A modern icon of the Baptism of Christ
Sunday week (7 December 2014) is the Second Sunday of Advent. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday are: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1: 1-8.
Mark 1: 1-8
1 Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ].
2 Καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ,
Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου,
ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου:
3 φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ,
Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου,
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ,
4 ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης [ὁ] βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν. 5 καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἱεροσολυμῖται πάντες, καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ὑπ' αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίαςαὐτῶν. 6 καὶ ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης ἐνδεδυμένος τρίχας καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐσθίων ἀκρίδας καὶ μέλι ἄγριον. 7 καὶ ἐκήρυσσεν λέγων, Ἔρχεται ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου ὀπίσω μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς κύψας λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ: 8 ἐγὼ ἐβάπτισα ὑμᾶς ὕδατι, αὐτὸς δὲ βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ.
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”,’
4 John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
Since the previous Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, we have been in Year B in the Scripture readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. We began that Sunday with Mark 13: 24-37, with Saint Mark’s account of the Coming of the Son of Man.
But on this Sunday, we return to the beginning of Saint Mark’s Gospel. You are already aware that while Saint John’s Gospel begins at the beginning of Creation (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God,” John 1: 1), Saint Mark, unlike Saint Matthew or Saint Luke, has no Nativity narrative, has no story of the first Christmas (see Matthew 1: 18 – 2: 23; Luke 1: 1 – 2: 40).
Saint Mark, on the other hand, begins his Gospel with this passage, his account of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John in the River Jordan, which comes later in the other three Gospels (see Matthew 3: 1-17; Luke 3: 1-21; John 1: 19-34).
Indeed, because there is no Christmas story in Saint Mark’s Gospel, the main lectionary reading for the Principal Service on Christmas Day is going to be the Nativity Narrative in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2: 1-14 or 1-10) or the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-14 or John 1: 1-18).
Introducing the readings for Sunday week:
The readings for Sunday week, 7 December 2014, the Second Sunday of Advent, are: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1: 1-8.
Isaiah 40: 1-11
This Old Testament reading is going to be familiar to many people, and have immediate Christmas associations, because of the opening words of Handel’s Messiah:
1, Sinfonia (Overture)
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is
accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40: 1-3)
Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry moutain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah 40: 4)
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 40: 5)
Prophets like Isaiah were a thorn in the side of the Temple hierarchy, proclaiming that God is not impressed by burnt sacrifices, does not dwell in a house built by human hands, is not confined to one holy land. The prophets proclaimed that God’s reach extends across every land, God dwells wherever justice and peace are lived out in community, and that justice and peace is the only sacrifice God wants.
Isaiah 40 speaks of a voice in the wilderness crying out that the Lord is coming, and we are to prepare the way.
This passage is a vision that marks the beginning of the part of Isaiah that was written from exile in Babylon. In verses 1-2, God speaks. Because “comfort” and “speak” are in the plural in Hebrew, God speaks to a group, probably of angels, but possibly of prophets. In other words, God says something like “may you comfort.”
They are to speak tenderly to Jerusalem. But the city is in ruins, so they are to speak to the idealised kingdom of God’s people. They are to tell them that their time of sorrow is over, that they have served their punishment for their waywardness, and that their Exile is about to end. A new era is dawning, and it is inaugurated by God’s Word.
In language that echoes the pomp of Babylonian royal pageantry in Babylon, a heavenly voice or the prophet announces in verses 3-5: “prepare the way of the Lord”. God is coming, and he is about to lead a new Exodus through the “wilderness” and the “desert” to a promised land. God’s presence will be displayed for all people to see (verse 5).
Then a voice commands the prophet to “Cry out!” (verse 6). But he asks what shall he tell them. Notice in verse 7 the use of the word breath, which also means spirit (see Genesis 1: 2, where the wind of God sweeps over the waters of creation.
Even though people fade and wither, the Word of God stands for ever (verses 6-8). The prophet is told on behalf of Jerusalem to tell out the “good tidings,” to tell out the good news: “Here is your God!” (verse 9-10). He is like a shepherd who gathers the weak (“the lambs”) and gently leads them.
Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
In this Psalm we are told of God’s restoration of the people, and God’s overwhelming forgiveness (verses 1-2). In between the verses we are reading, there is a prayer that God may again show favour to the people (verses 4-7). Then the psalmist hears God promising that he will bless the people with peace and steadfast love, which shall be the visible signs of God’s presence and power (verses 8-13).
