Devotional For January 10: Baptism of our Lord Sunday
Certain boardgames have enjoyed a surge in sales thanks to the way they can be played over zoom or even the phone. One such game was one of my favourites growing up, Guess Who. This two-player game involves each player having a board upon which are cartoon images of 24 people and their first names. At the start of the game all of these images are standing up on little hinges. You each pick one of those people and then the object of the game is to determine who each person has picked. The person who guesses correctly first, wins. You alternate by asking yes or no questions, like, does your person have brown hair or does your person wear glasses. As the characters are eliminated they fall down and through a process of elimination you get closer to guessing who the picked person is…But it is of the utmost importance to pay attention to the signs and answers or else you might push the wrong person down. I recently read an article on loneliness and they suggested that this be a game that people play to help those suffering from loneliness. In part because it’s a really simple game that is easy to play- even over the phone, so long as you each have a board. But how do we guess who the right person is when all we know are strange details about them?
For example, in this morning’s Gospel passage we are introduced to two people and Mark uses some pretty interesting words to describe them. First we have John the Baptist and he appears, apparently out of nowhere, literally in the wilderness. We then get to hear a bit of a description of what John looked like as well as his diet. He was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist and he ate locusts and honey. These seemingly irrelevant details actually say a lot about John, partly because they are a direct reference to Elijah who is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” And if people were expecting someone to come from the wilderness as a sign that the Messiah was about to arrive- you better expect that their diet would be a bit on the wild side. John the Baptist is often depicted as a wild man and rightly so.
I appreciate that we hear that people from the whole Judean countryside were going out to see him. Honestly, based on that descriptor I have a feeling a lot of people were going out to see him because they were curious. I can just imagine the town gossip, “Hey have you been out to the Jordan River lately? Have you seen that crazy wild man? The one with the fancy leather belt?” Or I wonder if his diet ever became a fad- “the wilderness diet” of a protein and a sugar- perfect for those who want a figure that fits a tight camel coat. Yet, John’s role is not to be the centre of attention for long. Because, “Guess Who” is coming along? John begins to describe and introduce someone who is more powerful, someone whose baptism will be by the Holy Spirit. John says that “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal.” What John is intimating is that John’s role is one of servant or slave before Jesus.
Jesus, the second person described in this brief passage in Mark, then shows up on the scene and in true Mark fashion it is rather abrupt. Jesus comes from Nazareth- which may be a hint at his physical appearance- and is baptized by John. But this is no ordinary baptism because as Jesus comes out of the water the heavens are torn apart- talk about power! Then the Spirit descends like a dove and a voice declares that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. At Jesus’ baptism, his identity is revealed- no one is left guessing who this man is- and yet, so many still have trouble figuring it out. Despite this description of the events people still miss the signs because they aren’t paying attention, they aren’t listening to the story close enough-maybe because they are stunned with what they are seeing and hearing.
In our translation of the Mark passage it says, “And just as he was coming out of the water.” In other translations it is better read as “immediately”. It comes from the Greek word euthus which occurs in Mark 41 times. Mark is the most curt gospel of the four but Mark also draws on the drama of the Gospel. By calling upon all this “immediate” language, Mark is pointing out that God is here! NOW! If you aren’t paying attention you might miss it. Another interesting linguistic link is that we heard the phrase “torn apart” in reference to the heavens as Jesus emerged from the water. Unlike the term “immediately”, “torn apart” is only used twice in Mark’s gospel. The first time at this baptism and the second time, when the temple curtain is torn apart when Jesus breathes his last breath from the cross in Mark 15. Essentially, Mark is framed by these two events in which the Kingdom of God is immediately present in Jesus.
When we were studying the Trinity last Fall this story of the baptism came up a few times. In part because this is one of the few texts in which all three persons of the Trinity are referenced and active together. But guessing who the Holy Spirit is, based on descriptors is hard. In our Genesis passage we hear of the first inklings of the spirit. Some translations, like the NRSV that we heard today, says “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” some say “the breath of God” while others have, “the spirit of God.” The term in Hebrew is Ruach and it does indeed mean all three, wind, breath, spirit. Now, when the term Ruach is used in reference to wind this is not a timid breeze but rather a great storm-wind. Much like the winds we have experienced over the last few weeks. The kind of wind that causes ferries to be cancelled and walks in the forest to be put on hold.
While the New Testament is written in Greek and so the term is slightly different, it is that Ruach- that great breath of God that speaks at the baptism. It is the spirit that not only creates and sustains life but brings about new beginnings and reconciliation. Like, how a forest is often transformed after a great wind storm- and those small trees that were struggling for light now have the space to grow into great giants. The spirit isn’t an easy thing to describe- sometimes it is like a violent wind and sometimes it is as peaceful as a cooing dove. But the Spirit’s function in this baptism is to point to who Jesus is. I think that I often miss the signs of who Jesus is, even if it is coming from a wild Spirit- and instead of listening I keep asking- and guessing who, who is Jesus.
Jesus is God’s beloved, and through our own baptisms we are enveloped into this story of grace and inclusion. In the coming weeks we will hear the stories of how Jesus called the disciples, how they observed and listened for the signs of who Jesus is. If we pay attention to the signs and teachings of Jesus then the guess work on who Jesus is and who we are through Jesus, is, relatively, easy. Amen