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A Meditation on Our Baptism

January 11, 2015

A MEDITATION ON OUR BAPTISM

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

January 11, 2015 (First Sunday after the Epiphany)

 

Mark 1:4-11


4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Today followers of Jesus across the world are reflecting on the baptism of Jesus on what is called Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  The New Testament declaration that Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River presents us with a profound set of insights.  

 

John the Baptist represents, both in his style and the substance of his ministry, the New Testament continuation of the prophetic activity seen in the Old Testament ministries of people such as Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jonah.  Like those prophets, John the Baptist didn’t have a Chamber of Commerce sanctioned ministry.  He didn’t hang out at the temple in Jerusalem or a local synagogue.  The wardrobe of camel’s hair (coarse rather than combed or refined) and a leather belt and the diet of locusts and wild honey tell us that John was not a “typical” cleric by any stretch of the imagination.  And the Baptizer’s message of repentance was in line with what his prophetic forerunners had urged.  

 

It is, therefore, more than a little significant that Jesus went to be baptized by John the Baptist.  Jesus wasn’t commissioned for ministry in Jerusalem by the high priest Annas or by Joseph Caiaphas (his son-in-law), but in the wilderness by John the Baptist.  The validation for the ministry of Jesus wasn’t based on his socio-economic and other standing within the materialistic and politic-driven system that defined the Jewish priesthood.  Although Luke’s Gospel reports that John the Baptist was from a priestly family (Luke 1:5), Mark’s Gospel shows that he became an outsider to the priestly world, by choice.  Similarly, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan by choice.    

 

John was baptizing people in the Jordan who were confessing their sins.  His baptism of Jesus challenges us to ponder whether Jesus considered himself, like the rest of humanity, under the power of sin.  Perhaps Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist so that he would identify himself more closely to the rest of humanity.  

 

John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth—what a pair!  But John isn’t the main character in this passage.  John says as much at verses 7 and 8 of Mark 1 when 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.”  John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, and then beyond Jesus to the Holy Spirit and a baptism that would overshadow his own ministry!

 

It is important that we remember this subversive context for the baptism of Jesus.  The baptism of Jesus wasn’t orchestrated by synagogue and Temple relationships.  John the Baptist understood that he was introducing a new dynamic into faith life when he spoke of another person who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit.”  

 

The baptism of Jesus is, therefore, our introduction to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus came up out of the water and saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (Mk. 1:10).  Jesus heard “a voice …from heaven… [saying] “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11).  As radical and subversive as it was for John the Baptist to baptize Jesus, that was even more radical and subversive.  

 

The Holy Spirit didn’t appear for Jesus in Jerusalem.  When his parents presented him to the priest after he was several weeks old we read about Simeon and Anna’s joyful and dramatic responses, but we don’t read about the Holy Spirit.  The Gospels assert that the Spirit of God descended on Jesus after his baptism by John the Baptist miles away from the ceremonialism of the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus got his inspiration for faith from an encounter with the Spirit of God, not from a ceremony, the idea that he was following a tradition, or from some other social source of validation.

 

What inspires your faith?  What drives your understanding of who you are, why you are in the world, and how you should relate to God, other people, and the rest of creation?  Have you been encountered by the Spirit of God in such a way that you understand that you are loved by God, that God is pleased with you, and that God has a purpose for you to achieve in life for God’s glory?  

 

These questions confront us as we reflect on the baptism of Jesus.  John predicted that Jesus would baptize “with the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit confirmed that Jesus was on a mission from God.  The Holy Spirit set the course for the ministry Jesus would carry out.  The Holy Spirit inspired Jesus to face trials, temptations, opposition, and confront the power of evil.  The Holy Spirit moved Jesus and worked, through Jesus, to move others.  

 

The Holy Spirit moved Jesus to interact with women and non-Jews as equals.

 

The Holy Spirit moved Jesus to do the unthinkable act of doing ministry in Samaria with a woman who had a troublesome marital history.

 

The Holy Spirit moved Jesus to actually heal lepers as God’s suffering children rather than despise them.

 

The Holy Spirit moved Jesus to call Herod a fox, denounce the religious big shots in Jerusalem as hypocrites, and refuse to beg Pontius Pilate for his life.

 

The Holy Spirit moved Jesus to face Calvary, suffer abuse from his enemies and desertion from his friends, and pray for their forgiveness.

 

The baptism of Jesus shows us that the “sweet, sweet Spirit” and “sweet heavenly Dove” we sing about isn’t domesticated.  God’s Spirit isn’t on our leash or tether.  God’s Spirit comes from God, not us!  God’s Spirit works God’s bidding, not our bidding!  God’s Spirit chooses God’s servants, we don’t!  And God’s Spirit determines the standards for success and progress for our ministry efforts.  

 

This is important for our baptism because baptism for us, as it was for Jesus, is public affirmation of our choice to live for God.  We publicly affirm in baptism our choice to be led by the Holy Spirit.  Baptism as followers of Jesus, who came to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, declares that we have chosen to be radical and subversive people for God according to the radical and subversive Spirit of God.  

 

We have not been baptized to be religious socialites.  We were not baptized to become part of denominational cliques.  We are not baptized to be religious tools of systemic injustice, greed, and oppression whether the systems are based on notions of patriotism, social and economic identity and status, or anything else.  

 

We are baptized to be agents of the radical and subversive love of God in the world under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.  

 

We are baptized to be God’s radical and subversive love force in a hateful world by the power of the Holy Spirit.  

 

We are baptized to be God’s radical and subversive peace force in a vicious world by the power of the Holy Spirit.  

 

We are baptized to be God’s radical and subversive joy force in a sorrowful world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  

We are baptized to be God’s radical and subversive grace force in a guilt-ridden world by the power of the Holy Spirit.  

 

 But we will not be God’s radical and subversive people without a Holy Spirit-inspired sense of baptismal purpose.  Without a Holy Spirit-inspired sense of baptismal purpose we become creatures of religious habit rather than dynamic agents of divine love, peace, and justice.  Without a Holy Spirit-inspired sense of baptismal purpose we’ll focus on religious traditions and ceremonies in our shrines rather than carrying out God’s love, peace, and justice in the world.  

 

The Spirit of God that appeared to Jesus following his baptism inspired Jesus to challenge the materialism that characterized the religious tradition of his time and place and the imperialism and violence based notion of power characterized by the Roman Empire.  Let it be said of us that we have been baptized by the Holy Spirit to challenge these and other sins for our time and place.  

In other words, the Holy Spirit-inspired sense of baptismal purpose that Jesus experienced will also move us, as followers of Jesus, to live for God’s glory.  Living that way will be radical and subversive.  We will be out of step with the greed, hate, violence, and fear that drives so many other people, including many religious people.  But because we are inspired by a Holy Spirit sense of baptismal purpose, we will live that radical and subversive way, like Jesus, as beloved and obedient children of God!       

 

Amen.

©Wendell Griffen, 2015