What a rich set of texts we have this Sunday! There are a dramatic set of contrasts: order/disorder (Genesis 1: 1-5; Psalm 29); Jerusalem and the Temple/the wilderness (Mark 1: 4-11); John/Jesus (Mark 1: 4-11; Acts 19: 1-7) and through it all, the theme of baptism as a renunciation and packing away of the old life in order to embrace a counter-cultural life of resistance.
High drama (Mark 1: 4-11)
It takes Mark only 8 short verses to introduce the main character of his story – Jesus – to the audience. Contrast this with Matthew, who takes the best part of 3 chapters to get Jesus into the Jordan for his baptism; Luke similarly; while John devotes the majority of his Prologue to Jesus so that we know a great deal about him by the time he appears on John’s stage.
We know, from the opening announcement, that Mark is claiming that the story of salvation-history is re-starting (v1). We are invited to believe that the prophetic voice – the Living Word of Yahweh – will again be heard (vv 2-3). Most importantly, the tantalising possibility is held out that what is about to happen is the ‘beginning of The End’ – that Elijah is coming ‘before the great and terrible Day of the Lord’, as promised in the last of the Old Testament books (Malachi 4: 5-6). Human history – and the history of the world with God – is about to reach its climax.
Mark cites Isaiah as the lens through which we are to read the Baptist’s ministry. Clearly part of what he wants to do is to present Jesus as the fulfillment of all the promises about what the Return from Exile would entail. Judea was a Roman province, and the Roman occupation was simply the latest in an almost unbroken line of subjugation that stretched back to the initial defeat by the Babylonians. The rabbinical, theological reading of their situation was that Israel was still in Exile; the promises of freedom, self-determination and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy had never been realised, and so Israel ought to understand itself as still undergoing the purification of Exile. When Israel again kept the Law – properly – then the Messiah would come and throw off the Roman yoke. The Davidic kingship would be restored, Israel would be independent – visibly the Kingdom of Yahweh – and the nations would flock to Jerusalem to the Temple to ‘learn the ways of Yahweh’.
So Jesus the Messiah – whose name means ‘God saves’ – is going to bring about The Return, and John the Baptist is his herald. That is what the Isaiah citation tells us. This about the fulfilment of prophecy from one of the greatest prophets. Yet it is from Malachi that Mark draws to present the Baptist as the eschatological Elijah-figure. What is intriguing is that Malachi has a very similar prophecy about the divine messenger:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2).
Given Mark’s concern with the Malachian Elijah tradition, why not use Malachi? I think it boils down to this: Isaiah presents the Voice as crying in the wilderness. Malachi belongs to the Temple tradition: Jerusalem, and the Temple in particular, is the centre of the world because it is the centre of Yahweh’s presence and saving activities. Yet this is not where it all goes down, according to Mark. God has come in Jesus – but has come to the wilderness. There is no welcome for Jesus in Jerusalem. The Temple is the centre of opposition to his message of the Kingdom. Don’t look there to find God-in-Christ: look instead on the margins, in the wilderness!
The significance of the wilderness
Mark uses geography as a narrative device to set up the opposition between Jesus (and what God is doing in Jesus) and the Temple (and what the religious authorities expect God to be doing). The wilderness has immediate echoes of the Exodus story. It is a hostile place. It is a place of suffering and death. It is the place where wild animals live and which hostile spirits were believed to inhabit. Yet it is also the place to meet God – in burning bushes and on a mountain. It is the place where Israel came to know Yahweh and received the Law. It is the place of refuge for Elijah when his life is in danger. It is the place where the persecuted faithful gather to await deliverance (like the Qumran community). It is the place where Yahweh’s voice is to be heard – the place of prophets.
It has political significance, too. It is the place to which political refugees fled for safety, and also the place, in Jesus’ time, where would-be revolutionaries gathered to train and plot treason – a gathering place for freedom fighters, terrorists and wanna-be messiahs. In Roman terms, it was a place of resistance and opposition – just as it had been in Ahab’s day, when Elijah and the other prophets gathered there because of their opposition to Ahab’s regime.
