By Floyd Mitchell Palmer at Trinity Church, Whitinsville
Welcome to the Gospel of St. Mark. St. Mark tells us nothing about the early life of Jesus, not even his birth. That’s left to St. Matthew and St. Luke. At the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel Jesus, a full grown adult, suddenly appears from Nazareth, where we presume he grew up,. There is no introduction; no setting the stage. Chapter 1, verses 2-8 talk about John the Baptist and them ‘WHAM’ Jesus appears in verse 9. Why does he appear at this time? Most likely it is because of the work of John the Baptist, who is seen in the Gospels as the Elijah-like figure who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
So Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John. This has caused the church some difficulties. The top two were, and in some cases still are; 1) does this mean John was the greater of the two; and 2) was Jesus also a sinner? Mark has no apparent interest in these questions. No, his emphasis is on the baptism as confirming the messiahship of Jesus. St. Matthew gives the reason for the baptism of Jesus as His desire to fulfill all righteousness, that is, to do the right thing and/or to set an example for others to follow. Jesus does not need purification, He is already perfect. By being baptized Jesus makes the purification of humanity his own. He would wash away humanity’s sins with his blood, grant regeneration through His resurrection and reveal the mystery of the Holy Spirit. This makes His baptism necessary for the fulfillment of God’s righteous plan of salvation. As Gregory of Nyssa says, “Jesus enters the filthy, sinful waters of the world and when He comes out, brings up and purifies the entire world with him”.
The baptism of Jesus tells us several important things about Jesus and these are the things on which we should concentrate
First, his baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry. It was, so to speak, his coming out party. What he had been doing
in Nazareth up to this time we don’t know. St. Matthew and St. Luke give us a small glimpse of what has occurred in Jesus’ life since His birth. St. Matthew tells of the flight into Egypt and that the family returned to Nazareth upon the death of Herod. St. Luke relates a short story of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem with his parents at Passover when He was about 12 and a note in Chapter 2 verses 51 and 52 that describes everything from Jerusalem to the baptism; “Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man”. So for approximately 30 years we have no real idea of what Jesus was up to. But now it was time to begin his ministry.
Second, his baptism shows us something of who Jesus felt called to be, that is, the kind of messiah he would be. As we saw earlier, He is baptized in the same waters as sinners, He is baptised with sinners. He identifies with sinners, fortunately for us. This is what he would do his whole ministry. Baptized with sinners and crucified between two sinners. Jesus saw himself, not as the military kind of messiah who would come to kick out the Romans, but as that portrait of the suffering servant in Isaiah who gives his life for sinners.
Third, his baptism was a divine confirmation of his sense of calling. The voice of God affirms him as God’s own son, saying how pleased God is with him. In other words, his understanding of his calling, of how he would carry out God’s work with sinners was right on! It was exactly what God willed. To me it is crucial to note that Jesus’ baptism is where we see the Trinity for the first time in St. Mark’s gospel. We have God the Father sending down the Spirit to His Son. As it says in verse 11: “He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then
a voice came from heaven, “You are my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”. Since Jesus was equally human as He was divine, how exciting it must have been for Him to hear his Father tell him how pleased He was. We all at some point in our lives sought out the approval of our parents. We have all wanted to hear that they were pleased with us and with what we did. Maybe we got their approval and maybe we didn’t. I hope there comes a day when God says that He is well pleased with me.
An interesting feature in St. Mark’s telling of this story is that he seems to tell it in such a way that it’s a subjective experience of Jesus; that is, Jesus alone hears the voice of God. In St. Matthew and St. Luke the story is told in such a way that leads us to believe that others could hear the voice as well and St. John, while not recounting the actual baptism, has John the Baptist relating the Spirit coming down like a dove and remaining on Jesus.
Fourth, his baptism was an empowerment to carry out that mission. The Spirit came upon him like a dove, filling him with what he needed to begin and carry out his mission.
Fifth, the Spirit immediately “drives” Jesus into the wilderness – a place where Israel long ago had been tested and had failed miserably. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. As is common in biblical stories, 40 something is a common length of time. The Flood was 40 days and 40 nights. Noah left the ark 40 days after the return of the dove. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses’ whole life was composed of 40 year increments; 40 years as an Egyptian, 40 years as a shepherd in Midian, and 40 years leading Israel. Jesus spent 40 days on earth after his resurrection. Whether this is a literal 40 days or just a term use to express an indeterminate length of
time I don’t know. Suffice it say it was a substantial period of time.
Note again the use of the word “immediately, so prominent in St. Mark (It occurs almost 40, times in St. Mark’s gospel. There’s that number again). And the Greek used for “drives” is similar to our use of the word “casts”; as in casts out. The wilderness had long been associated with testing and temptation. It is a battleground, an image of the world, both the dwelling place of demons and a source of divine tranquility and victory. But St. Mark tells us nothing whatsoever about the content of that temptation. From St. Matthew and St. Luke we learn it was mostly to get Jesus to try and change his understanding of how he would be the Messiah, to use his power to enrich and promote himself, to be the kind of Messiah everyone wanted. This temptation would continue to confront Jesus throughout his ministry.
An interesting little detail St. Mark adds is that Jesus was in the wilderness with the wild beasts. The wilderness was known for its dangerous beasts. But Jesus was among them and went unharmed. Could it be that Mark has his readers in mind here? Many scholars believe Mark wrote this Gospel in Rome and for the Christians there. Christians in Rome were facing wild beasts in the coliseum. It would be a great comfort to them to know that the One they followed had also faced testing among the wild beasts.
Now, no sooner is Jesus baptized and empowered than he finds himself in the wilderness of temptation. You can believe that when God calls you and empowers you for some mission that will be the end result for you – you will be tempted and throw into your own wilderness. Obstacles will arise. Situations and temptations will come up that would divert you from the path
God wants you to follow. The devil normally doesn’t tempt you when you are going along the road of life, not having much of a relationship with God and Jesus. But once you are baptised or begin that relationship with Jesus and God, he will come after you with all his wiles and enticements. He does not want you to do what God wants you to do. He doesn’t necessarily want you to do anything specific for him. What he wants is to keep you from God and God’s plan for your life. So when you start to listen to the still small voice and pray and try to discern God’s plan; know this, Satan is coming with all he can muster.
So Jesus, after John was arrested, began to preach virtually the same message as John – repent for the kingdom of God (the rule of God) was at hand. That kingdom was already coming in him. The “time was fulfilled,” that is, Kairos time, time ripe with potential. The image is like that of a birth when a pregnant woman says, “It’s time!” Likewise, it was time for the rule of God to come as never before, for a new kingdom to be established, made up of those who repented, who turned away from sin, back to God and service to God. Citizens of the kingdom are those who heard the Good News, responded, and submitted their lives to the rule and will of God. This kingdom was not geographical or ethnic. It crosses all borders and boundaries, even time itself. It comes in Jesus but still awaits full consummation. That day is coming. As we proclaim in the Eucharistic prayer “Christ will come again”. We don’t know when, no one except the Father knows, but we can be confident that it is imminent and for this we can say Thanks be to God and Amen.