In this year when we are focusing on what it means to live in the light, coming to the story of the baptism of Jesus provides us some pretty vivid pictures of what it means for lightbulbs to come on in a person’s life giving the light of clarity about one’s purpose.
In only two weeks we make the quick move in the church year from the birth of Jesus to the baptism of Jesus some 30 years later. We would like to know a lot more about those thirty years – what daily life was like for Jesus, whether there were signs of who he was other than the trip to the temple at the age of 12, or whether he grew up as an ordinary boy, apprenticing in his father’s carpentry trade and spending his days making and repairing things.
But Mark is not even interested in the birth of Jesus. For him the story begins with Jesus coming to John for baptism. And he tells the story in a very bare bones sort of way. Douglas Hare describes the importance Mark places on this event by saying this: “There can be no doubt that the baptism actually occurred and that for Jesus it constituted a major turning point. It marked the great divide between his private life as a skilled handworker in an obscure village and the short but tumultuous public career that was terminated by his execution. It was undoubtedly his ‘call’ experience… Jesus’ call, however, was clearly distinctive; he was called not to be simply another prophet like John the Baptist but to be God’s ultimate representative, the Messiah, God’s Son.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Mark, p. 16)
The way Mark describes events, they were experienced personally by Jesus, not by others who were around at the time. So Jesus must have shared the experiences with his disciples at a later time to help them understand his call to ministry.
William Barclay uses four words in talking about the baptism of Jesus, and I want to borrow those this morning. He says the baptism of Jesus is a moment of decision, a moment of identification, a moment of approval, and a moment of equipping. While I will be talking about the experiences of Jesus, I’m sure you will see some parallels in the events of your own life as we go along.
So first, the baptism of Jesus represents a moment of decision for him. He obviously heard about the ministry of John the Baptist which was taking place about 50 miles away from Nazareth in an out of the way location along the Jordan River. On foot this was quite a distance. He felt called to leave home and make this trip and experience John’s ministry. Though Mark’s account is very brief, I feel sure that when he arrived Jesus listened to John’s preaching, talked with other people, observed the baptisms being performed and the response of people to this ministry. Then he made another very significant decision.
That decision was that he would identify with John’s ministry and with the mass of people who were coming to express their repentance to God and be washed clean to begin a new life. So here is the second word, identification. By taking their son to the temple to be circumcised and dedicated, and taking him annually to the Passover festival there, Mary and Joseph identified with traditional Judaism and Jesus was clearly brought up in a faithful and observant home. But now Jesus chooses to identify with a movement that is outside the bounds of traditional TempleJudaism and its bureaucracy. Pharisees and Sadducees also came from Jerusalem, Matthew says to be baptized, but John calls them out as vipers who intend to strike and kill when the time is right.
Jesus identifies with the ministry of John the Baptist and he shows that by submitting to baptism himself. Jesus also identifies with the masses who are coming to John, who are stepping outside of the comfort zone of traditional boundaries and opening themselves to God’s presence and work in their lives. These are the people among whom the Spirit can move and make a difference, and Jesus identifies with them by being baptized in the same way they are. A common question is, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized, since he was without sin?” Baptism was an act of identification for him, an act of submission, totally in line with his whole life’s ministry. In becoming human, God made flesh, Jesus became fully human, fully obedient and submissive to God his Father, and fully subject to rejection, suffering, and death. This is no sham incarnation.
In response, God identifies himself with Jesus in a powerful statement of approval. As he comes up out of the waters of baptism, Jesus sees the heavens torn apart and a dove descends and he hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Wow, what an experience! What an affirmation of his decision to come to John and to be baptized! Remember that Jesus was around 30 years of age at this point. If there had been similar epiphanies in his life up to now, he surely would have recounted those to his disciples as well. I wonder if he struggled at all with his sense of call and vocation during those thirty years. Others his age would have been married and had teenagers by now, well along in their lives. But now, at 30, a light shines clearly, a new way forward is revealed, and God’s approval makes clear that the time has come for a new beginning.
So this moment of decision which leads Jesus into the wilderness to John the Baptist leads to an act of identification with John’s ministry and with those who came to be baptized, with Jesus being baptized himself. This led to receiving God’s approval and blessing in a very powerful manner, and it also led to a moment of being equipped for ministry. That dove which descended upon him was the Holy Spirit, which anointed him for ministry and prepared him in every way for what lay ahead. Richard Boyce calls this an “exorcism in reverse,” a point at which Jesus becomes possessed by the Holy Spirit. (Feasting on the Gospels, Mark, p. 8) To lend credence to that idea is the next verse, which says that “immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness” for a period of temptation and preparation. That is another story for another day, but what is critical to note is this: if you are equipped with the Holy Spirit it is necessary to be trained in the ways to use it not for your own power and comfort and prestige but for God’s glory alone. Even Jesus.
After the temptation, the next thing Mark recounts is that John the Baptist was arrested. This is another moment of clarity for Jesus. It is time to step up. If what John has started is not nurtured it can slip away just as quickly. So Jesus begins his public ministry. It will not be the same as John’s. It will not be conducted in one place out in the wilderness where people come to him. It will be conducted in towns and villages, on and by the lake, along the road, and in the countryside. It will not be a baptism of water only, but a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. It will set people’s hearts on fire, not only then but across the millennia since. It started with Jesus making the decision to go check out the ministry of John.
If I were to tell you what led me into the ministry, it would make little sense to you. It would include the clarity brought by a series of assassinations during my childhood; enduring freezing nights in my dormitory and inability to get home during the Arab Oil Crisis; Watergate and all its children; and relationships with many dedicated Christian people, some of whom encouraged me to give ministry a try.
I’m in my 33rd year of pastoring churches, and I have to say there is a cycle to what Jesus experienced at his baptism. Every so often there comes the need for a major decision, a major identification with something or someone. Sometimes there comes the sense of divine approval and of being equipped and used for ministry. Sometimes there are dry periods of testing and temptation which must be endured. I expect that all of you who have been at this Christian life thing for any amount of time can affirm this. Jesus only did it for three years before his crucifixion, but it is easy to observe the cycles in his life as well. He was faithful, and God saw him through it all.
I think about Martin Luther rediscovering the good news of salvation by grace through faith alone and making the decision to identify with the masses who were kept in darkness by the church hierarchy by calling for the church to be reformed. The church called him before the powers that be and demanded that he recant his teachings. He said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
I think of his namesake, Martin Luther King, Jr., who made the decision that the time was right to call America to live out its creed. He identified with all those who had to sit on the back of the bus, who were unjustly put in jail, who did the menial and unappreciated jobs like garbage collection, who had to use inferior restrooms and go to separated schools. The response and the results were beyond anything he could have managed or controlled or even imagined.
I think about people like you who go to work, go to school, participate in society in daily life, constantly having to make decisions about where to identify, how to regard people who look or act or believe differently than you. Do we make decisions based on what our political party tells us, what Hollywood tells us, what our church tells us, or what Jesus tells us? What would Jesus do is a great question to start with for all of us.
The light of clarity – we all long for it. I like the way cartoons represent it, by a lightbulb turning on over the person’s head. It is important to remember that Jesus was 30 years old when he had this defining experience. Given that, it is unreasonable for us to expect that just by saying a sentence prayer to God will always bring a lightbulb moment. We may well not be ready for that clarity yet, would not know what to do with it. It is important, though, to be ready when God’s time is right – watching, waiting, listening, expecting that moment of clarity.
David J. Bailey
January 11, 2015 Central Presbyterian Church