In other words, locating Jesus in the wilderness emphasises what Mark has said in his opening verse: the message and ministry of Jesus is a resistance movement. Jesus is God’s one-person invasion force, because he exemplifies and personifies the Kingdom of God. It is this Kingdom that will stand forever, not Rome’s. He alone is the true Son of God, worthy of worship – not Caesar (remember: Mark has a Roman centurion declare that Jesus is the Son of God at the crucifixion). And, over against the Jewish religious authorities, the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is not the kingdom they expect. It is not for Israel alone, but for the whole world. It is not a ‘holiness movement’, but a movement of grace that embraces the unholy. It is not for the rich and powerful but for the poor and marginalised. It is not a reinforcement or re-establishment of the Temple tradition: Jesus will pronounce judgment on the Temple and prophesy its destruction (Mark 13), but a return to the God of the Exodus and the God of the prophets – a return to the wilderness.
The beginning, the end, or the beginning of the end?
If we imagine Mark as a dramatist, we cannot fail to notice the attention he gives to costume! This is John the Elijah figure. Having cited the prophecy of the Voice, Mark immediately goes on to tell us that ‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness’ (v4). Imagine staging this. The stage is in darkness. The narrator’s voice comes out of the darkness, reciting 1:1-3. Then the lights go up. The scene is the wilderness around the Jordan.
The first thing that grabs our attention is the crowds. They are out of place. Their dress identifies them as city-dwellers – Jerusalemites. We can see Jerusalem way off in the distance on the painted backdrop. It’s immediately disconcerting: if John is the Messenger – the messianic herald which the narrator indicated – then why are the crowds coming out of Jerusalem? After all, the end-time vision was of people from all nations flocking to Jerusalem! It’s a reversal, in other words, of the anticipated eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to Jerusalem that Isaiah prophesied (cf Isaiah 2: 1-4; Isaiah 60). This is Mark’s subversion of the Temple tradition. The wilderness is the place to which people rightly come. But it throws us (an audience steeped in Old Testament tradition) off guard. It sounds as though The End has arrived … but then again …
Then the crowds part, and we see John the Baptist. There he is, bizarrely clothed, with a packed lunch of locusts and wild honey! He just ‘appears’. We realise that this is indeed the Elijah-figure, and (metaphorically) settle back to listen to the story about this weird, wonderful man of God.
And immediately (yes, any tracking of Mark’s story rushes us along in the same language that he uses!) John delivers his opening line, and dispels any such notion: ‘I am not the subject of this story! In fact, the One who is the subject of the Good News is so much more important that I am not even worthy to stoop down and untie the lace of his sandal!’
Wow! What an introduction! If this isn’t the main character, who is? He’s got us on the edge of our seat. Having cranked up the adrenalin sentence after sentence, Mark at last gets Jesus on stage for the first time. No fanfare. No ‘Ta dah!’ moment. If we’re not paying close attention, we’ll miss it – because we suddenly realise that the main character is that nondescript bloke from among the crowds. There’s nothing whatsoever to distinguish him from the rest. Next to John, he’s a nonentity: no fiery words, no shining light (yet!), no audience, no entourage, no obvious ‘messiah-costume’.
Then, to top it all, look where Jesus comes from: ‘from Nazareth of Galilee’! The Galilee is the back of beyond. The southern Jews despised the Gailieans, separated as they were from Jerusalem by Samaria. What’s more, the area was heavily populated by Gentiles. It was unclean. The Galilee is ‘the wilderness’ – at least as far as any self-respecting religious Jew of the time is concerned. If God is going to do something, it isn’t going to be there! And if any great salvation event is taking place, the Galilee is not the place to be looking out for!
It’s bad enough that Jesus comes from Galilee. He comes from Nazareth, in Galilee! That’s like saying Jesus comes from Nowheresville. There is nothing noteworthy about Nazareth. No great hero of the faith has ever come from there. God has never been specially active in Nazareth. The anticlimax could not be more complete: Mark presents his hero with no pedigree, no tradition, no lines and no costume. This first section begins at 1:9 with Jesus coming from Galilee, and ends in 1:14 with Jesus coming back to the Galilee. A Messiah of no account, coming from and working in a place that is way out on the margins? Mark has his audience totally off balance.
