January 8th: “In the Desert”

I. Establish the text

A. Select the Pericope: Gospel Mark 1:4-11

C. Other texts for Year B for the Baptism of the Lord

D. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?

4 Acts 19 clarifies the difference between John’s baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and Jesus’ baptism of being sealed in the Holy Spirit. Although in modern practice we incorporate John’s baptism of confession of sins and repentance, within Christian Baptism.

5 If John was baptizing in the Jordan, in the “wasteland”, and in proximity to Jerusalem and the Judeans, then John would be approximately at the location of the crossing of the Jordan with the waters held back by God, of Israel under Joshua’s command, and of Elijah and Elisha, and where Naaman washed seven times (2 Ki 5:10).

6 Was camel’s hair rare or common?

7 Untying the thongs of sandals”; a job for the lowest of the low, especially considering the lack of modern plumbing and the passage of animals on public streets.

8 How has receiving baptism with water and Spirit made us different?

9 Does Jesus receive John’s baptism, which is confession of sin and repentance, which would make no sense since Jesus was without sin, or does John participate in the baptism of Jesus by the Holy Spirit? If the latter, then does it matter who officiates at a Christian baptism?

10 This affirms that Jesus is baptized by the Holy Spirit.

10 The text does not indicate if anyone other than Jesus sees the “heavens being torn open.” Similarly in our baptism, only the candidate experiences the opening of heaven.

11 Affirmation of the divinity of Jesus and of his free will. For if Jesus did not have free will to sin, then why would God be well pleased of him?

E. Reconsider where the text begins and ends: What got chopped out?

  • Mark 1:1 Functions as a prologue to the whole book, and thus may be excluded from this pericope.
  • 2&3 Foreshadows the significance of John the Baptist as a messenger sent before the Messiah. NB v2 is a misquote of Malachi 3:1 and v3 comes from Isaiah 40:3. Malachi 3:1 accurately inserted here would make an even stronger Christological statement!
    The Revised Common Lectionary parses this into two passages: 1-8 for Advent and 4-11 for the Baptism of our Lord, after Christmas.
  • 12 This begins another story line, although Mark strings it together with “And immediately …”

F. Are there any significant variants in the manuscripts? Why?

5 NIV reverses the order of the baptism and confession of sins. Perhaps reflecting a theology that makes verbal confession of sin a prerequisite of baptism?

10 Most translations smooth out the Markan connection phrase: “And immediately.”

II. Literary Study.

A. What is the history of the text? Who wrote it? When? In what social context? What Historical/Religious/Sociological factors influenced its writing?

The Gospel of Mark may be viewed as either a condensation of Matthew/Luke for evangelists, or the first gospel written and being a source for Matthew and Luke. Because this passage marks the divinity of Jesus, the dealing with Jesus’ divinity at his birth may be a later issue; suggesting that this may be an earlier gospel. Traditionally Mark is viewed as a scribe of Peter, but various critical methods have questioned the historicity of this making it more a matter of faith.

B. What parallel passages exist? How do they differ? How does this author’s intent differ from other authors? Is the text used elsewhere?

  • Matthew 3:1-12 — John demands “fruits of repentance” and warns of separating the wheat for storage from the chaff to be burnt. John would have prevented Jesus’ baptism as unnecessary, but Jesus insists to fulfill righteousness. While the text only mentions Jesus seeing the Spirit of God descending, the voice announces: “This is my Son;” implying that others hear the voice of God.
  • Matthew 3:1 ff Omits the Malachi passage. Includes different exhortations of the Baptizer than Luke. The Baptizer is not fit to CARRY Jesus’ sandals. Jesus baptizes with Spirit and fire. The Baptizer deters baptizing Jesus insisting on Jesus’ primacy. The temptation follows 40-day fast.
  • Luke 3:1-20 — Luke gives the exact year of this occurrence. John baptized not only in the Jordan with the people coming to him, but also in the region around the Jordan. John demands “fruits worthy of repentance” and warns that the Messiah comes with a “winnowing fork.” The actual baptism of Jesus is tacked on like an aside. Luke omits the Malachi passage, but expands the Isaiah passage. Luke also greatly expands the message of John to include exhortations to repent. Luke adds “with fire” after “baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Luke follows the baptism with a long geneology of Jesus. The temptation of Jesus follows the 40 days of fasting. Rather than being tempted for 40 days.
  • John 1:6, 15, & 19-34 — John the Baptist sees the HS descend upon Jesus as a sign that Jesus is the Messiah. John’s Gospel is much more interested in signs. John 1:23ff The Baptizer identifies himself as the voice calling the the desert. The Baptizer identifies Jesus prior to the baptism. The Baptizer reports having seen the Spirit descend upon Jesus. There is no temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus proceeds to call his disciples.

