David L. Bartlett is Lantz Professor of Communication and Preaching at Yale University Divinity School.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 19-26, 1990, p. 1193, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Jesus’ baptism is tied to a history that leads back from John the Baptist to Isaiah to the first words of Genesis. Our new life is bound to those who prepared us for faith, and through them to the history of the church, to the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to the affirmations and promises of the "First Testament" and to God’s kindness in creating the universe.
Early on in my lectionary study and preaching I learned to take the assigned limits of the biblical passages as suggestive rather than prescriptive. I found occasionally that assigned passages began too late or ended too soon for the movement of the pericope, and once in a while odd excisions were made right in the middle of the text.
The most obvious and perhaps the most telling connection between the first chapter of Mark and the first chapter of Genesis is to be found in what the lectionary committee omitted from Mark:
"In the beginning when god created the heavens and the earth . . . ." (Gen. 1:1, NRSV) , and "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1)
Both passages are about beginnings -- not modest but spectacular beginnings: the beginning of God’s creation and the beginning of God’s good news in Jesus Christ. Borrowing a suggestion from St. Paul, we can say that both passages are about creation: the creation of the universe and the new creation in which we participate as believers in Jesus’ gospel, good news.
For Mark the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is Jesus’ baptism. Matthew and Luke both begin with Jesus’ birth, or rather before Jesus’ birth in the lists of his ancestors and the report of visions and prophecies to Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah. John begins explicitly with creation: "In the beginning was the Word."
Mark, the earliest Gospel, begins not with the beginning of Jesus’ life but with the beginning of his ministry. Yet this remarkable first, this new moment in human history, is not brand new. Implicitly, by his first sentence, Mark links new creation to creation, gospel to Genesis. Explicitly Mark links the events of Jesus’ ministry to the promises of the Old Testatment. Before Jesus comes on the scene, Mark recalls the prophecy to Isaiah: "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way." John the Baptist is himself a link between old and new. He fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. He is a prophetic figure. In dress and message he is especially reminiscent of the prophet Elijah.
We notice the odd juxtaposition. God is doing something utterly new. The gospel begins. But this utterly new gospel is nonetheless prepared for, related to what God has done from the beginning in creating the world and sending the prophets. Jesus stands at the beginning of a new history, but he is also the culmination of an ongoing history.
Mark marches naïvely or cleverly past the most problematic part of the story. How is it that Jesus can be baptized by John who proclaims "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins"? Mark concentrates instead on the signs that underscore the meaning of Jesus’ baptism for him. The heavens are torn apart and God’s Spirit descends. I heard Don Juel of Luther Northwestern Seminary share an insight of one of his students: From beginning to end (from the rent heavens to the rent veil in the temple) Mark’s Gospel is about God’s breaking out of the holy places to dwell with us -- in Jesus Christ. The divine voice confirms the meaning of the sign (again using words from the Old Testament, new and old together) : "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased" (see Ps. 2:7)
The lectionary may shortcut the passage at the end as well as at the beginning. in verses 12-13 the same Spirit who descends in blessing drives Jesus into the wilderness. In a few verses Mark sketches what becomes the temptation narrative in Matthew and Luke. Jesus, who brings a new creation, a new kingdom, the turning of the ages, lives among the beasts -- symbols of temptation and threat -- but is blessed by the angels -- symbols of astonishing promise.
There are undoubtedly great dangers in making any simpleminded connections between Jesus’ baptism and our baptisms. However, there are greater dangers in ignoring altogether the suggestions this story makes for our own lives.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ baptism is a moment of almost incomprehensible drama. The creation of the earth foreshadows and is fulfilled by the new creation of the gospel. How different the place of baptism in our churches. Infant baptism is sometimes little more than a fulfillment of cultural expectations: send birth announcements, furnish the nursery, get the child baptized. And "believer’s" baptism may simply fulfill a set of cultural assumptions centered on adolescence rather than infancy: join the scouts, have your first date, get baptized.
However we understand the New Testament on baptism, surely we can acknowledge that in baptism every Christian participates in new creation. Add to our birthday this day of new birth. While the heavens probably are not rent in two and no divine voice may declare us members of God’s family, our baptism does seal our astonishing relationship to a gracious God. It is the beginning of the good news that we are part of God’s new creation. The moment of baptism calls for awe and delight; the point of baptism is to give us our most fundamental identity, as members of the family of faith.
Jesus’ baptism is tied to a history that leads back from John the Baptist to Isaiah to the first words of Genesis. Our new life is bound to those who prepared us for faith, and through them to the history of the church, to the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to the affirmations and promises of the "First Testament" and to God’s kindness in creating the universe. (The use of "First Testament" instead of "Old Testament" helps underscore what Mark affirms: in the new creation we gracefully accept what God has done in the Law and the Prophets. "Old Testament" sounds like yesterday’s news. For Mark and the church the Hebrew Bible is always part of today’s news, too.)
In our baptism the God who makes all things new makes us new, too, but brings us as new creatures into an ongoing saving history.