As Jesus begins the ministry of God’s kingdom at his baptism, we are baptized to continue that ministry.
Of all the baptisms we have seen, most have gone on without a hitch. An infant might have screeched if the water was too cold. A toddler may have wiggled free and ran down the aisle, only to be scooped up and returned. Even a mature adult, waiting to be immersed in the pond, might have forgotten to remove the wallet and car keys from pockets before going underwater. For the most part, however, the baptisms went according to plan. Words were spoken, promises were made, and somebody got wet.
In a church in a small town, a little girl was baptized in the presence of her 3-year-old sister. The parents were nervous as the sister began to draw attention. She waved to a few worshipers that she knew. She fidgeted while the pastor spoke the ancient words of scripture. In a loud voice, she began to narrate what she saw going on.
To maintain an ounce of decorum, the father put a gentle grip on the girl’s shoulders as the water was splashed on the infant’s head. That is the moment when the heavens opened. As the water splashed, the 3-year-old broke free with a delighted squeal. While the minister held the baby, she reached up to touch her sister’s head. With eyes as big as saucers, the sister turned and announced to all, “Her head is wet. It really happened. She’s baptized!”
What is a baptism anyway? It is the moment when God announces a claim on us through water and the Word. God announces we are citizens in a new dominion, perhaps before we even know it. God gathers us in a love that precedes all human relationships, a love that comes before every family tie. Baptism announces that we belong to God. How good it is to know that that happens with every baptism!
According to our scripture text, there is no doubt God the Father was claiming Jesus as his own when Jesus was baptized. All the accounts tell us the event was accompanied by astonishing signs. As Jesus came up from the water, he saw the heavens ripped open. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, came down like a dove and landed upon him. Then a great voice spoke the coronation words from the second psalm: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark does not describe the actual baptism of Jesus in elaborate detail. But the signs confirm it truly took place.
There is no way that the church would have ever dreamed up a story about the baptism of Jesus. Frankly, it is too embarrassing. John was in the Jordan River, baptizing people as a sign of repentance. Then Jesus presented himself. Did Jesus come to the river to repent? We don’t think so, but his arrival is hard to explain. What we can say is Jesus took his place among sinners. As people were baptized by John in anticipation of the Messiah, Jesus arrived to stand among them. The church could not have invented a tale like that. But every New Testament scholar affirms the baptism of Jesus was a historical event. It really happened.
The account is loaded with significance. The prophet Isaiah had prayed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”1 That’s what happened at the Jordan River. The heavens were “torn open,” presumably from the other side. Mark uses the same verb to describe the tearing of the temple veil at the death of Jesus.2 The message is the same. God has come decisively in Jesus of Nazareth. In him, the Holy will not remain hidden in heaven. The rule of God has broken into human life.
This is how Mark inaugurates his story. This is “the beginning of the good news,”3 the moment when Jesus first walks into the picture. In the Gospel of Mark, we do not know anything about him until he is hip deep in the Jordan River. There are no shepherds, no wise men, no angels, no mention of Mary and Joseph. There is no manger, no temple dedication, no Christmas carols by Simeon and Anna. There is only a baptism, as if to say, “Here is how it all began. This is when Jesus began to make a difference in peoples’ lives. This is when heaven touched down on earth.” His work began when he was baptized.
For what happened when Jesus comes out of the water? Suddenly he's hurled into the wilderness to battle the devils and demons. He steps onto their own turf to take them on and returns from the wilderness triumphant.
Then he goes to a sleepy synagogue in a small fishing village and begins to preach. Just as he speaks, a man in the fifth pew stands up and starts to yell. Jesus yells right back. The man screams and Jesus screams. Jesus says, “Hush up!” Suddenly the man is healed, and the congregation says, “We’ve never heard a sermon like that before.” Jesus teaches the congregation and mends the man.
Immediately he goes to the house of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up and chases away the fever. And she feels so good, she cooks them lunch.
Immediately the word spreads. Even though it was the Sabbath, suddenly they got busy. The people brought to Jesus all their damaged neighbors. He healed every one of them. It was all in a day’s work: preaching, teaching and saving the world.4
Remember how it got started? When Jesus was baptized. Baptism is the moment when God says, “You belong to me — and I am sending you into the world to make a difference.” To make a constructive difference. To make a holy difference. The heavens have been ripped open, and there is no word that they have been stitched shut. The Spirit comes down, lands on Jesus and is refracted now through everybody who loves Jesus — all to the end of making a constructive difference in the world.
It is not only the water on his head; it is the fire God ignited in his heart. Just as John promised: “I splash you with water, but the one who is coming will fill you with fire.”5
The good news in our text is that God does not abandon the world to its own inclinations. God does not ignore a world that is prone to its own selfishness. God does not walk away from a world that is enamored with its own destruction. No, says Mark, God tears open the sky and comes down here. And in the power of Jesus, lives are healed. Compassion is enlarged. Wisdom is deepened. The world is rescued, one square foot at a time. Heaven is ripped open; grace comes down and earth is changed.
The beginning of our ministry.
But what does this have to do with us? Everything! If Jesus saw a ripped-open heaven, welcomed the Spirit, and heard the voice, then something new is afoot. Baptized people are part of it. The Gospels call it “the kingdom of God,” that non-geographical dominion that continues — and broadens — the work of Jesus. Washed in the waters of baptism and named as beloved in the name of the Trinity, we have work to do.
It does not matter if we spend our time building houses or cleaning them. God has something for us to do with our lives. It does not matter if we are retired, employed or looking for work. Our baptized life is a ministry. Whether we punch numbers into a machine or make life-and-death decisions with the stroke of a pen, what matters is that we serve God, full-time, every hour of every day.
We have been baptized to follow Jesus, ever since he was immersed in the Jordan River and stood up to see the world had changed. When Jesus was baptized, God named him as king. Those of us who are baptized in his name are called to live as if Jesus really is the ruler of heaven and earth. That will not be easy. There are forces that hurt and destroy human life. There are demons to cast out and telephones to answer. There are headaches to cast away and furnaces to fix. There are sins to forgive and equities to establish. Most of all, there are people who need a lot of love. It matters what we do with the time God has given us.
The true Christian does not withdraw from the world to say, “I’ve been washed in the waters of baptism; now I’m going to sit back in my easy chair.” The true Christian says, “It’s time to get out of the water. There is something God has for me to do.”
Baptism is more than knowing that somebody got a little wet. Baptism guides the way we will live. What matters most is how we live after the water has dried.
1 Isaiah 64:1
2 Mark 15:38
3 Mark 1:1
4 The Gospel of Mark constructs the first chapter as a coherent and breathless account of the ministry of Jesus. The work of Christ is inseparable from his baptism and his opening proclamation, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near ...” (Mark 1:15). Some renderings of the verses are the sermon author’s paraphrases.
5 verse 8, author’s paraphrase.