jesus knew John well and also knew his followers. When John was arrested, some of John’s followers began to follow Jesus around the Galilean countryside as he embarked on his own work.
This is how everything gets started in Mark. This gospel is not concerned with annunciations, genealogies, and nativity scenes. There are no shepherds, wise men, and angelic choirs. Everything begins at this particular instance of Jesus’ baptism, a ritual he likely experienced many times before.
The difference lies in what Jesus experienced this time. The skies open up, and the spirit of God descends on him, like a dove. And a voice speaks directly to Jesus here, saying, “You are my son, my beloved. In you, I am well pleased.” A better translation of the phrase, “In you, I am well pleased,” is “I have chosen or selected you.” At this moment, God selects Jesus to carry out God’s purposes.
I wonder if telling the context of this familiar passage and telling it as a story helps us to enter into it. Otherwise, I find the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan River to be a little too abstract. Theologians have debated for centuries over the purpose of Jesus’ baptism, whether or not it was necessary, and whether it changed Jesus in any substantial way. The debates weren’t terribly helpful, led to a great deal of division, and left almost everyone else disinterested or confused.
But I think something more accessible is happening here.
Have you ever been stuck? I mean, really stuck? Stuck in an awful job, a toxic relationship, a compiled and collected set of harmful habits and practices? Have you looked closely at big issues like poverty, racism, political corruption, fake news, or climate change, and instead of feeling inspired to act, you mostly feel horrible inside and don’t even know where to start? That’s being stuck.
I wonder how long Jesus had been stuck before that day at the Jordan River. I wonder how he processed his faith’s reminder to be thankful to God for all good things while interacting with a world that seemed utterly broken. God’s will for this world and the world as it is stand so far apart. Where do you even start?
But you know how our best ideas and inspirations come to us in our modern-day rituals? That new insight that seems to come from nowhere over morning coffee or in the shower; the unique perspective we gain while our hands are busy knitting or sewing; that inspiration we gathered chopping wood in the spring or during the yearly trip to the beach in the summer. Likely, our minds have been hard at work on these complex issues for a long time, but our rituals allow us to think and feel differently. They provide space in us to hear what we really need to hear.
During the ritual of confession and being dipped in water, Jesus heard what he needed to hear. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.”
I wish our insights were so clear. Maybe that’s what made Jesus so unique: That he felt such a close bond with God; That he felt so loved by God; That he felt truly affirmed by God as is; And that he felt so chosen by God to go out and work in loving and just ways.
I wonder what we might do if we ever heard these words. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.” I wonder how we might shape our lives differently if we heard these words and used them to make our decisions. Would we feel less stuck? Would the most significant problems of the world feel more conquerable? Would we feel secure enough to reach out and take risks?
I pray that we hear these words this week. Or that we consider them. I pray that we are comforted by them during this difficult time. And I pray that these words heard by Jesus, but also meant for us, challenge us to take on some new task for God’s good work in the world. Amen.