When my younger son was baptized, his older brother, then a few months shy of 3, kept saying that Micah was being “sanitized.” It was quite adorable. Reflecting on our practice of Baptism these days, “sanitized” and “adorable” might be pretty accurate. Family members dress in their Sunday best, and the one being baptized is often decked out in special baptismal garments. Don’t forget the sacred tradition of the “baby parade” — walking the newly baptized babe in arms up and down the aisles for the whole church family to see.
There is nothing sanitized or adorable in Jesus’ baptism described in Mark 1. John was an outlier, even in his context, and he was out in the wilderness, preaching and telling people to repent. Though a dove descends, there’s not much peace in the tearing apart of the heavens. If we look at the three sentences following today’s pericope, we see Jesus driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted and John arrested.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t include a nativity or genealogy. Like John’s Gospel, it starts in the beginning: the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son. Unlike John, Mark is sparse, lacking theological exposition or historical or exegetical orientation. What remains is the baptism, an ordinary and entirely extraordinary moment where the heavens are torn apart.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth — human categories meant to distinguish between God’s realm and the human one. As an aside, the beginning of Mark’s Gospel is full of allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, and while the RCL committee may be forgiven for the omission, the first three verses ought not to be separated from the assigned lesson. Like the beginning of creation itself, this is a new beginning.
The Gospel messenger brings good tidings. God is doing something new! John is a voice crying out in the wilderness, and immediately after his baptism, Jesus is forced by the Spirit even deeper into the wilderness. Rather than being a desolate place, the wilderness is generative. God’s liberating movement brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and now God’s work of liberation begins anew in the wild places around the Jordan River and beyond.
John calls for a baptism of repentance. Repentance must begin with telling the truth. We know this from our own experience. Apologies ring hollow if the person apologizing doesn’t recognize the harm that has been done. Confession is a form of truth-telling. As the “Directory for Worship” in the Book of Order states, “We confess the reality of sin, captivity, and brokenness in personal and common life” (W-3.0205). In other words, we tell the truth about the brokenness of the world around us, and our part in that brokenness.
Truth-telling repentance is easier said than done. We often don’t know the extent of the brokenness or fully understand the ways we participate in oppressive and evil systems. Mark’s Gospel will continually draw us to the margins, de-centering power and privilege. It’s an invitation for us to do the same — to leave our comfort zones and listen to the voices crying out in the wilderness.
Mark’s Gospel will continually draw us to the margins, de-centering power and privilege. It’s an invitation for us to do the same — to leave our comfort zones and listen to the voices crying out in the wilderness.
Privilege impacts truth-telling repentance in other ways, too. Most of us experience the privilege of moderating or limiting our exposure to the hurt and brokenness in our communities and the world around us. If we look honestly at it all, it quickly overwhelms us. There is so much pain, trauma, and injustice in our broken world, it should send us to our knees, crying out for deliverance. The echo of Isaiah’s words from the first Sunday of Advent should ring in our ears: “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1a, CEB).
When Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn open. Jesus Christ is the bridge between God and humanity, between what is promised and what currently is. We can boldly tell the truth, repent and join the plea for God to “rend the heavens” because Jesus Christ precedes us, covers us in grace, and through the Holy Spirit enables us to join in God’s ongoing work of healing, restoration and re-creation.
We walk in Jesus’s footsteps in the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism of the Lord Sunday invites us to venture beyond the sanitized and adorable and into the wilderness of truth-telling, heavens-rending, earth-transforming new beginnings.
Questions for reflection
- Though we are baptized just once, we recognize its ongoing, unfolding theological significance and implications for our daily lives. How do today’s readings challenge us to live into our baptismal identities?
- Why do you suppose John’s baptism was so popular? Despite the rapidly growing number of unchurched and “de-churched” individuals in the United States, are there palpable spiritual yearnings that many share today?
- It’s been just a month since congregations who follow the Revised Common Lectionary heard many of these verses from Mark, as well as the allusions to passages in Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 40. How might we hear them differently on the other side of Advent and Christmas?
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