Commentary on Mark 1:4-11
Welcome to the annual liturgical celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany).
Last summer when I went to pick up my six-year-old granddaughter from what I thought was her soccer game, she explained to me, “No, Nana, it wasn’t a game; we were only practicing skills, like kicking and running. Even soccer players have to practice the basics sometimes.” Amazing.
And it’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes experienced disciples and members of the church have to go back to the beginning and review, practice the basics.
So it is that our pericope for this week falls only three verses after the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. In 1:1, Mark announces to the reader that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ; the prophet Isaiah is then quoted and proclaimed; then, that’s it: here we are, with verse 4 and the start of our pericope.
Following Mark 1:11, we come upon the 40 days of Jesus being tested in the wilderness by Satan and receiving care from the angels.
Our pericope can be broken down into three movements: John the baptizer
- Appears in the wilderness and baptizes the people
- Witnesses to Jesus
- Baptizes Jesus
John baptizes the people
John offers a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (verse 4). As the people receive John’s baptism, they do so “confessing their sins” (verse 5).
The town in which I live has one main boulevard that runs east to west through the entire town. For most of this route of maybe two miles, there are “NO U-TURN” signs posted at each cross street. Having wondered at this, and having visited this town many times prior to my moving there, and having been puzzled by this for a long time, I finally got the explanation from a local who had lived there many years. It is designed to prevent young people from cruising—in other words, driving and circling back and forth up and down the boulevard—so that the road became virtually undrivable for many hours each weekend evening.
Then one day, I had a vision: there were workers taking down all the NO U-TURN signs and getting rid of them. Instead, at each cross street they had posted “U-TURNS OK” signs.
U-turns OK—no, in fact, strongly encouraged.
Making a U-turn in one’s spiritual life is not a bad description of “repentance,” an about-face in your relationship to God and in your working to be and do all that God would have you be and do. Completely turn things around, turn back to God.
And it is forgiveness that empowers the whole dynamic: God’s decision not to hold your past sins against you but to free you from that past in order to enable a future new life with God.
John witnesses to Jesus
Verses 7–8 anticipate verse 10. John explains that whereas he baptizes in/with water, the more powerful one coming after him, namely Jesus, will baptize in/with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus receives the Holy Spirit in his own baptism. Thus Jesus receives the Spirit which he will later share with others. (Interestingly, no such stories are found in Mark’s Gospel.)
Jesus’ amazing baptism
“Amazingly, Jesus is ‘baptized by John’.”1 Amazing because it is so simply and straightforwardly narrated by Mark as compared to the longer versions in Matthew and Luke. No explanation, rationale, et cetera., is provided.
Amazing that Jesus was baptized: the one who surely needed no such thing, at least as the purpose and meaning of John’s baptism are related in Mark.
Jesus’ amazing baptismal experience
Jesus sees the heavens torn apart (not merely “opened” as in Matthew and Luke) and the Spirit coming down upon him as a dove. And he hears the voice of God declaring that he is the chosen, the beloved Son.
Those present or reading the Gospel are thus assured that Jesus’ presence with them is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.
Amazing baptismal solidarity
Jesus’ baptism: if not necessary, then why?
“Jesus’ baptism was an act of ‘solidarity with the rest of the community’ in the spirit of John’s transforming mission.”2
A colleague of mine once shared the story of a participant in his Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) group who was herself not preparing for ministry. Rather, since she was requiring the students in the seminary program where she served as director to complete an intense 10-week program of CPE, she herself enrolled in and was taking this demanding program because she did not want to require others to go through something that she herself had not gone through first.
What an amazing commitment to high professional standards. An amazing act of solidarity with her students.
An act of solidarity with the people: Jesus becoming one with the people.
The preacher might fruitfully ponder …
- The preacher might linger over just this statement: the amazing event of Jesus being baptized. Synonyms would be apt here: Jesus’ baptism is incredible, astounding, astonishing, stunning, awesome, et cetera, et cetera. Wherein lies its amazingness within the community of listeners?
- Where are the people engaged in ministry in the community? How is Jesus at one with the people in that work? What stories might the people offer of their lives and service being led and guided by the Spirit?
- Several congregations where I have worshiped have also celebrated the people’s baptism on this Sunday. This could work well as a way to highlight the amazing nature of baptism itself, as well as the amazing solidarity of Jesus with the people—so long as the central focus remains on what this Sunday primarily celebrates: the baptism of Jesus.
- John S. Powby, Toward an African Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), quoted in Powery, ibid.
- Emerson B. Powery, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Brian K. Blount, General Editor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007. P. 122.