My text this week is Mark 1:9-15, familiar to many of us as the wilderness testing of Jesus after his baptism. It reads:
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
There is a lot going on in this text as it has three distinct movements: 1) the baptism, (2) Jesus driven into the wilderness, and (3) Jesus begins his proclamation. I will focus on the second and how it propels Jesus into the third in my next post. However, most will likely focus on the baptism portion of the text this coming Sunday, so I will spend some time reviewing it. This portion is certainly noteworthy and has several interesting features.
We begin with Jesus coming from Nazareth and being baptized, a fulfillment of what John the Baptist had just declared, namely that the One Israel had been waiting for is on his way. Interestingly, however, Jesus enters the scene almost nonchalantly, with Mark remarking that Jesus was baptized by John as if John himself did not, at that time, recognize what was happening. Unlike other Gospel accounts of this encounter, Mark shows John doing the work he was called to do, but like many of us, not quite aware of the presence of God at the moment and in the details. Here we light upon the theme of the hidden-ness, or the veiling of God’s work in Christ for those who ought to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Instead of recognition, most (including us) fail to recognize Jesus as the Christ. Instead, it will be the dispossessed, a centurion and the demons alone who recognize Jesus as Lord.
This veiling is carried over into the rending of the heavens in the very next verse. As Jesus comes up out (ascending; anabainon) of the water upon his baptism, he sees the heavens violently torn open (schitzomenous) and the Holy Spirit descending (katabainon) upon him. Mark is clear here that Jesus alone sees this, and what he sees is the very power of God bursting out from the boundaries of God’s kingdom into the world, an act of wonder signaling a coming climax of God’s redemptive purposes for the world (hence, all the ascending and descending).
Yet, for the time being, only Christ himself is aware of it, and it is to the Son that the Holy Spirit descends and empowers to bring the message of the kingdom and God’s redemptive purposes for God’s people Israel. The final unveiling, or rending of the barrier between heaven and earth in which the words of the Lord’s Prayer will become reality (“…your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”) awaits Jesus’ death on the cross. When that happens, just as it was with the heavens, the veil of the Temple separating the presence of God in the holy of holies from all else will be torn in two, and the Spirit of God will go out into the world empowering even a Roman soldier to make the confession that Jesus is Lord. (Mark 15:38)
The baptism story, taken in its entirety, points us to the awesome and wonderful new thing taking place in Christ as fulfillment of the promises of God, and the deep connection between the Father and the Son in the power of the Spirit, ending in the Father’s declaration of being well pleased. Mark 1:10-11 is both the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry, and the expression of highest fellowship between the person and work of Christ, the kingdom of God and God’s project of redemption here and now. At the same time, we are reminded of our own shortsightedness in recognizing Jesus for who he really is, underscoring both our ignorance and hardness of heart.
In light of all this, what then follows is a bit of a mystery…