Text: Mark 1: 4-11
Prayer: O Lord, helps us to hear these words for life, may they touch our hearts and spirits and renew us. Speak your love, acceptance and forgiveness to us. For Christ=s name. Amen.
There is a ridiculous story about a priest who was about to baptize a young child. He approached the father of the child and said solemnly, “Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?”
“I think so,” the young father replied. “My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests.”
“I don’t mean that,” the priest responded. “I mean, are you prepared spiritually?”
“Oh, sure,” came the reply. “I’ve got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey.” (Is that enough spirits?)
I’m not sure this is what the priest had in mind when he asked the young man if he was spiritually prepared.
Today we are celebrating the baptism of our Lord. You know the story. A man named John was baptizing people out in the wilderness in the Jordan River, which means he was several miles outside of Jerusalem.
The sermon is about that encounter beside the Jordan between John and Jesus.
- THE GOSPELS TELL US THAT JOHN WAS SOMEHOW RELATED TO JESUS. In Luke=s story of the Annunciation to Mary, she was told that she was to become the Mother of God’s Messiah. Immediately, she was puzzled. “How can this be?” she cried, “since I have no husband.” “No problem,@ the angel assured her. God would take care of it. It would be a miracle: a result of God’s Holy Spirit working in her.
And the angel gave her further startling news: her cousin Elizabeth was also to become a mother, even in her advanced years, and that nothing was impossible with God. Mary’s cousin’s child was the one whom we call John the Baptizer. Now, if Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, then John and Jesus were second cousins. But there is a problem here. The modern translations of the New Testament do not say “cousin” but “kinswoman.”… which is a more accurate translation of the Greek. Is a cousin a kinswoman, or a kinswoman a cousin? We do not know. At least, not for sure. But we do know this: there was some blood relationship between John and Jesus.
It is interesting to compare and contrast the lives of these two men, John and Jesus. Both were born as the result of an angel=s promise: Jesus into the home of Mary and Joseph; John into the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both were relatively the same age. Both grew up in relatively the same period of history. But there the similarity ends. Jesus spent his early years in the carpenter=s shop, and then took up the task of being an itinerant rabbi.
John, we are told, spent his early years in the wilderness, living the life of a hermit, and then burst upon the scene as a fire‑breathing evangelist.
What John did during his years in the wilderness, we do not know. But there has been much speculation…especially since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, and the excavations at Qumran, on the Western shore of the Dead Sea. You may have heard about the community of monks who lived there called the Essenes. Scholars speculate whether or not John may have been brought up by them. Since his parents were elderly when he was born, (Luke 1:7) they presumably, died when he was quite young.
The first‑century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us that it was the custom of the Essenes to do just just such a thing: adopt an orphan boy and raise him as one of them. (WARS OF THE JEWS, 2.8.2) We do know that John, like the Essenes, had strange dietary habits, wore strange clothes and reduced life down to its simplest essentials. Mark’s Gospel says that he ate locusts and wild honey…a strange diet.
But it may not be so strange when we realize that locust is also a name for the fruit of the carob tree…which tastes like chocolate. So his diet may not have been as odd as it seems. (Even today, a favorite Israeli food is chocolate and peanut butter on pita bread.) But there are differences between John and the Essenes. The Essenes retreated from the world, while John the Baptizer confronted the world head‑on, as did Jesus Himself. So, most scholars would conclude that neither John nor Jesus were Essenes. There are simply too many differences.
It is interesting to note what these two men said about one another during their lifetimes. There is the record of a time when, at the height of John=s popularity, a delegation came to him to ask: “Are you the Christ?” His answer was quick and clear: “No. I am only a voice crying in the wilderness. There is One who comes after me who is greater than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Cf. Matt. 3:11‑15; Mark 1:7‑9; Luke 3:16‑21)
Just how much John knew about Jesus at this juncture at the Jordan, we do not know. But he knew this much: Jesus was different. Jesus was greater.
Then there is another word in Scripture: (Matthew 11:7‑11). John was in prison for his strong preaching against the sins of the mighty, and word reached Jesus of his plight. And Jesus honored John. “Truly I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than he.” Now, if none is greater than he, then he must be the greatest.
Jesus said that John was the greatest person who had yet been born. That doesn’t sound like much to us, does it? “The greatest.” We are used to superlatives. “You’re the greatest!” we say, casually and unthinkingly. I wonder what constitutes true greatness, anyway? Jesus had strange notions about greatness, didn’t He? He said that greater is the one who serves a hundred than the one who has a hundred servants.
From time to time magazines list the 100 most important people in the world today.
But isn’t there a monstrous arrogance about such lists? Just who is competent to judge greatness? Some years ago Saturday Review actually did conduct such a poll, asking a group of people to vote for “the greatest man in the world.” Radio commentator Elmer Davis commented (as a commentator should:) “Who during the reign of Tiberius Caesar would have said that a carpenter from Nazareth was the greatest person in the world? Maybe the greatest person is Joe Blotz or Jane Doe — who does their job, pays their taxes, tries not to hurt their fellow citizens, and makes an honest effort to find out what it is all about.” Who can say?
One day Jesus said that John was greatest C but immediately qualified it: “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)
The paradox of God’s judgment upon greatness is nowhere more evident than in the passage from Luke. Listen to what he says about the beginning of the ministry of John:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler[a] of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler[b] of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1‑2) In other words, God by‑passed all the big‑shots, and settled on a “nobody.”
