Formations 01.06.2019: Jesus Is Baptized

Mark 1:1-13

The Door of the Baptism of the Cathedral of Seville. (Photo by Anual.)

At the time of writing, forecasts indicate that the rain out my parents’ window will continue for another week. I tend to take overcast wintry weather in stride, but this is bad news, at least for my drive home to Macon. Mark, however, proclaims good news and its beginning (v. 1). Whether these are the first words of Mark’s story, an original heading, or a later scribal remark is unclear. Maybe these textual questions precede our own theological questions as well. Does Jesus’ good news begin with himself? Or does it begin with John? Isaiah?

In a week when we celebrate Epiphany, remembering the light that drew the magi to Jesus, we might ask if it began with God’s first words. Along with light, the passage brings our attention to water in John’s baptism and to dryness in Jesus’ departure. But for this abundance of natural elements, John appears to dismiss them. He draws a distinction between himself and the messiah to come. To do so, he diminishes the power of water and elevates the power of the Holy Spirit.

I admit I struggle with John’s distinction. I’m not sure when or if I’ve experienced anything other than the material world of daylight and nighttime, rain and sunshine. But reading John’s words at the culmination of Christmastide, I wonder if this is the point. We have just finished a season that celebrates God being born to parents from Nazareth, a human being who can walk down to the river and be baptized like many other Judaeans in that time (vv. 5, 9-11).

Mark’s story, describing Jesus’ entrance onto the scene, asks how we enter our worlds. Isaiah went to new paths. John went into the countryside. Jesus entered the river and then the desert. And for each one of these, it was good news that compelled them—for in entering they encountered the news and proclaimed it too.

Discussion

• How would you describe your physical landscape? Where is there plenty? Where is there too little?
• How does bad news appear in these places? How does good news appear?
• What good news do you need to hear in these experiences?
• What good news can you offer in these experiences?

Reference Shelf

The Desert

The dove visibly represents the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters at creation (Gen 1:2). The descent of the Spirit, literally “into” Jesus, and the declaration of his divine sonship are the two features that define his unique identity. He could pray “Abba, father,” and he was the Spirit-endowed agent of the kingdom. the words of the voice from heaven appear to be a composite of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. The psalm text was used at the coronation of a king, as a litany for the divine sonship being conferred on the one who was ascending to the throne: “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession’” (Ps 2:7-8). The verse from Isaiah stands at the veginning of the first of the servant songs in Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). For emphasis, Mark has quoted freely from these two verses, selecting phrases from each and changing the word order. The words from Psalm 2:7 follow the Septuagint, while the words from Isaiah are closer to the Hebrew, adding “beloved” agapētos, cf. Mark 9:7; 12:6) and “well pleased” (eudokēsa) that are not in the Septuagint text of Isaiah 42:1. The term “beloved” may have been suggested by the reference to Isaac, the child of the covenant, in Genesis 22:1.

The significance of the remainder of each of these verses suggests that Mark was using them as a commentary on the meaning of Jesus’ baptism and the divine mission that was being conferred upon him. Jesus’ sonship is affirmed by God, and God empowers Jesus with the Spirit so that he can overcome evil. Jesus was both unique son and suffering servant. The paradox of the gospel is that the mighty one is put to death, the chosen one rejected, and the servant exalted. Jesus will carry out this commission in the rest of the Gospel: the good news will spread to all the nations (Mark 13:10), to bring forth justice and to secure them for God from the Evil One.

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 49–50.

The Desert

There is a degree of ambivalence in biblical writers as they treat the desert. On the one hand, the desert continued Israel’s trials and testings as they were led from Egyptian promise. They frequently were subject to attack by the fierce inhabitants of the desert (cf., e.g., Exod 17), suffered from lack of food and water (Exod 16), and longed for the comforts of Egyptian slavery. On the other hand, the wilderness period was a time of close and intimate communion between the people and God. They ate food from God’s table (Exod 16), were faithful and devoted to God (Hos 11; Jer 2), and were under God’s constant protection. The desert was the time of revelation (Exod 19–24; 32–34), the scene for the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20), and the locale in which the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the priestly vestments and instructions were provided (Exod 25–31; 35–40; Num 1–10).

The desert continued to be viewed in this double light. Hagar could see refuge from her harsh mistress Sarah (Gen 16), but in turn she would have to depend upon God’s care to sustain her in the wilderness. Elijah was a person of the wilderness, able to flee there for safety; but he too had to have sustenance from God while seeking his revelation. John the Baptist too, a latter-day Elijah, apparently found the desert to be a place of revelation, while Jesus was in the desert for forty days undergoing temptation by the devil. The desert, in short, is one of the polar images in biblical religion: a place of privation and leanness of life, but for that very reason suitable for special disclosures by God and for training and discipline for mission and ministry in the public world.

Walter Harrelson, “Desert,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 210.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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