New Beginnings - Mark 1:1-11
One week in August 2017, I came home from Pennsylvania for my uncle’s funeral. It was the end of his earthly journey, but also a new beginning for him, his heavenly birthday you might say. I led his service and the very next day my sister-in-law gave birth to my niece Cecelia. I remember seeing a wonderful quote by Henry David Thoreau as you entered the maternity wing of the hospital: “Every child begins the world again”. It was powerful to have a loved one’s death and another’s birth one right after the other. And the week wasn’t over yet. Right after I left the hospital, I travelled to Maryland to officiate a friend’s wedding. It was a week full of new beginnings.
New Year’s is always a time to ponder new beginnings. The daylight lasts a little longer each night, people might start a new diet or exercise routine, or maybe you start a new devotional practice or reading. In the church year it’s a time for new beginnings too. After celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas and the visitation of the Magi on Epiphany, the church year quickly moves to the adult Jesus and his baptism. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark there is no birth narrative at all; this story is our introduction to Jesus. And the Old Testament reading today was from the very beginning, the creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. So really today is a day to reflect on beginnings: the beginning of creation and the beginning of Jesus’s mission in the world.
Now Genesis was traditionally attributed to Moses, but nowhere does the author identify himself. Modern scholars believe Genesis was complied and written in its current form during the Babylonian exile around 580BC. The oral tradition may be older, but they wrote it down at this time because the Jews in Babylon had lost almost everything and wanted to preserve their religious tradition for future generations. The book of Genesis emphasizes that in creation God brought order to the chaos of the primordial world. This was important because it showed the God of Israel was a God of order who brings peace to the chaos. Unlike the Babylonian creation myth which told of how the sky god Marduk killed the earth goddess Tiamat, cut her body in two and used half to create the earth, and the other half to create the sky. Rather than violence and chaos being the origins of the world, Genesis affirms that this is a benevolent universe and that creation is good. Genesis says over and over again, “And God saw that it was good”. The repetition is there for a reason.
The Genesis story emphasizes things that Jews in exile needed to be reassured of. Chapter 1 emphasizes the transcendence and power of God—how God creates by speaking things into existence. Later in Genesis 2 the story reflects the intimacy and closeness of God—how God molds human beings out of the clay of the earth and walks through the garden with Adam and Eve.
This creation story was good news for exiles in Babylon who felt unsure about their future. And this story is good news for us today as well. It reveals a God who is both powerful and transcendent; and loving, caring, and close. We can trust creation is good and feel a sense of belonging and hope in the world. We know God is with us. Even in the midst of chaos, we know God is in control.
That brings us to Mark chapter 1. Mark is the shortest and probably the first gospel written. And we see here the beginning not of creation, but the beginning of Jesus’ public mission and ministry. While Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ birth, Mark gets right into Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, calling of disciples, and the beginning of his ministry all in chapter 1. Some see Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of the new creation or the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. Others point to his birth on Christmas, or the Resurrection on Easter, or the Holy Spirit coming on Pentecost as the exact moment. But, at least as Mark tells the story, Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of it all. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ story, the beginning of the Kingdom of God manifesting in the world.
People often wonder: Why was Jesus baptized? That’s a mystery I don’t think we’ll ever know in this life. Maybe he didn’t understand who he was until the voice from heaven declared him God’s beloved Son. Or maybe he did and this was meant to be a sign to John the Baptist that the one he was preparing the way for had come. Maybe Jesus did it to officially open his ministry. Maybe he did it to identify with those he came to save. And maybe it was a ritual purification before being filled with the Holy Spirit. Some even say he’s possessed by the Holy Spirit from here on out.
There’s a lot of thoughts behind the why of it. But the real thing that’s important to remember this morning is that Jesus came into the world, was baptized, taught, healed, died, and rose again all of out of love for us. Jesus’ baptism tells us something about God. It reveals the same thing the authors of Genesis wanted to display: God’s transcendence and power and also God’s immanence, love, and closeness. Jesus’ baptism is a concrete, physical event that reveals the Son of God’s identification with humanity.
Like Jesus, we are also baptized. And because of Jesus, the sinless one, we have been cleansed of sin. Because of God’s love for us, we have been called and claimed as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High. We are set free from sin and given new life in Christ.
In his book Baptized We Live, Pastor Daniel Erlander describes that in baptism: “Our identity for all the days of our life is set! We are children of God, priests of the King, disciples of Christ, a servant of people, a holy nation, the communion of saints, followers of the Way, proclaimers of the wonderful deeds of God. Jesus’ story becomes our story. Baptized into his death, we are raised to live as the Body of Christ in the world today.”
Baptism is a new beginning for all of us. And so today is a day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and also a day we celebrate the gift of our own baptism. It’s a day to give thanks for God’s love and grace. A day to celebrate the beginning of Jesus’ work in the world and his work in us. It’s a day to be inspired to follow wherever the Spirit is calling us next. It is a day to rejoice that we are Christians, who share in the baptism of Jesus. Baptized we live, beloved children of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.