It Begins with "Beloved"
Mark 1:4-11, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 11, 2015, The Baptism of Jesus
The first part of the rushed Gospel of Mark deals almost obsessively with the question “Who is this guy?” The demons know who he is; the lepers know; we learn that he has the authority to forgive sin, that he is like a bridegroom at a wedding party, that he is Lord of the Sabbath. This builds to a climax in chapter 8 when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah.”
In the past, I’ve read this baptismal story as part of that revelation of who Jesus is. But it dawned on me this week that the voice from heaven does not announce, “This is my Son, the Beloved; in whom I am well pleased” (as Matthew changed it to). No, the voice says to Jesus and no one else, “You are my Son, the Beloved; I am well pleased with you.” That puts a whole different spin on things. It was Jesus who needed to hear from God, not the crowd. The voice of the Divine, whom Jesus called “my Father,” clarified for Jesus his sense of his own identity. “You are my Son.” For most Jewish ears that would be an echo of Psalm 2:7 in which God says to the king, “You are my son; today I have adopted you.” It would mean that Jesus is the future king of Israel, the Messiah. Of course, Jesus may have heard the voice saying that he was sent from heaven to earth. But the voice doesn’t stop there. It says, in the literal translation of the Greek that the NRSV chose to use, “You are…the Beloved.”
It strikes me that Jesus might not have known that. So many humans reach adulthood not knowing that they are the Beloved in their father’s eyes. I like the way the New Living Translation has the voice saying, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” Did you ever get to hear your father say that to you? Jesus needed that. It seems to me that this is an event in the life of Jesus’ growing self-awareness which he needed in order to get on with his mission.
If you read just the gospel of Mark and don’t combine it with Matthew or Luke, you get no sense of anxiety about why Jesus should be baptized by John or why Jesus should be baptized for repentance. I’m guessing that questions about the appropriateness of this story—how it fit in with ideas about Jesus’ divinity and sinlessness—arose later. In Mark, you have a paragraph about the prophet John, the baptizer, as a kind of prelude to the gospel. John is the preparer of the way by calling people to repent so that God will come to them. He is very successful. He becomes the Thing around Judea—like Billy Graham in the old days in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden. John is “a phenomenon” and everybody’s going to see him even though he is out in the desert. But John’s message is that God is coming in the form of a spiritual deliverer. “The one who is coming,” he said, “is way more powerful in the Spirit than I am. I am not even worthy to be his slave and take his shoes off for him. I’m immersing you in water as a sign of repentance, but the one who is coming will immerse you in God’s Spirit.”
Then—boom!—Jesus of Nazareth appears. He gets baptized by John just like everybody else. If you need to explain it, you can say that Jesus was showing his solidarity with Israel or even with humanity in the act of repenting and turning toward God. John’s baptism wasn’t really about washing yourself of naughty deeds; it was about preparing for the kingdom of God to come. But when Jesus is coming up out of the river where, he sees the heavens torn apart. Mark doesn’t say that anyone else saw this; maybe not. It was like an answer to the prayer of Isaiah 64 that we sometimes read during Advent: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Jesus sees God coming down in the form of his Spirit, and either it was represented by an actual dove or it simply floated down the same way a dove might flap its wings and land on the head of a person. But the critical part is the voice. Since Jesus is the one who saw the Spirit come down, we can guess that Jesus is the one who heard the voice.
One way to read this story is to imagine Jesus coming to the Jordan River as a lay teacher from Nazareth who came to repent just like everyone else. He goes down into the water and comes out, and to his surprise a voice says to him, “You don’t need to repent. You are already my child. You are the Beloved. You fill me with delight.” I’m not saying that we don’t need to repent. We do need to turn away from the self-centered life to the God-centered life. But when we do we might hear the same words that Jesus heard: You are my child. You are beloved. I take pleasure in you.”
In Romans, as you heard, Paul makes a lot of the idea of baptism as identifying with Jesus. We become one with his Spirit, with his purposes, with his attitude. We identify with the fact that Jesus died to the things of this world and then was given a new and mighty life by God. But we also identify with being beloved. We are baptized into his belovedness.
Baptists have emphasized the voluntary nature of baptism. But reading the story of Jesus’ baptism it seems to me that the emphasis is not so much on Jesus’ active choice as on what happened to Jesus, the blessing and confirmation he received. When we ourselves are baptized, or think back on our baptisms, we ought to think of it not just as the day we made a choice but as the day God confirmed who we are. That blessing of knowing that you are deeply loved is something that happens to you, not something you can simply choose. God’s Spirit comes on you and works inside you and whispers, “You are my child, my beloved, and I am pleased with you.”
Did you ever want to please somebody? Was there ever a time when you wanted to please someone and you did the best you could, but they never said anything? Maybe they didn’t notice. Maybe they thought your best was just your duty. Maybe you weren’t good enough. All those thoughts go through our minds about our relationship with God, too. But at the heart of the gospel is this message which comes to us just as it came to Jesus: you don’t have to work to please me; you already please me. You are beloved, and nothing can change that.
