January 10, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Mark 1:9-11 (NRSV)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Being part of the community of the faithful calls us to a new way of life. It calls us to submit to the Lordship of Christ. It calls us to work for justice and peace. It calls us to manifest the Kingdom in our own lives.
Yesterday we began to think about what the Sundays after Epiphany mean as we learn more about who Jesus Christ is and how his life manifests the glory of the Triune God. When we are done with these weeks—this year, five of them, as Ash Wednesday is on February 17—we will be deposited on the front doorstep of Lent, where we will be led to contemplate how Christ’s death and resurrection also manifest that glory.
Today we start where Jesus started his public ministry: with his baptism. This story is told or at least referred to in all four gospels. Mark’s narrative is the shortest: the whole story is told in the three verses I’ve quoted above. Mark does not, in fact, tell us anything about the birth of Jesus or the first thirty years of his life; it is from Matthew and Luke that we get the details of those events, and from John that we get much of our theological reflection on the Incarnation.
Mark simply starts with John the Baptist, who we encounter in the narrative already baptizing and prophesying the coming of Christ. We’re used to thinking of baptism as something having to do in some way with becoming a Christian—so why was John baptizing? There are several theories about this. First, ritual washing was common in Judaism—there are many references to it in the Old Testament. Secondly, there was a group in that era known as the Essenes (we remember them today as being connected to the Dead Sea Scrolls) who explicitly practiced something called a “baptism of repentance.” This sounds like what John was doing, and he may have known of the Essenes’ teachings.
Regardless of exactly why John was baptizing, he definitely makes a distinction between what he does and what the Messiah will do: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8). When Jesus shows up, John baptizes him; and if you read all the gospel accounts together you get a clear picture of two things: first, that something new is happening here, and secondly, that John recognizes that. This is John’s cousin, Joseph’s acknowledged son, the carpenter; but this is also the Messiah, the Son of God, the one empowered by the Spirit. This is God’s glory breaking in and doing something new.
There is a lot of disagreement among Christians about baptism—what it is, who should receive it, and what it does. But there are a few things we hold in common. Baptism is, as I said above, connected in some way with becoming a follower of Jesus. In all the varied ways we describe baptism, we agree that it marks us as part of the community of the faithful, those gathered in Christ’s name and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
In a devotion earlier this year, I talked at length about how Christian baptism is intimately wrapped up with repentance. Being part of the community of the faithful calls us to a new way of life. It calls us to submit to the Lordship of Christ. It calls us to work for justice and peace. It calls us to manifest the Kingdom in our own lives.
Doing that, recognizing that, submitting to that, is not going to be easy. But it is so, so necessary. Something new is happening here. Be like John the Baptist. Let the glory breakthrough.
Where do you see God’s glory today, right now?
Where do you need to submit to the Lordship of King Jesus?
Years ago when I was a choir director, I asked a friend of mine at church to write a song about John the Baptist and this story; he produced one called “The Ballad of John the Baptist.” (You can read the full lyrics here, although the link to the recording doesn’t work on that page anymore). Listen to the music here. Ponder these lyrics:
“Every mountain will be brought low, every valley shall be raised
turn around oh turn around
Until we make a highway for our God in this rough place
turn around oh turn around
Come down to the waters all you hypocrites and liars
The one who’s coming after me will baptize you with fire.”
Then ask Jesus to help you turn around and follow him, baptizing you with fire.
Lord Jesus, you are my King. Help me follow you and help me live out my baptism. Amen.
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1:1-13)
Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project. She is a priest in the Episcopal Church and an adjunct faculty member at Asbury Theological Seminary. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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