Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11.
The baptism of Jesus is a moment in the life of God’s Spirit with the world.
The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Baptism involves water and the Spirit. The Genesis reading sets as vast a context for the baptism of Jesus as possible, the beginning of all created things and the first rustling of the Spirit in the affairs of the universe.
There are two material phenomena present in the formless and dark chaos at the beginning: water and wind. Water is the Deep (tehom), and the Wind of God (ruah elohim; also translated “mighty wind” = divine wind) is “hovering” over this Deep, as an eagle hovers over its nest (Deut. 32:11, the only other Biblical occurrence of this Hebrew verb form).
In Biblical discourse, the work of the spirit looks like the effects of wind or air activity. When warriors are seized by the spirit they are inflated; and “spirited” (proud) persons are puffed up. When persons are abandoned or defeated, they are deflated and there is no spirit (wind) in them. On a larger scale, strong winds move clouds and generate intense storms, and quiet winds are soothing breezes. All are understood as the work of God’s Spirit. In Genesis 1:2, the Wind of God is the only active force before creation.
The passage presents the creative act of the first day: “Let there be light.” Darkness is the state of chaos, and the construction of a cosmos begins with the most elemental phenomenon of the physical world, light. The Prologue to the Gospel according to John builds on this feature of creation. The Logos, through whom all things came to be, is equated with “the true light...[that] was coming into the world” (John 1:9, NRSV).
In so far as the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of salvation, it is like the movement of the Spirit of God to bring light to all people.
While Genesis 1 gives us the Spirit of God, Psalm 29 gives us the awe-inspiring Voice of God (also heard at Jesus’ baptism).
This hymn has a framework of worship in the heavenly palace of God (verses 1-2, 10-11). In the center (verses 3-9), God is celebrated and worshipped as the Lord of the Storm. It is a great electrical storm that arises over the Mediterranean Sea (verses 3-4) and moves east until it strikes land in the Lebanon mountains. It then crosses the valley to the Anti-Lebanon range at Mount Hermon (Sirion), a great peak on the northern border of Galilee (verses 5-6), and then flashes and roars past Damascus into the wilderness to the east beyond. (The wilderness of Kadesh in verse 8 is named for a Canaanite city at the north end of the Lebanon range. The name means holy place.)
At each stage of this stormy passage, the speaker bursts out, “Voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh!) and continues with a clause elaborating the activity of the storm. Seven times in seven verses the phrase qol Yahweh! opens a declaration of praise. The storm is given as a revelation of God’s awesome power and vastness. The physical manifestation that corresponds most directly to the Voice of the Lord is thunder.
To someone who has lived through many electrical storms on the shore of Lake Michigan, this psalm evokes sky-splitting and blinding lightning strokes from clouds to black water surface, utterly deafening explosions that reverberate over houses and high-rises, and sheets of water moving horizontally over violently swaying park trees and streets.
In the psalm, all this upheaval in nature is climaxed by the cry of worshippers in the temple, “Glory!” (verse 9). Perhaps today the word would be – “Awesome!”
The Epistle reading provides a curious glimpse into the aftermath of John the Baptist’s work. Paul is described as meeting twelve “disciples” who knew only the baptism of John and had no knowledge of the Holy Spirit. (If historical, this would have been about 25 years after the death of Jesus.) After Paul re-baptizes them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” the Spirit comes on them and they speak in tongues and prophesy.
The book of Acts has a particular view about the way the Holy Spirit works, which is seen clearest in the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13). That understanding of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, as associated with baptism in Jesus’ name, is applied to John’s disciples here.
What this passage says about the baptism of Jesus is that the coming of the Holy Spirit was not a regular part of John’s baptism, but was a unique endowment for Jesus at his baptism.
Our reading covers two main events: the mission of John the Baptizer, and the divine action at Jesus’ baptism.
John the Baptizer. Mark’s description of John the Baptizer portrays him as a new Elijah, or an Elijah returned. That is the point of his comments about John appearing in the wilderness and his dress and food as those of a desert hermit (verses 4 and 6).
What was the significance of Elijah for the Baptizer?
The Elijah (and Elisha) story is contained in I Kings 17-19, 21, and (Elisha’s part) II Kings 2-10. Elijah was a second Moses. He won a mighty battle against the Ba‘al prophets (I Kings 18), trekked through the wilderness to meet with Yahweh at the holy mountain (I Kings 19:1-14), and received authorization from Yahweh to overthrow the dynasties of Damascus and the northern kingdom of Israel (I Kings 19:15-18). In summary, Elijah brought the judgment of God on a wayward and unfaithful Israel. This was the model John the Baptizer was following in his mission to Israel.
John the Baptizer had a further authorization in the prophecy of Malachi. “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me...” (Malachi 3:1). And, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5; Hebrew text 3:23). John was certainly understood as the “messenger” of the Lord announcing the immediate coming of God in judgment.
Mark’s Gospel certainly intends to say that John the Baptizer was the “messenger” sent before Jesus. The historical John himself, however, probably thought he was carrying out the prophecy of Malachi – that he was preparing the way for God’s own coming to judge the sinners in Jerusalem, as the rest of the Malachi prophecy suggests (see Malachi 3:2-7). Later disciples of Jesus recognized that in reality it was Jesus who was coming in judgment – though with some amazing surprises in God’s way of dealing with the world!
The Baptism of Jesus. Whatever John may have thought, early Jesus followers learned that the baptism of Jesus was, at least for Jesus, an awesome revelation of what God was about in Jesus of Nazareth. Repeating the ancient declaration to the Davidic king (Psalm 2), God says to Jesus, “You are my son...” and all that follows is the consequence of that declaration.
Let’s take a slightly larger view of this prologue to Mark’s Gospel.
It is fair to say that the opening of the Gospel (1:1-15) is audacious! There was somewhere between 25 and 40 years of reflection and inspiration behind these succinct verses – years filled with reflections about Jesus and Israel. Jesus may be envisioned here as a New Israel, or as re-enacting Israel’s story.
A prophet goes before him, linking him to God’s past revelation. Jesus appears – without speaking – to pass through the waters, but is greeted with a divine address giving him a status beyond any other human being. This is Jesus re-doing the exodus.
Jesus is then subjected to trials in the wilderness (the “temptation”), withstanding the full force of the anti-God forces. This is immediately followed by a simple but awesome announcement of “the good news of God”: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near...” A new option is available to suffering humans.
The long-hoped-for reign of God in the human scene has begun. Humans may now re-direct their lives to be included in that divine regime. This is Jesus’ equivalent of the revelation at Sinai. The “son of God” here brings a new reality for God’s people!
The Baptism of Jesus was a declaration of his identity and of his endowment with the Holy Spirit. This revelation is known to the powers of heaven and hell, as later stories will show, though it will take the disciples a long and hard road to fully catch on. The hearer, however, knows from the beginning that the Holy Spirit has entered the human world, which is wracked by demons, sin, and oppressive authorities. Going forward, the Spirit will be working through Jesus’ actions and words.
The mission of the baptized Jesus is to bear the power of the Spirit against the powers that so oppress the world.