This Sunday, January 8, our reading will be taken from the story of the baptism of Jesus in the first chapter of Mark. I will be out of town, but Bob will be leading the 9 a.m. Bible study in the Parlor. I am counting on those present to ask Bob very challenging questions.
Here is the reading:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’
The Baptism of Jesus
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’
- Each of the four Gospels contains a version of the baptism of Jesus, indicating that the story was an influential component of the earliest Christian tradition. The story sets up a puzzle that has fascinated Christian theologians for many centuries: Why, for heaven’s sake, was it necessary for God’s own incarnation to be baptized, and by a human being, no less? In our text, John the Baptist himself recognizes the absurdity of his presuming to baptize Jesus. The question of why Jesus needed to be baptized is, of course, a manifestation of the basic Christological mystery that we have talked about recently in our Parlor study. This mystery is impossible to “solve” in any sense that is fully satisfying intellectually, but to the extent that we have embraced the Christian revelation, it does seem impossible to avoid the conclusion that God has come to us in a form which incorporates, simultaneously, that which is fully divine and that which is fully human. Another way to try to express this thought is to suggest that the true consummation of God’s creation embodies a complete coming together of that which is divine and that which is created.
- Perhaps, a coming together of that which is divine and that which is human requires simultaneous movement by both the Creator and the created. The story of Jesus’s may symbolize this need for both human and divine movement. Indeed, John the Baptist’s home in the wilderness, his wild clothes, and his odd organic diet all present John as being of the earth, not of Heaven. John’s baptism of Jesus therefore represents in stark form a coming together of Heaven and earth. It is striking, in this connection, that the baptism of Jesus happens at the very beginning of Mark – no nativity story in this Gospel – and that the story of Jesus’s ministry begins immediately after Jesus is baptized. It is almost as if John the Baptist has poured water on a nascent plant, which then immediately sprouts and flowers. John the Baptist has added human agency to God’s Incarnation; the rest of what happens in the Gospel is a product of human and divine agency, operating together.
- I’m writing this note from Memphis, where I am on a seminary retreat. We have been meeting daily with people who have been building and running an innovative health care network that operates mainly under the auspices of the Methodist Church in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. We’ve met with people of enormous spiritual insight who express their devotion to God through hands-on, utterly earthly work with some of the economically poorest, and pain-filled, people in the United States. What I have been seeing here is a mixing of human and divine agency every bit as dramatic as that which is depicted in the first chapter of Mark. Now, I realize I could witness similar wonders among devoted people in the Washington area — strictly speaking, I didn’t really need to come to Memphis to see this – but sometimes one sees things more clearly without the distraction of familiar surroundings. I feel very lucky to be on this trip, and I’m hoping we can discuss some of the trip’s implications as we get together for study after I return. In the meantime, please do prepare some hard questions for Bob, and I look forward to being back on the 15th.