Written By Ryan Turnbull
John Appeared in the Wilderness
One of the things Mark’s Gospel retains from the Hebrew scriptural tradition is a stark narrative style. There are no unnecessary words in Mark’s descriptions, the Word leaps forth in a plain and straightforward manner, confident in the power and truth of its divine message. It is fitting then, that John the Baptist appears in the wilderness. As if walking straight out of the prophecy of Isaiah, John appears in the wilderness with wild animals hung from his body in place of clothes and fruits of the wild as his only food, proclaiming the way of the Lord.
That’s often how things of God begin, suddenly, and in a place nobody expects. In our OT reading we hear of how God, in the middle of nowhere, suddenly created the world, and it was good. Later, as Moses led his flocks out to graze in the wilderness, he came upon a burning bush – God’s holiness breaking forth in the middle of a place that had hitherto not been much of a place at all. Centuries later, the prophet Samuel would show up at the house of Jesse to anoint the next King of Israel, and where was David? Out in the wilderness with the flocks.
Today, most New Testament scholars believe that Mark’s gospel is the earliest gospel, largely because it is the shortest and most straightforward. There are no shepherds or angels or magi in Mark’s story of Jesus’ origin. Mark writes in the tradition of the saints and prophets of Israel – all of a sudden, in the wilderness, God is at work again, and there he is, John the Baptist, the forerunner of the one who is to come, in all of his wild glory, pointing, gesturing wildly even, at the coming Lord whose coming “shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.”
The One More Powerful Cometh After
Who is this one that John points at? Who is this one whose sandals John is unfit to untie? Who is this one who brings Holy Spirit baptism? Could it be the same one in whose presence the oak trees wither and strips the forests bare? He whose voice splits the flames of fire and shakes the wilderness itself? That same voice that spoke and formed the cosmos, drawing forth light and darkness and calling them good?
Mark’s Gospel isn’t messing around. Like the wild baptizing prophet, Mark is desperately pointing us to the coming Lord that the Scriptures of Israel have repeatedly told us to expect. But then, after a sudden and dramatic opening, Mark plays it straight, and much like the narrative style of the Hebrew Scriptures, he just blurts it out: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The coming of the one we were told would shake the very wilderness itself is proclaimed with about as much fanfare as an hourly weather report.
The other gospels have choirs of angels, guiding stars, and foreign sorcerers, but not Mark. Jesus shows up and “was baptized by John in the Jordan.” But why is Jesus baptized? John’s baptism, as we heard in our lesson from Acts, is a baptism of repentance. What is going on with Jesus’ baptism, what, exactly, does he hope to accomplish thereby? Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism is the revelation of his unreserved solidarity with humanity. As the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, put it, “He who as God’s Son was very different from all men, being one with the Father who sent Him, and therefore Himself God, negated this difference, this distance, this strangeness between Himself and others, even to the last remnant.” (CD IV.4, 58)
Jesus, as Son of God and very God himself, is “the One who is more powerful” that is to come after the Baptizer, and insofar as this is true, the Baptizer is correct in his assessment that he is unfit to untie his sandals. But precisely because Jesus is this One, this One more powerful, whose coming shakes the wilderness itself, that he is therefore not other than the One who became one of us, for it is surely within the power of this Almighty One to take on the beggars garments of our fallen and sinful humanity.
Christ’s submission to the baptism of John is the full revelation of how deep this solidarity goes. For Jesus is not merely God masquerading as a man. Humanity is not a guise put on by the Son. John’s baptism is the baptism of repentance, but what repentance does the Son of God have to make in his infinite perfections? It would seem that Jesus’ baptism is mere theatre, perhaps a good example for us, but ultimately a sham if there is no real repentance involved. But this is the proof of Christ’s solidarity with us. As Barth puts it, “With them He thus confesses his sins. His sins? If we do not say this, we question and even deny the totality of His self-giving to men (sic), and therewith the totality of His self-giving to God” (CD IV.4, 59). So, we must say that Jesus enters John’s waters of repentance, not as one merely feigning guilt, but as the One who comes to those waters most burdened of all. For in the Son’s obedience to the call of the Father, he submits to all the many burdens and sins that accompany human existence. In the waters of John’s baptism, therefore, Jesus is shown to be not just truly the Son of God, but also the Son of Man.
You Are My Son, the Beloved
While we have noted the paucity with which Mark treats the appearance and baptism of Jesus in the Jordan waters of John’s baptism as soon as he arises from those waters Mark turns the narrative drama up to 11. Here is the wilderness shaking God we have been expecting – the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit comes down as a dove, and out of that rend in the fabric of the heavens, a voice booms out “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
He’s here. That is what the season of Epiphany is all about, the radical declaration that the One long expected has come and that he is none other than this One, Jesus of Nazareth. Mark’s proclamation of his arrival is marked by hesitation, understatement, reversal, and sudden dramatic revelation. The God who once spoke everything into existence, who spoke from a burning bush in the wilderness, has spoken once more, declaring definitively that this man Jesus, and he is no less than a man, having submitted to the waters of John’s baptism of repentance, is at once God’s Son. The ministry of Jesus has begun with startling clarity, that one who appears in our midst, in radical solidarity with all we are and do and suffer, is the same one who is the Beloved of God, and the one who unites the baptism of repentance with the baptism of Spirit empowerment that the apostles perform in his name throughout our lesson from the book of Acts.
After the service today, Bishop Geoff, Wilson, and I will be leading a seminar about living into our baptismal covenant. Our baptismal covenant asks many things of us, some which we might find to be too hard to say yes to on our most honest days, but the response to each article is a gift of grace; we say, “I will, with God’s help.” This isn’t some abstract claim about a powerful far-off God that can hypothetically help us keep our baptismal covenant. No, it is a concrete statement about the One who, as we have learned from our Scripture lessons today, has wholly embraced our frailty and inability to say, “I Will” and submitted himself to baptism on our behalf. Our baptism is nothing less than our entrance into the saving work of the God who has always and will always go before us, enabling by the Spirit, our participation in the Kingdom of heaven. Despite our many faults, missteps, and inadequacies, Jesus of Nazareth is there with us, and by being so close, in such utter solidarity with our human condition, he therefore negates our distance from God such that we hear the voice from heaven saying, “With you I am well pleased.”