Preaching : Mark 1:9-15
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest and also the shortest of the four accepted New Testament gospels. John Mark, a companion of Simon Peter, regards some things as more important than others. Mark's Gospel has no wisemen; no shepherds; no bright shining star; no angelic visits; no choirs of angels singing; no manger; no stable; and no baby Jesus. Mark begins his gospel with the baptism of Jesus.
A cousin of Jesus, named John the baptizer, was a wild-eyed social prophet. He ate strange food, has long hair and a beard, and his appearance leaves much to be desired. This cousin of Jesus was giving speeches denouncing a high-ranking public official who has purportedly stolen his brother's wife. The "high ranking" public officials, Philip and Herod, were brothers who could agree on one thing—they were in love with the same woman. Herodias, wife of Philip, had moved out of her husband's bedroom, took their adult daughter, and moved into Herod's palace. John the baptizer reasoned that this bedroom change was less than wholesome, and he publicly denounced such sleeping arrangements. We do not know how Philip felt about his wife and daughter living with his brother Herod. But John continued to make his views loudly and widely known. This social prophet was calling people to a higher standard of personal and social righteousness. John created a social and religious stir.
Down by the river Jordan, this social prophet was dunking adults in the water for something called "the remission of sin." He was calling for a new social consciousness. People wanted to be and do better. They wanted something more in life. They sensed an absence in and about their lives; they longed for a healing dimension that would bind up their pain and brokenness and give them reason, power, and hope to face life in all its daily consequences. Thus men and women went to John for his water baptism. One day at the age of thirty Jesus went down to the river, got in line, and waited to be baptized by his cousin, John.
One summer, Professor Harvey Cox went on a holiday to Israel. After spending a day in and around Jerusalem, he purchased a ticket, joined a guided tour, and, along with
eight Jewish tourists, rode a minibus to the various sites made mention of in the gospels. "One of the first stops was at the spot on the Jordan River where—as the guides tell gullible tourists—Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist."
Dr. Cox writes, "I had been forewarned, of course, that, while no one has the least idea of the actual location where this event took place, each guide nevertheless has a favorite riverside parking area where he or she can tell the story of Jesus' immersion by John and the riders can stretch their legs and gawk at the river. So I knew it was probably not the exact spot...but I was taken in anyway. After all, it might be the spot. It did happen somewhere nearby. So I felt compelled to go beyond just the customary snapshot...I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my trousers, and strode in, first to my ankles, then to my knees, then up over the hems of my trousers to my thighs.
At first my fellow tourists smiled and made humorous comments. Then a kind of appalled silence fell over them. I had told two of them about my being baptized by immersion, and they probably wondered whether I was going to repeat the entire performance right before their eyes. I did not. After a few moments of standing in the Jordan, my toes caressing the sand and pebbles and the capillary action beginning to draw the dampness up toward my pockets, I turned and sloshed out. The other bus riders breathed a sigh of relief. They welcomed me ashore almost the way the aging deaconesses had helped me out of the baptismal pool at the little Baptist church in my hometown some forty-five years ago. As we climbed back in the bus and continued north, however, the subject of the conversation changed dramatically. We talked about Jesus.1
Baptism, like conversion, is a continuous and a life long experience. What effect has your baptism and confirmation had upon your life? Is the light of faith and belief in God still strong in your life? Can you resurrect the blessings of your baptism? Can you bring into conscious awareness the meaning and power that you experienced as you stood before the altar on the day of your confirmation? If you were by the river Jordan would you be tempted to wade in—just a little.
When Jesus walked into the river of Jordan nineteen centuries ago, some holy things began to happen. When Jesus went down into the waters of baptism and came out again, the very heavens opened; the spirit of God descended in the bodily form of a dove; and a voice from heaven was heard: "You are my beloved Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1: 11b). As we reflect on the baptism of Jesus and our own, the heavens may not open for us; we may not hear God speak in such a dramatic fashion. Perhaps we may not even see the dove, but we can all feel the spirit. We can all pledge ourselves to the liberating work of God's reign. Until God's kingdom finally comes in fullness on earth, we can busy ourselves in a life of service and prayer.
James Richard Lahman
1. Harvey Cox, Many Mansions, A Christian's Encounter with Other Faiths (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), pp. 100-101