I wonder what drew them out there to hear him. People were coming from the "whole Judean countryside," Mark tells us, setting down their plow, putting a shovel aside, making sure a neighbor was keeping an eye on the animals. I wonder why they would do that? And it wasn’t just the country folk, those scrounging about on the hillsides, but ALL the people, Mark says, ALL the people of Jerusalem were going out," too. Putting down the phone, stepping out of a meeting, leaving their cup of coffee at their desk. From the parents at home to their teachers at school, businesspeople scurrying between buildings downtown. Elevator doors open and people walked out, drawn to the wilderness.
Mark doesn’t tell us why they went. I don’t know if their reasons were any different from why we show up here any given Sunday…some vague sense of obligation; someone else in the family wants to and you don’t want to fight them this time; looking for people you know, who you care about and who will care for you; a desire to learn; some kind of dissatisfaction with the way life has gone, unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams. A need for comfort…but, perhaps, even deeper, is a longing I think all of us share. A longing that perhaps drew you here today, to be a part of something larger than us, something that matters….a burning hope, deep within, that KNOWS than things can be different than they are.
But it was out there, in the wilderness, that John appeared. And while John is doing something unique, Mark wants to be sure to know that the longings John is reaching within us didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, that this new work stands in essential continuity with the old faith of their mothers and fathers. Just before today’s text Mark introduces this good news by pointing us back to the prophets Malachi and Isaiah, who had declared to the people, drowning in exile hundreds of years before, that hope was real. That a messenger was coming, who would prepare the way for their salvation.
Even this baptism John was offering wasn’t entirely new. To receive converts to the faith, Jewish leaders would sometimes guide them into a river as a symbolic cleansing of their souls. The baptizer would stand beside the convert in the water, reciting words from the Hebrew Scripture as a sign their belief and of his or her reception into the faith.1 But John was taking this old practice and doing something new, offering it as a sign of one’s forgiveness from God, beginning to move it into the direction that the church later adopted – even as we baptized dear Lucian this morning – as a sign of God’s mighty claim upon us. John was giving the people a chance to rededicate themselves to God, to receive God’s forgiveness – turning away from their prideful and selfish patterns – freed to live towards God’s deepest hopes for us.
And the response was incredible. Folks from the WHOLE Judean countryside, Mark writes, and ALL of the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, responding in some way to those deep yearnings and dreams, leaving the centers of power and influence, wearing their sandals out walking the dusty roads. Mark describes John with camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey, in ways that echo descriptions of Elijah.2 And then he did his job, what Isaiah said he would do, pointing to the One who was to come, this Jesus, whose birth we celebrated in all its glory these past few weeks. I come with water, John says, but this One comes with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus then appears, strolling up like everyone else, standing in line to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Much, much theological ink has been spilled about why this happened. This couldn’t have been for forgiveness, because Jesus surely didn’t need to be forgiven. Was this something fundamentally different for Jesus than it is for us? Matthew’s gospel puts the church’s question in John’s mouth: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus responds by there simply saying that it needed to be that way.3 I don’t think Mark is as concerned with those questions, though. His point is yet to come, in the next verse when, just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, they saw the heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove. And a voice calls: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Mark is signaling something important to us about who God is and how God is at work in the world. He ties together, carefully, some strands of language. Matthew and Luke, when they describe this scene, say the heavens were opened. Mark says the heavens were torn apart, ripped open. He has just quoted Isaiah, and trusts they will recall another passage from Isaiah 64, which we read early on in Advent, in which the exiles call on God to ‘tear open the heavens and come down.’4 He also uses a Greek word, schizo, for that tearing. The only other time Mark uses this word is towards the end of chapter 15. Upon Jesus’ death the curtain in the temple was torn, schizo, in two, from the top to the bottom. This tearing open, this breaking of boundaries, this intrusion of God into the world of is at the core of what Mark is trying to tell us about God. In the person of Jesus the Christ, God tears through the heavenly veil that separates God from human. God runs loose through human history in the person and ministry of Jesus. And in that running, Brian Blount says, God demands change. God transforms the landscape of human living and requires transformed lives in return.5 And Jesus’ baptism marks that moment when Christ is commissioned for this journey, and named Beloved. He joined us here, in all the mess we spend our days wading around in, so that we might know that by His power the world may resemble, more and more, the kin-dom God intends.
I got home last Sunday after Betty’s helpful exhortation to live a New Year filled adoring the Christ among us, and sat down and opened the paper. The Durham News staff had compiled "Durham’s Top 10 Stories of the Year." The 3 on the front page were about the high number of homicides (26), about novelist Michael Peterson’s conviction for killing his wife being overturned, and about the ranting of our dear District Attorney. Really? I wondered. Is this who we are? The remaining 10 included the firing of the Director of the Department of Social Services, a cult leader accused of a few of those homicides, the 751 south development. Only one, the big ceremony in which a bunch of people ‘Married Durham’ back in March, said faintly good things about where we are as a city, and even that one is debatable.6 And I did what I often do, I sat back and shook my head. We bemoan troubling tendencies in our community, sad, but I wonder how much we are really doing to help. Maybe things seem too big, too complicated. In my case I fear it says more about my own complacency, my unwillingness to risk getting involved, taking a chance that things could actually be different than they are. We are too content, more afraid of the reactions we would provoke than the truth faithfulness demands.
Yet that is the exact opposite of what God has done. First through his birth, then here at his baptism, Jesus got involved, got down in the water, and in the mud, with us. God did not stay coolly detached, but risked life here – when the diapers need to be changed, when our youth are bullied, as we try and pay the bills and take care of those we love and make a difference far beyond this place. Every once in awhile we get a glimpse – we surely got some over Advent as we took care of 120-some families that wouldn’t have had Christmas without you, as you gave an extraordinary over $26,000 for three crucially important community agencies in our Christmas Eve Offering. But that is only a beginning. 2011 had its stories. I wonder what Durham’s stories of 2012 might be if we were let the promises made at Jesus’ baptism, and at ours, truly get ahold of us? If we were to be a community that models values different from the world, of compassion and justice and hope? I wonder what God might do, even through us and our deepest longings, if we were to risk faithfulness in these days? On this day, remember your baptism and be glad, and let God’s promises forever shape your living.
All praise be to God. Amen.
Clayton Schmidt, ‘Spiritual Resolution’ in Vol 34, No 1, Year B of William H. Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, p 10.
See especially II Kings 1:8, "They answered him, "A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist." He said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite."
This conversation happens in Matthew 3:13-17.
I own much of this second half of this paragraph from Brian Blount and Gary Charles’ Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), pages 20-21 and 28-29.
"Durham’s Top 10 Stories of the Year," by Jim Wise, in the January 1, 2012 The Durham News.