What Just Happened?

Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015 (The Baptism of Our Lord): Mark 1:9–11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 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.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This reflection follows closely on the last one, “Then Came John,” where the text above was placed in the larger context of Mark’s introduction (1:1–15). Here I showed that the larger context has a loose chiastic (descending and ascending) rhythm or flow. This rhythm might be framed :

Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel

On one side of Holy Spirit is John’s story and on the other Jesus’. The last post treated John. This post will focus on the baptism of Jesus. Mark used John to introduce Jesus and I doubt that John would have disagreed.

Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is short and sweet, but heavily packed. Certainly more than meets the eye is going on in this text so I would like to point out of few of these items.

One might miss the echo from the Old Testament (OT) in modern translations with “in those days,” which the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible captured in it’s more literal and fuller sense, “And it came to pass in those days…” The KJV uses this phrase 396 times to communicate that something’s about to happen! Additionally, by using this way of speaking, Mark continued the much larger story that started in the OT. Mark pick up this story earlier with “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”

And so it came to pass…

While John appeared in the desert (Mark 1:4), Jesus came from Nazareth. Mark seems to make nothing of Jesus coming from Nazareth here. Perhaps he expected his earliest hearer to get the import. Jesus came from a no-place. Percy Walker once called Covington, Louisiana where he spent his last years as a no-place, that is, when compared to nearby New Orleans. New Orleans was, for Walker, a real place. In the same way, in Jesus’ world, Nazareth was a no-place. Jerusalem was a real place. Yet, the careful listener will note that up to this point in Mark’s story, Jerusalem is only mentioned in reference to people come from there to be baptized by John. The real action takes place in the desert, a non-place, a desert-ed place. In contrast, Jesus will be baptized in a named place, the Jordan river, a very significant place in the story of ancient Israel who cross the Jordan when they entered the Promise Land. One might say, “where it all began.” As if Mark envisions Jesus as marking a new exodus.

I believe that Mark’s passive construction, “and he was baptized by John,” intentionally echos the earlier text where all the people (also) came to John and “and they were baptized by him.” It’s subtle, but in a way, Mark is saying Jesus is one of the people, he’s one of us. Again, Mark’s way of telling the story does not spell things out but rather he leaves these connections for the listener to make.

After baptizing Jesus, John must have thought, “What just happened?” The other gospels find the lack of an explanation unbearable and so Matthew and Luke provide more story, but not Mark. Mark allows the narrative to explain what happened.

As Jesus arose out of the water, he saw the heavens ripped open (σχίζω). That Mark seeks to suggest contact with or access to God become clear at the end of his story when Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple was also ripped open (Mark 15:38). It’s the only times he uses the word “ripped open,” and both contexts implies open access to God. More pointedly, God showed up.

Mark is not overly concerned as later Christians would be about Trinitarian nuances. He is more than willing to speak of Jesus as if he is God (see v. 3 where the text refers to YHWH in the original OT context), but here Jesus stands with humanity. Now that access to heaven is open, the Spirit of God as a dove descends on him. Nice word play here. As Jesus arose (ἀναβαίνω), the spirit descended (καταβαίνω). In this way, Jesus himself is baptized in the Spirit or Presence of God, though John earlier in the text had predicted that he would be the one that would baptize the people in the Holy Spirit. But first things first.

Out of thin air came the voice, the Word of God: “You are my son, the beloved, in whom I delight.” However, these words are not original with this event. Again, our clues for understanding the deeper significance of these words is the OT. In same way that the earlier citation of the OT was a composite of Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi, God’s commendation of Jesus is a blending of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.

“I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psalms 2:7 NRSV).

and

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” (Isaiah 42:1 NRSV).

The Psalms text is a coronation psalm celebrating the enthronement of a new king. On that day the new king was declared to be God’s son. In a similar way, baptism marks a new relationship with God. Additionally baptism is often presented in the bible as a new beginning, even, new birth. Here at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the two are brought together: new birth, new beginning. From another angle, it marks that God is doing something new in the baptized.

In the text from Isaiah, the messiah is portrayed as a suffering servant. This one is chosen (beloved?) and upheld or sustained by God. God is pleased with his servant and has put his Spirit on him. This text fits well the story Mark is telling.

However, tension remains between these two visions of God’s messiah. In the Psalms text, the messiah is a conquering warlord who will make the world right by force, but in Isaiah, the suffering servant wouldn’t hurt a flea, wouldn’t even bend a reed in the wind.

So what just happened? Through baptism, Jesus has been invited to struggle through two competing images of what it means to be the Messiah. Is the Messiah a conquering king or a suffering servant? Which one would ultimately be the way of God for him?

Mark’s gospel invites use to struggle with the same dynamic. Which one will ultimately be the way of God for us?

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