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Baptism of Jesus, January 11, 2015

When you go to Las Vegas, you are inundated by vendor signs. At night, especially, when all the neon is lit up. “Girls, Girls, Girls”, says one sign. “Gambling here", says another. The hotels advertise their shows and special events, and the restaurants point you to what they say is the best food in the area. Advertising is a key to Las Vegas living. The signs light up the night and overpower the stars.

This is the season of Epiphany, which began on Tuesday. Epiphany means revelation, in this case the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The first pointer is the star for the wise men. It is not covered up by neon lights, but is the sign marking the way to Bethlehem. The wise men journey all the way to Jerusalem by the light of that star, and after making inquiries, are led to Bethlehem, where they reveal Jesus as the Messiah for Jews and Gentiles through bringing him costly gifts and worshipping him.

Today is the second revelation of Jesus as Messiah, though it is the first one in Mark because he does not include any birth narrative. The neon light that points the reader to this revelation is the words about the heavens tearing open and God speaking to Jesus. In the story, none of the characters see this revelation and the identification of Jesus is left to the demons and the centurion at the foot of the Cross. But for Mark’s audience, these two verses give a plethora of messages to reveal that Jesus is the Savior.

In the words of the Father, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased” we find recognition, love and acceptance of Jesus by God as the one on whom the world turns. Jesus is God’s Son. God’s Son could mean many things is those days – it could refer to the people of Israel, to a truly righteous person, to a king adopted by God in a coronation ritual (M. Eugene Boring). But Jesus is different. God breaks into earth to name Jesus as God’s Son. The phrase is adopted from a coronation text in Ps. 2:7, but this is something different. Baptism and the voice of God (not a ritual of coronation) recognize Jesus as God’s Son, the Messiah.

Jesus is also God’s beloved. Beloved was a description reserved for the people one was closest to, usually spouses and children. To have those who were beloved in one’s life was a delight, yet made one vulnerable to pain and agony if something were to happen to them, as God must have hurt at Jesus’ death.

Jesus is accepted – before he does anything, even before he comes to be baptized. How much some of us long for recognition from an earthly parent or other figure we admire and never get it. How different our lives would be if we knew we were loved, no matter what we did or how we were. God does not try to get Jesus to be someone he is not. God approves of who he is. “With you I am well pleased” is from a phrase in Isaiah introducing the servant of God, endowed with the Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes.

Second, Jesus’ baptism intimates both authority and servanthood. John has said that Jesus is much more powerful than he is and will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. It is not clear whether John knows what this means or not, but Jesus baptizes in the Spirit every time he heals or proclaims or forgives or exorcises demons. And of course after the resurrection, he baptizes in the Holy Spirit by sending the Spirit upon the apostles to baptize as Paul does in his name. All those baptized in such a way receive the Holy Spirit and exhibit the gifts of the Spirit. Jesus is empowered by the Spirit when the Spirit descends like a dove on him after his baptism. He is called forth to his mission to reconcile the world to God. Jesus has power, but Jesus also has humility. He identifies himself with sinners when he comes to be baptized by John. He does not draw attention to himself. He is just one of many to come to the Jordan. Why does Jesus need to be baptized, we might ask. Isn’t Jesus sinless? Mark, typically gives no explanation, but perhaps the solidarity with his people is enough. It symbolizes his humanity, just as the voice from heaven and the dove make known his divinity. Repentance literally means turning around, and in addition to repenting from sins and returning to God, it can mean selecting a better direction than the path that one has been on, though that path has not necessarily been sinful (Rebecca Abts Wright). In any case, Jesus was certainly baptized with other human beings to symbolize his resolve to be obedient to God in all that he did. The servant appellation he receives also means he will rule with humility, not with might and sword, but with love and forgiveness.

Also, Jesus is the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. He is announced by a prophet in continuity with Israel’s tradition. God has done many things for Israel before to help them be more God’s people. Jesus is not the first idea God has had. But Jesus is a new idea. He is the incarnate Son of God. He is a new definition of what Messiah is – both king and servant – and the introduction of the presence of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of whom are present at the baptism.

In addition to these neon pointers to Jesus’ baptism being a big event, there is the presence of God Godself. God tears open the heavens and comes down, answering a request first made in Isaiah. God doesn’t just open the heavens gently; God tears at them to get to us whom God loves. God’s need to help us is urgent. God wants us to be reconciled with God and not separated any longer. God comes very near to God’s people Israel – good news for those who have long waited for this day and perhaps uncomfortable news to those who are afraid of what God might do to their worlds. God also sends the Holy Spirit, which descends on or “into” Jesus like a dove to empower him to do his work. We think of this as God showing a gentleness as well as mighty power and see in it a parallel of what Jesus will do.

So the baptism of Jesus is very important to Mark and Mark’s community. Mark’s brief description screams out “Look at this and see the Savior revealed”. That’s all well and good, but it is important to decide how the effects of Jesus baptism are made present in our own day. What does this event signify for us? Well, of course it calls to mind our own baptism, when we or our parents made promises to turn away from evil and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. We were anointed by the Spirit as Jesus was and sent forth in mission to a hurting world. How are we performing our mission? Are we proclaiming, inviting, reconciling? Are we following Jesus and taking the risks he would take, giving our love to him at all costs as he gave his life for us. No, chances are we are not and that makes us sinners, hopefully penitent ones – ones whom Jesus has shown solidarity with and acceptance for yet loves us and longs for us to change.

It calls to mind God’s presence in our lives. Where has God torn open the heavens in your life lately? Where have you received a new revelation that led you in a new direction? In your work? Your family? Your baptismal callings? Where has God touched you with an urgency you cannot ignore, no matter how much you want to. Remember the words God said to Jesus when the heavens were torn open and take them into yourselves – son or daughter, beloved, accepted, commissioned to work for God. Where have you been strengthened by the Holy Spirit and empowered to be a servant to others – your family, your friends, people in need.

God is working in our lives today, just as God worked in Jesus’ life so long ago. We come to God to repent, to be forgiven, to be pushed out the church doors into the living of life with a new direction. Neon signs point to us as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. Let us deliver what the signs promise. AMEN


Works cited:
M. Eugene Boring, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 13
Rebecca Abts Wright, Tuesday Morning, Volume 17, No. 1, January-March 2015, p. 12