John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘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. 8I have baptized you withwater; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Translation: John, the one baptizing in the wilderness, happened, and preaching a baptism of repentance for the release of sins. And all in the region of Judea and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was dressed in camel's hair, and a leather skin belt around his loin and he was eating locusts and wild honey. And he was proclaiming, saying, "The one mightier than me is coming after me. I am surely not fit to bend down to loose the leather strap of his sandals. I baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in a holy spirit."
And it happened in those days, Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee, and he was baptized into the Jordan by John. And immediately, rising up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending into him. And a voice happened out of the heavens, "You are my son, the beloved. In you, I am pleased."
Background and situation: In the opening three verses of Mark's gospel, he tells of the "beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God." He then says that he is quoting Isaiah, although the text really is a conflation of Exodus 23: 30, Malachi 3: 1a, and Isaiah 40:3.
These texts, and Mark's summary of their message, introduce the messenger, the way, the voice, and the wilderness. All of these symbols are freighted with heavy meaning throughout Mark's gospel.
The "messenger" is (likely) John. The text is unclear as to the specific identify of the messenger. Other possibilities are Jesus himself or the evangelist Mark. Probably John is meant.
The "way" will characterize the spiritual and social journey of Jesus and his subsequent followers. The "voice" indicates that Yahweh is being heard from again, and the "wilderness" recalls first the wanderings of the Hebrews and also the uncharted territory of everyone on their journey through life.
The messenger: The Malachi portion of the Old Testament citation is, "I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me." The rest of the line, not quoted by Mark, is "and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple."
Mark doesn't want to go there--no positive references to the Temple for Mark--so he switches to Isaiah 40:3 to finish. "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Is: 40:3)"
The wilderness is where John "happened"--egeneto, a term of appearance, origin, occurrence and beginning. The wilderness is uncharted territory. There are no maps for it, no guides, and no visitors center. For the early Hebrews, it was a place of flight, of hiding out, but also a place of new beginning. The early Hebrews came out of the wilderness as a people.
The wilderness is also a place of testing, first for the early Hebrews, and then for Jesus. (The temptation of Jesus follows immediately upon today's lection.) In the time of Jesus, the wilderness was, in addition to being a place of loneliness and danger, also home to rebels, revolutionaries, brigands, and thieves.
Everyone went to hear John: "All" the region of Judea and "all" the people of Jerusalem went out to John in the wilderness. What does this mean?
Jerusalem was a company town. Some of the inhabitants literally lived in the shadow of the Temple, and thousands worked there. The temple had its own mechanisms for repentance and dealing with sin. Institutional and traditional religion, always expert at sin, had sin covered.
The Lord God, however, was not operating through the existing institutional channel of the Temple, but rather the "voice" directed the people to the uncharted territory of the wilderness. The people went there to confess their sins and not to the temple. They walked right by the Temple to make the trek out to see John, who offered a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Mark's gospel has only just begun and already we see the outlines of the ensuing conflict: wilderness vs. Temple, Jesus vs. Jerusalem.
Mark then calls attention to John's dress and behavior: "And John was dressed in camel's hair, and a leather skin belt around his loin and he was eating locusts and wild honey." Compare 2 Kings 1:8: "They answered him, ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’" (That John eats locusts and wild honey is a way of saying that John eats without preparing his food. He is directly provided for by God.)
Mark is obviously drawing a parallel between Elijah and John. The book of Malachi--the last book of the Old Testament--had ended with the promise of the coming of Elijah who would bring in "the great and terrible day of the Lord (Mal 4:5)." For Mark, that day has now arrived. (Moreover, the mention of Elijah had a political dimension. Elijah had plotted against King Ahab.)
In all four gospels, John directs attention away from himself to the "one mightier than me." "Loosing the leather strap of his sandals" appears to be a semiticism which indicates subordination. The phrase also appears in the fourth gospel (1:27).
John baptizes in water, but the coming one will "baptize in a holy spirit." Ched Myers understands "baptism in the holy spirit" to be confrontation with the "powers."
