Epiphany 1B – Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness.
When we hear these words, nothing may strike us as odd or unexpected. But have you ever had one of those moments when you hear something in a familiar passage of Scripture, but it seems like you are really hearing it for the first time. Either you just had never noticed the way something was phrased, or a concept suddenly leaps out at you from the pages of Scripture. Sometimes we refer to this as an “aha moment” or in more nuanced jargon, an epiphany.
Welcome to Epiphany! I remember a particular moment in a study group of clergy and lay people. We would read the lessons for the coming Sunday and discuss them together. One time, while discussing this passage, one of the lay people in the group seemed to have had one of these personal epiphanies.
She said with some excitement, “You know, I never noticed before that John is baptizing. I’ve always thought of baptism as a Christian rite, but John wasn’t a Christian. He was Jewish! Why is he baptizing people?”
A discussion started up around the room among the very learned clergy about Jewish ritual washings and the cultural significance of John’s ministry, but I was still there with that woman in her personal epiphany moment. This realization was working its way through her personal frame of reference. Little moments like that often get us thinking and we begin to make connections that lead to even more epiphany moments. Needless to say, I doubt she would ever read such a passage the same way again.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness.
Now, if we were to discuss Mark’s Gospel and his presentation of the story of Jesus’ ministry, we would be tempted to import other accounts of John’s life from the other Gospels.
From Luke’s Gospel, we’d no doubt recount the tale of Elisabeth and Zechariah, and the story of John’s miraculous birth. No doubt we’d theologize him, along with Mary, as one of the seminal transitional figures in all of Christian scripture. The last of the prophets. The last Old Testament man. Etc.
But in Mark’s account, we have no back story. John appears in the narrative, just four verses in. Mark’s Gospel begins,
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Indeed, we don’t know much about Jesus yet in this gospel, except that he is called “Son of God” and has some connection to the prophecy in Isaiah. No account of Jesus’ birth. No shepherds. No wise men. No mention of Mary, at least not yet. Jesus and John simply appear on the stage of his narrative, with Jesus coming to John to be baptized.
Back to my friend who is having her epiphany moment. If Jesus comes to John to be baptized, clearly Baptism predates Jesus. If we were hearing this Gospel for the first time, we’d probably have to ask someone, “What does baptism mean?” From the text we know it something to do with the forgiveness of sins.
Mark almost never goes in for theological musings, just the actions, with very little commentary. He does not try to give a reason for Jesus wanting to be baptized. Matthew tries to explain why – it is to fulfill all righteousness. Some scholars suggest it is Jesus merely setting a good example for the sinners around him. Still others say that it is Jesus’ way of endorsing John’s ministry, not wanting to set himself up as a rival to John, but rather a co-laborer.
But here in Mark, we are out in the wilderness with Jesus and John. We do hear of John’s colorful personal presentation – rather prophet like – wearing animal skins and foraging for wild sources of food. He was no doubt a fan of organic food.
John is calling on Israel to repent and to prepare for the coming of this one who would be greater than John. As a symbol of repentance, John invites those who have come to hear him to wash themselves in the Jordan River.
Now, ritual washings were nothing new for Jews. There were many reasons why one might need to cleanse him or herself before God. Purification rites were built into the system of laws by which they lived. But John’s call seems to be larger than any ordinary rite of purification. There is an immediacy in his message. Repent and prepare, John is saying.
But why John baptizing them in the Jordan? This was not a quick trip from Jerusalem. These people weren’t stopping by on their way home from work. No, one would have to go to John with the intention of at least hearing him, and perhaps, of being baptized. Wouldn’t it have made more sense or John to set up shop in Jerusalem? He would probably have much more business.
John Dominic Crossan suggests that his use of the Jordan River is far more significant than we might first assume.
Think about it. What significance does the Jordan have in the life and story of Israel? Recall that the land God promised to Moses and the Children of Israel lay across the Jordan River. Recall that God parted the waters of the Jordan so that the ark and the Children of Israel could cross over and enter the Promised Land. The Jordan represented the last step of the journey for a people who had longed for a homeland since their days in slavery in Egypt.
Crossan suggests that if we see the Jordan as this place of transition, of crossing over, then John’s baptism may represent as symbolic re-entering of Israel. John may have been calling these people who had come to hear him to repent and prepare, but also symbolically to enter the Promised Land anew.
This symbolic view of the Jordan continued on into many of the African American spirituals written both before and after the Civil War. The Jordan River is a symbol of transition, going over into the Promised Land. Even death is often described as crossing the Jordan and entering into paradise.
And so, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus himself comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. And Mark’s account, which seems always to be pushing us along with great zeal from scene to scene, tells us that as Jesus was coming up out of the water, out of the Jordan, something amazing happened.
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.”
Perhaps this is yet another reference to Isaiah. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah cries in chapter 64. Isaiah is longing for an epiphany, for God to come near. Mark’s account clearly shows us that something very like that is taking place here. The heavens are torn open, not like a door opening or the clouds parting to let the sun shine down on Jesus, but this almost violent image of something changing in the universe. This scene shows Jesus coming into the Promised Land. Not just as a new leader but one on whom God’s blessing rests. The spirit of God is upon him, and then God speaks, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” God is pleased, perhaps not unlike in the first chapter of Genesis when God sees the creation and calls it good. God’s favor has been restored, at least on this lone figure, Jesus.
For Mark this is all we need. God’s light shines on this one – Jesus is being revealed. It is his epiphany. There is no star, no Magi. For this split second there is only Jesus the Son and God the Father and John as a witness.