At any rate, Luke’s Gospel tells us that John began to preach in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (About 28‑29 AD, Note: THIS IS THE ONLY FIXED DATE WE HAVE IN ANY OF THE GOSPELS!)
In the 15th year of the reign of Caesar, John began preaching repentance, and baptizing beside the River Jordan. And Jesus came to him to be baptized. Mark=s Gospel, being the first, makes no big deal out of it. Matthew, on the other hand, with a more fully developed theology, has John protesting that the whole thing is unseemly. He should rather be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus insists, and so the deed is done.
- WILLIAM BARCLAY SAYS THAT “TO ANY THINKING PERSON, THE BAPTISM OF JESUS PRESENTS A PROBLEM.” (William Barclay, DAILY STUDY BIBLE; MARK, Phila.: The Westminster Press, 1956. p. 9)
How so? Because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. It was meant for those who were sorry for their sins and wished to leave them behind. But down through the ages, Christians have always insisted that Jesus was sinless..that is, He is the One who perfectly performed the will of God. Why was Jesus baptized? What did the Baptism of Jesus mean? Barclay suggests four things: For Jesus, it was: The moment of Decision, Identification, Approval, and Equipment.
It meant DECISION. For 30 years (roughly) Jesus had stayed in Nazareth, subject to family responsibilities. He must have waited for a sign, and the ministry of John was that sign. As William Emerson says so cleverly: “John was the dynamite cap that set Jesus off!” (THE JESUS STORY, New York: Harper & Row, 1970. p. 18)
It meant IDENTIFICATION. While Jesus (we believe) did not need to repent from sin, others did. And so Jesus led the way. It is important to know what causes we identify with, because others may be influenced by our example. We must identify ourselves with some worthy causes in life. As poet James Russell Lowell told us: “Once to every man and nation/Comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood/ For the good or evil side.” And we must choose sides.
It meant APPROVAL. In the time of Jesus the Jews spoke of what they called the Bath Qol, lit. the “daughter of a voice.” During the time between the Testaments they came to believe in a series of heavens, separating God from the world. There were rare times, however, when the heavens opened and God spoke. But to them God was so far away that it was only the distant echo of a voice that they heard.
Now, the vision recorded in Mark is more vivid in Greek than in our usual English translations.
What the author wrote was: “As he (Jesus) was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens in the process of being ripped apart!” (Translation by Lamar Williamson, MARK, Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983, p. 34)
The verb is the same that is used of the Temple curtain which was “torn in two from top to bottom” when Jesus died (15:38). In both cases, what had long been closed is suddenly flung open. Jesus’ ministry answers the long‑longed for hope: “that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (Isa. 64:1) The voice from heaven attests that Jesus is the Son of God.
It meant EQUIPMENT. The Holy Spirit descended as a dove. The simile is not an accident. The dove is the symbol of gentleness. As we shall see when we consider the Temptations, Jesus did not choose the way of force or violence. His symbol was a dove, not a hawk. Jesus will conquer, but the conquest will be a conquest of love. All of these things Jesus’ baptism meant, and probably much more. But this brings us to the final, and most important, question:
III. IS THERE ANY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN JESUS’ BAPTISM AND OUR OWN? It all seems so long ago and far away. Indeed, if we were baptized in the dominant Christian tradition as infants, when our own baptism occurred, we may have slept through it all! I can appreciate why some churches of the Reformation in the 16th century chose to reject infant baptism. They saw a lot of folks who had been baptized as infants, now walking around as adults, without living a Christian lifestyle. Evidently the baptism didn’t take. And so they insisted on “believer’s baptism.” One must come to the age of accountability, and then decide for Christ. That sounds good.
Why, then, do we baptize infants? There are two reasons, mainly: one is tradition. This is the way that the majority of Christians have done it for twenty centuries. That’s not a bad reason, but the second reason is better: it preserves the Gospel insistence that God=s grace comes prior to our response. The child has done absolutely nothing to merit the Sacrament.
That’s just the point. The Good News of the Gospel is not that we have decided for God, but that God has made a prior decision for us. As William Willimon says, “At baptism we are given the name ‘Christian.’ That name, at whatever age it is given, is a gift — unearned, unmerited, undeserved — like salvation itself.” (REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1980, p. 109)
And our biggest problem it seems to me, is that all too often we forget who we are. And Whose we are. Perhaps the similarity between Jesus= baptism and our own comes at this point. In Mark=s Gospel, the baptism of Jesus establishes Jesus identity once and for all.
Paul says that the baptism of Christian believers establishes our identity, too. (Gal. 3:26‑29; Rom. 6:3‑11) “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is who God says He is. So also…we are who God says we are, and in Christ Jesus God says that we are we are sons and daughters of God, “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:26‑27)
Jesus told the story of a lost boy who wandered into a far country, and ended up slopping the hogs in some Gentile’s pig‑pen. And he ate the pods that the swine ate; (Luke 15:16) …again, perhaps the beans from the carob tree. He was lost, lonely, and afraid. But then he remembered that at home in his father’s house there was warmth and celebration, music and joy .
And he came to his senses, remembered who he was, got up and went home. In His Baptism, God said to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“Or as the Laughingbird paraphrase puts it, AYou are my Son; the love of my life. You fill me with pride. In our Baptism, God says to us, “You are my daughter, my Son; the love of my life. You fill me with pride. Remember who you are.”
Prayer: God you call us your sons and daughters, and therefore we are. Help us to relish in this gracious affirmation. May the realization of it sink deep within our souls and be the center of who we are and how we live. Thank you, God, thank you. Amen.