First Sunday after Epiphany
Baptism of the Lord
January 8, 2012
Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas may be used as alternate readings for this Sunday.
Epiphany is always observed on January 6, which usually falls on a weekday. Since many church traditions that follow the lectionary do not have weekday services, they observe Epiphany on either the Sunday before or following January 6. The Readings for Epiphany can replace the regular lectionary readings on either Sunday to observe Epiphany.
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
The lectionary reading from Mark for this Sunday includes a paragraph that was also part of an earlier lectionary (for commentary on Mark 1:4-8a see Year B, Advent 2). The focus of the comments given below is on verses 9-11, the story of the baptism of Jesus.
The vague time reference, "in those days," or more literally, "it came to pass in those days," is not common in Mark. Mark may have adopted this phrase from the OT to introduce in a more dignified manner an auspicious event in history, the story of Jesus.
That Jesus was baptized by John has a strong probability of historical authenticity--why would the early church want to invent such a story? When we compare Mark's account with the the other gospels, we can see very quickly that the early church attempted in various ways to deal with the theological dilemma posed by the fact that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, comes to John for a baptism that signified repentance. How is it that John, a mere human, baptizes the Son of God? Matthew says, "John would have prevented him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'" (3:14). In Luke John's imprisonment is recounted before the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:19-21). In the Gospel of John the story of Jesus' baptism is omitted altogether in spite of the fact that the narrative setting of John the Baptist is prominently presented (1:19-34; 3:22-30). Mark, however, exhibits no sense of theological embarrassment as in Matthew, Luke and John.
How then does Mark understand the baptism of Jesus? Since John was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4), how is it that the sinless Jesus submits to John's baptism? Did this paradox not occur to Mark as it did to the other gospel writers? Or did Mark have something else in mind?
These verses introduce the person of Jesus for the first time in Mark's narrative. There is a language shift from the preceding story of John the Baptist. In the earlier story (vv. 4-8) Mark presented John and his ministry in earthly, human terms--Ěhis clothing, his diet, and his use of water for baptism. The people who came to be baptized confessed their sins.
Now the account of the baptism of Jesus takes on cosmic proportions: the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice comes from heaven. But significantly, Jesus is not transported into a safe heavenly realm. In the temptation account in the very next narrative section he begins his battle with Satan, the personified head of the powers of evil. The eschatological age has dawned. The final battle has begun. Mark implicitly tells his readers that the baptism of Jesus is not the same as the baptism of all the other people. Historically, the reason Jesus came to John for baptism was that he was attracted to his message and ministry and may have even become his disciple. At least the Gospel of John seems to imply that (3:26; 4:1). But Mark and the other evangelists make it clear that the baptism of Jesus took on a significance that went far beyond John's work. In the baptism of Jesus the final age of history was about to dawn. The kingdom of God was being inaugurated.
Mark tells us that as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (v. 10). When Mark says that Jesus "saw," did he mean that this was a vision? Or, was it an objective phenomenon observable by anyone? It is hard to say. There is no indication in Mark that anyone else saw it. The question is raised perhaps because of the modernist distinction between what is real and what is not. The philosophical assumption of modernity tends to view a vision as a subjective experience with no anchor in reality, whereas an objective phenomenon is real because it is verifiable by others through the scientific method. That kind of distinction did not occur to biblical authors.
Mark is describing something that cannot be easily classified as historical or unhistorical, real or unreal, objective or subjective. Here is a theological affirmation that God was inaugurating something new in history. This is not merely a chronicling of historical facts. It is a faith affirmation that God was beginning to act in the person of a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, all of which is described in pictorial, cosmic language involving the tearing apart of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit as a dove, and a voice from heaven.
When biblical authors say that the heavens were torn apart, it is their way of indicating that a theophany or a revelation of God was about to take place. In Isaiah 64:1 the prophet expresses a prayer-wish to God and says, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down." Ezekiel describes his experience of God in similar language when he says, "The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God" (1:1). When the Sanhedrin questioned Stephen just before his martyrdom, he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" (Acts 7:56).
What is remarkable about Mark's wording of the heavens being opened is that unlike the other Gospels, Mark uses the Greek verb schizō, which means "to tear apart," instead of the normal verb that means to open. Something emphatic is taking place here. What is even more remarkable is that the same verb is used again in Mark 15:38, the only other occurrence of it in Mark, where at the death of Jesus the veil of the temple is torn apart from top to bottom, indicating another emphatic and even violent manifestation of God. Thus at the beginning and at the end of the ministry of Jesus God acts in a decisive way in and through Jesus.
" . . . and the Spirit descending like a dove on him" (v. 10c). The Greek preposition literally means "into"--the Spirit came down into him. It was important for Mark to point this out because later Jesus would be accused of being possessed by Beelzebul, the prince of demons (3:22). The reader is thus prepared to see the utter falsity of that accusation. Not only that, but Mark is also demonstrating the validity of John's announcement that the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit (v. 8b) because he himself is endowed with the Holy Spirit.