II Peter 3: 8-15a:
The Epistle reading is written by Saint Peter at the end of his life. Aware that he is going to die soon, the apostle leaves an assurance of the fulfilment of God’s promises and a testimony of what being a Christian means as we wait for Christ to come again.
The writer says that the apparent delay in Christ’s coming is merely a delusion in time, for God does not measure time in the way we do (verse 8). Instead, God wishes all to be found worthy at the Last Day, and does not want any to perish. He is waiting patiently for all to repent of their waywardness (verse 9), but the end will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief (verse 10). The images of the end-times are drawn from popular Jewish and Greek philosophy of the day (see verse 10b).
The end is coming, what should our conduct be as we wait? The end is not annihilation, but ushers in “new heavens and a new earth.” As we wait for this, we should be signs of it, being at peace, being ethically and spiritually perfect, prepared for Christ’s coming. His apparent delay is an opportunity for repentance and for attaining salvation.
Saint John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Gospel reading (Mark 1: 1-8):
We have seen the work of God, the Word and the Spirit in unison in the Old Testament reading. Now the story of the Baptism of Christ is the first revelation of the Trinity to the creation in the New Testament and is like the story of a new creation.
All the elements of the creation story in the Book Genesis are here: we know we are moving from darkness into light; the shape of the earth moves from wilderness to beauty as we are given a description of the landscape; there is a separation of the waters of the new creation as Jesus and John go down in the waters of the Jordan and rise up from them again; and as in Genesis, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of this beautiful new creation like a dove.
And then, just as in the Genesis creation story, where God looks down and sees that everything is good, God looks down in this Theophany story and lets us know that everything is good.
Or, as Saint Mark says: And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1: 11).
God is pleased with the whole of creation, God so loved this creation, κόσμος (kosmos), that Christ has come into it, identified with us in the flesh, and is giving us the gift and the blessings of the Holy Spirit.
Both Mark and John have little interest in the first Christmas story. In this reading, Saint Mark begins telling the Good News with quotations from the Old Testament. God had promised the Israelites a “messenger” (verse 2) to lead them. Tradition says that John baptised near Jericho, in an arid region. People came to him in large numbers, repenting (changing their mind sets), “confessing their sins” (verse 5), resolving to sin no more, and dipping or plunging themselves into the river.
John dresses like a hermit or prophet (verse 6), yet sees himself as unworthy, compared to “the one who ... is coming” (verse 7), so unworthy that he cannot untie his sandals, a task normally performed by a slave.
The Sadducees and the priests in the Temple believed that the blood spilled in the Temple sacrifices was sufficient to atone for all sins. The Pharisees said that God welcomes converts from any nation who wants to join God’s people and walk in accordance with God’s Torah.
On the other hand, Saint John the Baptist, who bases himself outside Jerusalem in the wilderness by the banks of the Jordan River, proclaims to all who listen that forgiveness is available to any who repent and are baptised. No Temple sacrifice is necessary. According to Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, John the Baptist teaches that in God’s eyes blood ties to Abraham are of no account. The High Priest needs the baptism of repentance just as much as a Gentile convert does, and Abraham’s inheritance is there for anyone who receives the offer of it through that baptism.
John’s baptism is a sign of purification, of turning to God, of accepting God’s forgiveness and judgment; Christ’s baptism re-establishes a spiritual link between God and humanity. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
To us, John the Baptist comes to prepare for, and to announce, Christ’s coming. But if all we expect from the coming of Christ and Christ’s work among us is finding forgiveness for sin, finding a relationship with God, and joining God’s people if we are willing to repent and experience conversion, then we are in for a surprise. As the opening verse of the Gospel reading tells us, this is just the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is only the beginning.
During this Advent season, we expect the coming of Christ and the fulfilment of his reconciling work on earth. As the Epistle reading (II Peter 3: 8-15a) tells us, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, where God’s justice is done (verse 13).
Christ is coming and is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. His is coming with a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us – poor and rich, North and South, male and female, Jew and Gentile, nation and nation – will be no more.
His coming is just the beginning of the Good News. Let us prepare the way of the Lord: cast down the mighty and raise up the lowly, let justice and righteousness go before him, let peace be the pathway for his feet, do justice and make peace. And let this be just the beginning.
Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Post Communion Prayer:
here you have nourished us with the food of life.
Through our sharing in this holy sacrament
teach us to judge wisely earthly things
and to yearn for things heavenly.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with MTh students in a tutorial group on 26 November 2014.