Genesis 9:8-17 | Psalm 25:1-10 | 1 Peter 3:18-22 | Mark 1:9-15
In our passage from Mark today, we’re going back to the beginning. We’ve already heard of Jesus calling his disciples, and casting out a demon in a synagogue, but now we’re going back to the beginning, to the first time Jesus appears on the scene in Mark’s Gospel.
That’s because this is the first Sunday of Lent, and the first Sunday of Lent always begins with one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, since the 40 days of Lent are meant to represent Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, as well as Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness.
Mark began his Gospel in chapter 1, verse 1 with these words: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,” then he went on to quote Isaiah, and then he told us about John the Baptist, who prophesied the coming of Jesus, saying, “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” So Mark has built up our suspense. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus is more powerful than John. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus hasn’t appeared yet, but, with an intro like that, it has to be a big deal when he shows up, right?
And now, finally, 9 verses in, (Duh-dunna-duh) Jesus is here! And this is how Mark introduces him:“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” That’s it. That’s how the Son of God shows up for the first time in the Gospel of Mark. Not much fanfare. Jesus sounds so…ordinary.
Jesus doesn’t make his first appearance with any signs or wonders, he doesn’t part the Jordan, as both Elijah and Elisha did last week, he doesn’t come from heaven on a cloud. Instead, he comes from somewhere that might as well be nowhere: Nazareth, the most un-extraordinary place you could think of, except perhaps the place he’s going: the wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan. In Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist doesn’t even say, “There he is! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” like he does in John’s Gospel. Instead, Jesus shows up like everyone else, and gets baptized, like everyone else. In Mark’s account, it’s not even clear whether or not John the Baptist knows who Jesus is when he baptizes him.
Mark’s introduction of Jesus is so unshocking it’s shocking. These first 9 verses are so anticlimactic. Nothing supernatural happens. John started preaching and baptizing in the wilderness and Jesus shows up like an everyday person and gets baptized.
But then the break through we’ve been waiting for happens in v. 10. Mark uses his favorite word to describe this: “immediately.” As Jesus comes out of the water “immediately” the skies are torn open, and as the skies are torn open so we are torn out of the ordinary and mundane into a new reality.
It’s like a sneak attack! Jesus appears just like everyone else, but as he comes up out of the water (he’s a Baptist!) the world changes. All of a sudden, the barrier between heaven and earth is, quite literally, torn open: “…he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”
The word Matthew and Luke use to describe this event is best translated “opened,” but Mark’s word is best translated, “torn.” What’s opened can be closed, but what’s torn is not so easily repaired. This tear is irreversible. The barrier between heaven and earth has be torn in two. Joel Marcus calls this tearing a “gracious gash in the universe.” He says, “Through this gracious gash in the universe, [God] has poured forth [God’s] Spirit into the earthly realms.”
Suddenly, or in Mark’s words, “immediately,” Mark doesn’t have the words to describe what’s happening. The Spirit of God descends like a dove, but it isn’t actually a dove, it’s something else, something Mark doesn’t have the words describe. He can only say what it’s “like.” It’s like a dove, but it isn’t a dove. It’s something from outside of our normal experience, or our normal vocabulary. It’s otherworldly.
And then a voice is heard, the voice of God, articulating Jesus’ identity: Son of God, Beloved, the one in whom God is already pleased despite the fact that Jesus’ ministry has just begun.
What’s unique to Mark’s Gospel is that it seems that only Jesus sees this vision and hears this voice. Mark says, “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” The rest of the crowd, including John the Baptist, doesn’t see the Spirit descend like a dove, they don’t hear the voice of God. They’re unaware of this “gracious gash in the universe,” they’re unaware that the kingdom of heaven is washing over the earth, as the waters of baptism just washed over Jesus.
So, for us readers, finally the extraordinary has occurred! The moment we’ve been waiting for. Jesus doesn’t seem so ordinary now. We would think, once again, that this is the beginning of something big. The Son of God has come, heaven has been torn open, the Spirit has descended, God has spoken. We’re waiting for the chariots of fire that took Elijah away last week to appear en masse and bring about a new world order.
