This is the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark – the shortest of the Gospels, the oldest, the one written in the roughest Greek, and the one told with the most urgent excitement. Mark tells us the good news like an out of breath child on the schoolyard who has just seen the most amazing thing: and then, and then, and then he says.
Because of Mark’s roughness, because of his breathlessness (there is a fascinating new translation of scripture, in which the translator renders Mark’s rough Greek into rough English), we might be tempted to suppose that his writing lacks sophistication or nuance or even intelligence. Words are a kind of a currency, they are a marker of privilege and status, and we have a long history, thoroughly tied into class and race, of declaring that those who use language differently from the wealthy and the powerful are stupid.
But to fall into that temptation is to do a disservice not only to the one who speaks or writes but to ourselves. Because to dismiss a whole section of our neighbours as stupid is to miss what those neighbours have to teach us. In the case of Mark, to contrast his rough and racing style with, say, the educated polish of Luke and to then conclude Mark’s Gospel is lacking would to miss Mark genius.
Mark might very well have been a guy who was lived most happily in the world of oral story telling, he might have been more at home around the campfire or the water cooler than in front of the quill or the word processor. But that doesn’t diminish his craft, his brilliance as a writer and as an evangelist. The part of his craft that I want to focus on in this passage this morning is his staggering and wondrous use of symbols.
Mark’s begins the story of Jesus at the Jordan River. So, unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors, and nor is there an infancy narrative. If we only had Mark to draw on, there would be no Christmas pageant.
Mark starts here at the water, with the eccentric and mystic and dangerous figure of John standing at its side.
The river itself is the first symbol that I’d like us to notice. This the body of water that, in the tale of Israel’s escape from oppression and slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel cross in order to enter into the promised land. This river, in other words, is heavy with metaphor. To step into its waters, to cross over it is to pass from bondage into freedom, from death into life.
At the time that Mark’s story begins, Israel is once again oppressed, once again living under the boot of a brutal dictatorship. Israel is living under occupation. So, to begin here at the Jordan is a profoundly political statement.[i] It is a statement about freedom. Mark begins the story of Jesus in a physical location that announces that Jesus will critique the occupation and resist the occupation and offer a non-violent and holy and liberative and healing alternative to the occupation.
The meaning of the setting at the Jordan would almost assuredly have been obvious to Mark’s Jewish listeners. But it likely would’ve been hidden to any Roman soldiers listening in. Like African American slaves singing songs about going to heaven which are also songs about going to Canada or otherwise escaping slavery, like millions of oppressed people before and since, Mark speaks about liberation in code.
Beginning the story at the Jordan means that in Jesus you and I will find freedom.
The river also informs the next symbol that we will encounter, that of baptism. We are out in the wilderness, in a location – then and now – of danger and of discovery, of getting lost and getting found. And there we see John employing a ritual from the city. The baptism that we see today in the wilderness, on the river, on the outside, on the literal and figurative border of Israel, is something that we would expect to see in civilization, in the Temple in Jerusalem. We would expect to see it under the stewardship – or, if we are feeling more critical or even cynical, under the ownership and control – of the priests who serve there.
What does it mean that in Mark we encounter baptism in the hands of John – in the hands of someone unqualified by the rules of the Temple to perform it? What does it mean that this baptism happens just about as far as you can get from the Temple is that God?
Perhaps it means that God, whom we will meet in the person of Jesus, will not and cannot be bound by our rules or by our borders. Jesus will share meals with anyone, heal anyone, tell stories with anyone, share the Kingdom with anyone, whether they be found on Israel’s side of the Jordan or beyond.
Beginning the story with baptism in the wilderness tells us that, to borrow the provocative words of Ellen Clark-King, the holiness of God is promiscuous. We will find that love even in the borders and the margins, maybe especially at the borders and the margins.
The last symbol that would like for us to encounter is the one that comes after Jesus’ baptism, after John raises him back up after the water. This is the rending of the heavens in two, the breaking that allows the Spirit to descend. Mark uses the Greek word that we translate as “torn” twice in the Gospel, once here at Jesus’ baptism and a second time when Jesus dies on the cross and the curtain of the Temple is torn in two.
That fearful symmetry is not a coincidence.
In the cosmic tearing apart that begins and ends Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see that there is no longer a divide between heaven and earth. Or no, that’s wrong: in this seismic event, God brings our attention to the reality that there was never a divide between heaven and earth.
Maybe all three symbols actually proclaim the same message: that we are free and that God is free and that God is freely choosing to be right here, right now, among us. We don’t need to go somewhere else to find the Kingdom, to find God. This is what Jesus will affirm in the prayer that he will teach us, the prayer that we say every Sunday:
Your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Tear down the subdivision, tear down the illusion of a subdivision. It was nothing more than a veil, anyway.
Three symbols given to us across the centuries by Mark, by this rough and rushed storyteller. There are more symbols to be found with Jesus in John’s arms at the Jordan. But that is where I am going to stop now. All of them are about how God ends limits, all of them are about how God is found in the plainest of places. All of them are about how God will not be constrained – by empire, by the priests at the temple, by a worldview that tries to contain the holy or exclude the holy from certain places, by you and me. All three symbols proclaim the frightening and wonderful news that God is Emmanuel: God with us.
[i] This argument – and much of what follows – is indebted to Paul Nuechterlein’s extraordinary resource, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.