Tuesday, January 03, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:4-11

[To help the people of Friendship, the Lutheran congregation I serve as pastor, prepare for worship on the weekends, I provide notes summarizing some of what I'm studying and thinking about regarding the Bible texts around which worship will be built. This coming weekend brings us to the yearly celebration of The Baptism of Our Lord.]

Mark 1:4-11
4: John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5: And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6: Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7: He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8: I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. 9: 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."

A few initial thoughts...

v. 4: John's appearing is a bit mysterious in Mark's telling. John shows up in Mark's Gospel in precisely the way most people would have experienced it happening, suddenly, out of the blue, unannounced.

As you read Mark's Gospel, you find that this rather breathless, get-on-to-the-next-part-of-the-story style is one of his consistent characteristics. I tell people that Mark is the Wolf Blitzer of the four Gospel writers. (Matthew, Luke, and John are the other three.) If you've ever watched Blitzer, a reporter and anchor on CNN, you know that he practically caroms through his newscasts, barely coming up for air as he smashes sentences together like a crazy sculptor slapping dabs of clay on top of each other.

Journalists, it's said, write the first drafts of history. Mark is the journalist of the four Gospel writers, presenting the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection unadorned by much in the way of interpretation and without any attempt to impose much structure on the narrative. (Luke is the historian; Matthew, the scribe; John, the artist.)

Mark lets the facts speak for themselves and lets the reader decide what they all mean. His intent to stay "on task" in the telling of the tale seems underscored by his repeated use of a single word: immediately. By its use, Mark takes us immediately from one event to another, showing us how all the events of Jesus' short earthly ministry moved toward their planned denouement: His death and resurrection. (The word immediately also conveys to me the immediacy, the closeness, the intervention of God in our lives.)

The reference to John as "the baptizer" is, says the old Interpreters Bible, peculiarly Markan. You can find another instance of the term in Mark 6:14, 24.

John's baptism isn't the same as the baptism which will later be commanded by Jesus. John, toward the end of our lesson, in fact, draws a distinction between the two baptisms. His, John says, is all about water and the cleansing it symbolizes, whereas Jesus' Baptism brings the fire of the Holy Spirit to those doused by water which is connected with Jesus' commanding word.

Jesus commands baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20) and says elsewhere--John 3:3--that those so baptized are born anew. Jesus' Baptism, in fact, alludes to the creation of the world, talked about in Genesis. There, God's Spirit moved over the waters of primordial chaos and life came into being. Similarly, in the Baptism instituted by Jesus, the Spirit hovers over the waters of Baptism and brings new life to the Baptismal recipient.

John's baptism is more of a symbolic gesture, indicating a turning from sin and a preparation for the coming of the Anointed One (the Messiah or the Christ). It has no lasting effect. It's primarily a subjective experience of an individual penitent sinner for whom water symbolized cleanliness.

In that sense, John's baptism was no different from the various baptismal rites widely practiced in the Judaism of his day. There were several such kinds of baptism practiced then. Gentile converts to Judaism would undergo a baptism akin to this. Women sometimes underwent such a baptism after their menstrual cycles, symbolizing their ability to resume their participation in religious rituals from which they would have been barred during their periods. In each case, the reason for the baptisms was to denote cleanness.

Jesus' Baptism, as opposed to John's or these other baptisms I've cited, is primarily God's action. The Baptism Jesus initiates is not a symbol, it's a living sacrament in which God does something. In it, He imparts new life. In the Baptism initiated by Jesus, God is the subject and we are the objects of His grace, forgiveness, and power to give new life.

Fleshing things out in his New Testament letters, the apostle Paul says that Baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit brings about the death of the old self and the power for the new self--the new God-self--to rise.

The phrase "baptism of repentance" to describe John's baptism, the Interpreters Bible says, "is a Semitism, meaning 'a baptism which symbolized or expressed repentance.' It followed upon repentance and signified cleansing from the sins that were repented of..."

It's also important to remember that repentance is not the same as penitence. Penitence is "godly sorrow for sin." Repentance, which in the Greek of the New Testament is metanoia, means a complete and total change of mind. Think of it this way: In old days, sailors navigated by the North Star. It was their guide. Most of us navigate through our lives by such "stars" as convenience or selfishness. When we repent, we navigate by way of a different star, the God we know in Jesus Christ!

Repentance is a change in direction. However imperfectly, we aim our lives toward Christ. This is why Martin Luther said that a key element in the life of a Christian is a lifestyle of "daily repentance and renewal."

Consistent with his clipped narrative approach, Mark spends almost no time telling us about the preaching of John. It's extraneous to the story Mark is telling. After all, John is just the opening act. Jesus is the main attraction.

v. 5: There's a dispute over what exactly is meant by the phrase "baptized by him." Most scholars believe it doesn't mean that John baptized everybody personally. Rather, it indicates that they were baptized in his presence or under his direction. In fact, it was common for baptismal rites like John's (and even apparently, the earliest Christian Baptisms) to be self-administered.

The phrases "all the people" and "the whole Judean countryside," it's commonly agreed, aren't to be taken literally. The idea is that a lot of people, apparently struck by their sins, attracted to the preaching of John, or perhaps, anxious to welcome the Messiah, went to the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized.

Another phrase that raises a question in this verse is "confessing their sins." Did the repentant people from Jerusalem and Judea verbally confess their sins to John or to other persons? Says the Interpreters Bible: "The rite itself [the baptism] signified the acknowledgement of their sins; whether or not an oral statement of their actual misdoings...was required, we do not know."

v. 6: The Broadman Bible Commentary emphasizes that by his attire, John the baptizer was showing contempt for the lifestyles of his "wealthy contemporaries." I imagine this would be especially so of the religious elites in first-century Judea.

Some say that John dressed like the prophet Elijah, whose return to usher in the coming of the Messiah was expected by many (Second Kings 1:8). Others point out that his camel's hair clothing was like that of the nomads and was the uniform of a prophet (Zechariah 13:4).

Today, it's said Arabs eat dried locusts when food is scarce. There are apparently several varieties that are edible. (I'm not interested in finding out. Not even with chocolate topping! What, do I look like I'm French or something?)

v. 7: John says that he isn't worthy even to undertake the work of a slave for Jesus. John never claimed to be anything other than a servant of God pointing others to the coming Messiah.

v. 8: John, as I've already pointed out, drew a distinction between his own baptism and the one that Jesus would institute.

The Spirit, as the Pentecost account in Acts 2 shows, is also associated with fire. In other words, Jesus would unleash the Spirit, purifying us of sin and fitting us for eternity with God.

v. 9: As always, Mark tells this part of the story with amazing economy! Unlike the other Gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism, there is no dialog between Jesus and John about it (see Matthew 3:14-15), no explanation as to why a sinless Savior must be baptized, no ceremony. It happens and then it's over!

v. 10: The word "immediately" goes on to describe what happens next. Mark uses that word 41 times in his Gospel!

In Mark's Gospel, the appearance of the dove after Jesus is baptized appears to be an utterly subjective experience. In other words, Jesus sees the heavens opened and Spirit descending on Him like a dove, but Mark doesn't mention anybody else catching sight of it.

The word "opened," says the Interpreters Bible, would better be translated as "rent asunder" or "torn apart," alluding to Isaiah 64:1.

I'm intrigued by this verb, because it's the same word in a different tense as the one we find in Mark 15:38. There, on Jesus' death, the curtain concealing the Holy of Holies in the Temple was torn from top to top, denoting that Jesus' sacrificial death has erased the barriers between God and followers of Christ. In other words, Christ gives us unfettered access to God. In the account of Jesus' baptism, it's seen that through Jesus, heaven has come to earth. As the Broadman Commentary says of the phrase "he saw the heavens opened":
The phrase means that the whole world of spiritual power and truth was unveiled before Jesus.
The dove, according the Interpreters Bible, not only stands for things like gentleness, peace, innocence, and purity, but also for "the creative power of God," an allusion to the hovering Spirit in Genesis, chapter 1.

v. 11: Mark doesn't have to say that the voice is that of God: It comes from the opening in the heavens.

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