Isaiah prophesied about this day. He said, “Oh that you would [tear open] the skies and come down!” Isn’t that what just happened? And Isaiah goes on to say,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you! (Isaiah 64:1-2)
It seems like we could rightly assume that that’s what’s about to happen, right? The skies have been torn open, God has come down, now it’s time for the mountains to tremble. It’s time for fire and brimstone. It’s time for God to right all wrongs, to loosen the bonds of injustice, to free the oppressed, to bring judgement on those who have preyed on the weak. It’s time for swords to be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). Please God, it’s time for guns to be melted and formed into planter boxes.
But once again, Mark’s narrative disappoints us. After this apocalyptic scene – and it is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature tries to reveal reality through symbolism. A lot of times we think apocalyptic literature, like the book of Revelation, is all about the future, and sometimes it is about the future, but usually it’s actually about the present. Apocalyptic literature points to another reality that isn’t so apparent. It offers us a new perspective, a new sight, to our present reality. Jesus’ baptism is the perfect example. Reality seems the same to the crowd, they just see Jesus get baptized and come out of the water, like all the other people John has baptized, but Mark says something else is going on that they can’t see but Jesus can. God is moving. A “gracious gash” has been made in the universe. God’s Spirit has descended upon Jesus. Jesus is the beloved Son of God.
After this apocalyptic scene, we would expect the reign of God to ensue, and we would expect it to look like something out of a fairy tale. A just king or queen, ruling over a kingdom of happy people. The sun always shines, the crops are always abundant, all evil has been vanquished, and “everyone lives happily ever after.”
But, like I said, Mark’s account disappoints us. There is no happy ending. This is just the beginning, and the next step is wholly unexpected: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.”
The appearance of God at Jesus’ baptism is immediately followed by the appearance of Satan. We’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again. You’d think that demons would run as Jesus draws near, but instead his presence seems to flush them out. They pop up everywhere. Evil seems to concentrate and converge on Jesus. The culmination of all this evil converging on Jesus is, of course, the crucifixion. Jesus, who is God’s goodness made human, the Beloved Son of God, is a magnet for evil.
Once again, Mark is brief. While Matthew spends 11 verses describing Jesus’ temptation, and Luke spends 13, Mark spends 2. There’s no dialogue, and it isn’t even clear that Jesus wins the battle, though I think we can assume he does. It simply says he was tempted by Satan, then, “He was with the wild animals, and angels attended (or ministered to) him.”
We, like the people of Jesus’ day, want an end to all this evil, but throughout this story, evil continues to appear alongside the good. The wild animals, which presumably represent danger and uncertainty – in Daniel and Revelation (more apocalyptic literature) wild beasts represent the forces of evil – show up alongside the angels, just as the presence of the Spirit is accompanied by the presence of Satan.
This theme continues up until the end of the passage. Our reading ends with Jesus “proclaiming the good news of God…The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” but it happens “After John was put in prison…” Jesus’ preaches good news at a time when John, a prophet of God, who proclaimed the coming of Jesus, has been thrown into prison. Good and evil, side by side, all the way through this story.
If I’m honest, this story frustrated me this week. What’s the point of the skies being torn open? Is there really a “gracious gash in the universe,” if everything seemingly stays the same? If Satan still shows up, if John still gets thrown in prison, if children still die from guns while politicians take checks from the NRA?
It’s hard to believe in Jesus’ vision of a “gracious gash in the universe” when more than 430 people have been shot in 273 school shootings since Sandy Hook, and 3 of the 10 deadliest shootings in the US have happened in the last 5 months. The world hardly seems any better. So it makes one wonder, it makes me wonder, where is this gracious gash in the universe? What’s the good news Jesus came to preach when Satan keeps tempting people to stock pile weapons instead of becoming advocates for peace, when the school to prison pipeline continues to put child after child, especially children of color, into prisons like the one that held John the Baptist?
