There are so many things in these first verses of Mark’s telling of the gospel that you could preach one verse a week for weeks and weeks without running out of things to say. I’m not going to do that, but one could if one so desired. Instead, I want to talk about the moment of baptism, the context around it, and some of what it might mean about God’s love and our worth.
When John the Baptist calls people to baptism, the idea of going to water and washing yourself in a ritual way is not news. This is common behaviour in the first century before one enters a holy place or if one has been engaged in some activity that makes one ritually unclean. Perhaps one has recently been in contact with a corpse—someone in the family has died and one helped to wash and prepare the body. One needs to ritually clean oneself before entering a temple to make sacrifice or worship. The idea of washing oneself in a ritual way isn’t new to these people, but what John is calling them to do in the course of their washing is.
Our translation, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, refers to it as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” but other translations call it something like a “baptism for the changing of heart and mind”. This is really what repentance is, after all: a statement of recognition that there has been sin in the past and that a change in heart and mind are beginning which will disrupt that sinful pattern and replace it with a healthy one. This part, the public declaration that the person being baptized will have a different heart and mind as regards their relationship to God, is new for people of John’s day. At least, in connection to the washing ritual.
When Jesus comes and says he wishes to be baptized, it is confusing to the people who suspect that Jesus is something other than an average guy. Jesus doesn’t need the ritual washing to become clean or for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus has not sinned. But what does seem important in the baptism with John in Mark’s gospel is the public declaration. Jesus enters the water and John baptizes him and a voice is heard from the heavens split open, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.11) Jesus makes a public declaration and so does the voice of God: This is how the Father feels about the Son.
We mark the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of his public ministry in the world. The public statement that Jesus makes by undergoing the baptism and the voice that is hard from heaven are both very important. As time passes—Jesus’s ministry goes on, he teaches and heals and is crucified and resurrected, generations pass, the teaching and ministry go on—those who become known as Christians think more and more about what has been shown to them about God. As Christians think about what Jesus said and did and how they reflect the truth about God’s desires for and relationship with humanity, the Baptism of Jesus begins to take on ideas and sentiments that perhaps were not obvious on the day that it happened.
There is a notion that in the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, not only was there a public declaration about the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, but there was also a declaration made about the beginning of reconciliation of the broken relationship between humanity and other parts of Creation. Human beings have a fraught relationship with water. Water is important to us. We need to drink it to stay alive. We are made mostly of water. Water is important because from it comes salt and food and commerce. But also from water comes storms and floods, droughts, and, particularly in Jesus’s day and locale, water was also where people from somewhere else came from. People who wanted to hurt you and take your things.
In the ancient world, particularly in the Roman Empire, there was this idea that significant natural sites had their own little gods. A river had a god who was in charge of the river and made it flood or dry up or fill with fish or what have you. In some of the art of the Early Church showing the baptism of Christ there is, of course, Jesus standing in the River Jordan with John nearby. But also in the water there are these little river gods. They are also rejoicing because the baptism of Jesus reflects not only the reconciliation of humanity to God—and all of the things that we think of when we consider our own baptisms today—but it also reflects the reconciliation of these tiny river gods who were fickle and unpleasant and seemed to have no logic as to whether they would help or hurt humans. (The fraught relationship between humanity and water in the shape of a river god.) They too, were somehow bound up into the great plan of God where all things work together for good. I don’t know what salvation looks like for a Roman river god, but the artwork suggests that they have received it and they are very excited about it.
In this moment we hear, in the voice from heaven, that Jesus is the well-beloved Son and that this is pleasing to God. Jesus, by being, brings God joy. God doesn’t say “In being baptized, you bring me joy,” or “In doing or saying a particular thing, you please me and bring me joy.” This is not God’s statement to Jesus and it is not God’s statement to the rest of Creation either. Given this forum of public declarations at the river, God chooses to also make a public declaration, and what God says is that “This is my well-beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Simply by being, God’s children bring God joy and pleasure.
We all have things in our lives that bring us joy and pleasure. Relationships with other people, things we do, things we learn, places we go, things we see, and it would be silly to act in ways that hurt or damage the things that bring us joy. And yet, all of us, from time to time, when we are not our best selves and we act selfishly or defensively or out of fear, have done exactly that. We have hurt the people and damaged the places and things that bring us joy. These moments are what we usually refer to as sin. What we do about sin is a whole other sermon that I’m not preaching today. The reason that I bring it up is that the baptism of Christ and those baptismal vows that we all just shared and renewed, call us over and over again to a way of being. They call us in different ways using different examples—the breaking of bread and prayers, upholding the dignity of human beings, and living as examples of Christ. We are called over and over again to exemplify the belovedness of Christ in God’s eyes. The God who is pleased in God’s Son, the Son who is pleased with the relationship with the Father, and the relationship that we are all called to exemplify of pleasure and joy in one another through our shared life in Christ. We are not called to rejoice in what it is that you might do for me or what I might take from you. We are called to rejoice in the opportunity to be together. To share life. To love one another.
Our worthiness of love is rooted in the fact that God has made us, that God sees us as beloved children, and that our being pleases God. One of the most important lessons that I want to underline about the Baptism of Christ is the reality that no matter what other people may have said to you, no matter what circumstances may have suggested to you, no matter what has been done to you, you are worthy of love because God made you and God is pleased by your being. Not by what you have said or what you have done, but the fact that you are is pleasing to God. You are beloved by God and the people of God are called to know you and love you.
You are all worthy of great love.
Thanks be to God.
This homily was preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg.