Genesis 1:1-5 – In the beginning God created, by the Word and the Spirit hovered…

Psalm 29 – Ascribe to the Lord O heavenly beings… glory and strength. The voice of the Lord is over the waters.

Acts 19:1-7 – Paul encounters disciples in Ephesus who were baptized with John’s baptism. They are baptized again in the name of Jesus. Paul lays hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.

Mark 1:4-11 – John appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance, and pointing to Jesus. Jesus is baptized, and a voice comes from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Baptism of Jesus

This Sunday we leave the infancy narratives of Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2 and are back into Mark’s Gospel. Neither Mark’s gospel, John’s gospel, nor Paul’s letters mention Jesus’ extraordinary birth: no stable, no star, no virgin, no angels, no shepherds, and no Magi. Either they did not know the stories or did not consider them important to their theology. Apparently it is possible to write a gospel of Jesus without referring to his birth. Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus and John as adults.

The earliest mention of a Christmas celebration occurs towards the beginning of the fourth century. There is a brief mention of a group of people who have fixed a date for Jesus’ birth in Clement of Alexandria, but that date is May 20, and there is no mention of a celebration. For the first 300 years of Christianity, the birth of Jesus appears to not have had much significance. In fact, birthdays were less important than death days. The early church ascribed much more importance to Jesus’ baptism.

Here are the very first words of Mark’s Gospel, Mark 1:1–3:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

This Sunday’s Gospel reading begins at Mark 1:4:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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.”

Jesus' BaptismInterestingly, Christian and non-Christian scholars alike believe the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus to be the most historically certain events about Jesus. Historical studies of Jesus begin with these two events. Jesus’ baptism is described in the first three Gospels. John’s Gospel does not directly mention Jesus’ baptism.

Why did Jesus need to be baptized? If John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus, according to traditional Christian theology, was sinless, why would Jesus need to be baptized by John? Why be baptized at all?

Admittedly, it seems odd, John baptizing Jesus. In Matthew’s version, even John balks at the idea: John tried to prevent him saying, “Wait. Haven’t we gotten this backwards? Shouldn’t you be baptizing me?” (Matthew 3:14-15, paraphrase) Jesus responds, “Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” So, being baptized by John is perhaps Jesus’ way of submitting to God’s plan. (Just as Mary did in our Advent IV reading?) Fulfilling all righteousness may be a first reason for Jesus to be baptized.

Jesus came to John, whom he considered to be one of the greatest people ever born (Luke 7:28, Matthew 11:11). Jesus’ baptism is an alignment with John’s vision and mission. This may be a second reason for Jesus to be baptized. Some have suggested that Jesus was a disciple of John. Others have suggested that they had parallel ministries and that Jesus’ ministry took off with the death of John the Baptist.

A third reason: the purpose of baptism is not just repentance. In Acts 2:38, Peter tells people to be baptized for forgiveness and to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the Markan narrative.

A fourth reason: the baptism is the launching of Jesus’ mission and ministry. The affirmation of Jesus’ call from God is made clear in Mark, “You are my Son…” not “This is my Son…” as in Matthew and Luke. This is a private communication between God and Jesus, because in Mark, Jesus’ identity is not known to the other characters in the story yet. It unfolds. Also, we have a reflection of Psalm 2, the David king as God’s son:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
— Psalm 2:7

These words of affirmation will be repeated on the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, February 15, 2015, only this time for everyone, “This is my beloved Son…”

Most importantly, Jesus’ baptism anticipates his own death and resurrection. Baptism represents death, and coming out of the waters, resurrection. Romans 6:3-4 says the familiar words:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

The central event of Jesus’ ministry is his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. This Sunday gives the preacher an opportunity to talk about baptism as an inauguration of our own ministry, as well as our call to “be buried with Christ”, so that we might rise with him and walk in newness of life. Into what ministry have you been baptized?

As we talk about baptism as the beginning of our ministries, this Sunday is also a great time for an affirmation of baptism, complete with sprinkling, or other use of baptismal water as a physical reminder of baptism. Your sermon can likewise invite people to consider what ministry God has called them to in their baptisms.