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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Baptism of Our Lord 1/11/2015

Since the earliest days of Christianity the baptism of Jesus has presented difficulties. If Jesus was greater than John, why would he have gone to the Jordan to join the Baptist’s renewal movement? If he was without sin, how could Jesus subject himself to John’s baptism which was described as a baptism for the forgiveness of sins? Why would he put himself in the midst of those who publicly confessed that they wanted to change their lives? Tough questions, and no easy answers.

A common answer, maybe the most common answer to these difficult questions is that while Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, he did want to set a good example for others. That answer does move the discussion on to other things which is good, but other than that I’m not sure it’s the best answer as I tend to think that questions about Jesus baptism ultimately get back to questions about John the Baptist and his role in Jesus’ life. Exactly what that role was is hard to know for sure but the fact that all four gospels feature John prominently at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry indicates that his role was significant.

It seems likely then, that whatever the role was, Jesus had the sense that God was at work in and through John and with that, Israel was entering a new and crucial phase in its history. For Jesus to be who he was called to be, he had to be in a place where God was at work and he had to be among the people where the renewal of Israel was happening, so at the beginning of his ministry that’s what took him out to the wilderness with John. Jesus primary concern was obedience to and the fulfillment of the Father’s will; questions about whether or not he considered himself a sinner and whether or not he needed to be baptized are not the big issue and getting too hung up on those questions probably just serves as a distraction. Being connected to John’s community and being baptized by him was primarily about Jesus’ surrender to the will of God.

Especially in Mark, which has no birth narrative or any other mention of Jesus’ origins, it may be that what he gives us in this account is not so much a description of Jesus’ baptism, but more of a description of the new reality that Jesus’ represents. As Mark tells it, when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends like a dove; the heavens are torn apart. Matthew and Luke have similar accounts of Jesus’ baptism but in the way they tell it the heavens were opened, but not torn apart and I think you can see that something being torn apart creates a rather different image than if it is merely opened.

In Greek the verb Mark uses here is schizo from which we get words like schizophrenic, and with that word you suspect that Mark’s intent is to describe something rather dramatic. The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation that we have just celebrated over the past few weeks is the story of God becoming part of this world, the story of human nature being joined to the divine, the story of heaven and earth meeting in the person of Jesus. Mark doesn’t tell that story but with his description of the baptism of Jesus and particularly with that one word, schizo, he conveys the drama and the meaning of these events that do define a new reality for all of humanity.

With the heavens torn open, things can never be the same. In Christ there is a new creation which is why this lesson is linked to the opening verses of Genesis in today’s first reading. In the beginning the spirit moved over the watery chaos and began to bring order to it. In Jesus’ birth and in his baptism there is a new chapter in creation history. In this new chapter the chaos of the water isn’t just tamed as in Genesis, it is made holy as Jesus is baptized and as his identity is revealed by the presence of the Spirit and the voice of the Father. It then becomes about us as we too are forgiven and made holy in the water of our own baptism when that water is connected with God’s word in and through the presence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In baptism, we are no longer the same either! We are a new creation; our identity is changed as we become children of God. Baptism represents a new creation story for us too!

In looking at this text though, I kept coming back to that verb, schizo, torn apart. It’s a verb that packs a punch and I would say that Mark intends for it to get our attention. He only uses it twice in the whole gospel, here in the first chapter in describing Jesus’ baptism and then again at the end of the gospel, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion when the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, at the moment of Jesus’ death. In both cases being torn apart adds to the drama of the moment and that’s part of Mark’s intent; but even more significant is what comes next in each case.

The heavens torn open at the time of Jesus’ baptism prompt the voice from heaven that declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When the curtain of the temple is torn in two at the time of Jesus’ death, it prompts the Roman soldier to say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Both of these torn apart moments lead to the identification of Jesus as the Son of God. Merely coincidence? I don’t think so. Beginning with Jesus baptism Mark is describing a new reality and integral to that new reality is Jesus recognized as the Son of God. Without that recognition things aren’t so new, pretty much the same, but with that recognition, everything is new, especially in the ways that we understand God and in the ways we understand ourselves.

Mark describes these dramatic, torn apart moments when Jesus identity is made clear, but there aren’t a lot of those moments; like I said, only two in the whole gospel. But maybe that’s because there really aren’t a lot of moments like that, moments when it’s clear to us too and we can say, with confidence and certainty that Jesus is the Son of God. To be sure, we all learn to say the right things about Jesus, we do it every week in the words of the creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” We know the right answer and learning and reciting that answer is important, even if sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, it’s just words and we don’t think too much about it.

But do we have those torn apart moments when this new reality is clear to us and confessing Jesus as the Son of God is more than just giving the right answer according to the church but instead it’s the right answer according to me or according to you? Such moments are probably not as dramatic as what Mark describes in the heaven torn apart and the temple curtain torn in two but for me those moments tend to come when I’m able to quiet the analytical side of my brain and I’m not distracted by questions like whether or not Jesus needed to be baptized. Then, with imagination I’m able to enter the world and the imagination of Mark and the other gospel writers who with their words and stories are able to convey the truth about Jesus as the revelation of God.

What Mark and the others reveal is Jesus as the image of grace and forgiveness and acceptance that represents the reality of God, that represents the way things really are and recognizing that, the things that sometimes blind me are torn apart and I can say, “Truly this man is God’s son!” Jesus represents the reality of God and importantly, he also represents the reality of the humanity he became part of. In my torn apart moments, I know that without question.

Those moments don’t always last; new distractions show up, but in those moments I’ve experienced a new reality, a new creation that I know I will come back to because it is God’s reality and it is the reality into which you and I have been baptized. It’s reality that reveals Jesus as the Son of God. The world has been torn apart and it can never be the same.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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