Introduction and Call to Worship
John meets the promised Messiah, Jesus our Lord, at the river Jordan as the Spirit descends upon the ‘Emmanuel’ like a dove. Today we pray that the same spirit of God will come down upon us in Thorpe and fill us with grace.
First Reading Genesis 1:1-5
In the opening words of the Bible we hear of God creating the heavens and the earth.
Second Reading Acts 19:1-7
Paul meets some disciples in Ephesus who had been baptised by John the Baptist. Paul baptises them into the name of Jesus Christ and they speak in tongues and prophesy.
Gospel Mark 1:4-11
Jesus meets John who is baptising the people in the River Jordan. As John baptises Jesus, Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, the Holy Spirit descends on him and the voice of God proclaims him beloved.
Homily “He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ ‘’ (Mark 1:10-11)
There was a lesson in a primary school led by a colleague of mine and it was all about Jonah and the Whale. The Vicar told the children the story and one of the children was particularly interested, but her teacher, who was not a person of faith, said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small and anyway, people were unlikely to be swimming in deep water with whales.
This little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and she knew this to be true because she was told all about it at Sunday School. The Vicar was impressed but the teacher was somewhat irritated, and reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible. “The bible is full of stories children,” she went on to say, “They are illustrations, there to help us understand.” The little girl responded firmly, "Well, I also believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Baptism, and one day when I get to heaven I will ask Jonah. Then I will be sure of the truth". The teacher asked the little girl, "But what if Jonah went to hell?" The little girl replied, "Then you can ask him, Miss!"
Today’s Gospel reading introduces us to John the Baptist, but the Gospels are not the only ancient source of information about the man. He is also mentioned in the historical work of Titus Flavius Josephus, a Roman Jew born in Jerusalem in AD 37. Titus describes John as a man popular with the Jewish people and respected for his godliness and strong call to righteousness. This contemporary text supports Mark’s, the Gospel writer’s view of John as recorded in verse 5 of his first chapter, that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”.
Of course, John’s ministry does not stand alone, for Mark introduces him in a way that connects him both to the past and to the future; the Old and New relationship with God. The description of him as “clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist” is strikingly like the description of the great Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) and therefore John is connected to the ancient Jewish prophetic tradition. At the same time the Baptist’s words point to the future and the coming of Jesus who would, he said, be “more powerful than I”, and would baptise his followers “with the Holy Spirit” the same spirit that moved over the waters in creation (Genesis 1) and Jesus will breathe upon his disciples at Pentecost.
Now that Mark has introduced John the Baptist, the bookend to the Old Testament, he can introduce how God’s new relationship would be brought about, Jesus of Nazareth who insists upon John’s baptism in the Jordan. The account Mark gives us of the baptism is seen from Jesus’ own view; thus, as he comes out of the water, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him”.
Mark writes with simplicity and clarity and draws upon people’s understanding of the cosmos as it was then. They believed the Cosmos had three tiers: the underworld of the dead, the world of the living and the heavens in which God dwelt. The tearing of the heavens is an obvious image of heavenly glory breaking upon a world of brokenness. But given that, at least in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus alone saw this vision, it must have been for his benefit that it was revealed, confirming to him that he was the one to bring in the new relationship with God for all people, time and eternity. The vision is then confirmed to him as the voice of God the Father declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The people to whom John the Baptist ministered were familiar with the tradition recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) of prophets who spoke God’s word, and they saw John as faithfully continuing that tradition in their own time. But John also introduced something new; he bore witness to Jesus who, in a calling higher than that of any of the prophets, would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit.
Friends in faith, through baptism we are promised a place in heaven; but are we prepared today to declare publicly that Jesus Christ is indeed the Son of God, the beloved of God the Father? Then, are we willing to share our gifts with the Church as we seek to build up this community of Thorpe during 2018? Jesus brings in a new relationship of love and forgiveness to all who choose to follow him and that is a wonderful message for us to share. The challenge as the baptized is that we must live out that very belief, following God’s law of love, that we may demonstrate Jesus has made a difference in our lives and therefore will do for others too! So, we must take time to reflect upon our various gifts and what each one of us can offer this year to help in the life of this community – as the baptised today. Amen.
John the Baptist, who is baptising the people in the Jordan, is connected in the passage to the ancient Jewish tradition of prophecy, but also looks to the future when Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus comes out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon him and God the Father affirms Jesus’ mission and his status as the beloved.
The passage raises challenging questions for us about how ready we are to point to Jesus and share our faith with others today. What gifts can we share with the Church this 2018?