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Preaching Mark 1:4-11

Baptist as forerunner of Jesus, his portrait of John is a mere sketch. He shows no interest in the content of John's preaching or in having John distinguish his identity from that of Jesus. For Mark, the baptismal event is not primarily concerned with the Jesus-Baptist relationship, but rather with the revelation, the manifestation of Jesus' own identity. This event is an anointing act confirming Jesus' identity as son and messiah; it is a vehicle by which this identity awareness was communicated to Jesus.
The baptism signals both a continuity with Israel's history and Jesus's discontinuity from that history. Baptism at the hands of John suggests continuity with God's salvific actions on behalf of Israel. The revelation in vv. 10-11, however, marks Jesus as someone greater than any of Israel's prophets. Questions about what Jesus actually saw and understood or what the crowd saw and understood may be unavoidable, but they will be fruitless, since the point of the lesson is to make the reader an eyewitness who sees, hears and puzzles over the event.
Homiletic Strategies
The primary focus for preaching on this feast should be the baptismal verses.
The message of verses 9-11 is threefold.1 First, Jesus' baptism and public ministry usher in a new age, the eschatological age. The splitting of the heavens, the Spirit's descent and heavenly voice point to the one mightier than John who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Second, Jesus is declared Son of God. Echoing the psalmist's words (Ps 2:7) at kingly coronations, the Markan text presents a sovereign and a servant. Third, Jesus is commissioned for ministry. Jesus will be more than John, and his ministry will be more than John's. Yet it will be a ministry not as lord and master, but as suffering servant.
1. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord provides the church with an opportunity to reflect not only on Jesus' baptism, but also on Christian baptism in the name of Jesus. One can recall that in many areas the ancient church baptized the newly converted on the feast of Epiphany. The "elect," those chosen for baptism called "photozomenoi" or "enlightened" in Eastern churches, were baptized with water and given the gift of the Spirit. Epiphany, the manifestation of God, was the occasion for a "local epiphany" in the persons of the just baptized. The fifth-century John the Deacon sees the newly baptized clad in white robes as an "image of the resurrection." This feast is an occasion to reflect on how baptism forges Christian identity.
Just as the Markan account focuses on the identity of Jesus as Beloved Son, we reflect today on our identity in Christ Jesus as beloved sons and daughters. Surely the details of Jesus' baptism and our own are far from identical, but the message is the same—we have a new identity. The homilist may wish to explore the ways in which contemporary culture sometimes presents (false) images of identity and contrast them with identity as Christians. The counter-cultural stance of Christians can be underscored anecdotally. Just as our own identities are shaped in and by the various communities to which we belong, so our identity in Christ is shaped by our ecclesial incorporation. The preacher may wish to focus on how the church shapes our true identity as God's children. Depending on individual circumstances the preacher may wish to explore not only how church congregations, organizations and groups shape and reinforce new identity in Christ, but also how they can actually thwart the development of genuine Christian identity (e.g., by losing their central focus, by succumbing to baser instincts—pettiness, power-plays, etc., by catering to personal whim, etc.).
2. If Jesus ushered in a new age, then the church through its various ministries continues this salvific mission. Our response to God's gracious designs in our lives is first of all repentance, as the homilies reviewed suggest. This repentance, however, is not an end in itself; repentance is for mission—for the healing of a broken world. Today's sermon may wish to focus on the linkage between Christian baptism and mission. That mission can be described in kerygmatic and missionary terms—our evangelical mission. This evangelism, however, needs also to find expression in the home (e.g., prayer and charity), the workplace (e.g., justice, truth and charity), and the local community (e.g., justice, service and charity). Note that these abstractions like charity and justice will need to be concretized through appropriate images and illustration. Each of these expressions of mission is concrete instantaneous of forging and maintaining a Christian identity, a central feature of Christ's baptism and our own. In the Apostolic Tradition (c. 215), Hippolytus notes that candidates for baptism are to be examined: "Have they lived good lives while they were catechumens? Have they honored the widows? Have they visited the sick? Have they done every kind The Liturgical Context
While Advent was, and still is a purely Western articulation of the church year, the fourth-century Western Christmas feast was adopted in the East (first in fourth-century Cappadocia and Antioch, later in Egypt and Jerusalem) and the Eastern Epiphany feast found a home in the West (in the second half of the fourth century in Rome and earlier in Gaul and Spain). Not unexpectedly, different emphases were highlighted in the festal cluster after their mutual transportation.
In the East, January 6 celebrated the baptism of Jesus, but according to Clement of Alexandria this was also the date of Christ's birth. There resulted a twinning of birth and baptism. Manifestations or epiphanies of God were many, and in the East various aspects of God's theophany were celebrated as complementary. Birth, baptism and the Cana miracle were three aspects concatenated in the Egyptian tradition, while the Armenian and East Syrian traditions held the original (Egyptian) focus of the baptism as primary. The connection of birth and baptism found expression in Eastern baptismal theology where Christian baptism was modeled on the baptism of Jesus and proclaimed as a birth into the family of God; this approach is in distinction to the Western preference for the Pauline theme of assimilation into the death and resurrection of Christ. The adoption of the Western January 25 feast, however, split the dual focus of birth and baptism, leaving Epiphany with a primarily baptismal motif.
The adoption in the West of the Epiphany feast resulted in a celebration with emphases different from those in the East. Perhaps because of christological controversies of the time, the West initially eschewed a singular focus on the baptism and developed its Epiphany feast around manifestations of Christ's birth. The earliest Gallican evidence sees the feast underscoring the nativity, but by the fifth-century themes of the Magi, the Cana miracle and baptism were appended. Rome adopted the feast after 354 CE as an almost second nativity feast, but by the time of Augustine and Leo, the feast was narrowed to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi.
The Markan Baptismal Account
Mark's treatment of the baptism of Jesus, when compared to the other synoptics, is exceedingly lean. While Mark sees John the of good work?" If their sponsors answer affirmatively, then "let them hear the gospel." For Hippolytus, living a Christian way of life, or in our terms forging a Christian identity, is prior to hearing the gospel; the gospel will make sense, have meaning and give perspective to those who are in the process of already living according to gospel standards.
John Allyn Melloh
1. Fred B. Craddock, et al., Preaching the New Common Lectionary. Year B. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), p. 106.