Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Mark 1.4-11
1st Sunday after the Epiphany / Baptism of Our Lord - Year B

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INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

Both of our "green seasons" have "white" bookends. The Epiphany Season begins with the baptism of Jesus and ends with his Transfiguration. In both gospel readings, there is the voice from heaven, which "shines upon" (the literal meaning of epiphaino, (from where we get "epiphany",) Jesus, making him more clearly known to the world. The green Pentecost season begins with Holy Trinity and ends with Christ the King.

Since we had 1:1-8 on 2 Advent B, I will concentrate on vv. 9-11 and the Baptism of Jesus according to Mark. (Note that part of this text is assigned for 1 Lent B -- Mark 1:9-15.)

GREATER IMPORTANCE OF BAPTISM THAN BIRTH

We make the birth of Christ a very important and special event, but only two books in the Bible give us the Christmas story -- Matthew and Luke. In contrast, there are at least six books that talk about Jesus' baptism -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Romans. In scriptures, it would seem that Jesus' baptism is a more important event than his birth. Perhaps that should be a clue for us. Perhaps we should not only give greater emphasis to Jesus' baptism but also our own baptisms. Should we not publicize baptismal anniversaries of our members as we do birthdays and wedding anniversaries?

PROBLEMS WITH THE BAPTISM OF JESUS

At the same time, we need to recognize some of the problems that Jesus' baptism creates. John proclaims "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (v. 4). The confession of sins was part of his ritual (v. 5). Jesus, we believe, committed no sins. There was nothing to repent of. There was nothing to confess. We confess that Jesus was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit," so he didn't need the descent of the Spirit, which happened as he came up out of the water.

Each of the gospel writers has his own way of dealing with these problems. I think that Mark deals with them with the rhetoric of irony.

Donald Juel in "The Strange Silence of the Bible," (an article in Interpretation, January 1997) recalls the first time he saw the Gospel of Mark "performed". He noted that there were times during the performance when people laughed. He then writes: "I did not recall ever laughing to myself when reading through Mark."

I share this because of the (humorous?) irony in our text. Only Mark of the synoptics has "in those days" (v. 9). In what days?

Irony 1: The stronger one comes from the podunk border town of Nazareth. Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus) puts it this way: "Mark, however, stresses Jesus' obscure origins, 'from Nazareth,' tantamount to introducing him as 'Jesus from Nowheresville'" [p. 128].

R. T. France (The Gospel of Mark) also writes about this town: "As for Nazareth, it was so insignificant a village that few in the south had even heard of it (it is not mentioned in the OT, the Talmud, or Josephus), and even a Galilean like Nathanael could dismiss it with a contemptuous ek Nazaret dynatai ti agaqon einai ["out of Nazareth is anything good able to be"] (John 1:46)" [p. 75]

Irony 2: The stronger one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit is baptized in water by John. (The one who doesn't even consider himself worthy to be a slave to Jesus baptism him!)

Throughout this gospel, what we might expect from "Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (v. 1), is not what happens. As Robert Capon [Hunting the Divine Fox] suggests, "Our kind of Messiah . . . wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising form the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying". [p. 91]

The same might be said about his baptism in water by John. It is not what we would expect from the stronger one who comes to baptize in the Holy Spirit. Mark is A Master of Surprise, as the title of Juel's book on Mark suggests. More from the book later.

SIGNS OF ASSURANCE?

An approach I have taken with Jesus' baptism is to talk about his need for assurance. In Mark, he seems to be the only one who hears and sees the cosmic events and the words are addressed specifically to him. [The same is true in Luke (3:22), but in Matthew (3:17) the voice is spoken to others; and in John (1:32) the descending Spirit was a sign for John the B.] However, as Robert Fowler (Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark) notes: We, the readers, hear the voice and "see" the Spirit descending. After defining the difference between story: "the what of a narrative;" and discourse: "the how of the narrative," he applies it to the baptism.

Using this terminology, we may say that in Mark, even though Jesus is the only character at the level of story to hear the heavenly voice, at the level of discourse the storyteller makes sure that the reader hears the voice, too. An awareness of what is or is not happening, both in the story and in the discourse, is crucial for understanding the workings of any narrative, especially the Gospel of Mark. [p. 16]

From the beginning of 1:1 in Mark, we know more than the characters in the story. We hear and see the events at the baptism, which no one in the story hears. We can criticize the characters, "Don't you get it?" only because we know more than they; but Mark, at the same time, is asking us, "Don't you get it?" [There are also instances where the characters know more than us, and we are left in the dark.]

Jesus was the Son of God, but his baptism gave him the verbal assurance that he was indeed God's son. He was born of the Holy Spirit, but his baptism gave him the visible assurance that the Spirit was certainly present with him. Jesus baptism gave him the positive assurances that he would need during his temptation and time of ministry, his sufferings and death.

So we, who are privy to this private information, know that God has given a "stamp of approval" on Jesus through baptism. Did Mark intend for us to apply that knowledge to our own baptisms? Do we see our baptisms giving us the assurance that we are children of God? Do we see our baptisms as filling us with the Holy Spirit? We have been given such assurances so that we can face the temptations and ministry, possible sufferings, and death that lie ahead of each of us.

James R. Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) makes this important point: "As the inaugural event of Jesus' public ministry, the baptism tells us not what Jesus does but what God does to him" [p. 34].

