An Everlasting Baptism
The Gospel of Mark – which is the central gospel from which many of our Sunday Scripture readings will be taken this year – is a gospel that does not focus on the past by recounting the genealogical history of Jesus; nor does Mark spend great time discussing the birth and childhood of Jesus and he does not go into a great philosophical essay to highlight the connections that can be found in the revelations of God throughout all time. Mark begins his account of the life of Jesus at the moment when Jesus’ ministry and mission become public.
The only Scripture he quotes is from the prophet Isaiah where it is said that a herald will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. For Mark the one who came in his time to prepare the way for the Lord was John the Baptist and the one who came as the Lord was the one we know as Jesus. If we were to analyze the names of both John and Jesus, we come to see that the naming of these two figures was not by accident. John in Hebrew means God is gracious and Jesus – of course – means God who saves or he who saves.
To think that the one who came to announce the good news that was to come through Jesus is named ‘God is gracious’ gives us a better sense of the mission given to John. The baptism by water in the river Jordan was meant to be for the people a sign of the graciousness of God, the willingness of God to invite the people to turn away from everything that had drawn them to follow a path in life that had led them away from God. That turning in their heart and mind was to be a sign that they recognized God’s willingness to forgive their sins. How God would provide an eternal forgiveness for sin was not yet clear but for all those who longed to be forgiven and longed for a peace in their spirits that they could not find in the society around them or in the interpretation of their faith in that day, the baptism of John was a sign of hope.
The fact that John was led to choose the river Jordan was also significant. The river Jordan was the point that the people crossed when they came through the wilderness with Moses and entered into the land promised them by God. As they moved from the wilderness, they came to what was to be for them a home. And in that home they built a kingdom and then two kingdoms. For a time they listened carefully to God and recognized him as the ultimate authority but then their desire to govern themselves led them to believe that God could be what they wanted him to be. The place of God in the lives of the people changed. In time the people lost their homeland. Their return after the exile was to be a time of rebuilding – not only their physical surroundings but also their spiritual life. But somehow the connection never happened and they found themselves drifting – unable to fully come to a place where they could feel the graciousness, the love, the peace, the forgiveness from God, the relationship with God which God hoped they would seek.
And as those who recognized the graciousness of God in John came willingly to be cleansed by the waters of the Jordan seeking for the truth that would set them free physically and spiritually to be the people of God, so Jesus came; not because he needed to received the graciousness of God but because when he communicated the good news of the kingdom of God, he could be seen as one who had passed through the waters of repentance and was one who likewise was seeking for the forgiveness of sin.
Now baptised and ready to communicate to the people the reality of the kingdom of God and the good news of that kingdom, Jesus – the God who saves and will save – undergoes his first test. He is driven into the desert, into a spiritual vacuum by the very Spirit of God that he will later give to those who will believe in his message. God puts himself in Jesus in a place where he can be tempted like the people were in their desert wandering. The forty days mirror the forty years and at the end of it just as the people passed into the Promised Land so Jesus comes forth to bring a message of a kingdom unlike any other – the kingdom of God. “The time has arrived,” he says, “the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent and believe the gospel.” (Mk. 1:15, NEB)
And so it begins. The graciousness of God has been revealed through John who has invited the people to receive the baptism with water and so look for the forgiveness of sin. The salvation of God is then revealed through Jesus who then invites the people to remember their repentance and believe the gospel.
Throughout the gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God will be revealed to the people through preaching, teaching and healing. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts and minds open to the message and actions of Jesus will indeed discover that the kingdom of God is upon them. They will come to know God’s love for them; they will experience a peace of spirit and mind and they will know for once and all that any place in their lives where they felt separated from God or from one another, they would be forgiven and they would find the wisdom of God to guide them. Ultimately they would experience baptism with the Holy Spirit and through it discover an infilling with the presence of God that they could never have imagined possible.
The baptism with water by John was the sign for the people of a gracious offer from God to forgive the sin of all who turned back to God. The baptism with the Holy Spirit would be the gift of God to the people to enable them to grow in their commitment to the kingdom of God as revealed through the good news brought to them in Jesus. It would be an everlasting baptism for this baptism would not just be for the people a sign of their commitment to God but the baptism in the Holy Spirit would be a sign of God’s eternal commitment to the people.
As Christians we are encouraged to seek for the gifts of the Spirit of God but also to seek for the fruits of the Spirit. And while our dedication to life lived as believers may have started with the sprinkling of water, our true baptism comes when we allow God to bless us and baptise us with the Holy Spirit. Allowing the Spirit of God to descend upon us opens us to the fullness of life that God seeks for us to have both now and forever. And as we seek to grow in our faith, we let that initial touch of God’s Spirit continue to work in us to bring to a fullness of life that will enable us to treat one another with more than kindness, grow in wisdom that goes beyond the wisdom we see in the world around us, gain self-control over words and actions and emotions, learn even more how to pray and allow the Spirit to direct our prayers, and so come to love one another in a way that reflects the deep and unconditional love of the One who has not only been gracious enough to welcome us home but has given all he has that we might have this new life not only now but forever. .
I pray that we will ever seek to receive this gift of God and so grow in our understanding of and our life as the people of God.