Continued from the previous post…
Malina and Rohrbaugh flesh out a few more details in today’s gospel reading. “The wilderness was viewed as outside the control of structured society. By going there,” they note, “John (and those following him) has symbolically withdrawn from the established social system” (page 175). This was not only a withdrawal from the seat of power in Jerusalem but also a symbolic critique of that system of power. They note that Mark’s terminology forgiveness can also be used to describe cancellation of a financial debt. Again, John points to someone other than the established authorities as the source of such remission.
Why was Jesus baptized for repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins? This question troubles the other gospel writers enough that they find ways to address the question directly. Mark is not troubled in this way. He understands that in the baptism, Jesus is recapitulating and fulfilling the role of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. He enters the Land of Promise through the waters of the Jordan and makes a new start in being a blessing to the world. Jesus leaves home and family to embrace this alternative setting.
Alastair Roberts notes that this is also a place where one prophet succeeds another. “It was at the Jordan that Moses passed the baton of leadership to Joshua, Moses’ preparatory desert ministry being succeeded by the mission of Joshua within the Promised Land,” he writes. “It was at the Jordan in 2 Kings 2 that the desert prophet Elijah passed the baton of his prophetic mission to Elisha, a prophet who worked many wonders in the land.” With a simple reference to geography and a brief description of the Baptizer’s prophetic couture, Mark gives us layers of meaning for the event.
The words of affirmation, acceptance – are directed to Jesus personally in Mark’s account. These are words of vocation as well, apparently, since Jesus is driven immediately by the Spirit into the wilderness to test his vocation as God’s Son. But we’ll save that reflection for the first Sunday in Lent. For Jesus, baptism ultimately means dying (see Mark 10:39). That dying is the prelude to new life (see Romans 6, Colossians 2:12, Titus 3:5).
Nonetheless, the words are for us as well in our baptisms. “This is where we are being led by the Incarnate Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit,” writes Brian Volck, “to a place where we, too, are named beloved sons and daughters of God.” Why was Jesus baptized? Gregory Nazianzus wrote in his great treatise on the Incarnation that what Jesus does not take on cannot be healed. Therefore, Jesus takes on everything there is about being human in order to heal all of humanity.
At the baptism, the sky is “torn open…” Hurtado notes that this may be an allusion to the words of Isaiah 64:1 – “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” The appointed psalm captures the power of such a theophany (an appearance of the Divine) in wind and storm. “The point of the allusion,” Hurtado suggests, “would be that Jesus’ calling by God is to be seen as the fulfillment of the prayer and hope for God’s new deliverance and revelation that Isaiah 64 reflects” (page 19).
Paul Berge writes, “The “tearing asunder” that takes place now, in the inaugural event of Jesus’ life, will be echoed in the final event of Jesus life. Jesus’ last cry and breath from the cross will signal the “tearing asunder” of the temple curtain, an event which inaugurates God’s presence among us in Jesus Christ, a presence no longer confined to the temple (Mark 15:37-39). (The verb, “to tear asunder” [sxizein in Mark 1:10; 15:38], appears only twice in the Gospel of Mark, thus serving to frame an epiphany theology that continues throughout the gospel.)”
David Ulansey amplifies the connection between the “tearing asunder” of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the “tearing asunder” of the Temple curtain when Jesus dies. He points to a brief note in Josephus’ Jewish War which describes the outer curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Temple as being decorated with a beautiful representation of the sky. “Portrayed on this tapestry,” Josephus writes, “was a panorama of the entire heavens.” The baptism is the beginning, and the crucifixion is the culmination of God’s return to reclaim the cosmos for salvation and life.
The voice from heaven reminds us of several passages from the Hebrew scriptures, especially Psalm 2:7, Genesis 22:2, and Isaiah 42:1. Hurtado notes that these texts “were understood by some in Mark’s time as foreshadowing the Messiah…and so the allusion to these passages explicitly designates Jesus as the one foreshadowed” (page 20). So, Jesus’ baptism is a call story resonating with the stories of prophetic calls in the Hebrew scriptures.
The first Sunday after Epiphany is always the Festival of the Baptism of our Lord. It is an appropriate time for all of us to remember our own baptisms into Christ’s death and resurrection.
In our baptisms, we too are called chosen and beloved. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, as we hear in our liturgy. David Lose writes, “Baptism reminds us that wherever we may go and whatever we may do or have done to us, yet God continues to love us, accept us, and hold onto us. And for a generation that has been sold cheap affirmation as a substitute for genuine acceptance, there is no more powerful word.” But that same liturgy pivots to a call at the lighting of the baptismal candle and the words, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Jesus’ baptism, of course, means far more than, “God likes me! God really likes me!” The baptism declares that the old regime is soon to pass away. God is returning to rule just as God promised. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for those who are oppressed by the old regime. It is, at least in the short run, bad news for those who depend on the old regime for power and privilege, for status and security, for wealth and wellbeing. Good news for some is quite often bad news for others.
Alastair Roberts puts it this way. “In the face of corrupt leaders and institutions, these common people bore the identity of Israel in themselves, returning to the banks of the Jordan River so that they might be restored and re-established as a people in God’s favor. Most importantly,” he concludes, “it was as the great individual bearer of Israel’s identity and destiny that Jesus himself was baptized.” When it comes to the Gospel, there is no purely personal dimension. The personal is always political, and vice versa. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying that someone else (such as Caesar) is not.
“The world is a different place because of Jesus, we learn,” Juel and Kiefer write in their Word and World article. “A barrier separating God from his creation has been torn away. But people still live as if nothing had happened. The epiphany makes no obvious impact. Hiddenness is the dominant motif. So is surprise. The Jesus who comes to accomplish God’s promised deliverance is not the sort expected.”
References and Resources
Hermann, Erik H. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series).
Juel, Don, and Kiefer, Patrick — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_Juel-Keifert.pdf.
Lose, David — http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/
Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Roberts, Alastair — https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-individual-mark-14-11/
Stjerne, Kirsi. No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.
Tappert, Theodore, ed. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver, BC.: Regent College Publishing, 1960.
Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective can Transform Your Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2017.
Ulansey, David — http://www.mysterium.com/veil.html