In stripped back prose, Mark announces that Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan. Just like everyone else who was there that day. The question is, why was Jesus baptised? It is clear that the baptism inaugurates his mission. It is equally clear that Jesus has no need of repentance (in the sense of being a sinner) – a fact that Matthew feels compelled to clarify when faced with Mark’s narrative (see Matthew 3: 13-15).
Yet we need to take Jesus’ baptism as a baptism of repentance seriously. Jesus’ mission is the Kingdom of God – a new world order. Jesus’ own message is summarised in Mark 1:15:
The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in the Good News!
We discover that ‘repent’ means more than ‘be sorry for your sins’. It means a complete change of life, of values, of priorities. It means a total re-orientation of life – a renouncing of the past and the embracing of the Kingdom.
In this sense, Jesus ‘repents’. For all the continuity between Jesus the child and Jesus the adult engaged in his mission that we can suppose and imagine from the other gospels, here we see Jesus undergoing a ‘baptism of repentance’. Yet for him alone it is the baptism into the Kingdom – into his mission. Here, in the Jordan’s waters, he publicly renounces his old life, old ties (eg family), old job, old priorities. His mission will require everything of him, and it begins with the renunciation of all he has been. He has been a son and brother; now his family will be defined by response to the Kingdom. He has had responsibilities as a member of the Nazareth community and economy and as part of his family; these are now renounced. He has been a carpenter; he is now an itinerant preacher, prophet, miracle-worker and Servant of the Kingdom.
Continuity, then, between Jesus and the rest. He is, in a real sense, ‘one of the crowd’ … until the moment at which he emerges from the water!
John the Baptist is ‘The Voice’, isn’t he? Yes and no is Mark’s answer. He is the Messenger. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. Yet John is indeed ‘unworthy to stoop down and fasten Jesus’ shoelace’! It is not the Baptist who is ultimately the one to announce Jesus: he is the warm-up act. The One to announce Jesus is none other than Yahweh! This is one of the apocalyptic moments (moments of divine revelation) in Mark. The second is at his Transfiguration. Both are characterised by the divine Voice and the affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved.
Here at his baptism, the heavens are torn open. This is a public moment, and it is a form of apocalyptic. The veil between heaven and earth is torn apart. We see into the heavenly mysteries. This is precisely the contrast that Mark wishes to draw: until this moment, Jesus has been indistinguishable from the rest of the mass of humanity at the water’s edge. Now we see the Truth about Jesus – the meaning of his life and mission. It comes directly from heaven itself. The Spirit, in the form of the dove, descends and rests on him as people watch. But only Jesus apparently hears the Voice – or at least, it is directed only to him: “
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased!”
Jesus’ baptism is his commitment to live out an alternative reality – the reality of the Kingdom. It is to be lived out in all the specificity of his daily life. It is a commitment to another way – to God’s Way. And God is well pleased!
Creation – a lived alternative reality (Genesis 1:1-2:4)
I’m not interested in the creation vs evolution debates. For my money, they are hopelessly misguided: that the cosmos emerged from the Big Bang does not for a moment deny that creation is an act of God and that all of created reality belongs to God and finds its purpose and fulfilment in God’s good and life-giving purposes. God is author and end of creation.
To believe that, though, is to fly in the face of significant experience. Not the face of ‘scientific fact’, but of the daily experience of a world of suffering and oppression and disappointment; a world that is death-dealing and annihilative; a world in which, if we live, we do so only at the expense of others.
This was the experience of the Exiles in Babylon, which is when most scholars date Genesis 1:1-2:4. Exile was incredibly destructive of faith and peace of mind. What the creation story does is to pose an alternative reality. Reality is not within the sovereignty of the Babylonian empire, but is the creation of Yahweh. What the exiles experience day by day is not the purposes of Yahweh in creation, but the disorder caused by sin. The creation story doesn’t give us a scientific account of the origins of the cosmos. It doesn’t even give us simply an aetiology – an explanation of things that a child might ask. Rather, it tells us why things are not as they ought to be – why they are not as Yahweh created them to be.
They tell us, in other words, about the disorder of the world, and contrast it with the goodness of creation. And they do so in the context of the instability of the Babylonian world. Yahweh’s creation brings order out of primal chaos (Genesis 1:2). The exiles cannot escape their daily lives. But what they can do, in the midst of the chaos, is to live a life according to the pattern ordered by Yahweh. The Babylonian cosmic gods (eg the sun and the moon) are not gods: they are the creation of Yahweh. They must not order life. Instead, life is to follow the weekly pattern of the worship of the God who created all things and rested on the Sabbath.
