Mark tells the story of John baptising Jesus in very few words. Let’s hear it again:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, 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.’
That’s it. Mark tells the story of John baptising Jesus in very few words; and he tells it from Jesus’ point of view. The heavenly voice speaks to him: ‘You are my Son…’ Jesus sees the Spirit descending like a dove, and Jesus sees the heavens ‘torn apart’.
Did anyone else see or hear anything as far as Mark was concerned? We just don’t know. Mark seems to be presenting it as a purely personal experience of Jesus.
I’m really intrigued about one thing. The first thing Jesus saw was ‘the heavens torn apart’. That’s a pretty violent image, don’t you think? Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Matthew and Luke tone it down in their stories of Jesus’ baptism. You need to be aware that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as one of the sources for their own work, and they moderated Mark’s language at a few points. This is one of those points.
…suddenly the heavens were opened to him…
And in Luke we read,
…the heaven was opened…
We may prefer Matthew and Luke over Mark. Their accounts are calmer. ‘Opening’ is quieter than tearing apart. It’s more serene, more in keeping with the tranquility suitable to proper religious occasions.
Yet I can’t help thinking that Mark’s version would please the prophet Isaiah more. Isaiah’s heart yearned and burned for God to come down. He once wrote (64.1),
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…
Well Isaiah, it’s happened at last: the heavens are torn apart.
And what happens? Jesus sees ‘the Spirit descending like a dove on him’ and the voice of the Father says ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
You know, we’ve heard another story today about water, the spirit and the voice of God.
This first story is about what happened ‘in the beginning’.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
This creation story describes a watery chaos, over which the Spirit of God swept. If you look at your NRSV pew bible, you’ll see it doesn’t say ‘the Spirit of God’; the words are ‘a wind from God’. It says ‘the spirit of God’ in the footnote. Spirit, wind, they’re exactly the same word in Hebrew. And in Greek. We have to decide whether the word means spirit or wind or perhaps implies both.
I reckon that when Mark wrote his Gospel, he was reading it as ‘the Spirit of God’ sweeping over the face of the waters. I say that because I think his story of Jesus’ baptism is meant to remind us of the story of Genesis 1.
Genesis has water, it has the Spirit, it has the voice of God: ‘Let there be light’.
Mark’s Gospel has water, the Spirit, and the voice of God the Father: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Water, the Spirit, a heavenly voice; could it really just be coincidence that both stories have all three? (Answer: no.)
Just in case you’re still thinking this may be all a coincidence, let me show you one more thing they have in common: they are each a beginning. The first words of Genesis are ‘In the beginning’. The first words of Mark’s Gospel are ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.
It’s clear that Genesis is the beginning of creation, with its watery chaos, its Spirit-wind, and the Voice. In the same way, Mark with its water, its Spirit-dove, and Voice is the beginning of a new creation—a new creation in Jesus Christ.
The Spirit who swept over the water of chaos descends upon Jesus Christ; the Voice who said ‘Let there be light’ says to Jesus, ‘You are my beloved Son.’ In the Gospel According to St Mark, this happens because the heavens are torn apart.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, there is a huge difference between the heavens being torn apart and their just being opened.
If something is opened, like a door or a window, it can be closed again. But if something as large as the heavens is torn apart, it stays torn apart. Once the heavens are torn apart, that’s it, they are flapping in the breeze and there are ragged bits everywhere.
Friends, there is a tear between earth and heaven which has produced a permanent opening, one which will never be closed.
A tear through which the Spirit streams and a Voice calls. A tear through which the pentecostal Spirit comes upon all flesh and through which the Father calls to all people, You are my child, my beloved! In you I am well pleased.
What about our baptism? When we are baptised, we are baptised into union with Jesus Christ. When we baptise, we say these words:
Baptism is Christ’s gift.
It is the sign by which the Spirit of God
joins people to Jesus Christ
and incorporates them into his body, the Church.
Baptism joins us to Jesus. It is the sign by which those words God spoke to Jesus, the words that God now speaks to all people, are now spoken to us.
You are my Son, you are my Daughter, you are Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
And baptism is the sign that shows the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, comes upon us.
This all sounds very different from what we see in a usual service of baptism doesn’t it? We see a cute baby and proud parents. But God sees a new creation, someone to whom those words are spoken personally.
You are my child, you are my beloved, I love you so very much.
God sends the Spirit to begin the work of reminding us of Jesus’ teaching, the work of remaking us in the image of Christ.
My dear friends, this is a life-long journey. It is a journey with the Spirit of Jesus through the highs and the lows of life. The first thing the Spirit did when it came upon Jesus was to drive him out in the Judean wilderness. I remember thinking when I saw it almost two years ago, it’s pretty stark out there!
The life of a baptised person is a life in which the heavens have been torn open for us personally, so that in any and all circumstances the Spirit keeps descending upon us and God keeps saying, Hey, don’t forget! You are my beloved child, I am pleased with you!
So often we don’t hear that voice. Our own inner voices, perhaps accusing voices, drown it out. The sounds of politicians and advertisements and newspaper publishers drown it out. We need to take time every day to listen to that voice. We would be so much more confident disciples if we did.
Some Christian people think that it matters that they don’t remember their baptism because they were too young. They can’t remember being joined to Jesus Christ, therefore they’re not sure it’s been done right.
So, were you there when the Spirit of God swept over the waters of chaos and the Voice said ‘Let there be light’ in the beginning? No? Can you be sure that the world is really here if you weren’t there at the beginning? Yes, you can.
In just the same way, if you can’t remember your baptism you can be sure that Jesus was there at your beginning. You can be assured that the Spirit of God is within you and among us; you can be sure that God says to us each one,
You are my child, you are beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Let us now come to the font and reaffirm the baptismal covenant made with us in Christ.