Who is this Jesus?

The Baptism of Jesus 2012

Mark 1: (2-3) 4-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who invites us into a relationship with his son Jesus. Amen.

When our children were studying drama at high school, they would often give us a running commentary on the programmes that we were watching so that we would see understand the dramatic techniques used by filmmakers to create particular effects and to elicit particular emotions. As a result, we learned that not only did ominous music suggest that something sinister or terrible was about to happen, but that the side of the screen from which an actor entered was also used to signal something in relation to the plot. These techniques operate on a sub-conscious level. We don’t need to work out which side of the screen an actor is on to understand that something bad is about to happen there are usually other clues as well. More often than not, we understand what is happening and are caught up in the story without being aware of the dramatic short cuts which make the experience more vivid and more real. The same is true of many creative endeavours and particularly of advertising. A quick look at a programme like The Gruen Transfer will open your eyes into the variety of tools that advertisers use to get the unsuspecting to purchase a product or to support a cause.

The use of dramatic tools to enhance a plot is no less true of narrative styles. Different styles of writing make the reading experience so much richer. Much more is conveyed by allusion and narrative technique than the words on their own. Today’s Gospel provides a perfect illustration of the way in which the written word can imply much more than is actually said. As you might expect, the first chapter of Mark’s gospel sets the scene for what is to come. It is something like the overture in a musical or an opera. It introduces the major themes and the key character.

The writer of Mark is a person of few words. He sets the scene for Jesus’ ministry in just fifteen verses. This is in stark comparison to Matthew and Luke who embellish the account with stories about Jesus’ parents, his birth and genealogy. In their accounts, Jesus’ baptism isn’t mentioned until the middle of their third chapters yet, without losing any of the impact, Mark has reached the account of Jesus’ baptism by the ninth verse of the gospel, and he has included all the pertinent points that Luke and Matthew take so much longer to say. That is – Jesus is announced by John (who is inferior to him) he is from Nazareth, he is the anointed one and he is of the line of David, he is also the one who comes as the Servant of second Isaiah. All of this Mark implies without directly stating any of it. How does he achieve so much in so few words? By the use of allusion and images that are already familiar to his readers, Mark allows the imaginations of his readers to fill in the gaps.

Because we are so familiar with the gospel, and because we know the story as told by all the gospel writers, we don’t always notice the subtleties of Mark’s story-telling. Let’s begin from the beginning – John the Baptist is announced with a quote that purports to come from Isaiah. However, if you were to search through the book of Isaiah you would not find these exact words. What Mark does (as do other biblical writers) is to use a composite quote from Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah. In this way he implies (at least to the ears of first century Jews) that John is the second Elijah – an idea that is reinforced by the description of John’s clothes. The Elijah reference also explains that the mission of both John and Jesus properly begins in the wilderness and that this is where the people must go to encounter God.

John’s baptism is also laden with meaning. The River Jordan had a number of important associations for the Israelites – it had parted to allow them into the promised land, it had provided healing to Naaman the leper, King of Syria, and it was the primary source of water in the country as a whole. Of further significance is the baptism itself. No one really knows the origin of baptism though ritual cleansing was a familiar practice. What is important here is that John was offering people the remission of sins – again a role associated with Elijah in the inter-testamental writings. More than this though, John is exercising a priestly function, but he is doing so outside the ritual and sacrificial practices of the Temple at Jerusalem. By implication then, John was ignoring, if not subverting, the role of the Temple and the ritual practice of the Jewish people. He seems to be promoting the idea that the priestly hierarchy and their practices are no longer valid or effective and that only a radical turn around in the lives of the people would effect the restoration of their relationship with God.

Mark’s allusions continue when John introduces the idea of the one who is coming after him. He makes it quite clear that he is subservient to Jesus to the point that even their forms of baptism will be different. The one who come after will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Cleansing from sin followed by the spirit may refer back to Ezekiel, but here it indicates that Jesus will be doing something new and different from that of John. Unlike John, Jesus will be giving the people the Holy Spirit promised by God.

Finally Jesus arrives on the scene, though all we are told of his background is that he is from Nazareth in Galilee. Jesus seeks baptism by John, an indication not that he sees himself as sinful, but that he subscribes to the radical theology and ecclesiology of John. The torn heavens, the coming of the dove and the voice are for Jesus alone, but Mark makes us participants in the scene. The splitting of the heavens suggests God’s dramatic intervention in human history, the hovering of the dove suggests God’s brooding over the waters in creation and the voice which again is a composite quote affirms Jesus as both king and servant. King because “you are my beloved son” comes from Psalm 2:7 which was used at coronations and servant because “I take delight in you” references the servant song of Isaiah.

In just a few verses, by the use of images familiar to his hearers, Mark has established a number of things – that Jesus did not just appear unannounced (John prepared the people for his coming); that Jesus came from Nazareth, but he will be more significant that than John and indeed all the prophets, God’s spirit will be on him and as God’s anointed (the Christ) he will be both king and servant. What is more, he will make the Holy Spirit available to those who come to him. Astonishingly, he will be unlike the person expected by the Jewish hierarchy – he will challenge their authority, question their integrity and announce the destruction of that most precious symbol, the Temple.

This is no gentle Jesus meek and mild. It is not a Jesus who supports the status quo and encourages his followers to conform to the world around them. This Jesus will be uncomfortable, difficult and unconventional. He will turn around the lives of those who choose to follow him and he will make such an impact that the world will never be the same.

I wonder, have we forgotten how radical and subversive this Jesus was? Have we instead put him to work to serve the needs of the church and society? Have we used his teaching to ensure conformity to certain norms and codes of behaviour? Are we guilty of using him as a crutch or as an excuse for not growing? Is the Jesus we believe in a pious, toothless Saviour or a powerful and terrifying sign of God’s presence? Who is the Jesus of the Gospels? Are we truly ready to meet him and when we do will we have the courage to trust and follow him?

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