Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1–5 | Psalm 29 | Acts 19:1–7 | Mark 1:4–11
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.” (Mark 4:10-11).
A lot has happened in one week, hasn’t it? This past Wednesday, as the whole world is aware by now, an angry, violent mass of people, goaded on by the President, stormed the US Capitol building to try and disrupt the process of finalizing the recent US election results, in what many are calling an outright act of insurrection. Much can, and has been, said about this tragic and fatal event, though its long-term implications are not yet all that clear. But there is one image from Wednesday in particular that caught and held my attention: in the midst of all the violent tumult, some rioters were waving flags that read “Jesus Saves.” Seeing this, I felt sick. Of course, these words are true. Absolutely true. But to see them being identified so blatantly with the cause of violent political outrage, where lives were being threatened and lost in a chaotic struggle to simply seize power… it made me wonder (not for the first time) what kind of witness this kind of behaviour offers to a watching world. Is this how Christ’s salvation is to take concrete shape on earth? Anger and rage let loose upon those seen as enemies? Demanding that our will be done, or that their blood be shed? Last week was certainly not the first time we have seen our Lord’s precious name drawn into deeply disturbing actions… but it is one that should still give us pause, and perhaps lead us to ask ourselves what it really means to be a Christian. What does being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ look like today? And what is it that drives this unique way of life forward?
Our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Mark tells of the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As we reflect on this part of our Saviour Jesus’ sacred story, we may be able to find our bearings again when it comes to the Christian life; both what it truly looks like, and what keeps it going.
Our passage takes place right at the start of the Gospel of Mark: After announcing that his book is about “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), Mark introduces John the Baptist as a prophetic messenger preparing the way for the LORD’s coming salvation, and tells us that John was calling God’s people to be baptized as an act of faithful repentance… of turning away from their sin, and turning their lives to the LORD. And we hear his message was resonating with a lot of folks: people were coming from all over Judaea, and from Jerusalem, confessing their sins, and seeking a new start on God’s path. But as we know, John knew there was more of the story of God’s salvation on it’s way. He knew there was one who was coming after him, who would baptize God’s people, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit of God, flooding them with God’s life-giving, and life-changing presence. And here, just 9 verses in to Mark’s Gospel, we meet Jesus of Nazareth, as He comes to John in order to be baptized as well. Up until now, Mark has only told us two things about Jesus: He is the Son of God, and yet He has come to be baptized alongside offenders seeking to repent. He comes from the Almighty Holy One, and yet comes to stand with sinners.
This might seem like a contradiction at first. How can these two go together? Aren't the good and the bad to be kept apart? Isn't it "us against them"? And yet as Mark’s Gospel unfolds, and the whole story of Scripture brings to light, we see that this surprising movement is at the heart of the Good News all the way through. Jesus’ baptism is the continuation of His astounding descent, His mission of incredible mercy, coming not to condemn, but to reach out and save sinners. Though He was eternally at-one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, in His baptism Jesus identifies Himself with those alienated from God… with those exposed as unrighteous… as lawbreakers… as enemies. He places Himself alongside those who stand in desperate need of forgiveness… taking up the cause of those who need their lives completely turned around. The Christian life begins with Jesus drawing near to us in our sin, taking up our cause, and taking our place... to save us. In humbly stepping into the water, we see that Jesus doesn’t save from a safe distance… He steps right into our mess. Right into the flood, in order to bring us out again on the other side.
Because that, of course, is the whole point: Not simply drawing near to be with sinners, but drawing them out of the waters again! Drawing them out of the darkness and into the light of life. So often we forget that the salvation of God is meant to bring about some real changes in us, not simply to offer us comfort, or confirming our old habits. Yes, the Son of God came to draw near, but as the cliché goes, he doesn’t leave us there. He comes to rescue us, and realign us to share in God’s life. N.T. Wright has a good way of expressing this point: “The meaning of a royal pardon is not simply that the prisoner enjoys a good feeling of innocence restored, but that he gets out of jail.” Or as St. Paul puts it, in his second letter to the Corinthians (5:21), “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Salvation entails our lives being filled with God’s own righteousness… undoing all the darkness within us, and setting us free to share in His light. But we know for this to happen, for God’s righteousness to truly take hold of our hearts, it was going to cost the Son of God all that He could give.
In His baptism, Jesus prefigures and points towards His ultimate act of redemption: His suffering and death upon the cross. Immersed in death’s shadow for our sake and for the sake of the world, Jesus endured the worst of what we sinners had coming our way. Ending our indebtedness through His great sacrifice. And in rising again from the grave, Jesus has opened up the way for God’s New Creation, New Life, to flood into our lives… to fill us up with the righteousness, with the goodness of God, transforming us more and more each day to be more and more like Him.
In His baptism, first in the waters of Jordan, and finally in His death on the cross, we find Jesus has come to truly rescue us from our sin. Jesus saves us by gaining our forgiveness, and by sharing God’s holy life with us… freeing us to be God’s true children today.
Upholding all of this talk of salvation is one more vital point to consider, one which sheds light on what it is that drives the Christian life: that is, God’s holy love. Love is what led Jesus to step into the waters in order to rescue even His enemies. Love is what led Him to give His life to bring God’s New Life to us. And love is what Jesus offers us now: the love of the Triune God… Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… drawing us deeper into His divine fellowship, and reaching out with that same love through us into the world. Jesus was not motivated by fear, or hungry for power, or seeking glory for Himself, or chasing after revenge. No, what led Him into the waters, and ultimately onto the cross was the love of God He shared in, and shared for God’s lost creation. Coming out of the water, we’re told the veil between heaven and earth was opened up for an instant. The Holy Spirit descended in peace on Jesus, like a dove, and the Father’s voice proclaimed: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From beginning to end, Jesus was filled with and led by the holy love of God, and this is what is to fill and lead His disciples today.
Christ’s baptism reveals the Living God’s heart of saving love: drawing near to us, drawing us near to Him, and flooding us with His holy love. This is the beginning of discipleship, of devoting our lives to following Jesus: trusting in His saving and life-changing love, that it may flood our lives, and lead us forward, every step of the way.
All we who claim to be Christians are called to walk “just as He walked” (1 John 2:6), to follow our Lord into the New Life God is bringing about. We are not free to give in to the darkness anymore… to the hatred, fear, prejudice, self-righteous indignation, or apathy we see at work all around us… but we're called instead to strive to stay always in the light of Jesus, our one and only Saviour, who loves us and gave Himself for us, and for this world, which still stands in such need of His saving love.
So in this turbulent time, may we resist the strong temptations on the one hand, to go along with the darkness, and on the other, to sit back and condemn as though we did not need forgiveness and mercy ourselves. May we remember our Saviour, Jesus, who draws near even to save sinners, and pray for the healing of hearts, and for His reconciliation to reign. May we place our faith in Him, who saves us through His own shed blood, and seeks to draw us all into the New Life of God. And may the Holy Spirit fill us with the holy love of God, so that all that we say and do faithfully proclaims the Good News of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year B (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), 19.