But Mark doesn’t leave Jesus in this Hollywood moment for very long. Within three verses, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted, John is arrested and Jesus takes his place and begins to call his first disciples.
By the time of Paul, as we read in the lesson from Acts, Baptism was being regularly practiced by followers of Jesus to symbolize repentance and faith in him. But with their water baptism came their own moment of epiphany – the spirit fell on them just as it had on Jesus as he came up out of the water.
Today is the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism by John. It is meet and right that this morning we have a baptism. Cameron has been brought to the waters of baptism by his parents who when through the waters before him.
In a moment, we will reaffirm our own baptismal covenants. We are called not simply to remember our baptism, to renew it. Then we will gather around that font. Can you see how we here this morning are gathering at the banks of the Jordan, with Jesus and John? Can you hear the water in this font flowing down through time? It is the same water where you were once baptized. These waters are deep. The spirit of God is here this morning, the very same spirit that fell upon Jesus and all those early Christians. This morning we gather by the font as Cameron is brought from death to life through these waters. We are witnesses, but we too go with him, crossing once again into the Promised Land.
It is easy to be discouraged these days when you watch the news or read the paper. What kind of future lies ahead of us? We cannot know. What we can do is look back. God has been with us, each and every one of us as we passed through the waters of baptism, and God has not forsaken us. God has been with us, and God will continue to be with us, no matter what. Baptism should remind us of that blessed consistency. Have hope. Take faith. Jesus has gone before us. We are simply following in his footsteps.
When we come again to the Lord’s Table this morning to celebrate God’s gifts of grace to us, let us come not just for solace and pardon, but for strength and renewal. No matter what the future holds, we know the God who has brought us out of death into life. In the days ahead, may God’s grace give us the power and grace to trust and to believe, and with Cameron, cross over into the Promised Land. Amen.
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The Western Church centered in Rome and transformed by the Reformation was indeed full of lawyers, making precise, air-tight, logical cases about the nature of the Trinity. The Eastern Church, however, never quite succeeded in being quite so precise, but rather embraced the mystery of the Trinity more readily.
Eastern theologians speak more often of the three persons of the Trinity existing not as a static, two-dimensional flow-chart on the wall, but rather existing in what they would describe as a cosmic dance. The great theological term is perichoresis – to dance around, peri as in perimeter and choresis as in choreography.
When two people dance, one of the partners in the dance is always “leading,” but it is not out of control issues, it’s just the way that kind of dancing works. There is a give and take when you dance with another person, otherwise there would be chaos and many bruised toes. Now, I am not an accomplished dancer. I won’t be on “Dancing with the Stars” anytime soon, but I have learned a little in the classes I have taken. So much of dancing is getting out of the way of your partner, a careful balance of leading and following. This kinetic understanding of the relationship between the members of the Trinity is much more helpful to my mind. Imagine then a dance of three persons, how much more complex the steps become.
No dance is ever the same. Sure the steps may be familiar, but your foot will always fall in different place, your body at a slightly different angle.
Ok, so the analogy isn’t perfect. Some no doubt will object, but for me it is one I can contemplate again and again, as long as the dance may last.
Still another Eastern theologian we studied saw the great mystery of the Trinity as having little to do with logic and more to do with relationship.
John Zizioulas named his seminal work on the Trinity, “Being as Communion.” The upshot of his work is this: God exists not as three persons who happened once upon a time and have now reached some kind of cosmic equilibrium, but rather God exists because the Father begets the son, and from them proceed the Spirit. It is not a one-time event, but an eternal dance of leading and yielding, of give and take, of begetting and proceeding.
It is that God is eternally in relationship that defines who God is. It is not what God does or where God is but it is the eternal relationship of the three persons of the Trinity that makes God God. This is the glory and the majesty of the Trinity. God is because the Father chooses to be in communion with the Son and the Spirit. It is the Father’s way of being, namely the act of communion, that defines God.
And so the story of the Trinity throughout scripture is one of divine give and take, of self-limiting, of one member yielding to the others. And the story isn’t finished, this divine dance is eternal, the members of the dance, our creator, our redeemer and our sustainer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, The Source, the Word, and the Breath, are forever engaged in this dance.
Do you see how if God is because God exists in relationship in communion how profoundly this affects who we are as human / beings? If the very nature of God is communion, then we, creatures created in God’s image are not isolated individuals. By our very nature, we exist in relationship. We are born into a relationship with our parents, we are born into communion.
Think about it. Are we not at our worst when we act selfishly, demanding our way, not yielding to the other, breaking this communion. Is this not the very essence and nature of sin – creating disharmony between God’s creatures, interrupting the dance, tripping up those whom God has given us to dance with. Salvation, then, is joining in again with the dance, learning to lead but also learning to yield. The example God sets for us is God’s very self, God’s very being – a communion, a relationship.
Nothing annoyed me more in my days in seminary than those who refused to embrace the mysteries of our faith. It was as if they were asking us to stop dancing, to stop imagining, to stop dreaming. Some people want it all defined, all figured out. But for me, I pray that the Trinity will always be mysterious, something kinetic, ever changing as I change. And I would say the same thing about the Eucharist. God save me from ever “figuring it out”! Countless books have been written by countless authors over the centuries trying to explain Holy Communion, to define its terms, to control it. I will have none of that. I prefer, instead, to let the mystery be a mystery. I prefer, instead, to let God speak to me in unexpected and different ways every time I receive the Holy Eucharist. Instead of logic and precise definitions, I prefer to dance. Amen.