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Preaching Mark 1:4-11

The preacher's challenge with the gospel lection from Mark's prologue is to help the hearer rediscover something of the thrust and power of a text frequently appearing in the lectionary and using terms that are utterly familiar and frequently worked. The irony of the situation is that Mark's succinct introduction to his gospel, so familiar to the modern preacher and church-goer, is designed to telegraph the outbreak of a whole new reality.
While the good news of Jesus the Messiah is the long anticipated fulfillment of the ancient hope and congruent with prophetic expectation, it is at the same time a radical departure. The scene is not Jerusalem but the wilderness, not the seat of traditional faith but the boundary and threshold place—the Jordan. If John the Baptist stands for Elijah and fulfills Isaiah's image of the forerunner, he is at the same time clearly an outsider and "unofficial." While the appearance of an inspired outsider would be in keeping with the prophetic tradition, the appearance of a genuine prophet after such a long time without one constitutes a stunning development. Clearly God is doing a brand new thing.
For Christians, baptism is the rite of passage into the community of faith, a ceremony of beginning. John's baptism was an ablution or ceremony of repentance and forgiveness in anticipation of a new beginning. The spectacle of the multitudes of Judea and Jerusalem returning to the wilderness of the Jordan evokes the memory of the initial entry of the people into the land by the crossing of that threshold. The effect of the imagery is that of a renewed people making a fresh entry into the land of promise.
To the Christian hearer or reader, the beginning of the new is by now an old, old story, and the task is to recover the urgency and crisis of the denouement which Mark reveals. One avenue into the recovery of that urgency and relevancy is suggested by Paul Tillich in one of his sermon-essays. The Christian message, he asserts, is that there is at work among us, even now at this moment, a new reality, a new creation, a whole new state of affairs.1 (As Paul says in Galatians 6:15, "For neither circumcision counts for anything nor un-circumcision, but a new creation.") The question is the nature of the new creation and whether the hearer belongs only to the old creation or participates in the new. The unfolding story Mark tells will provide insight into the nature of the new being breaking forth in Jesus Christ. Tillich defined the new being as reunion (to that to which we really belong but from which we are alienated), reconciliation, and resurrection.2 In fact, there are in our text some implied connections. For instance, the Messiah's promised baptism of his followers in Holy Spirit is an image of reunion with the Spirit of God from which they are separated and alienated. Baptism is, of course, a ceremony of beginning, but it is also a ritual of dying to live again. As the reader of the gospel will ultimately learn, the baptism of Jesus raises over the event the specter of his crucifixion and also, implicitly, the promise of resurrection. If properly developed, the sermon will lead the hearer to experience afresh the critical question of whether one lives in the new order or only the old.
One function the text can serve for the church today is to emphasize the significance of baptism in the life and devotion of the Christian. It was the very sign of the new creation. Jesus was baptized, and it was a revelatory event. He was confirmed in his identity and mission by the opening of the heavens, the downward movement of the Spirit of God upon him as he rose from the waters of baptism, and the voice of the Father identifying him as the beloved Son. A sermon could be developed around the believer's baptism as the mark of the believer's own identity and call to a servant ministry. Hearers could be summoned to the claims of their baptismal vows around a two-point or three-point sermon. The burden of the Epiphany message as of the Christmas one is that we are born into the flesh, and the rest of life is a matter of the birth and pilgrimage into the life of the spirit. Put another way, the entire text of Mark's introduction is intended to impress us with "the time-table of another world...pressing upon mundane time."3
The Spirit of God in which the Messiah promised to immerse us intends to make Christs of us finally. The secret to Christ's identity is bound up with the secret of our own. We, too, are beloved sons and daughters in whom God takes pleasure. The world also will press identities—often false ones—upon us. As expositors are fond of pointing out, the words in which Jesus is affirmed by the voice from above combine the language of a psalm of royal coronation with a bit of Isaiah 41:2 which describes the suffering servant. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of service, the order of the towel and basin, where the greatest are the servants of all.
John Drury has pointed up the theme of boundary or threshold-crossings which is prominent in Mark's gospel.4 An innate sense of boundaries exists in human society—boundaries between the appropriate and inappropriate, the polite and impolite, the acceptable and unacceptable. For this gospel there are also boundaries between the eternal and temporal, heaven and earth, clean and unclean, what's possible and what's not possible, and especially between life and death.
As already mentioned, the appearance of John the Baptist and his preaching and the baptism of Jesus is a threshold-crossing story. The sky that divides the divine and human splits open. The plane between the surface of the water and the open air is broken by the descent of Jesus into the waters of Jordan and his rising from them. The boundary is transgressed by the work of the Spirit between the established reli gious community and its leadership structure on the one hand and the world beyond as represented by the wilderness and John's rugged presence on the other. God's supreme work is seen as taking place on the far side of that conventional dividing line. Thus is revealed a divine power at once self-authenticating and of "a suspect and untoward sort."5 The threshold crossings point finally to an ultimate and climactic breaking of the boundary between the dead and the living, the empty tomb.
James H. Slatton
1. Paul Tillich, The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), pp. 15ff. 2. Ibid. 3. John Drury, "Mark," in The Literary Guide to the Bible, Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 405. My observations are influenced significantly by and dependent upon this excellent article. 4. Loc. cit. 5. Ibid., p. 413.