Are you a person in a hurry? Do you like to get straight to the point? Or do you prefer taking your time about things? The writer of our Gospel today is definitely a man in a hurry. He does take time to talk about being ‘beloved’ – but in the first chapter of Mark, there is no loitering in the fields with shepherds or journeying with wise men in search of a wandering star. No long lists of ancestors or philosophising about Words and Light.
With Mark, Jesus bursts onto the page. By the end of verse 1 he is the Christ, the Son of God. By the end of verse 9 he’s been baptised by John. And by the end of verse 11, heaven has been torn apart and the Sprit has descended, Jesus is ‘beloved’ – and God is well pleased.
Exhausting, isn’t it? Must be time for a brew. But there’s no chance of that because there’s more. Packed into those first 11 verses, John is linked with a prophecy from Isaiah and we’re told that he looks like the-man-that-we-wouldn’t-want-to-have-sitting-next-to-us-on-the-bus, dressed as he is like Elijah and on the locust and wild honey diet. We learn that John’s call to baptism was about repentance and forgiveness – and that he was pulling the crowds in. But hey, he’s modest with it, since he recognised that he was just the warm-up act. Cue Jesus.
And the rest of the first chapter carries on in the same whirlwind way. In just 2 verses, Mark wraps-up the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Then Jesus is off recruiting the first disciples, healing first a man with an unclean spirit and then Simon’s mother-in-law and then a whole lot of others. After that he goes on a preaching tour of Galilee and cleanses a man of leprosy. By the end of that first chapter, vast numbers of people are coming out to Jesus in the same way that they used to with John.
It’s breathless stuff. If Mark was writing a film script now, you can imagine the main characters would have fallen in love, split-up, got back together again, had a plane crash and found themselves on the side of a mountain with wolves about to attack them – all before the opening credits had appeared…
But we do need to just pause and think about what Mark is doing here.
Because Mark focussed on the ministry of Jesus. As we’ve seen there are no genealogies, no angels with glad tidings, no baby Jesus in a manger. But in these opening verses Mark does spend the time to root both Jesus and John into the Hebrew Scriptures, into our Old Testament. In the first 11 verses we have direct references or allusions to Genesis, 1 and 2 Kings, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Malachi.
And Mark is linking John and Jesus inextricably together. The ministry of one followed the other. John prepared, setting the scene for Jesus. Later it is the arrest and imprisonment of John that appears to sling-shot Jesus into proclaiming the good news, the gospel, of God.
The historian Josephus, writing just a few years later, refers to John as someone known in first century Judaism for his godliness, popular with the masses and for calling people to righteousness. So, for John to refer to Jesus as being someone more powerful was a significant sponsorship endorsement.
John called Israel to repentance and to prepare for the coming day of God’s salvation and judgement. Those who repented he baptised as a one-off event, hence his nickname: John the Baptist. To baptise like this seems quite unusual for the time. There is some speculation that Gentile converts to Judaism were baptised in the same way. And there was a Jewish sect in Qumran that appeared to baptise themselves daily. But, for the most part, being immersed in the Jordan would have been quite a step to take for a first century Jew.
In whom my soul delights
And in Mark’s Gospel, the writer is quite happy to have Jesus baptised by John. By the time that the Gospel of John is written, sometime later, the author is a little more cautious, never actually saying that John baptises Jesus.
But here we have Jesus in the water with John. The baptism takes place and as he comes back up from the water a whole series of Hebrew Scriptures are linked together in the vision seen by Jesus:
- Isaiah 64:1 ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’.
- Isaiah 61:1 ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me’.
- Psalm 2:7 ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’.
- Genesis 22:2 ‘Take your son, your only son…, whom you love…’
- Isaiah 42:1 ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…’
So, Mark has Jesus called like some of the Old Testament prophets before him. Called not just to prophecy though. These scriptures marked him as the Messiah, the Anointed one, God’s chosen Son whom he loved.
But I’ve glossed over something. Why was Jesus in the water at all? In Mark, Jesus has been doing goodness knows what for 30 years and he just appears here, in the water with John.
I wonder how well John and Jesus knew each other. With Elizabeth and Mary being so close had John and Jesus grown up together? As young adults had they discussed scripture and explored their mysterious sense of calling? How aware where they of what was to come? Or were they strangers?
In this life, we can never know. But at the same scene in Matthew’s Gospel, John protests saying that Jesus should be baptising him not the other way around. John knows that, for Jesus, the cleansing isn’t needed. But, nevertheless, Jesus replies: ‘Let it be so’ – which reminds me of his mother Mary’s response to the angel. He adds that it was proper to do it this way: ‘to fulfil all righteousness’, which is a line taken from Jeremiah.
But in Mark’s shorthand fashion we see none of that dialogue here. It was enough for Mark to say that it happened and to describe what happened next.
In need of a blessing
So, we’re left to speculate whether, for Jesus, the 3 decades of human preparation came together at this one point. Did Jesus need the ritual, the recognition, the blessing for what was to come next? Certainly, as he came up from the waters his Father in heaven gave him that. He called Jesus ‘beloved’. The God of glory, his voice thundering over the waters. Father, Son and Spirit were together. The Spirit hovering over the water, as it did in the beginning. Jesus was given the affirmation of who he was and what he was to be.
How must that have felt for Jesus? And how must it have felt for John, there in the water with him? Did his spirit leap in the same way that it did when he was in the water of his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she met the pregnant Mary? If they did know each other well, then did he feel like that every time that he and Jesus were together?
Does that ever happen to you? Does your heart leap when you see someone called to do something special? When you see something long-intended about to be fulfilled?
But what about our own call? Do you feel a pull to be the someone that you were always intended to be? At the start of another year, do you need a ritual, a recognition, to set you on your way? Something to mark what you have been – and what you are becoming? Perhaps that’s something formal, like baptism or confirmation. Or maybe you just need to ask someone for a blessing.
Our current lockdown may make ritual harder – but not impossible – to do. But we can still ask for – and give – a blessing.
Or perhaps you just need to hear, now, today, that you too are beloved? Because you are. Beloved.
Keep saying it: beloved…
…and though it may
sound strange at first,
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
as if you could ever
have been other
Beloved, beloved, beloved.
- Larry Hurtado – New International Biblical Commentary: Mark
- Thanks again to Jan Richardson. The poem at the end is ever so slightly adapted from: http://paintedprayerbook.com/2015/01/06/baptism-of-jesus-beginning-with-beloved/