Seven things to note—
seven things worth considering
in the first part of our text—
some of which don’t mean as much as others,
but seven things building on each other
to mean so much more than is said,
and it all begins with John the baptizer—
and there’s the first thing to note:
“the Baptizer” as a title is so much more active—
so much more more dynamic than the more familiar “the baptist.”
Right from the get-go, John the baptizer is a doer.
Second, our text begins with John the baptizer
appearing in the wilderness.
Since the time and the events of the Exodus,
the wilderness had represented God’s liberating work—
the promise of freedom.
In our psalm for today (Psalm 29),
we read responsively that Qadesh was in labor.
Qadesh was the springing off point in the wilderness
for the children of Israel entering the promised land.
it was from Qadesh that the spies were sent into the promised land.
Wilderness is always the antecedent to promise fulfilled—
a moment overshadowed by the power of the Most High
pregnant with possibility—
a time and place of waiting and preparing, yes,
Third, appearing’s an interesting verb choice, don’t you think?
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness—
out of the blue.
No back story in Mark—
just the appearance,
but not just the appearance
because he appeared proclaiming—
as if presence and proclamation were inextricably intertwined.
Fourth, he appeared proclaiming
a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
So he was preaching baptism and he was a baptizer.
He was in the wilderness
doing what he was saying—
like unto a word made flesh!
There’s something important in our faith
about a direct correlation
between what we say
and what we do.
We are, after all, children and followers of the God,
who spoke creation into being—
who said, “Let there be light,” and there was, and it was good.
One of the first of Frederick Buechner’s many insights to strike me
remains one of the striking:
“In Hebrew the term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’
Thus to say something is to do something”
(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking).
So so far, we have some sense of the interconnectedness
of someone’s whole being,
who is himself connected to—part of a much bigger story.
Good stuff, isn’t it?
Fifth, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Now here’s where it gets fun!
A couple of things to unpack here.
Y’all may know the Greek word translated repentance, metanoia,
literally means a change of mind.
“Although in popular usage it often has a sense of regret
for what is past,
it is generally used in a more positive way
in the New Testament, implying a deliberate turning,
or conversion, to God”
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991] 37).
In fact, Archibald Thomas Robertson—y’all know the name?
A Virginian, a baptist—Southern Baptist at the time,
a graduate of Wake Forest,
became professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary,
author of the Word Pictures in the New Testament commentary series—
A.T. Robertson deemed this translation of metanoia as repentance
“a linguistic and theological tragedy”
(A.T. Robertson. “Word Pictures in the New Testament – 2 Corinthians” (PDF) (29). Grand Rapids, Missouri: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 14 November 2014).
There’s actually a completely other Greek word
that is also translated repentance in the New Testament
that in the Greek too carries the meaning of remorse.
Not this one.
Referring specifically to identifying John the baptizer’s
preaching as one of repentance,
Robertson quotes his father-in-law, John Albert Broadus—
y’all know the name?
These are good names to know—part of our good baptist heritage—
a Virginian, a baptist, a graduate of UVA,
who taught New Testament and preaching
at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY
and became Southern’s second president.
Broadus named translating
John’s preaching as a preaching of repentance
the worst translation in the New Testament.
“This is John’s great word …
and it has been hopelessly mistranslated”
(A.T. Robertson, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/robertson_at/wp_matt.pdf).
So Eugene Peterson, in The Message,
refers to John the baptizer
preaching a baptism not of repentance but of “life-change”
(Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix
[Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003] 1825)
Metanoia represents a commitment to the future
not determined by the sins of the past.
It’s looking ahead, not looking back.
You remember the prophetic word of Isaiah?
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth,
do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”
What if we, as the church, didn’t stress—hadn’t stressed—
the whole you have to feel bad about what all you’ve done wrong—
where you’ve fallen short—where you blew it thing?
What if it were all about where you’re headed—
what you’re going to do now—
what you’re going to do now differently—
what you’re going to do tomorrow?
And if it’s different, yes, there will be some remorse,
and yes that might be important,
but to focus on the future
is not to focus on the remorse.