We can say with Martin Luther when tempted to doubt, "I am baptized." (I find it interesting that he didn't battle temptation with, "I am a Christian" or "I believe.") The strength of his faith was found in his baptism when God put his claim on him. So, too, we have the assurance through baptism of being children of God and being filled with the Holy Spirit -- even when it seems as though everything and everyone else is giving contrary messages, e.g., "You're a nobody." Our baptisms are not what we have done, but what God has done to us.

This also leads to a distinction between John's baptism and Christian baptism. I think that Jesus' baptism ushers in a new baptism. Christian baptism is not just a washing away of sin as John's baptism was; but it is the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God.

Besides the parent/child relationship baptism brings, one might emphasize the "well pleased" declaration from God. God makes this declaration to Jesus before Jesus has done anything to please (or displease) God -- at least within the narrative of Mark. (We are in the dark about anything Jesus might have done prior to his baptism, and also about John's prior relationship with Jesus. How does John know what he knows about Jesus?)

While it might be an exegetical stretch, I have suggested in sermons that God says the same thing to us in baptism -- or to paraphrase it, God declares: "I like you." God's "liking us" is not based on what we have or haven't done. It is "us" that God likes, not what we do. I think that for some people, seeking to be liked is more important than "being loved," in the sense that "love" can have negative connotations, e.g., making love = sexual relationships, or selling out one's self for the sake of the other = codependency. Most of us can remember Sally Field's expression after winning an Oscar, "You like me! You really like me!" The desire to be liked by others for who we are is powerful. Literally, eudokeo means "to think" (dokeo) "well of" (eu). This is its only occurrence on Mark. Can we say that God likes us, even though God may not always like what we do?

BEING "THE BELOVED" -- A GOOD THING?

The term: "the Beloved" (agapetos) occurs three times in Mark. It is spoken by God at Jesus' baptism, which is immediately followed by the temptation; it is spoken by God at Jesus' transfiguration (9:7) after which Jesus talks about his many sufferings (9:12); and it is spoken by Jesus in a parable to refer to a king sending his "beloved" son to the wicked tenants who will kill him (12:6). While I certainly believe that we are loved by God, I'm not sure that I would want to be in the shoes/sandals of "the beloved." It meant temptations, suffering, and death. Related to this, the only person in the gospel we are told that "Jesus loves" (agapao -- 10:21) is the rich man whom Jesus tells to go and sell what he owns and give to the poor. Perhaps it is safer just to be an acquaintance of Jesus rather than loved by him.

"RIPPING APART" THE HEAVENS

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Mark's account is his use of schizomai -- "he saw the heavens being ripped apart" (v. 10). Matthew and Luke use forms of the word anoigo = "to open". Donald Juel (A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted) comments on this difference and its significance in a chapter called: "Transgressing Boundaries: Jesus' Baptism in Mark."

The importance of an accurate rending of the Greek is difficult to overestimate. The image in Mark is strong, even violent, and the moment that is noted, the imagination begins to work. If the heavens are opened, then they may well close again. If they are torn apart, however, then we may think of some permanent damage or rupture that cannot be repaired. Further, those who know Mark at all think immediately of the tearing of the temple curtain at the moment of Jesus' death: And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (15:38; the verb is the same, eschisthe). The images form an inclusio: A pattern that begins here at Jesus" baptism ends with his death.

... When the heavens are torn, the Spirit enters Jesus and a heavenly voice addresses him as "son." At the moment of his death, he "breathed out his spirit" (15:37, au. trans.); the temple curtain tears; and a centurion -- not God -- makes a declaration about Jesus' sonship. [p. 34]

... Viewed from another perspective, the image may suggest that the protecting barriers are gone and that God, unwilling to be confined to sacred spaces, is on the loose in our own realm. If characters in the story find Jesus" ministry threatening, then they may have good reason.

The imagery has enormous power to shape imagination and to open readers to the story. That is, Mark's narrative is about the intrusion of God into a world that has become alien territory -- an intrusion that means both death and life. That the author allows such associations suggests that something holds the story together, but that little explicit help will be given for making the connections. Reading will require imagination and involvement; some information about imagery familiar to author and audience will turn out to be helpful. Interpreting our pericope thus provides clues to the nature of the narrative basic to an appreciation of the story.

The rending of the heavens makes possible further action. The Spirit descends "into" Jesus. That we are to understand the Spirit has inhabiting Jesus is apparent from the dispute in Mark 3:22-30, where the charge that Jesus is possessed by unclean spirits is characterized as blasphemy "against the Holy Spirit." Jesus is possessed -- but by God's Spirit. [pp. 35-36]

The terse account of Jesus' baptism introduces us to the truth that will generate a whole story: Jesus is confirmed as Messiah by a heavenly act and declaration -- but outside the Holy City and the sanctuary, among the impure who have come for cleansing. His career will shatter expectations throughout, creating a whole new religious alternative (or, to use Neusner's words, "an essentially distinctive and fresh mode of Judaic piety"). "Fresh skins for new wine," Jesus tells his distracters. Lines must be crossed, curtains torn, the heavens themselves rent asunder in the course of the career of one whose coming can be characterized as good news. [p. 41]

Mark's story is richer for the account of Jesus' baptism. The brief episode focuses the tensions in particular images: the king who does not look like a king; the one who will baptize who is baptized; the one in whose ministry God comes frighteningly close. In light of these images, the dynamics of the unfolding drama make sense. We are offered a glimpse of what this good news is about -- and what it will cost. [p. 42]

I couldn't say it better. So I won't try.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com