A reflection on Mark 1:4-15
The Gospel of Mark doesn’t begin with stories of Jesus’ birth. There are no angels or shepherds or wise men in his telling of the good news. Instead Mark starts with John the Baptist. And with lots of folks who are searching for something more, something different, something that will bring them close again to God.
Listen again to these words from Mark 1: “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.”
I hear these words and think of us today here in the United States: we who are heavily influenced and formed by popular culture, we who are searching, always, in the middle of our busy lives for deeper connections and more meaning. Like the people of Judea and Jerusalem, we, too, know that things are not right. We don’t feel close to God. We don’t feel close to each other. We are not happy with who we have become. We need something more, something different. What can we do? Where can we turn? Do you have the answer? What works for you? We’re willing to try just about anything, especially if everybody else is doing it. We don’t want to be left out of something that just might be what we need to make us feel good and whole again.
I can imagine us, too, going along with the crowd. Raising our hands. Confessing our sins. Being dunked into the river when it is our turn. Hoping, hoping, hoping that in some way this act of turning and reorienting ourselves will help us feel connected to God again.
John tells those who are coming to confess and be baptized, that there really is something bigger and better on the way: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” he says. “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 the ancient Middle Eastern culture of Jesus’ time, and in many Eastern cultures still today, feet were and are considered the lowliest parts of the body. And sandals or shoes, which come into contact with dust, dirt and debris, are lowlier still. When Bruce and I went to live in Southeast Asia we were told that in certain cultures—in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, for instance—it would be considered rude if we allowed the bottoms of our feet to point toward another person. We learned to be careful about the position of our feet as we sat on the floor to eat or drink tea. And this feeling about feet and shoes was what was behind the incident in Iraq when an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at President Bush during a news conference. One news source explained: “Throwing a shoe at someone is considered the worst possible insult in Iraq and is meant to show extreme disrespect and contempt.” They gave an example: “When U.S. forces helped topple a statue of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, jubilant Iraqis beat the statue’s face with their shoes.”
When John the Baptist proclaims that he is not worthy even to stoop down and untie Jesus’ sandals, he is saying something profound about who Jesus is. He is saying that the one who is to come is worthy of great honor and respect. But he is also setting the stage for an upheaval of cosmic proportions. This Jesus whom John the Baptist rightly puts on a pedestal refuses to stay there. This powerful bearer of the Holy Spirit will not allow human systems of honor and shame to define who his is or how he will relate to people. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that Jesus not only allows his dirty feet to be washed and kissed and perfumed by a woman of bad reputation but he holds this woman who touched his feet up as an example to all who aspire to true worship. And he is willing to touch the feet of others. We know from the Gospel of John that after the Last Supper Jesus bent down and washed the feet of his disciples, sending them out to do the same for others. God will not be kept at arms’ length because of social mores, Jesus seems to be saying to the disciples and to us. And neither will you. As God’s people you are called to be in the midst of whatever is happening with little regard for whether it is considered dirty or clean, lowly or worthy of high respect. No person, including ourselves, is too sinful or too arrogant or too worried or too insignificant for God.
Jesus was and is one of us in all the ways that we are human. We see this illustrated again in verse 9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Jesus was part of the crowd going out to John to be baptized. He did what the crowd did. He went through the whole experience just like everyone else. He was no different from anyone else in that time and place. But at the same time, for him this baptism was something completely different. “As Jesus was coming up out of the water,” Mark writes, “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.’ ” For Jesus this simple act of baptism along with the crowd turns out to be his anointing for ministry. It is the affirmation that he is on the path with God. And it is the first step on his way to the cross.
As Jesus is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart. The Greek verb used here and translated “torn apart” occurs only one other time in the Gospel of Mark. It also appears in the story at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 15, Jesus hangs on the cross. He has been taunted and derided. He has cried out in agony to God. Then he gives a loud cry and breathes his last. And at that very moment, Mark writes, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” Here’s that verb again: The curtain in the temple dividing the holy of holies from the main sanctuary is torn in two. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are torn open. You can almost hear the ripping sound. In both these cases, the impenetrable becomes penetrable. Areas that have been off-limits are opened up. God’s purpose in Jesus from beginning to end is to eliminate the barriers that keep humankind from accessing God’s love.
God’s purpose in Jesus is to let us know that the kingdom is close and that we can enter. All is forgiven. We no longer have to strive to prove ourselves. We no longer have to go through intermediaries to get to God. In Jesus we are shown in no uncertain terms that nothing is blocking our path; we can enter God’s kingdom. God has come near to us. We can come near to God.
This is a wonderfully energizing and freeing truth. It is our salvation. But it doesn’t necessarily mean easy sailing. In fact, things can get downright difficult. Immediately after Jesus is filled with the Spirit and hearing the voice of God claiming and naming him as pleasing and well loved, God’s Spirit drives him out into the wilderness. If you don’t believe it, take another look at this passage for yourself. There’s no pause between these two things—the heaven-blessed baptism and the forced departure into the wilderness. There’s no time for relaxing and basking in the glow of it all. Being filled with the Spirit and recognized by God apparently includes trials and temptations and run-ins with wild beasts. It includes prayer and fasting, suffering and waiting. All this is part of the package. All this is part of being fully human. And all this is part of learning what it means to come closer to God.
The people of Judea and Jerusalem go out into the wilderness looking for something to fill the void in their lives. They feel guilty and long for forgiveness. Like us, they are searching for God. Like us, they want to be made right. Jesus is right there with them and among them. He is the one who is to come, full of power and the Holy Spirit, worthy of glory and honor, yet he is also the one who will bend down and wash his disciples’ dirty feet. Jesus is the one who enters the waters of the Jordan River along with everyone else, only to hear the heavens tear open and the voice of God claim him for greater things. And Jesus is the one who follows faithfully, even when it becomes clear that those greater things that God has in mind include suffering, pain and death. Jesus is right there among the searching crowds in Judea and Jerusalem. And Jesus is right here among us now, reminding us over and over again that all is forgiven and that even death isn’t powerful enough to claim us. Jesus has walked the path of faithfulness before us and assures us with confidence of what is real and true: There are no barriers between us and the everlasting, steadfast love of God.
“The time is fulfilled,” he proclaims as he walks with us through the streets of Galilee, the streets of Denver, the streets of Lakewood and of the world, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Sisters and brothers, this is the word of the Lord and it can be trusted.
Betsy Headrick McCrae is pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Lakewood, Colo. This article is adapted from a sermon she preached there on Jan. 11.