It’s to focus on the hope.
It’s to focus on the change.
Sixth, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness
preaching a baptism of life-change for the forgiveness of sin.
Now “a fringe prophet had no standing
and no business getting into the forgiveness of sins.
The establishment had that covered;
it was their work, their right and their responsibility”
(Kathryn Matthews Huey)..
That’s why Marcus Borg identifies John as “an anti-establishment figure.”
Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
“countered the temple’s claim to be the mediator of forgiveness.
John was an anti-temple prophet and,
as we shall see, Jesus followed him in this”
(quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey).
Now I’m thinking John was not so much anti-establishment and anti-temple
as he was enthusiastically for life change!
Institutional religion too often gets hung up
on what we’re supposed to quickly move beyond—
the sins of the past,
instead of the possibility of the future—
too hung up on what we’re against instead of what we’re for.
And heaven forbid institutional religion
maintain the darkness by rationing the light.
Seventh, consider for a moment
the physical description of John’s dress and diet:
his dress is explicitly reminiscent of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).
His diet is that of the nomads.
So John is identified within the realm of the prophets,
the messengers of God,
and located specifically within the wilderness—
that place where God is working—
that preparatory place.
And that’s how John considers himself.
“I am the opening act
I’m here to warm up the crowd!”
And as the warm up act, John clearly sees himself—
identifies himself as the inferior to the coming superior.
He offers three examples of how that’s evident:
one is coming greater/more powerful than I;
I’m not worthy to deal with his footwear;
I baptize with water, he with the Holy Spirit.
Alright. Now seven things to note in the latter part of our text.
In those days—
so in the midst of all this—
in the midst of all this symbolism and preparation and hope,
Jesus came—didn’t just appear.
He came from Nazareth.
There is a back story here. We don’t get the details,
but we know there’s more to the story than just this.
It’s bigger than this.
He came from Nazareth of Galilee—
so not from where the crowds came, Judea and Jerusalem,
but not from the wilderness either—from Nazareth,
and he was baptized by John in the Jordan.
That was first.
Now second, there’s absolutely no indication
John recognized Jesus,
but what’s important anyway is that Jesus recognized John—
and chose to identify himself
with an outside the system life-change movement—
with a wilderness promise of a future not determined by the past—
or the present—past and present forgiven!
Jesus chose all that
before he ever began his public ministry.
Third, Mark has no sense of the problem
that the other gospels evidently had with John baptizing Jesus.
In his account, Matthew includes John’s protest,
“I’m not worthy to baptize you; you should baptize me” (Matthew 3:14).
Luke has John already in jail when Jesus is baptized (Luke 3:18-22),
so doesn’t even have John baptizing Jesus.
And John has John testify to Jesus but not baptize him (John 1:32-40).
Because how could Jesus, the one for whom John prepared the way,
be baptized by the one just preparing the way?
This is the problem of investing more in hierarchy than in story.
Of course, it’s not just that John baptized Jesus,
it’s also the question as to how Jesus could be baptized
for repentance and forgiveness of sin?
According to traditional theology he had nothing of which to repent, right?—
no sins requiring forgiveness.
So, in the first place, imagine just not being concerned with any of that!
That never crosses Mark’s mind—
not at all defensive about Jesus—
not at all defensive about God—
not at all defensive about his faith.
I came across I think it was a Karen Armstrong interview
in which she identified fundamentalism
always as an expression of fear—
and particularly the fear of a loss of identity.
Mark’s not scared.
You begin to see fear enter the picture with Matthew and Luke and John.
Mark’s not scared.
And remember, it wasn’t repentance anyway!
But rather the commitment to a way into the future
that constituted in its trajectory a forgiveness of sin.
What’s wrong with Jesus thinking, “That’s for me!
That’s what I’m a part of—
a movement forward into God.”
To the extent that institutional religion tries to exert control,
it gets in the way of God.