The voice from heaven says, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." At least three Old Testament texts are echoed in this statement. "You are my Son" clearly comes from Psalm 2, which is a royal psalm. The psalmist asks a rhetorical question as to why the nations of the earth are conspiring against the king of Israel, the Lord's anointed. Their plots are all in vain because the Lord laughs and has them in derision. He will "terrify them in his fury, saying, 'I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.'" We hear next the words of Israel's king who says, "I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you.'"
In using this short statement from Psalm 2, the voice from heaven establishes Jesus as the anointed of the Lord, the king of Israel. That too will be important in the Markan narrative when Jesus is at trial and is asked by the high priest, "Are you the Messiah (which means the Anointed One), the Son of the Blessed One?" (Mark 14:61). When Jesus answers in the affirmative and adds, "You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven," the high priest tears his clothes in a dramatic gesture of shock at what appears to him to be a blasphemy. The reader knows that this is no blasphemy at all, for at the beginning of his ministry Jesus had been affirmed as God's beloved Son with a divine attestation from heaven.
It is not certain whether the next phrase in the heavenly voice, "the Beloved," has a specific Old Testament reference. Some have suggested that there may be a reference here to Genesis 22:2 where God tells Abraham to "take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love" and offer him as a sacrifice. If the Isaac reference is in view, it would easily fit Mark's story of Jesus. Just as Abraham bound his beloved son and prepared to offer him as a sacrifice, so also God declares Jesus to be the beloved Son who would indeed offer himself as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Again, Mark wants his readers to know that Jesus is the beloved Son even when the whole political and religious establishment of the day would reject him and condemn him to death.
The adjective "beloved" occurs two more times in Mark. In the story of the transfiguration the heavenly voice speaks a second time and announces, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" (Mark 9:7). Exactly what it is that the disciples must listen to is not spelled out by the voice, but what comes next clarifies that ambiguity. Immediately after the transfiguration Jesus tells his disciples about his impending suffering and death. Thus one more time the term "beloved" is placed in the context of the death of Jesus.
The final occurrence of "beloved" in Mark is at 12:6 in the parable of the Wicked Tenants. The vineyard owner had been sending servant after servant to collect his share of the produce, but the tenants had mistreated them and even killed some of them. Mark's wording of the next part of the parable is noteworthy (Mark 12:6-9):
He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But those tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
The term "beloved" is once more used in the context of rejection, humiliation and death.
The final clause in the heavenly voice, "with you I am well pleased," clearly comes from one of the servant songs of Isaiah where God says that his soul delights in his servant Israel (Isa 42:1). Mark's story of Jesus seems to hark back to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 at several points, such as the ransom statement of Jesus in Mark 10:45 and the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (Mark 14:24). The heavenly voice at the baptism of Jesus clearly affirms Jesus as the beloved Son of God and a suffering servant who would give his life for others.
It appears that Mark sees in the heavenly voice a merging of two declarations: Jesus is declared to be the anointed messiah, the Son of God, and at the same time he is the suffering servant in whom God has delighted. The rest of Mark's gospel will largely play on these two themes. Jesus is the powerful Son of God who has come to proclaim the kingdom of God, perform mighty miracles, heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. Yet he will die in utter weakness, humiliation and suffering. Mark prepares his Christian readers for such a scandalous outcome by reminding them at the very beginning and throughout the gospel that the One who would be so shamefully treated and executed has already been confirmed by God as the beloved Son who brings delight to God.
This brief account of the baptism of Jesus may be developed in several ways for preaching purposes. One possibility would be to accent Mark's perspective of the event, namely that Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the One without sin, comes to John to receive a baptism that signifies repentance from sin. Even though he had no sin to confess and of which to repent, he nevertheless seeks John out and is baptized by him. Jesus does this partly because he wants to affirm and identify with the ministry of John. In that sense Jesus identifies not only with John and his ministry but also with all of humanity. The words of Isaiah 53:12 come to mind: "[He] was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many."
Throughout his ministry Jesus sought out and associated with people whom the religious elite considered undesirable outcasts and was criticized for such conduct. Sometimes one must choose a course of action whose outward appearance may be entirely different from the inner reality. Yet to be in accord with the purposes of God one must risk the possibility of being misunderstood or even maligned. Jesus embraced the ministry of John even though his own self-understanding and the direction of his ministry would be different from that of John. In Matthew's narrative, Jesus puts it this way in response to John's objections: "It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15).
Situations and institutions in which Christians may be involved do not always represent what is ideal. Idealists sometimes have difficulty to deal with the realities of the social world in which we live. Involvement in anything less than an ideal institution seems to them to be a compromise. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal network of relationships, social settings and institutions. The reason Jesus associated with "sinners and tax collectors" was not that he approved their conduct but because, as he put it, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17).