That’s where Jesus’ ministry starts, and that’s where yours starts. Let me say a word about baptism: it’s not magic; it’s not required to go to heaven; but baptism—especially when you have the story acted out by going down into the water and coming up—does create a marker for your own life. I would love to baptize you if you haven’t been baptized, because it’s as much a blessing as a witness. You get baptized because you’ve stopped running from God long enough to let his Spirit grab hold of you and tell you that you are loved and forgiven and reunited to the family as a child of God. But in that moment of baptism—and I used to baptize 12-15 people every year, most of them adults—the Spirit does speak to you again with a word like the one that came to Jesus: you are beloved, you are my child, and you bring me joy.
I can’t stop thinking about the movie we showed Friday night—Boyhood, filmed over 12 years so you literally watch a boy grow up from 6 to 18, and you see his parents age and mature, you see divorce and abuse happen, and teenage experimentation. By the time it ended, I just loved that boy Mason, and the young actor who I’m guessing is not all that different from the character. I wanted to reach out to him and repeat what his parents never quite said to him: that he is loved, that he is a child of God, that he pleases God as he is but God also wants him to be part of God’s purposes in this world.
The movie has a very simple plot line of a boy growing up like many American kids with several configurations of family including single parenting and blended families. But beyond that, Boyhood is about a search for meaning by people without God in their lives. People look for meaning in family, and in jobs, and in romantic relationships, and in art. But nothing quite satisfies. When Mason is about to head off to college and his mother is thinking about the empty nest, she breaks down sobbing at the kitchen table. It’s not just that she will miss him. She doesn’t know what meaning her life will have now. Through her tears, the Mom runs through the milestones in her life: getting married, having kids, divorcing, getting a lousy job, going back to school, getting a good job as a professor, marrying two bad husbands and divorcing them, and seeing her kids grow up and go off on their own. Then she says to Mason, “You know what’s next? My funeral! I just…I just thought there would be more.” After a while, Mason replies, “Don’t you think you’re skipping ahead about 40 years?” But he realizes that his Mom is just like him at age 18, still trying to figure out who she is and what the purpose of her life is beyond family and work.
Have you ever read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl? It’s been around for 55 years, but you should read it sometime. Frankl completed his training as a neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna just before the Nazis took over Austria. He was Jewish, if only ethnically, so he was told he could only treat Jews. But before long he was shipped out to the first of four concentration camps. He survived. Dr. Frankl wrote about what helped people to cope and to survive in the camps; what he found was that people could endure suffering if for them it had some meaning. He wrote, “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
About the time Mason graduates from high school, his girl friend who has already gone to the University of Texas leaves him for a lacrosse player. Mason decides not to go there as he had planned but to go as far away in the state as he could. His Dad takes him to see his grownup hippie uncle play a gig with his band, and while they are waiting in the club, Mason engages his dad in a serious conversation. At first it’s about why he had to lose the girl.
But then Mason asks, “So what’s the point?”
“What do you mean?” Dad responds. “What’s the point of what?”
“Of any of this,” Mason says. “Everything.”
Dad laughs. “No one knows. We’re all just winging it.”
There’s no “framing story” for their lives. They know next to nothing about the Christian narrative that forms a frame for my life. Earlier in the movie Mason’s Dad married a woman from a Christian family; when they visit the new grandparents out in the country, it’s Mason’s 16th birthday, so the grandmother gives him a red-letter Bible, the first one he’s had. It’s almost funny, but the movie doesn’t mock her and Mason is kind about it. The whole family goes to church, apparently for the first time ever, where they hear a sermon about Thomas. The pastor’s point is that it’s hard to believe in someone you can’t see, but Jesus says that those who believe without seeing are blessed more than those who touched Jesus. Dad and his new wife have an infant son who is being baptized. When they leave the church, Mason asks his Dad, “Was I ever baptized?” The Dad raises his eyebrows as if to say “You’ve got to be kidding” and says, with a laugh, “I wasn’t concerned about your soul.”
That’s the way most of our neighbors are growing up. They don’t know enough to frame their own stories in terms of the story of God loving us and becoming one of us and reaching out to sinners and the poor and rejects. They don’t know that Jesus came to bring God’s reign on earth, a reign of mercy and peace and justice, and that he came to bring the abundant life of the Spirit to everyone who would accept it. Most of all, they have not had that moment when they heard a voice from heaven say to them and them alone, “You are my child, the beloved, and I am pleased with who you are.”
Raymond Carver was one of the greatest writers of the last few decades—a working class recovering alcoholic who wrote American realistic fiction and poetry. Sometimes he dropped religious symbols into his stories and it’s hard to know what to make of them. Late in his life he found true love in the writer Tess Gallagher who taught with him at Syracuse. Carver died of lung cancer at age 50, a few weeks after he finally married Tess. The last poem in his last book, which is inscribed on his tombstone, was called “Late Fragment.”
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.