A Baptism for Repentance
The Baptism of the Lord. Fr Dermot Morrin preaches on how Jesus’s baptism shows forth his identity and his mission.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus first appears not as a child, as in Matthew and Luke, but as a grown man. His first act is to receive the baptism of John, not for his own sake, but for ours. With the baptism, he begins his mission and through it we who read the Gospel can begin to see why he came, which is that we might be saved from sin. His entry into the waters of the Jordan river has in view our entry into the life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The one, whom the Father calls ‘my beloved Son’ (1:11) would have us become in him sons and daughters of Father.
Mark begins his Gospel in the wilderness. The word he uses means a lonely place, but it has a deeper meaning within the story of Israel. Sometimes we think of the wilderness in a negative way as in the place from which the wayward or lost sheep needs to be rescued. But some of the later prophets saw the wilderness in a more positive light. It was in the wilderness that God accompanied the people of Israel and led them until they reached the promised land. Looking back to that time, and comparing it with the sinfulness of their own generation, their hopes for the future focused on the wilderness as the setting for a new Exodus. Mark not only begins his Gospel in the wilderness, he presents John to us as ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord’ (1:3). When Mark adds that ‘all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem’ (1:5) went out to John in the wilderness, you might wonder if this is an exaggeration. But Mark wants us to remember the time when the whole of Israel was in the wilderness, so that we will understand that now in Jesus a new Exodus is underway. This new Exodus is the mission of Jesus and his baptism by John is its first sign.
Although a great many Israelites were baptised by John, the baptism of Jesus is entirely different. They all confessed their sins. Jesus is without sin and therefore could not confess sin or repent. But actually, he does far more. As the Son he perfectly obeys the Father. When we overhear the voice of the Father declare to Jesus, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased’ (1:11), what is revealed has two parts. First of all, the unique status of Jesus as the beloved Son of the Father is revealed. But secondly, we should also understand that of all those baptised by John, only Jesus responds in perfect obedience. It is this singular obedience, which is first seen in his baptism, which is pleasing to the Father.
John had ‘proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ (1:4) The word translated as ‘repentance’ means to undergo a change of mind. It can mean more than regret for sin. It is as much about turning back to God as turning away from sin. This helps us to see what it means for Jesus, who is without sin, to undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and why this act is so pleasing to the Father. In fact, we might see in this single act all those other acts, which follow later in the Gospel, whereby Jesus reaches out to sinners and calls them to a change of mind and heart. Sin brings about division. It isolates and it wounds. But Jesus, because he is without sin, must seek out the sinner. He draws us to him, forgives our sins and heals us.
The voice from heaven will speak again at the Transfiguration and will again call Jesus his beloved Son (9:7). Jesus is called the Son of God for a third time near the end of the gospel. This third time, it comes from a very different voice. The Gentile soldier who witnessed his death declares, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’ (15:39). Putting the three statements together, we see how his baptism, his death on the cross and his glory are but different aspects of who Jesus is and of his mission to save us from our sins.
Just before Jesus arrives in the wilderness John declares, ‘I have baptised you with water but he will baptise with the Holy Spirit’ (1:8). By baptism with the Holy Spirit we can understand him to mean our baptism, which is accomplished not through water alone, but through water and the Holy Spirit. When Jesus went down into the waters of the Jordan river, we who are baptised in him can see his death prefigured. Mark says that as he arose from the waters, immediately the heavens opened and the Spirit descended (1:11) and in this we see the glory of the resurrection prefigured, and not just his resurrection, but ours, and that the life he gives us now, is but the foretaste of the life of the world to come.