Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:9-15 Part 6
The Gospel for this First Sunday in Lent gives brief but pregnant accounts of three consecutive moments at the outset of the ministry of Jesus: his baptism by John; his temptation in the wilderness; and the beginning of his proclamation of the kingdom of God. These reflections can only hint at the richness of theological meaning that Christians have seen in these events as reported and interpreted in Scripture.
Many Christians have found the baptism of Jesus something of a puzzle, even a scandal. The meaning of the baptism John offered was "repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk 1:4). Why, then, should Jesus, whom Christians believe "knew no sin" (2 Cor 5:21), need to be baptized? We leave aside here the historical question of what in fact may have been in the mind of the man Jesus of Nazareth when he decided to receive John's baptism. The profound theological answer has been that his baptism is the beginning of Jesus' identification with sinners for their salvation. The New Testament explicitly links the baptism of Christians to Jesus' death and resurrection. To undergo the Christian rite of baptism is to be "baptized into his death," in order that one might also share his risen life (Rom 6:3-4). The Second Lesson for this Sunday tells us that "Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit... And baptism...now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ...." (1 Pt 3:18, 21). To ask why Jesus submitted to baptism, a ritual intended for sinners, is the same as asking why he submitted to the cross, a death intended for sinners. It was not because of any sin of his own, but for the benefit of sinners. "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).
Jesus' baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, represents his acceptance of that ministry with all that it will entail, including the cross itself. It is his self-dedication to doing God's will for human salvation. The act brings God's approval: "with you I am well pleased" (Mk 1:12).
The First Lesson for this First Sunday in Lent tells how God establishes a covenant with Noah, his descendants, and the whole creation. (Indeed, the First Lessons for this year's Lenten season are all concerned with God's covenants with Old Testament characters.) God specifies the rainbow as the sign of this covenant. Christians have understood their baptism as a sign (or sacrament) of the new covenant, the new relationship with his people which God begins in Jesus.1 Like the rainbow, it is a sign of God's promise of everlasting good will, to be remembered by God's people and relied upon always. The rainbow was understood to be God's bow, a personal possession of the Deity's. The story implies that God dedicates this personal possession of his to this purpose, gives it up for the benefit of his creatures. How much more precious to Christians is the thought that as the sign of the new covenant God dedicates, gives up, not merely a personal possession, but his own "Son, the Beloved" (Mk 1:11)?
The Gospel of Mark reports that immediately after Jesus' baptism, the Spirit "drove him out into the wilderness," where Satan tempted him for forty days (Mk 1:12-13). Again, historical reconstruction of Jesus' life might suggest that his baptism had brought with it a profound religious experience that he needed some time to assimilate. Thus he went off by himself for awhile to reflect upon the meaning of what had just happened and to decide what to do next. The work of preaching and healing that he eventually began, grew out of this period of solitary meditation in the wilderness. Such speculations may be valid. From the point of view of traditional Christian faith, however, this time in the wilderness is a time of temptation. Once again, it represents Jesus' identification with the situation of sinners. The Letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus that he has "in every respect...been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke elaborate on this testing. They show Jesus being tempted to become the wrong kind of savior, one who would try to bribe people to follow him by giving them bread, or one who tempts God, or one who compromises with evil (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13). Mark, however, simply tells us he was tempted for forty days, and was "with the wild beasts." His testing recalls that of Israel, which spent forty years in the wilderness being tested. Jesus succeeds where they often failed.
When Jesus returns from his sojourn in the wilderness, he begins to proclaim that "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near," urging people to "repent, and believe in the good news" (Mk 1:15). The meaning of Jesus' proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of God has, of course, been a much-debated question in the history of New Testament scholarship. One thing seems certain, however. The kingdom of God is that situation in which God is king, that is, in which God rules. Wherever God's will is done, there is God's kingdom (Mt 6:10). Our usual assumptions about divine omnipotence make us think that God's will is always done, as a matter of course. Nevertheless, from a biblical perspective, God's will has never been perfectly done in the world. From the Garden of Eden on, humans have failed to do as God would have them do, and even nature itself has become ruined by sin, subject to violence and decay. The prophets of Israel foresaw a time when this situation would change (Is 11:1-9; Jer 31:31-34). Now, Jesus announces that the day the prophets predicted is about to arrive, or, rather, is arriving already, in himself and his activity. In Jesus, and through him, and because of him, God's will finally will be done perfectly.
Alan G. Meyers
1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vol. XXI (Westminster: Philadelphia, 1960), p. 1310.