Wednesday, January 4th. Mark 1:2-8

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark 1:2-8

Back in November I was part of a Jewish/Christian interfaith wedding at our church.  As part of our preparations for the wedding, I invited Rabbi Dan to come and spend a morning with me.  I wanted to learn as much as I could about his theology of marriage, the meanings behind the various Jewish traditions in the wedding, and just generally talk “church shop” with my cousin in the faith.

The conversation became wide-ranging and eventually we got around to what it takes for a Christian to convert to Judaism.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that the last step, in a long process, for both women and men is to be baptized, ceremonially washed with water.  (I’ll admit that I was taken aback at the news that men would need to be circumcised or, if that was already taken care of, be expected to yield a drop of blood from a sensitive donor site.)

Yet my sense is that many Christians would be surprised to learn that Christians didn’t “invent” baptism, just as many Christians are surprised to be reminded that Jesus was a Jew rather than a Christian as we understand it.  The ceremonial use of water is part of nearly every religious tradition.  This ought not be surprising given that water is one of the basic building blocks of life.

What IS surprising is that Jesus, not to mention “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem”, all firmly Jewish, would have traveled out to the wilderness to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. 

Why?  Mark tells us it was “baptism with water”, “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The universal meaning of baptism is transformation; it is a change, a movement from one state of being to another.  The unclean is washed clean.  It is a symbol of death and rebirth.  It is both the ending of the old and the beginning of the new.  God was doing a new thing along that river and the people were streaming out to be a part of it.  Jesus among them.

This weekend we will remember this baptism of Jesus in worship.  Pastors will offer various interpretations of what it means.  Central to any such interpretation will be the conviction that the public ministry of Jesus begins with his baptism and that Jesus begins that ministry by publicly identifying himself with sinners. 

Baptism for us then means both that we are set free from our bondage to sin and rebellion from God AND that we are set free TO serve the world in Jesus’ name.  It isn’t an initiation rite into a club but a commissioning to service.  Baptism doesn’t take us out of the world, it sends us back into the world as newly born followers of Jesus.

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, we see your humility and love as you entered the Jordan to be baptized by John.  May we see in our own baptism how graciously you love us as you claim us as your own.  We pray today for those searching for a spiritual home – that they might find spiritual mentors who are genuine, generous, and loving who can help prepare them for their own baptisms into your service.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 


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