How the story of Jesus’s baptism reveals a path to relationship with GOD
a Homily for Epiphany 1B | Text: Mark 1:4-11
A Different Beginning
It is a curious move the evangelist uses to start the good new of Jesus Christ by talking about John. The story opens with John living into Isaiah’s prophetic words: the “one crying out in the wilderness.” The story doesn’t begin with Jesus’s birth, but with John’s proclamation and Jesus coming to the river to be baptized.
This is our beginning: in baptism.
It isn’t where we’re used to beginning. In fact, we don’t really think of it as the beginning. Adult Jesus isn’t the beginning. So many years pass before this moment: missing story. Story that would so inform us. Like backstory that would help us understand a tragedy or act of stunning depravity. Why did Jesus turn out this way? we ask, as if we believe only stories of his childhood could reveal truth. Did he play messiah? What did Mary tell him about who really is? When does he know that he is the Son of GOD?
But this isn’t the start of the story for the evangelist. It starts in the river with John. And for the first several centuries of the church, this moment in the river was one of the most important moments in history.
Not an Origin Story
We want the origin story: we want to know where Jesus comes from. We want to know about parents and upbringing and who he was before. But to the evangelist, who he was seems completely irrelevant. He came from Nazareth. That’s all the backstory that matters.
Where he’s going, however, is the big deal. What he does next. What he does now that he has repented and returned, being baptized with water in the Jordan. Washed and made new. He emerges from the water as new: a past made irrelevant by a future and a calling: he is a child of GOD.
As much as we make our stories be about our pasts and where we come from, who we have been, these aren’t the parts of the story that determine our futures. It is about our relationship with GOD.
The big question the evangelist tackles, the question that could be our own:
Why does John baptize Jesus?
a question fraught with preconceptions about Jesus and about GOD’s mission, this question is tackled by showing us not that Baptism is about membership or that Jesus couldn’t be Jesus without it, so let’s concoct a way to get Jesus baptized. But here’s the thing: we don’t get an answer. John suggests that he isn’t worthy to do it, but just that he does it.
Perhaps the questions we have are the wrong ones. Perhaps this isn’t about beginnings and the how-does-it-happens and the who-gets-tos and what-does-this-act-signifys. Perhaps the central concern of the good news is not that Jesus was born but that Jesus is brought home. That he is reconciled to GOD.
The way the evangelist describes John’s baptism is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Perhaps this isn’t to speak to Jesus’s character or his past or his history: who he used to be. It speaks to who he is becoming. And more importantly, what his relationship with GOD is.
Baptism isn’t membership in a special, exclusive club. It is first about being in right relationship with GOD. It is about turning away from the stuff of our past that prevents us from loving and being loved. The stuff that hurts us and binds us to a different way of life than we want, than we need.
This isn’t even the best part of the story! The best part is what happens after the baptism, as Jesus is coming up out of the river:
he saw the heavens torn apart
This is GOD’s inbreaking, GOD’s manifestation, the Spirit coming down “like a dove” through a sky torn apart, rended. The very nature of the world is changing as GOD is once again here.
Another New Beginning
This is why the early church cared so much for the Baptism of Jesus; why it appears in all of the gospels; why it is so important to the story. This is the story of GOD changing things, of tables being turned, of Jesus becoming aligned with GOD, with the very heavens tearing open for Jesus.
Here it begins. Here the past is immaterial, it is the now that matters.
And here, at the font, is where we begin. We get the chance to repent and return. We get the chance to realign and to be given a new opportunity. To shake that Etch-a-Sketch we call a life and try again. We get to go through baptism once, but we can keep getting wet. We get to remind one another over and over of what we promised and who we vowed to be.
A vow we made with GOD to be different. To live differently. To love differently. To become GOD’s children.
We repent and receive forgiveness. Again. Not because of who we are, but because that is how we become the people GOD dreams we can be.