Last Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany. Each time God manifests himself we speak of that event as an Epiphany. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John is a second Epiphany in this season.
The text of Jesus’ baptism is taken from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the only book in the Bible that announces itself as a “Gospel” (Mark 1:1), the ‘good news’ about Jesus. There is no word in Mark’s Gospel about the birth or youth of Jesus. He starts right in with this ‘good news’ of Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his ministry. It is the fulfilment of the “messenger” promised by the prophet Isaiah (40:3. Malachi 3:1
Baptisms in our country are predominantly a family celebration unlike a wedding which has a more social celebratory focus. Today’s baptism has the Blessed Trinity in attendance; THE Father, THE Son and THE Holy Spirit; this is a family celebration and we are drawn into the embrace of the three persons of the Trinity to be joined in this family celebration.
The text of today is loaded and we need to listen carefully to its message. We are told that Jesus was coming out of the water when he SAW the heavens TORN APART and the Spirit descending LIKE A dove on him. And a VOICE came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.
The dramatic revelation comes “from above”. First, the heavens are torn apart. The heavens are rent open to indicate that Jesus belongs in the divine realm. The word “torn open” (schizo) used of the heavens occurs again at the crucifixion in Mark 15:38 when the temple curtain is “torn apart” at the moment when Jesus breathes his last, implying a connection between the baptism and crucifixion.
Next the Spirit descends on him like a dove as he emerges from the water. This Spirit will remain with him throughout his public ministry and passion. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist tells of seeing “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” (John 1:33). In Mark’s Gospel Jesus alone hears the voice of God at the baptism bestowing upon him the identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
We identify this voice as that of his Abba, his dear Father. The Father reveals the identity of this seemingly ordinary man Jesus from Nazareth by declaring him to be his beloved Son. For other people and especially for us, to recognise Jesus’ true identity we must listen to Jesus’ words and observe his deeds. The announcement “you are my son,” is one of three moments in the Gospel where Jesus is proclaimed “son”; here, at the transfiguration (Mark 9:7), and at the crucifixion (Mark 15:39).
“Why was Jesus baptised?” After all, he is the sinless, divine Son of God, and the baptism that John the Baptist administered was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Why mingle with those Jews who have come to confess their sins, be baptised and receive forgiveness? Why identify with sinners? Does Jesus need John’s baptism?
Historically, Jesus’ baptism was not a ‘Christian’ baptism (remember that this was a Jewish rite). Christian baptism is of course greater than John’s baptism, even as Jesus himself is far greater than John (Matt. 3:14, John 3:30). Christian baptism not only forgives sins, but infuses the life of God into the soul, making us God’s children. The origin of baptism as a sacrament is Jesus’ own baptism. Jesus had no need to be cleansed by the waters of baptism, for he had no sins to be washed away. Rather, he sanctified the waters by his descent into them. Physically baptism to us Christians may seem like a small splash of water, but it marks the beginning of a whole new life — of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Spirit, of our union with Jesus, and our becoming part of the world-wide Christian church!
Jesus’ “sinlessness” is not an issue for Mark. The baptism of Jesus immerses him in the life of the people. We could say that Jesus has entered into that part of all of us which laughs and sings, dances and cries, feels for the sick and the suffering, desires the best for self and others; nothing human is foreign to him as he was baptised into the life of his people and the God of his ancestors.
Jesus was also casting his lot with humanity in another way, in the way of humility. Jesus saw what the other devout Jews of his day were doing, flocking to John the Baptist, and decided to stand with them in another way. He took his place with everyone that day waiting to see John the Baptist. So, what does that tell us about the role of humility in our own life? I like to imagine him standing in line, waiting humbly with everyone else at the Jordan River. At the Baptism, God stood in line.
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