The text for the sermon comes from the Gospel:
“And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Today’s epistle is about rightly exercising spiritual gifts. According to St. Paul, these gifts differ “according to the grace that is given to us.” A gift by definition is unearned. It is grace. But then there is the exercising of the gift, in which we must willingly cooperate with and participate in the grace given. So, St. Paul says,
“let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith… he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.”
At the end of our Gospel text, meanwhile, we see the sacrament of baptism inaugurated. And what are the sacraments but the most precious spiritual gifts of all? We cannot earn or merit sacramental grace. We can only receive it as pure gift. The proper posture of reception is faith, which is not at its heart about rightly expressing systematic theology. It is the act of placing trust in Jesus Christ.
Yet our understanding of the sacraments does matter. In one of his “Hymns for the Feast of Epiphany,” St. Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century deacon and hymnographer, declares that “Baptism without understanding is a treasure full yet empty, since he that receives it is poor in it, for he understands not how great are its riches into which he enters and dwells. For great is the gift within it, though the mean man perceives not that he is exalted….” St. Ephrem exhorts us, “Lo! since the gift is abundant, with discernment receive it.”
Whether we understand the sacraments or not has no effect on their reality, but if we have an incomplete understanding, we will be living out of an incomplete narrative. We appropriate and enact baptism in part by understanding what it is and what it does. When we do that, we can better align our lives to the reality of our regeneration. Let’s do that together by working through our Gospel text which, as we will see, invites us to understand Christ’s baptism as both the completion of the Old Testament and the inauguration of the New. It foreshadows Christ’s death and resurrection, into which we all in turn are baptized.
Our text sets the tone for the whole of St. Mark’s Gospel account, an urgent narrative characterized by constant action and abrupt transition. The first three verses are so concise that they do not even constitute grammatically complete sentences:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Mark then skips straight past Jesus’s birth and youth, depositing us in the wilderness — a locale traditionally seen as the haunt of demons — with a camel-hair-clothed, locust-and-wild-honey-eating preacher. This preacher, John, is given no real introduction — nothing but a brief description and two sentences of dialogue. Then Jesus appears to be baptized, and a voice speaks. The verse that follows our Gospel text reads, “And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.” This rapid pace continues throughout the book of Mark — by the end of the first chapter, Jesus has already been tempted in the wilderness, commenced his ministry, called disciples, healed a man with an unclean spirit, healed many others, preached in Galilee, and cleansed a leper.
All the Gospels begin by pointing the reader back to the Old Testament. The genealogies of Matthew and Luke amount to a kind of shorthand. The names of Jesus’s lineage evoke stories — the good but mostly the bad, an occasional triumph amidst a sea of tragedy, some wisdom but more foolishness, and, through it all, God’s faithfulness to his people and his promises.
Mark gives no such genealogy. His opening,“The beginning,” perhaps echoes the introduction of Genesis, like John 1:1, but only vaguely. Yet Mark, no less than the other three Gospel-writers, roots his story firmly in the Old Testament. What is this “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? It seems that we must turn to the Old Testament to know:
“as it is written in the prophets, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
St. Mark’s Gospel frequently invokes motifs from the book of Exodus, and he here combines a phrase from Exodus with quotations from Malachi and Isaiah. The Old Testament references here and throughout all the Gospels present Jesus not only as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy but as in himself true Israel. His life story reenacts and recapitulates the story of Israel. The entire story of the Old Testament is drawn into and completed in the terrestrial life of Christ — and it continues now in his mystical Body, the Church.
“John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.”
John the Baptist bridges the Old and New Covenants. St. Cyril of Jerusalem calls him the “crown of all the prophetic tradition.” He stands in for all the prophets — Origen calls him their “summarizing type” — and on their behalf John confirms that this Jesus is precisely the one whom they foretold.
Christ gives to John the Baptist unequalled praise: “among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). The biblical and extra-biblical sources imply that, at the height of his renown, John may have rivaled Jesus’s terrestrial ministry in fame. But as in our magnificent icon so clearly depicts, John’s entire ministry points us to Christ:
“There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose…. And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.”
The Eastern Fathers reflect at length upon Christ’s baptism as a potent symbol of the Incarnation in all its paradoxical majesty and mystery. An Orthodox hymn for Epiphany notes that in Jesus’s baptism we see “The River of Joy… baptized in the stream” (The Festal Menaion, 295). The One through whom all water was made and in which all things subsist is himself submerged in muddy Jordan. How can this be?
As often as Fr. Glenn has preached on the unfathomable mystery of the Incarnation — on Christmas and just this past Sunday (sort of) — I think I still mostly fail to see the utter weirdness, the mind-bending strangeness of the Incarnation. The very One in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28), I AM THAT I AM (Exodus 3:14), has somehow entered into his creation as a creature. How odd! How scandalous! No wonder Jews and Muslims to this day see the Incarnation as offensive to the transcendence of God! No wonder Arius and his followers felt the need to explain Christ’s divinity away. It would be blasphemous if it weren’t true!
Of course, we must remember that the Incarnation happens, as the Athanasian Creed says, “not by conversion of the Godhead into Flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.” God is not diminished by the Incarnation; humanity is deified. Yet we should not forget that in being made man — in entering his creation as a helpless babe born in a barn — Christ “took upon him the form of a servant,” as St. Paul says (Php. 2:7). The Incarnation is an act of profound humility.
Christ’s baptism is a particular act of humility. St. Matthew’s Gospel dwells on the inversion of Jesus being baptized by John. “I have need to be baptized of thee,” John protests, “and comest thou to me?” (Matt. 3:14). St. Mark’s compact account draws attention not so much to the incongruity between John and Jesus but rather to the startling nature of John’s baptism. John preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,” and it is this baptism to which Jesus submits, despite having no sins to remit. Thus, in his first act in Mark’s Gospel, Christ explicitly identifies himself with sinners. Later Jesus will describe his impending Passion as “the cup that I drink” and “the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:38-39, ESV). From the outset, he expresses a freely chosen solidarity with sinners, and this identification of the Sinless Christ with sinful humanity comes to its awful and glorious climax on the cross.
As our sermon hymn says, “There did he consecrate a bath / To wash away transgression, / And quench the bitterness of death / By his own blood and passion / he would a new life give to us.”
Our baptism baptizes us into Christ’s death. In it we really do die — we renounce our selves by making Christ the Lord of our lives.
“And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The King James translation fails us just a little here. The “heavens opened” does not quite capture the drama of the passage. Other translations have “the heavens being torn open” (ESV) or “split” (Guelich), “torn apart” (NRSV, Mann) or “rent apart” (Hart). The phrase may in fact be a reference to the Rorate Caeli from Isaiah 45:8 — “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.” (You may recall that this was how the choir opened our Advent season last month.)
This rending of the heavens precedes the descent of the Holy Ghost and a voice from heaven — a Trinitarian image, “the Father in the voice, the Son in the man, the Spirit in the dove,” as St. Augustine says. Our own baptism is also Trinitarian in form and in reality. Just as John foretold, we are baptized not only “with water but… with the Holy Ghost.” [And as the lesson from Evening Prayer last night pointed out, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).]
The baptismal scene climaxes with God the Father’s proclamation of favor, a statement that we usually see as a declaration of Christ’s relation to the Father in his unique divinity:
“Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
It is indeed a declaration of divinity! But we should never forget that, in being baptized into Christ’s death, we are also, as St. Paul tells us, “risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). We share in his death and in his resurrection, and we indeed partake of his divine life (2 Pet. 1:4).
At every baptism, the heavens are rent, the Spirit descends, and the voice of God speaks:
“Thou art my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”