The creation narrative is an alternative world-within-the world, just as the Kingdom is for Jesus. It is the ‘good’ world – the world that has Yahweh’s stamp of approval because it is the place of Life. Living out this alternative pattern in the context of Exile is a life of protest. Embracing it means renouncing the Babylonian view of reality (‘repenting’) and embracing the new reality – which is as old as creation.
Water, wilderness and chaos
Placing this passage alongside the story of Jesus’ baptism creates distinctive, further echoes. Water – ‘the deep’ – is the locus of chaos. Life – new life – is wrested from the waters, which are a place of death as well as life. The wilderness, too, is a place of chaos. It is wild and untameable, hostile to human life. In these places, it is the transforming, creative, life-giving presence of Yahweh that makes them places of life.
It is only through going through these chaotic death-waters that new life is possible. Creation, as we have made it, is not a place of Life, but of death and chaos. God has allotted the waters their place in creation so that they do not destroy but give life. Chaos is held at bay. Yet it is only as Yahweh’s pattern is followed that this remains true. The human creation – the world that we have made – is a Frankensteinian monster that holds us in its destructive power. John the Baptist promises a ‘stronger man’ coming who will defeat the powers of chaos and death. It is Jesus.
Our own baptism into Christ is the means by which we, too, die and rise again to new life. The old order is renounced and dies (repentance again!); yet it dies because it is allowed to have its way. It kills. We die to it in Christ. Yet we are not lost or left in death, because God is the God of resurrection. So we rise to a new life and a new order. Creation belongs to Yahweh and Yahweh is a God of Life. Nothing – not even death – can defeat Yahweh’s purposes.
The contest of the gods (Psalm 29)
Psalm 29 is a psalm that celebrates Yahweh as the creator of all that is. Look particularly at vv3-4: here Yahweh’s sovereignty over the waters of chaos and death are celebrated. Yahweh is not overwhelmed by ‘the flood’; Yahweh sits enthroned on it (v10). Yahweh is King of the Universe because Yahweh alone is subject to nothing destructive in all creation.
This is a ‘cosmic’ psalm, though. Look at verse 1: the context is a context among the gods to see who is King of all the gods. This is not a psalm reflecting Israel’s praise, but rather (metaphorically) the verdict of all the gods in creation. Yahweh is acknowledged the only true God – the King of the Universe – by all the tribal deities.
Yahweh’s enthronement, as we have seen, takes place ‘on the flood’. The flood waters – signs of creation’s helplessness in the face of naked natural power – become Yahweh’s throne, declaring and celebrating that Yahweh alone is not overwhelmed by evil and chaos, but is able to bring life where everything else – including all other gods – is swept away in death.
Baptism – new life, not just repentance (Acts 19: 1-7)
Jesus is greater than John. John will baptise with water; Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Paul discovers in Ephesus a group of disciples who have been baptised with John’s baptism for repentance, but have not received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s response is to baptise them in the name of Jesus and lay hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.
What is the significance of Christian baptism? The Holy Spirit is the source of all life. It is the Spirit that moves over the waters of chaos, bringing Life. The Spirit’s presence at Jesus’ baptism is the sign that he is truly human – a human being in the image of God filled with the Life of God. Jesus fulfils God’s purposes in creating human beings.
Jesus, therefore, becomes the source of Life – but only because he walks the Way of the Cross. Jesus enters into and submits to the death-dealing forces of chaos. God raises Jesus from the dead by the Spirit. The Spirit is the agent of God’s creation and re-creation through resurrection.
Baptism is about repentance and renouncing the old life and the norms and priorities of the world. But it is more than that. It is a re-enactment of the drama of creation, death and re-creation – our own participation, in other words, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through the Spirit, we die. The waters do their deadly work. Through the Spirit, we are raised, so that we have died to the old life, not only repented of it. And through the Spirit we are, says Paul, ‘new creations in Christ’ because it is Jesus who came and lived among us, died, and was raised as a beloved Child of God.