Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:4-11 Part 2
What a preacher John the Baptist must have been! Dressed like Elijah (2 Kg 1:8), brown, lean and rugged from living in the wilderness, eating food like that of the very poor, he was in every respect a startling contrast to the scholarly religious leaders of the day. His audience must have wondered where this outdoorsman got his religion and his education, not to mention the audacity and authority with which he undertook to preach and baptize. Well may they have wondered whether this newcomer was in reality Elijah reborn.
The author of Mark may be forgiven his hyperbole when he claims "all" of the people of Jerusalem joined others from every part of Judea, but his point is clear. Huge throngs wind their way over the dusty trails to the Jordan River where John holds forth. Initially drawn perhaps only by curiosity, whatever skepticism they may have had about him is soon replaced by the strong conviction that John's message demands a response. Accustomed as they have been to demands from their religious teachers that multiple nitpicky rules must be scrupulously obeyed, regardless whether one saw the validity of such obedience, they are touched by John's demand that they not merely conform but that they must be transformed. External expressions of religiosity made looking for loopholes in rules a favored pastime, as in the practice of extending the acceptable distance of a Sabbath walk by dropping personal property along the way and in so doing stretching the boundaries of "home" beyond all recognition.
John's words cut through such game playing directly to the heart of his hearers. He reaffirms God's demand that sinners repent. Repentance demands first of all a willingness on the part of an individual to owe up to being not merely imperfect but being a sinner. Admitting to imperfection leaves room for degrees and the claim that my moral lapse and imperfection is not as bad as yours. Admitting to being a sinner is absolute. Like being pregnant, one either is or isn't. The specifics—number, types or duration of sins—don't matter.
John demands that people admit total failure, something along the lines of Ps 14:3, "They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no not one." As anyone who has experienced the first step of AA's Twelve Step Program will realize, admitting failure is easier said than done. It demands a humbling, an unveiling of self before others and before God so all can see that one does not have what it takes to lead a life acceptable to God. That's how transformation begins.
The repentance John demands represents a coming to one's senses, which results in a commitment to change the unacceptable behavior patterns of the past. The subsequent baptism John insists on is not so much a statement of faith—certainly at this point not of faith in Christ—as it is a symbol of one's determination to resist sin and please God to the best of one's ability.
Despite his growing popularity, John made clear that his ministry and baptism are only temporary and illustrative. Someone greater is coming, greater in power and with a new baptism. Where John's baptism is merely a symbol of an individual's commitment, the Coming One's baptism will represent God's act of empowering the individual to keep that commitment with greater success. The message is that water baptism is fine as far as it goes, a fitting symbol of repentance, but Spirit baptism will truly transform and empower a person.
It is against this background that Jesus arrives on the scene and is baptized. Mark reports nothing of John's reluctance and Jesus' insistence as reported elsewhere (Mt 3:14,15). The baptism signifies how Jesus identifies himself with all those other people who have come to repent from their sins and be baptized. Though he is the Son of God come into the world, he claims sinful humanity as his own rather than sinless deity. By submitting to John's baptism Jesus furthermore underscores John's point that everyone must be committed to serve God in whatever way God may open before us.
Jesus may not openly have claimed his divinity when he allowed John to immerse him in the Jordan River, but his divinity is nevertheless not far from him. As Jesus rises from the water and wipes the water from his face, he looked towards heaven. I get an image like that of my mentally impaired son whenever he finishes a swimming event in the Special Olympics contests. Invariably he will look around to see whether I watched and approve of his efforts—regardless whether he won or not. Just so, I feel, did Jesus look for his Father's approval. "Did you see what I just did? Do you approve?"
As a response he saw the heavens torn apart. Yes, his Father was watching. Yes, his Father did approve. Something like a dove came gliding down from above. It was not, of course, a mere dove but the Holy Spirit coming from God to affirm the baptism and to empower Jesus. What happened was precisely what John had promised: repent, be baptized, make a sincere commitment to serve God and you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit. To add to that, Jesus hears the familiar voice booming from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; I am pleased."
Mark's record does not tell us whether John or anyone else saw or heard anything unusual. John later claimed to have seen it (Jn 1:32). The focus of the passage, however, is on the adult Jesus in his first public act. As such it shows a person who in every part of his behavior sought to obey God and who by so doing was affirmed and empowered by God. The challenge for us who seek to follow Jesus is to believe as he believed and act as he acted.