It is a new year. A time for new beginnings, new hopes, new challenges. Here we consider how Mark begins his telling of the good news and where we might find our beginnings in it.
I hope 2018 is beginning well for all of you. It is a new year, a time of new goals, new beginnings, renewal. How fortunate for us that the lectionary starts our new year off with a beginning. I find the beginning is often a very good place to start.
Luke begins the Gospel with a statement of the research he has done, and the hope that the reader might come to trust Jesus before regaling us with dazzling stories of silent priests and singing virgins, of angels and shepherds and the birth of a child. John begins the Gospel with the creation of the cosmos inviting us to know Jesus as the Word made flesh, the light and life and ordering principle of creation here among us. Matthew begins the Gospel with a genealogy assuring us that Jesus is a king who fulfills prophecy, a descendant of David and of God who wise kings would desire to worship and tyrants would fear. But Mark… Mark begins not with the creation of the world or with kings or with angels. Mark begins with a voice crying out in the wilderness. Mark begins where we began, he begins with the beginning of our Christian life, he begins with the waters of baptism.
Mark brings us to the riverside where we hear a man calling out. This man is dressed in camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. Insects are his sustenance and his message points to a man before whom he is but an insect. Who would take such a wild eyed man of the wilderness seriously? And yet they come, people come in droves from the countryside and the city to receive something new.
John was preaching a message of repentance.
As a sign of their repentance they went into the water. But there was something about this that was new. Baptism was not an Old Testament ritual. In fact the faithful people of Judah would have known they needed to repent. That’s what the temple in the city was for right? It was the place where you went to make animal sacrifices to repent for your sins. So why then were the people of the city of the temple rushing out to the wilderness to do what their city was rebuilt to do?
The repentance that John proclaimed was a repentance that makes way for one more powerful than him. Repentance prepares the way for the one who was coming, for though repentance and righteousness go before the one who was to come John was not worthy so much as to untie his shoes. John’s repentance was a pathway, a herald of what was to come. For repentance, that is a desire to turn toward the ways of God and his righteousness, proceeds the one who was to come.
And behold he comes. Jesus of Nazareth, this Galilean comes. We don’t know anything about him at this point in Mark’s gospel. We don’t know that John is his cousin, we don’t know that he is the Word made Flesh, we do not know that he is the anointed saviour of Israel, we don’t know that he is the Son of David. We know that he has come to receive John’s Baptism and that John’s message of repentance comes with a hope of something greater.
Jesus enters the waters of the Jordan to receive this baptism and a voice from heaven cracks open the skies. A voice that can shake down the cathedral groves. The voice of God says “behold, this is my Son in whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descends from heaven upon Jesus.
The baptism of John, the baptism of repentance prepared the way but it is not the whole story. For when Paul happens upon believers who had received John’s baptism in his travels he knows a bigger picture awaits. And so these believers are baptized into Jesus’s baptism. (Acts 19:1-7)
So what does repentance prepare us for? In Christ’s baptism, Mark tells us, three things pour forth. First as Jesus is baptized he is proclaimed and known as the Son of God. By the waters of our baptism we too have a share in his status as a child of God. Because of the promise of Jesus we too have a share in that proclamation and by Christ’s baptisms become known by a new identity, we become adopted as children of God. To be baptized is to enter into the household of God, into a new family. Second, by Christ’s baptism we come into the pleasure of God. The Father proclaims Jesus his pleasure and we enter into that pleasure by the baptism of Christ. We, the church, are the object of God’s desire, a bride whom he came to save, a beloved he pursued into the depths of hell and raised to the heights of heaven. By Christ’s baptism we enter into God’s delight. Third we receive the Holy Spirit, we receive the presence of God, a presence more powerful than repentance not in that he dismisses it, but takes our turning and transforms it into glory.
This is the beginning: the beginning of Mark’s proclamation of the good news, the beginning of the new life that Jesus gives us, the beginning of the kingdom that is breaking forth, the beginning of 2018. Thanks be to God.