The feast of the Epiphany was last week, but we’re not finished with the epiphanies, revelations and manifestations of Jesus. There are three mysteries that celebrate the Lords’ epiphany: the visit of the magi, led by the star of Bethlehem, showing Jesus to be the source of salvation for the whole world; the baptism of Jesus in the waters of the River Jordan, revealing that he is God’s beloved Son; and Jesus’ first recorded miracle, the changing of water into wine at the marriage of Cana, demonstrating Jesus’ power. These early gospel stories begin the revelation of who Jesus is and what his mission will be.
The 1st Sunday after the Epiphany is the day we remember Jesus’ baptism. And the text from Mark’s gospel offers us an opportunity to reflect more deeply, and claim more fully, the promises God made to us at our own baptism.
Our gospel passage for today begins with Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan. John was a charismatic figure whose prophetic voice brought him a large following as people throughout Judea came to him for a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. However, John knew his place in God’s plan and he proclaimed: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (Mk 1:7).
No matter how life changing John’s rite of washing and repentance was, it was only with water. John’s rite of cleansing could not compare with the baptismal power of the one to come, the one who would baptize with the “Holy Spirit and fire.” Now, through Jesus this gift of the Spirit was about to be made available to the whole nation, and eventually to us. The “greater figure,” whose sandals John was not fit to untie, had emerged from obscurity and was now present. And John was about to share in the anointing which would initiate the ministry of the Messiah.
Mark, in his customary brevity, says almost nothing about the baptism itself, other than it happened: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mk 1:9). But the empowerment that resulted is seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove.
And there is another aspect to Jesus’ baptism, and ours: that of vocation. Jesus, who needed no washing away of sin, nevertheless demanded baptism in his resolve to identify himself with the spiritual needs of God’s people. As Jesus came up out of the river, God the Father ratified that decision, declaring in a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).
It’s clear from Mark’s account that Jesus was now equipped for his ministry as God’s agent, whom John and the other gospel writers identify with the Messiah. Jesus would be the channel through which God’s Spirit would be poured out among the people. All of the Gospels imply that for the brief time of Jesus’ ministry, from the baptism that commissioned it to the Cross that fulfilled it, Jesus’ life embodied the working of the Spirit in the world.
Through the lens of the Resurrection we are able to see the fullness of the salvation God offers us in Jesus Christ. Through the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, we see how those who received the Spirit became channels through which the power of the Spirit was shared with the world. We today are recipients of this gracious gift and power through our baptism.
Baptism is first and foremost God’s activity. We may have confidence that no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys upon us in this gracious gift. Our relationship with God through our baptism is the one relationship in life that we can’t destroy because we didn’t establish it. We can neglect this relationship; we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it. God loves us too completely to let go of us.
In his baptism, Jesus discovered what it meant to be Jesus. So also in our baptism, we discover our true identity. We are God’s beloved children, children and people so precious to God that God will go to any length to communicate God’s unconditional love for us, even to the point of dying on the Cross.
It is good for us to remember, especially in our down or low moments, and who hasn’t had those during this pandemic, that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same One who promised never to abandon us, and to love and accept us always as beloved children. This promise and blessing helps us face the challenges that life brings, especially in this terribly troubled time in which we live. We remember that God is with us and for us, and will not abandon us but walk along side of us, even through the “valley of the shadow of death.”1 In Jesus, light has come into the world, and darkness will not overcome it.2 Amen.
Resources: Synthesis, 2018; David Lose, 2018.