Later in Mark, as Jesus prepares to go the way of the cross, James and John want to be at his left and his right "in (his) glory." (10:35-45) Jesus wants to make sure they understand what they are saying. He says, "Are you able...to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? (10:38)" That "baptism" is Jesus' coming confrontation with the religious and political powers.
The baptism of Jesus: Mark introduces Jesus with another egeneto--"It happened in those days, Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee." Mark has no Bethlehem story. For Mark, Jesus is a Nazarene and a Galilean.
Nazareth was a small town near the Roman city of Sepphoris. Perhaps as few as 30 people lived there. It was so insignificant that the name of Nazareth does not appear in the entire Old Testament. Nor does Nazareth appear on Josephus' first century list of towns and cities. The mention of Nazareth underlines the humble origins of Jesus.
The mention of Galilee is significant as well. The self-appointed "elites" of Jerusalem considered Galileans to be "hicks from the sticks." Galileans were mainly involved in agriculture or fishing. Either way, they were poor.
Moreover, Galilee was a heavily "hellenized" region. Not only did many people of Greek descent live there, but Greek culture had spread widely throughout the region. Capernaum, for example, was the site of a Greek ampitheater.
Galilee was also somewhat separated from Judea because Samaria lay between them. Jews, whether Galilean or Judean, avoided Samaria. Mark's mention of Galilee was a way of underlining a theme that has already appeared, in multiple ways, in only the first few verses of his gospel: namely, that God was working apart from Jerusalem and apart from the Temple.
The actual baptism of Jesus is mentioned only briefly, and is related in the passive voice. He was baptized "into the Jordan by John." Note that those who went out from Jerusalem were baptized "in" the Jordan River while Jesus goes one better and is baptized "into" the Jordan. Jesus goes all the way in.
Mark's brief statement regarding the actual baptism is a way of sliding by John's involvement in that baptism. All four gospels are at pains to put John subordinate to Jesus in every way. None of them accent Jesus' actual baptism by John because that would imply Jesus' subordination to John.
The voice: Mark wants to move quickly beyond the baptism to the voice from heaven. "Immediately" after Jesus goes "into" the Jordan--("immediately" is not translated in NRSV)--Jesus "rises up out of the water." Upon rising up out of the water, Jesus "sees"--and only Jesus sees. The ensuing revelation is not meant for the crowds, but only for Jesus--(and Mark's readers).
What did Jesus see? "The heavens being split open." (The word is schizomenous. Schizo means "split." Schizophrenia, for example, literally means "split mind.") No doubt Mark intends a reference to Isaiah 64:1: "Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down."
Indeed, that is what happens. "The Spirit like a dove descending into him." Not only did the Spirit "come down," it went into Jesus. As Jesus went "into" the Jordan, the Spirit goes "into" Jesus. The plea of Isaiah is answered, and dramatically!
For the third time, the word egeneto appears in this short lection--"it happened." First, John "happened." Then Jesus "happened." Now the voice from heaven "happened." The voice, clearly God's, identifies Jesus as "my son, the beloved." This recalls Psalm 2:7--"You are my son"--and Isaiah 42:1: "I will put my spirit upon him."
Both of these Old Testament allusions have meaning. The Psalm text goes on to say that the whole earth will belong to God's son. The Isaiah text goes on to speak of significant opposition when God breaks open the heavens and comes down. There are "adversaries," though, of course, the nations will also "tremble" at "your presence." Isaiah 42:3: "You did awesome deeds that we did not expect."
That, the "awesome deeds that we did not expect," touches on perhaps the most significant theme in Mark's gospel, which is that the Son of God opposes the socio-cultural-political ways of this world and advocates an alternate "way," a "way" we did not expect, one of compassion, gender equality, non-heirarchical social structure, and radical equality.
This is a "way" which will threaten the powers-that-be and will result in Jesus being crushed by his "adversaries."
Yet, paradoxically, the Son of God's most triumphant moment will be his living that "way" to the end, even when he is forsaken by God and annihilated on the cross. This "way"--faithful and true, in spite of every opposition--will be vindicated by God in the resurrection. In this way, God's son--the beloved, the crucified--will make "the ends of the earth (his) possession (Ps 2:8)."