The call to righteousness and holy living may very well involve us in situations and associations that seem less than holy or righteous. A Christian may work for a corporation that on the whole is decent and proper. Yet some of the practices, policies or persons of the company may not be one hundred percent consonant with Christian ideals. What is one to do? Jesus accepts John's baptism even though the ministry of Jesus himself will go in a different direction than John's. In fact, it was this very thing that caused even John himself, when in prison, to have some doubts about Jesus. He sent messengers to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" (Matt 11:3).
There is a message here not only for individuals living out the Christian life in the world, but also for the church as the body of Christ being present in the world. Should the church debunk everything in the world that is not part of the social fabric of the church? Or should it accommodate itself to the values and priorities of the secular world? The struggle is how to be in the world and yet not of the world (John 17:14-15).
One may even take this a step further and speak of the differences that exist among denominations. To be committed to the distinctive tenets of our own tradition does not mean alienating ourselves from the larger body of Christians, even if we might have disagreements with some theological traditions. While we must be committed to our own identity and mission as a denomination, we are also privileged to celebrate our oneness with the whole body of Christ, the church catholic. This would be in keeping with the spirit of Jesus who accepted the baptism of John and yet his own mission and ministry went in a different direction than John's.
Another path for preaching may be present in the account of the cosmic phenomena occurring during the baptism of Jesus. Mark describes a divine theophany at the level of human history. That is, God enters the stream of human history. Even though it is only Jesus who "saw" these phenomena, Mark in effect is affirming them as a faith declaration. The eyes of faith see God at work when natural eyes see nothing. God is acting in this world even when it does not appear to "objective" observers that anything is happening.
Dare we believe it? What if we are misguided? What if it is merely our own wishful thinking, hallucination or delusion? That of course is the risk of faith, the leap of faith. Jesus enters into his life of service with the firm conviction that he has been set apart by God for such a vocation. Mark writes his gospel with the conviction that in Jesus Christ God has begun his final act in history. Some may scoff and say that they are misguided fools swept away with their own delusions. A faith perspective dares to believe that the world is the arena where God works even if no outside observer can verify such a thing by the scientific method. Science has brought us many beneficial discoveries. This must not be an opportunity to debunk science. At the same time, we must recognize that science has its limits, as many scientists themselves acknowledge this. The life of faith cannot be entirely brought under the scope of the scientific method, as post-modernism points out. God the creator is greater than human attempts to understand the workings of creation, as legitimate as such attempts may be.
A third possibility for preaching, and perhaps the one most central to the text, is the voice from heaven that declares, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Here we have two, possibly three, OT texts being applied to Jesus and thus opening up a path for preaching. Using the words of Psalm 2, a royal psalm, the voice declares that this Jesus is the Son of God, the expected royal Messiah coming from the house of David. What a daring claim! This Jesus from Galilee is the Son of God, the Messiah? Most of Jesus' contemporaries rejected this claim. Certainly the religious and political establishment of the day ridiculed the claim and condemned Jesus to death on a cross. Even his own disciples wondered what kind of messiah he was turning out to be. Note Peter's protest when Jesus began telling him and the other disciples that suffering and death awaited him (Mark 8). No one can accuse Jesus or God of acting in conventional or expected ways! A messiah cannot die, was the long-held perspective of the day. Yet this Messiah died a most horrid death.
We find here the mystery of God's ways in the world. Jesus and Mark's Christian community believed a claim that nearly everyone else laughed at. Paul said that the cross was foolishness and a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23). It still is. Yet, paradoxically, it is also the power of God for salvation. How can we continue to live out our Christian faith today in a society that is increasingly skeptical and apathetic toward the gospel? There is one way: to depend on the power of the gospel offered to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When the circumstances of life all around us raise unsettling questions about the validity of our faith claims, let Jesus be our paradigm of perseverance in the face of doubts and questions. As John the Baptist testified, it is this Jesus who is able to baptize with the Holy Spirit. To submit to the baptism of the Holy Spirit administered by Jesus means that we find in him the resources that enable us to remain faithful when the odds are against us.
God declares in the voice from heaven that Jesus is the one in whom God is well pleased. That affirmation, coming from Isaiah, points to Jesus as the suffering servant, and it was the one thing that Jesus needed to keep him focused on his mission in the midst of the ridicule and opposition that he would face. Mark may be offering his Christian readers who are also going through persecution a model in Jesus for them to follow. If Jesus, the anointed Son of God, faced the cross, can we who are his followers expect anything less? That may well be the message that Mark wants to communicate to his readers then and now. That also means that not only Jesus but all those who follow in his footsteps are called to be a suffering servant.
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