“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
It is the narrative simplicity of this verse from the first chapter of Mark that stuns at first reading. John the Baptizer had been working hard on the banks of the river, calling people to repentance and proclaiming that someone else was coming to complete his own ministry. According to the evangelist Mark, John had made it clear that The One who was coming after him was more powerful that he; John had shown his own humility by using an example of a servant’s act: bending down and untying an honored person’s sandals. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal,” he said of the one who was to come.
Now, please keep in mind that John was a famous man at this time; he was a celebrity as a fiery preacher of repentance. Had he lived in our own idolatrous age, he would have been given his own television show. All evidence points to the fact that John was powerful and had a huge following in the “whole Judean countryside,” and in Jerusalem. His call to repentance, though harsh, had attracted crowds of people who recognized their sins and, by submitting to John’s baptism, asked for both God’s judgment and God’s forgiveness. Imagine the temptation for such a man as John – power and fame were his for the taking. He could have built upon his movement for his own personal gain.
John rejects it all. There is no hint that any of this ever tempted him. One wonders how much his parents had told him of the wondrous lead-up to his birth. Most certainly they must have told him stories as he grew up. This is what people did at that time when there were no books to read to their children, no television and computer games with which to entertain them. They told stories. John knew from early on that he was closely connected to one who would surpass him in serving God. And all evidence also points us to the startling conclusion that this powerful man, in his own right, accepted this as fact and as God’s will and plan.
So he prepares his followers for the one who is to come. Why? What else will the Coming One have to offer that John was not offering? John says clearly, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” What exactly this must have meant to his followers we can only guess. If they had read, or heard the prophets read to them, they would remember the marvelous words of Joel:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams
and your young men shall see visions.
They were probably people who longed to feel God’s breath upon them, but it was John they had come to see, and John who was baptizing them, lifting from them the burden of their sins. The rest was in the future; it was not of the moment.
It is at this point that Mark announces in his utter simplicity that Jesus traveled from Nazareth to be baptized by John. No trumpets are blowing, no portents have appeared, no procession arrives at the river’s bank, and Mark relates no discussion between the two cousins before the baptism. Jesus comes like all the other people who come to John, and is baptized. God arrives to us without fanfare, in the ordinariness of our lives, and we don’t recognize him. He comes enfleshed, from distant, unimportant Nazareth – not from the significant city of Jerusalem, but from Nazareth! Jesus enters the waters as a human being and emerges from the waters with the unshakable assurance that he is God’s Son, the Beloved.
Now the attention shifts from John to Jesus. In Mark’s laconic telling of this story, it is only Jesus who sees the Spirit in physical form – that of a dove – and it is Jesus alone who hears the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And this is when everything changes. The Spirit of God is no longer a future promise, a prophetic dream of what is to come, but a present, living reality. A man from Nazareth is filled with the Holy Spirit and is here in order to baptize all who come to him with God’s Spirit. As John baptized with water, so Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. This is what John promised to his followers, and this is what is so often ignored in the retelling of this story.
Jesus is baptized by John, and henceforth the great gift of God – God’s Spirit upon us – becomes ours for the asking. Both John and Jesus have very short ministries in terms of human time. John prepares the people for God’s coming among them, and Jesus strides out of the waters of the Jordan ready to do God’s will and to reveal it to the rest of us in a few short years. Jesus knows the mind of God and acts upon this knowledge with a boldness that attracts some people and makes others so frightened that they put him to death. The Christ of God, who is revealed to all the new believers in the Acts of the Apostles and is proclaimed in the epistles, comes to us now through the power of the Holy Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” becomes now the gift that Christ’s disciples offer to those who confess the name of Jesus. And thus the world is transformed.
Jesus of Nazareth is no longer walking the Judean hills, but his Spirit remains and is present everywhere. Even to those who may not have heard, or who may not know how to use the right words, the Spirit is given as a gift of God; this we learn in the story that Luke tells in today’s portion of Acts. Paul arrives in Ephesus to find believers who have been baptized. He asks them: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” and they really don’t recognize the words, though they are believers. Then Paul asks a significant question: “Into what then were you baptized?”
And here is where our old friend’s name reappears; John is not forgotten. “Into John’s baptism,” they answer. Paul does not discount John. He explains how John’s baptism was completed by the coming of Jesus. Repentance, the change of mind, the transformation of one’s thinking about God, is completed by the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Paul lays his hands on them and the power is given to them also. And on and on the story continues.
We are now in the realm of mystery. Jesus saw the Spirit of God in the form of a visible dove, Mark tells us. His followers have testified to the gift of the Spirit in multiple ways: they have prophesied, they have spoken in tongues, they have praised God, they have performed miracles; they have become missionaries under horrendously difficult conditions and have opened hospitals where none existed; and in the process they have given the great gift of education to those who had none. Some accept these as gifts of the Spirit; others doubt them. The reality of the Spirit’s presence remains.
The Incarnate God was baptized by John in the river Jordan as an ordinary man from Nazareth. His life, death, and resurrection make it possible for all human beings to learn of God’s love and to receive the gift of God’s Spirit. How the Spirit manifests itself differs in each one of us. On this day when we commemorate the baptism of our Lord, we bow our heads and pray that we too may be called children of God, God’s beloved.