Epiphany 1 Mark 1 4-10
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The Gospel readings for the coming year will be mostly from the Gospel of Mark (apart from festivals and Saints days) so I thought it might be helpful to have a little background to his Gospel as it helps to understand what Mark is try to tell us.
Mark is the oldest of the four gospels; scholars agree it is almost certainly written by John Mark, a close friend of Peter, and you will find him mentioned in Acts 10. He was the one who had an argument with Paul! The gospel was probably written on his travels in Italy around AD 60-70. It is a ‘no frills’ gospel, simple, a ‘to the point’ account concentrating more on what Jesus did, rather than what he said. It moves quickly and uses words like immediately to create a feeling of movement and urgency. The gospel writers tell the story of Jesus with the benefit of hindsight, they are all writing their accounts after the resurrection of Jesus. They are fully aware that he was fully human and fully divine and they put into their gospels moments which show the readers brief glimpses when these two worlds of heaven and earth meet. They flag up that something extraordinary is happening here, and that Jesus was someone very special.
Mark’s gospel starts with an explosion of information. He doesn’t give any account of the birth of Jesus, but lands us straight into his baptism – after first introducing us to John the Baptist.
John was certainly not making a fashion statement – he is wearing a camel hair robe with a leather thong around the waist, clothes traditionally worn by the poor. No dining out for him - just catching a few locusts and a visit to the honeycomb for desert.
But John knew exactly what he was doing; he had been born for such a time as this. He looked and sounded exactly like the prophet Elijah who had also called the people of Israel to repentance many years before. His clothes and lifestyle were not an accident they were his protest against the godlessness and materialism of his day. John is mentioned in the historical work of Titus Josephus, a Roman Jew born in Jerusalem in AD 37. He describes John as a man popular with the Jewish people and respected for his godliness and strong call to righteousness. Mark corroborates that view, telling us in verse 5, perhaps with slight hyperbole, or exaggeration that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”. The crowds were looking for something new, something to distract them from their dreary lives under Roman occupation. And here was John offering a ministry of repentance, a fresh start.
They recognised that John was someone special, that he was from God. John had been filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. Remember the story of Mary going to see Elizabeth and the babe leapt in her womb.
He was a Nazarene, totally committed to God, never touching strong drink and never cutting his hair.
He lived a life of repentance and devotion to God
He was fearless in proclaiming his message and baptising people, paving the way for Jesus.
This was something totally radical, as Jews being baptised was unheard of at that time. On the rare occasions someone from another race wished to become a convert to Judaism they would have to be baptised into the Jewish faith, but never a Jew.
So imagine the scene:
The Jews knew what they were coming out to the desert for. They were coming for a wilderness experience.
He sat them down, preached about sin, warning them about judgement, naming individual sins, calling for social justice, and repentance. When they were convinced they joined the queue on the riverbank and then were publicly baptised.
Because we are familiar with the gospel accounts it is easy to miss the magnitude of this event. This was not a one day wonder but had been going for some time, day in and day out the same message. Hundreds of people possibly thousands came to John to be baptised during his ministry.
What an amazing gift John gave them by preaching about sin and judgment and offering them repentance. It is not such a popular topic today, where we tend to hear more of the benefits of receiving the good news and less about judgment and sin. But we still need such preaching today regardless of whether it is popular or not - we still need to receive the Holy Spirit when we have been wandering in the wilderness, we still need to be made aware of our sinful nature and our need to repent.
John told them he had drenched them with water which only washed them on the outside, but soon One would come who would drench them in the Holy Spirit, and this would be on the inside, for when we are filled with the Holy Spirit he permeates every part of us changing us from the inside out.
And then the day came, his cousin Jesus arrives at the river and John was given the greatest honour for his faithfulness. He baptized Jesus. This always begs the question why did Jesus needed to be baptized, surely he was sinless and certainly did not need a baptism of repentance? He did it for us, to make a public identification with sinners. He made his commitment as the Servant-Saviour right there in the river and he would complete his commitment just three years later on the cross. At this point Mark gives the readers a rare glimpse of the ‘two worlds meeting’. As Jesus is baptized ‘And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The next time these words are spoken is on the mountain of transfiguration when Jesus had been telling his disciples about his mission and his destiny. Both of these accounts identify two worlds heaven and earth meeting and Jesus is revealed as human and divine.
These events also come at key moments at the start of his ministry and as he prepares himself and his followers for his death. There is the final glimpse of the two worlds being revealed when Jesus dies on the cross, Gods words echoed by a pagan centurion, ”Truly this man was God’s Son.”
At our baptism we, like Jesus, belong to two worlds as we gain entry to eternal life as well as life here on earth. We become part of God’s family, welcomed at his table as we are in our earthly family.
Our lives may seem ordinary, and even restricted now we find ourselves in ‘lockdown’ once more but there is still the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the other world. As we saw at the Epiphany the star was in the sky for all to see, but it was the wise men who were looking for it who saw it. We need to be looking for the glimpses of glory, for as I have said on numerous occasions Heaven is closer than the breath we breathe.
Mark sets out his stall at the beginning of his gospel he also gives us a wonderful word picture of the Trinity. Jesus coming out of the water, the Holy Spirit resting upon him and the voice of God the Father. This is not just a nice story that we can rush past and move on to more exciting things; it is there to set us a huge challenge at the beginning of the Church Year.
For we too are called to emulate John whose life matched with his message of repentance and forgiveness. A time to check that our words and life match up – does our lifestyle bear out who we are in Christ? Of course we cannot do this in our own strength.
Regardless of your baptism experience, dipped, immersed, sprinkled or even dry cleaned or maybe none of the above just yet; every one of us needs the baptism of the Holy Spirit – we all need drenching on the inside to regenerate, to energize, to heal our wounds, to forgive us so that we might go and forgive others.
Finally, we don’t have to look for a desert experience this morning – we just have to come to Jesus and ask him to fill us afresh with his Holy Spirit.
Let us pray -
If we pray in faith believing God will honour his promise we will leave this service a different person. In the silence of your hearts repeat after me.
Breathe on me breath of God
Till I am wholly thine
until this earthly part of me
glows with thy fire divine.