Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord
Readings: Genesis 1:1–5, Acts 19:1–7 & Mark 1:4–11
Today, in the church calendar, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, which is classified as a ‘Principal Holy Day’. In this year, which is Year B in the 3 year cycle of the church, our gospel reading comes from the Gospel of Mark. It describes the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Mark explains that the baptism that John proclaims is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Strangely though, we read in other books of the New Testament that Jesus was without sin. So why did he need to be baptised by John?
Mark gives no explanation for this, because it’s obviously not important in the scheme of his main message from this passage, which is that Jesus is the Son of God. Before I say more about that, let me first give you an answer to the question of why Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist.
While there are a number of different answers to this question, the one that resonates the most with me is that by being baptised into John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus was associating himself with the sins of humanity. As he was submerged in the Jordan and then raised up from under the water, the sins of humanity were washed away.
So let’s return to Mark’s main message from today’s passage. He begins the passage by talking about John the Baptist and his particular form of baptism. We know from ancient writings other than the Bible, that John the Baptist was a real, historical figure. We also know that he was liked and respected among the Jewish people of his day. Mark’s description of John’s appearance (“clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist”) would immediately have caused Jewish people to think of the prophet Elijah, who in 2 Kings 1:8, is described as wearing a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist. Elijah was revered among the Jewish people, and Jewish tradition believed that he didn’t die but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. The prophet Malachi had written that Elijah would return to earth before the Day of Judgement came at the end of time.
Mark is clearly suggesting that the figure of John the Baptist can be interpreted as Elijah. Mark also tells us that Jesus is more powerful than he is himself, and that Jesus is coming after him to baptise with the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament contains a number of references to the outpouring of God’s Spirit on the people of Israel, so Jewish people would have understood this to mean that God’s Spirit would be poured out through Jesus.
Immediately following the baptism of Jesus by John, Mark tells us that the heavens were torn apart and God’s Spirit descended on Jesus, and God’s voice from heaven was heard to say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Mark leaves no doubt that Jesus is the Son of God.
The Greek word for Spirit also means wind, so in our first reading this morning from the Book of Genesis, when it says “while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”, that verse is often translated as “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. What is therefore implied in the passage from Mark’s Gospel, is that just as the the Spirit of God hovered over the waters at the moment of creation, so too the Spirit descended upon Jesus at the moment of his baptism. The ministry of Jesus, which is to begin following his baptism by John, marks a new event in the history of Creation. God has been revealed to humanity in and through the person of Jesus, and God’s Spirit will be poured out on humanity by Jesus.
We read in our second reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, that a number of members of the church at Ephesus had been baptised by Apollos. The baptism he had performed was the same as that of John the Baptist, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He had obviously not baptised them in the name of Jesus. The Apostle Paul therefore rectifies that, and after he lays hands on them they receive the Holy Spirit.
Unlike these members of the church at Ephesus, the baptism that we have all received, and which is practiced in most churches today, consists of both the washing away of sins and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism we are born into a new life in Jesus, a life in which the Holy Spirit acts as our protector and guide.