The Baptism of Our Lord, Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, 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.’ (Mark 1:4-11)
This morning we’ve shifted gears a bit; we’ve changed seasons. This is the first Sunday after the Epiphany which was yesterday, and today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. And if you feel like this transition happened rather quickly, you’re not wrong.
The story did actually just take a dramatic turn. So if you blinked, you might have missed it. Over the past few hours we’ve moved beyond the stories of Jesus’ birth, away from Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, and wise men and been fast-forwarded by the gospel about thirty years. Jesus is an adult in this story. Which means that the shepherds who were there on Christmas Eve have likely all retired, the innkeeper long stepped aside, and the wise men who had come from afar, had by now, long returned to afar carrying with them the good news as it had been revealed to them.
Now it’s interesting to note that the gospel of Mark begins with the story we heard today. We’ll be hearing from Mark all year and so it’s good for us to get a sense of how he works and this is a good opportunity to glimpse that. This was chapter 1 verse 4-11 we just heard and so all we missed was a bit of John the Baptist. There is no birth narrative in Mark. His gospel starts with John the Baptist, takes only seven verses to tell this story that in other gospels takes as many as fifteen, and throughout the entire gospel there is an urgency that isn’t present in nearly the same way in the other three.
Mark essentially begins with Epiphany. This is the “open your eyes now!” gospel. The “open your hearts NOW,” gospel. Nothing fluffy. Nothing even very gentle. Mark is off and running, straight to the point, and he expects us to be too. According to Mark, this is the moment when the good news begins and so we are to begin now too. Hold onto your hats. Or take your hats off. Or don’t even worry about your hats, there is something much more important going on here!
“People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” were coming out to the River Jordan,” Mark tells us. They were coming out to hear John, the voice that was crying out in the wilderness and to be baptized by him. The people had come out to repent and to receive forgiveness through the waters of baptism. And on this particular day, Jesus was there too.
So imagine the scene. Crowds of people. Hundreds, thousands of them. Many of them dripping wet. John up to his knees in the River Jordan and the people being soaked through with a message and experience of forgiveness.
And on this day, there was even more that came. Forgiveness is where this gospel begins but then there is more. “The heavens were torn apart,” Mark says, “a dove descended and a voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my Son, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’” And while there is conversation among various scholars about who saw what, for Mark, and I’d agree with him, that doesn’t much seem to matter.
Because the heavens were torn open, a dove descended, and a voice from heaven spoke, and frankly, that’s enough to go on. From this moment forward Mark’s Jesus is on the move. They might have come to the River for repentance and forgiveness, but open your eyes now, because there is more.
Through that tear in the heavens flows mercy. There comes healing and there pours peace. Through that tear in the heavens there comes the actual physical presence and touch of God, a welcome beyond reason, a grace that surpasses justice. There comes a way to be beloved and a call to be one. Through that tear in the heavens there flows a love that passes all understanding, a love that stretches and risks embracing all. “This is the good news of Christ!” Mark tells us. Open your eyes! Open your hearts, people of God! Here is more!
And the urgency matters because this is that for which we hope, it’s what we so deeply crave, what we need. There is no need to wait – the grace has been given us. From this tearing open comes that for which the world so desperately longs. The time is now. For Mark, for us, it always is.
Now there is one more instance of tearing in this gospel. And I think it’s significant that Mark uses exactly the same word for it. After Jesus breathes his last on the day of crucifixion, the curtain in the temple is torn in two. The curtain that separated “the common” from “the holy” was torn in two and that’s how Mark frames his gospel: heaven flows into earth. The common touches the holy and just when we come to believe that mercy and peace, healing and love are the “more” given us in Christ, there comes resurrection, there is new life that flows too. This beloved-ness is about now and it’s about forever too.
But that’s moving more quickly than even Mark does. We’ll hear about all of that soon and it already runs through all that we do in this place. But today we stand at the River, dripping wet and soaked through with forgiveness and more. Grace has broken through in ways that are meant to and should amaze us all. This is the good news of Christ! Stand at the River today and feel the flow of all that comes as heaven breaks through again. And again. And again.
Repent. Forgive. Be beloved. And live.