Weekly Preaching: January 10, 2021

January 6th, 2021

I’ll start with this unforgettable thought from Joel Marcus in his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark: “God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his Spirit into the earthly realm.”

He’s commenting, eloquently, on Mark 1:4-11, our Gospel lection for this Sunday, the Baptism of our Lord. The text is unfailingly intriguing. The heavens aren’t merely opened, but “ripped apart.” The vivid verb, schizomenous, feels a bit harsh, and dramatic — and so it is. Donald Juel's thought is spot on: "What is opened may be closed; what is torn apart cannot easily return to its former state."

(Parenthetically, we are starting a congregation-wide reading of Mark's Gospel together, with emails I send biweekly, sermons, my Wednesday Bible reflections, and groups tracking Kavin Rowe's amazing Christianity's Surprise book — if any of you or your folks would like to join us!)

Notice the echoes of Genesis 1, our Old Testament text, which isn’t to be preached on today but looms large in the background: the Spirit, the “wind” of God hovers, making creation happen; words are spoken; life comes to be. Our alternate reading, Acts 19:1-7, speaks of the arrival of Paul in Ephesus, only to discover, to his chagrin, that the Christians there “had never heard of the Holy Spirit.”

No fault of theirs. Christian theology was just unfolding. No doctrine of the Trinity had ever been concocted — and frankly, the Holy Spirit, or so it seems, prefers not to be in the limelight (despite Christians who put the Spirit front and center, although always as an emotional experience, not a divine reality!). Frederick Dale Bruner was wisely right: the Holy Spirit is the “shy member” of the Trinity, lurking in the background, preferring the attention be fixed on Jesus.

The descent of the Spirit at Jesus Baptism? Hugh Anderson, great commentator of a prior generation, wrote that “the days of Spirit-famine are ended.” Are we at such a famine season? The Greek is interesting here. For Mark, the Spirit descends into (eis) Jesus; William Placher says "Something entered Jesus, not that a bird perched on his head."

John preached (hollered?) in the “wilderness.” Shimon Gibson and James Tabor excavated a cave near John’s birthplace, Ein Kerem, where they believe John started his peculiar ministry. By Jesus’ time, he’s made it to the river Jordan. Was he preaching and baptizing where we take pilgrims today? Where the Jordan is narrow, wade-able, Jordan less than a stone’s throw across the creek?

The “wilderness” is real but also symbolic, isn’t it? The place where God meets, leads and teaches the people. The notion that the people were “traveling out” to the desert to engage with him evokes the Exodus, or Jesus or Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 40-45) forging out into the wilderness to discover God’s way, God’s plan.

John might frighten young children, or sophisticated adults. His bizarre, survivalist mode of living while singularly on fire for God upsets normalcy: "He clears the way for a clean and uncluttered look at the one who is to come" (William Placher).

John’s baptism is peculiar, not Christian baptism, not Jewish immersions either. Jews were accustomed by then to the habit of dipping into a mikveh to purify themselves. We recognize that many of Jesus’ healings took place at one mega-mikveh or another: the Pool of Siloam, or the Pool of Bethesda, huge public mikvehs where people purified themselves before entering the temple precincts at Passover. Jesus capitalized on their presence, and their hunger for God, in such places, by teaching and healing there. John’s Baptism is something beyond this. He was wrenching up ritual washings to something eschatological, ultimate, decisive.

It was about repentance, which has fallen out of style in our day. When Donald Trump was running for president, he famously gaffed that he’d never asked God for forgiveness, as he’d done his best and didn’t feel that need. Pious progressives hooted – but Trump spoke for a majority of American Christians, who look to God and expect God’s blessing but don’t feel much need for forgiveness.
However society conceives of things, sin is a huge problem still. Paul Ricoeur spoke of it as "quasi-material," like dirt, hence the need for washing, reminding us of Lady Macbeth's "Out, damned spot!" She cannot shake the palpable residue of grimy sin; nor can we.

Partly it’s our society of deserving. Partly also it’s not understanding forgiveness and repentance. To repent isn’t to grovel in guilt. The Hebrew shub is to make a 180 degree turn, and the Greek metanoia is a “change of mind.” And forgiveness isn’t getting off the hook, or feeling warm fuzzies for the one we might forgive. The Greek aphesis / aphiemi simply means release, to let it go. Instead of clinging to wrongs done, so close that the toxicity is mine to bear, not the other! — we simply open our hands and let the past, the guilt, the wrong done go. God does this for and with us.

I love it that at the Jordan, the heavenly voice speaks to Jesus. Do the others overhear? “You are my beloved.” This “You” is even more impactful to us: when I’m preaching, can I get my folks to feel that “you,” yes, you out there hearing this sermon, are God’s beloved? Is it that Jesus is unique, as God’s beloved? Or are we all one in him, as the beloved? Is his belovedness unique? Or are we one with him in this shared uniqueness? Interestingly, our Psalm 29 is thought by scholars to have been a Canaanite Psalm dovetailed into our Psalter. I love that: God is inclusive, not exclusive.

And finally, we hear and feel the urgency in Mark’s frequently used adverb: “immediately,” euthus. Jesus is a man in a hurry. It’s urgent. You must respond — and now, immediately, before another second gets away.

I love it that Walter Kasper, theological advisor to Pope Francis, wrote "The Gospel story of the baptism of Jesus summarizes the whole mystery of Christmas. It is the foundation of everything, the prelude in which all the themes of the Gospel are already discernible. In himself, Jesus Christ sums up all the mysteries of faith."


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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