C. Review syntax/meanings of critical words, phrases, idioms

8 Redundant subjects used: “I myself baptized” and “he himself will baptize”.

D. What is the literary style of the text? And how does it affect the reading? What does a poetic form do to the meaning? Lament/Praise/Petition? Any subtle variations in the repetitions? What is emphasized/minimized by the repetition?

  • Mark frequently uses the phrase “and immediately” to connect one vignette to the next and convey the urgency of the gospel.

III. Question the text.

A. Observe the passage from the perspective of its characters.

John is the prophetic voice. What would such a person look like today? He would have to be dressed differently than those around him, yet not so differently dressed as to be shunned. His demands on those around him would have to be different, but within the expectations of the people in order for them to throng to him. Perhaps he would be like a modern-day revivalist, like Billy Graham. However, other than establishing John as a prophet who called for confession of sin and repentance, Mark tells us little about him in order not to distract us from the one coming after him. If one were to preach on John, Mark would have us use John to proclaim Christ and keep Christ as the focus.

Jesus is the recipient of the action. The Baptism happens to him with his only action his coming to John.

The people are only props for the description of John.

No character interaction. Reads like a news report (X happened to Y) rather than as a dramatic history.

B. Are there any unusual details? Un-named characters? ‘Pointless’ description? Meanings of names of characters? What does a literal meaning of natural metaphors imply?

In which wasteland was John preaching: the Negeb or the spiritual wasteland that the people may have been experiencing?

What difference does it make as to what John ate and wore? P. Perkins (NIB) writes that these further John’s credentials as a prophet likening him to Elijah, “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Ki 1:8) and to Daniel in abstention from meat and wine (Dan 1:8).

Dove: Is this also an incarnation of God?

C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?

CoG: This passage is here to establish the divinity of Jesus. John must first be established as a prophet so that his words announce the coming of the Messiah. Thus the passage denotes the coronation of Jesus as the Christ.

Music: “Fairest Lord Jesus”

D. Look for conflict: stated or implied.

  • Jesus has no sins to confess, yet he presents himself to John for baptism which was available to others for confession of sin.

F. How will this text be heard by individuals in the congregation, including the preacher?

  • While the Christmas story is of the Word made Flesh, God made fully human, this story is of Jesus who was fully human made fully divine, or of the Flesh made Word.
  • What would the voice of God the Father have to say to us?
  • Look at “What Presbyterians Believe about Baptism”.

IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?

Ralph Martin (Knox Preaching Guides: Mark, John Knox Press, 1981) likens the opening verse to the title page of a modern book, telling the reader what will follow. Calling this the beginning recalls Genesis 1:1, asserting a new start in the world’s history. He quotes Alexander Whyte: “Life is made up of new beginnings.” He links John’s clothing and diet to Elijah, demonstrating his prophesied return.

Lamar Williamson, Jr. (Interpretation: Mark, John Knox Press, 1983) notes that “John’s appearance and message caused great excitement,” then asks: “How can readers today recover that excitement?” He suggests artful “combining of Malachi 3:1 (influenced by Exodus 23:20) Isaiah 40:3.”

Pheme Perkins (“The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary and Reflection” The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon, 1995)) suggests (p. 529) that Mark choose to dispense with a recounting of a birth narrative of Jesus to avoid the danger of disciples wondering about and focusing on the years of his life prior to the start of his ministry. Such information would have no bearing on God’s plan for salvation. She reflects that “the titles for Jesus are so familiar that is difficult to hear ‘Christ’ or even ‘Son of God’ as though for the first time.” Later, (p. 531) she notes that the call to “prepare the way of the Lord” may also be a warning for the God’s coming in judgment for Christians, thus verses 1-3 may all be considered as introduction to the entire gospel.

Laurie Wheeler (“A Repentant Community” The Presbyterian Outlook, August 18/25, 2008, p. 18.) “Then as now, preparation for rebirth begins in a widespread recognition of the need for forgiveness, and the public demonstration of lives turned around, prepared in hope to receive the Lord and follow in his way.”

V. With respect to the hearers (including the preacher), What does this text want to say and do?

Those times when my sermons were best received,
when parishioners came up and said: “I felt you were preaching directly to me,”
were those times when I was preaching to myself. — Rabbi Chet Diamond

A. What is the theological meaning of the verses?

  • Demonstration of Jesus’ humility and divinity.

B. Focus Statement: Central, controlling, unifying theme.

  • Jesus, who did not need John’s baptism, shared our common lot and the Holy Spirit dwelt through him.

C. Function Statement: What change in the hearer?

  • How has receiving the Holy Spirit made us different?

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