Feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
Take a moment to remember the last baptism you witnessed. Perhaps you can recall the proud parents and godparents, dressed in their Sunday best, standing around the baptismal font. In their arms they hold their young, freshly-bathed child, hoping that she won’t create a fuss. Before them stands the minister or priest, neatly dressed in suit and tie, or robe, or colorful vestments. The font stands ready. The congregation looks on with curiosity and pleasure, wondering how the child will respond to what is about to happen. The atmosphere is peaceful and serene. It is a family occasion, a beautiful moment that will long be remembered.
Not quite like the baptism we’ve just read about. There, a wild man “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,” (1) who lives in the desert and survives on “locusts and wild honey,” (2) stands waist-deep in a muddy river, as men and women wade out to meet him and to receive his “baptism of repentance.” They’ve come a long way to see him and to hear his fiery rhetoric; they needed to see if what people said about him was true. You wouldn’t call this atmosphere peaceful and serene. It feels risky, perhaps even dangerous. Everyone knows that the unkempt prophet is openly challenging the authority of the temple priests, who claim to be the sole mediators of God’s forgiveness. He has no institutional standing. Rather, he’s an anti-establishment figure, a threat to those in power, sparking a revolution of renewal in anticipation of the One for whom all Israel waits with expectation. Authorities from Jerusalem have been out to visit him; not to seek repentance, but to challenge and test him. The king hates him, because he’s not afraid to speak his mind.
The gospel writer describes the scene, as the as-yet-unknown Jesus of Nazareth offers himself to be baptized: “Just as he was coming up out of the water,” he tells us, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (3)
As different as these two scenes might appear, there is deep meaning that binds them together. For Jesus, and for the gospel writers who record his story, this is a moment of profound significance. It is here, in the muddy waters of the Jordan, that his true identity is revealed and his authority established. The voice from heaven testifies that he is God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is “well pleased.” These words will continue to echo within him in the weeks and months to come, as he seeks to carry out the Father’s will.
For the young child this is also a moment of profound significance. It is here, in the waters of baptism, that her true identity is affirmed as well. She, too, is a beloved child of God in whom the Father is well pleased. In this sacrament, she is united with Christ and receives a new identity. From this moment on, she is a Christian, chosen and loved by God and a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. No person or circumstance can ever take this identity away from her. She has been “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (4)
For Jesus, for this child, and for us, there is great freedom in this new identity. We are free to seek and to do God’s will, without thought of whether the world deems us important or successful. External indicators of success – wealth, social status, educational or work-related achievements, power, and privilege – do not define us. Our identity lies in our relationship with God, who has claimed us to be his own. We need not strive for the approval and recognition of others. Our sole purpose is to do the will of the One we call “Father,” to become the people we were created to be, to be faithful to the mission which we have been given in life. It was so for Jesus, and it is so for you and for me. Above all else, we belong to God.
Perhaps Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus can help us understand how radical, even dangerous it is to be “marked as Christ’s own forever.” As Jesus is baptized, the heavens are “torn apart,” Mark tells us. Here he uses the same Greek verb that he will employ later in his gospel to describe the rending of the curtain in the Temple, which is torn from top to bottom at the moment of Jesus’ death. (5) In both cases, what had been sealed is suddenly opened by the action of God. In baptism, God tears the heavens apart to reach down to us, to claim us as beloved children, and to pour out on us the life-giving Spirit that will empower us to be channels of God’s compassion and justice in the world.
Mark’s account should remind us that baptism is full of danger, risk and drama. It has uncomfortable implications for us. It recalls God’s invasion into our world, into our lives – claiming us for God’s self, empowering us, and sending us out.
The Coptic Christians of Egypt have perhaps grasped the radical implications of baptism better than we have. They mark themselves with the sign of the Cross, a small tattoo usually imprinted on the inside of the wrist or on the hand. This mark indicates to all whom they meet that they are Christians, a revelation that may well lead to discrimination and persecution in a land in which Christians are less than 10% of the population. Traveling in Egypt a few years ago, we listened with awe as our guide explained with pride that his two-year-old daughter had just received her tattoo.
We too bear the mark of Christ, and should remember always that we belong to God. I have sometimes wondered how differently we might act if the Cross traced on our foreheads at baptism were actually visible to others. How would bearing a visible Cross on our foreheads affect our behavior, our speech, the way we treat others?
Baptism gives us a new identity, but it also gives us a new direction and purpose in life. Mark describes Jesus’ baptism and the voice proclaiming, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He continues the narrative with these words:
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan…” (6)
Once again, the actual Greek word Mark uses here literally means “to cast out.” The Spirit immediately cast Jesus out into the wilderness, to wrestle with the temptations of the Evil One. Picture the owner of a saloon propelling an unruly client through the swinging doors and out into the street. That’s the image Mark means to convey. The Spirit drove him out… cast him out… into the wilderness so that he could get on with his mission in life, to defeat the powers of evil and to open the way of salvation for all people.
Has our notion of baptism become too complacent, too comfortable? Perhaps it’s time for us to re-imagine baptism in the light of Mark’s account:
What difference would it make in our lives if we were to imagine God tearing apart the heavens as the moment of our baptism to reach down and claim us as God’s own?
What impact might it have on us if we were to be “marked as Christ’s own forever” – not just figuratively or metaphorically, but visibly, like the Coptic Christians? Would it change the way we lived, the way we spoke, the way we treated others? Would it strengthen our resolve to “live no longer for [ourselves], but for him who died and was raised for [us]? (7)
What if we were to imagine God taking hold of us in baptism and then casting us out into the world, to fight against all forms of evil and to bring about the reign of God?
What would be our reaction if John the Baptizer strode into our pleasant and comfortable assembly, admonishing us to repent of our sins and turn our lives around? What if he were to challenge our assumptions or criticize our way of life? What if he were to summon us to join the movement of protest and renewal he helped inaugurate? Would we hear him?
Today we have the opportunity of renewing our baptismal vows. We have the chance to affirm, once again, that God has chosen us and that we now belong to him. We have an opportunity this morning to reclaim our identity as God’s beloved children and to embrace wholeheartedly the mission that belongs to those who share this identity. We have a chance to affirm our membership in Christ’s Body, the Church, and to receive this holy Sacrament of Bread and Wine. We have an opportunity to open our hearts once again to the power and presence of God’s life-giving Spirit, so that it may quicken us and renew us and toughen us for the tasks ahead.
Don’t take these things lightly. Summon all the courage you have and say ‘yes’ to God today.
- Mark 1:6
- BCP, p.308.
- Mark 15:38
- Mark 1:12
- II Corinthians 5:15
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