But, the more I sat with this story this week, the more it made sense to me. The more I realized this is the story we need. In fact, it’s maybe the only story we can believe. While a different story – a story where Jesus’ baptism was followed by a fairy tale ending – would have made me happier, it would, of course, ring false in today’s world. If Satan never showed up, if John lived a good healthy life, if Jesus went on to rule a magical land where the sun shone all the time, it would have been a nice fairy tale but it would have been just that, a fairy tale.
But this story about Jesus, while it isn’t pretty, is remarkably true. It represents our own lives.
Jesus’ baptism is an archetype – an example – for our own baptisms. Our life following baptism will look the same as Jesus’, or at least it should.
We shouldn’t miss the fact that, while no one else who’s present at Jesus’ baptism sees his vision, we, the readers, do. We are able to see through the eyes of Jesus. Jesus gives us eyes to see God’s present activity in a world that often can’t. To see the possibilities of new life when death is all around. Galatians tell us that we who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Jesus’ story becomes our story, and Jesus doesn’t escape to safety and security after his baptism, he enters the wilderness and is confronted by evil.
If that’s Jesus’ story, then we can only expect the same. In John 15 Jesus warns his disciples that the servant is not greater than the master. If Jesus was persecuted we can expect to be persecuted as well. If Jesus comes face to face with evil, we will too. If he was stalked by the wild beasts of fear and violence, we should not be surprised to experience the same.
But that’s not all. Jesus doesn’t just meet Satan and wild beasts, he also sees the “gracious gash in the universe.” He hears God’s voice. He’s ministered to by angels. And he gives us eyes to see the Spirit in our midst, and angels who minister to us. He has given us ears to hear a God that not only calls him the Beloved Son in whom God is pleased, but also speaks to each of us, telling us we are children of God, brothers, sisters, and siblings of Christ. We are also the beloved, in whom God is well-pleased.
That’s why we continue to read these stories in Scripture. They are beautifully apocalyptic. They give us eyes to see a reality that isn’t readily apparent. They tell us about the movement of God in the midst of the wilderness of life. They bear witness to the gracious gash in the universe.
And they invite us into these stories, this reality they testify to. In our baptism we wash away the old stories of the world, the false realities that stare us in the face all day long. We wash away our faith in systems of evil and fear that say the way to stay safe is to stockpile guns and build up walls. And as the water washes over us, we immerse ourselves in a new reality – that the kingdom of God has come near, that salvation is found in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, that we will find ourselves when we stop living for ourselves.
Jesus and the Gospel writers who tell his story never deny the realities of evil in our world – there are wild beasts stalking right alongside the angels as they minister. Instead, the Gospel writers invite us into the way of Jesus, which is itself an act of resistance against those evils.
Ched Meyers, in his commentary on Mark titled Binding the Strong Man, argues that Mark’s Gospel is a subversive narrative that challenges the dominate order of the world, with a new order, the order of Jesus. It confronts the Empire with the kingdom of God. Put more simply, Mark’s Gospel presents us with a Good that doesn’t ignore evil but actively opposes it, with Love that actively opposes hate. We are baptized into that Good, that Love.
A couple months ago, Kim helped with Communion, and when she came up she had a shirt on that said “Resist,” and it was so fitting. Every time we gather here, it’s an act of resistance against the narratives of our world that glorify violence and feed off of fear. When we come together we learn from Scripture and from one another how to embody a different reality: the way of Jesus.
We were born into a world blind to the presence of God, blind to this gracious gash in the universe, but we have been baptized into a new reality in the midst of wild beasts and satanic systems. Jesus has come proclaiming “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent (turn away from the old ways!) and believe the good news!”
Lord Jesus, show us what it means to be citizens of this kingdom. Give us eyes to see the Spirit working in our midst. Give us ears to hear the voice of God. And give us the courage to believe in and embody the good news. Amen.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, 165.