To the extent institutional religion lives in fear—
in fear of its own existence—
in fear of its own survival—
its fear of God’s reputation—
invested its own success—its own language—its own traditions—
when the desire to respect God yourself
turns into the perceived need to protect God from others,
God is undermined.
God is cheapened.
God is domesticated—
God who is bigger than both our fear and our truth.
And just as Jesus 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.”
Fourth, we live in a world of public acclaim.
I don’t know if you’ve notice this:
if someone pays you a compliment,
you look around to see who else heard.
It doesn’t even have to be a compliment for many—
as long as someone’s talking about you.
You wish more had heard.
You tweet it—post it—boost it,
and wait for the public response to it.
The way this story is written though,
makes it sound like only Jesus head this voice.
And we do, of course, as readers, but no one in that crowd.
In Matthew and Luke, it’s shaded toward more people hearing it,
and John explicitly says everyone there heard it,
but in Mark, just Jesus.
So how did Mark know?
In Mark’s gospel, we have what’s called an omniscient narrator, right?—
one who knows what only Jesus could have known—
who gives us the details no one in the story would have
or could have known.
Now, if you don’t necessarily believe
in the divine inspiration of Scripture as a dictatorial process—
I think that’s right, the process of dictation is dictatorial?
Interesting, isn’t it?
Then how would Mark know what he knows?
Was he making things up?
No no no no no.
Was there a Jesus tradition?
Jesus told someone who told someone who told the writer?
Though I wonder why you wouldn’t make more of that—
if you had Jesus’ diary, so to speak.
In the end though, gospel is less biography than faith affirmation.
Mark didn’t care about the crowd’s reaction,
he cared about the reaction of his readers.
He cared about us.
So while we may turn to the gospels to see how Jesus lived,
we see that only through what people believed of Jesus.
Fifth, how many of y’all have heard of the so-called Messianic secret in Mark?
It has to do with stories like this scattered throughout Mark
that seem to suggest there is a secret,
but it’s less about a secret in Mark
than it is the truth that not everyone knew.
Not everyone understood.
And not everyone knows and not everyone understands—
far fewer than think they do!
And even more true than that,
to great extent we only see what we expect,
and Jesus is not—
Jesus is never what we expect.
So sixth, in the end, Mark sets us up.
Did you catch it? Mark sets us up.
With John talking about how much more powerful
Jesus will be,
and saying that precisely as someone
to whom people flock.
Now maybe from the whole Judean countryside
and all of Jerusalem might be somewhat of an exaggeration, but still!
This was someone about whom people were talking.
This was a distinctive, powerful presence,
saying, “The one coming after me
is so much more than I am.”
And then, Jesus is there,
and John the baptizer, doesn’t even recognize him!
He baptizes him and doesn’t know who he is.
Jesus doesn’t appear in the wilderness
He came from Nazareth up in the Galilee.
He came beautifully and gracefully—
full of love and grace—surprise and wonder.
God is always fulfilling what we’re awaiting.
Too often, we just don’t see it.
We’re waiting for something more impressive—
more powerful as we understand it.
Seventh, finally, we are in the Sundays after Epiphany,
and the more we come to see who Jesus is—who God is,
the more the light brightens and intensifies.
The more we focus on the brightening, intensifying light of God,
the more we see that light
unmediated and uncontrolled by any perspective—
by any person or people—by any religion.
That light, it shines into tomorrow—
full of hope—full of promise.
We’ve been offered so many clues through Advent.
We’re offered more in the promise of the Holy Spirit—
the Holy Spirit will come—
in the expectation of Jesus coming again.
Look ahead, Jesus is coming.
Keep looking ahead—
keep looking ahead with hope.
Keep looking ahead with expectation.
Who says we’re out of the wilderness?
It’s just not physical anymore.
Who would argue that we’re not still wandering?
Not still searching—not still waiting?
Who would say we don’t still need water from rock—
grace and peace in a world like ours.
That we still need food in the desert—
sustenance for living the way
that is so different.
This moment—this moment is overshadowed
by the power of the Most High,
as will the next one be,
and they are all pregnant with God’s possibilities.