After the Narrative Lectionary spends fall through Advent wandering through some great stories in the Old Testament, it starts off into the Gospels on Christmas Eve. Except for the years that we use the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. They don’t have anything about Jesus being born so we have to use Matthew and Luke for Christmas and start on the Gospel the Sunday following Christmas.
I mention this because it is important to understand the purpose behind a given gospel to understand where the writer is coming from. Each of them has a different purpose and a different audience. Mark is the considered to be the first gospel written so it’s pretty much a general overview of Jesus’ life and teachings. It’s also important to understand the differences so we don’t get confused. Matthew and Luke used a lot of the material from Mark and added some stuff according to the message they’re trying to get to their audience. Sometimes the stories are the same and some are different. Did you hear the part in vv12-13, “12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”? Wait, that’s it? What about the actual temptations that Satan used, the turning rocks into bread and leaping from the temple, and all that? Where’s the good stuff? Those stories are in Matthew and Luke. Mark just notes that Satan tempted him but didn’t give out any details.
Like I said, Mark is more of a general overview. As the first Gospel written, I kind of envision Mark speaking in a stage whisper, in v1, “1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s kind of like Mark is saying, “I’ve got a secret!” He really doesn’t because by the time Mark writes everything down everyone around probably knew the overall story so it wasn’t much of a secret. Still, what’s your reaction when someone whispers to you, “I’ve got a secret!” Of course, we no doubt respond with something like, “Secrets don’t make good friends” while on the inside we wait in hope that they’ll tell us the secret because we kinda wanna know. And Mark delivers with the good stuff!
The good stuff is this. Mark is sharing with us the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ and baptism features prominently in Mark’s message. In our story today, John is out in the desert proclaiming repentance and baptism. That’s funny in a couple of ways.
First off, he’s out in the desert. In those days all the good stuff happened in town, at the temple. That’s where the temple priests offered sacrifices and did all the rituals of their faith tradition. It’s a real twist for someone to be doing anything important when it comes to faith outside of town. But that’s where John is. Ritual washing is important in the Jewish tradition but not outside of town in the river. What would your reaction be if I said let’s meet at Oak Creek north of our place for a baptism this morning?
Secondly, the idea of repentance is always a challenge for people. Very few of us like to own our stuff and admit we’ve made a mistake and ask forgiveness for it. That’s why we have confession every week, after all. Because we need it. But that kind of repentance is what John is preaching out there in the wilderness. For John, baptism and repentance go together.
To be clear, we don’t have to repent to be baptized. I’m not asking Beaux and Bella, the twins we’re baptizing at 11, if they repent of their sins before I baptize them. But in baptism we are drawn into a better version of ourselves, a version that is more deeply connected to Christ. In baptism, we are led to a place where repentance is the natural outgrowth of being baptized. For us baptism is beginning of our good news.
It’s good news for us because in baptism the Holy Spirit begins to work in, on, and through us. Like John said to the crowd gathered, “8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” When baptism becomes about the work of Christ, the Holy Spirit comes into play. It’s a transforming kind of thing that is frankly a little scary. We have to relinquish our sense of self and self-control to let the Holy Spirit work.
That’s the way the Holy Spirit works IN us, transforming us into a new creation. I think Luther said something to the effect about the old Adam, that is to say the old sinful person within us, is washed away in the water of baptism and we are reborn into something entirely new. It’s not a process that we have anything to do with, it is purely the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.
Likewise, the Holy Spirit works ON us, to become the person God created us to be. None of us are perfect but the Holy Spirit is continually working on us to be better than we were yesterday. It’s a lifelong process for each of us. We can get in the way of that if we want, and some people do, but why would we want to? Get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do her work!
Finally, the Holy Spirit works THROUGH us to accomplish God’s work in the world. The good things that happen don’t happen automagically, they happen because God’s people are doing God’s work, guided by the Holy Spirit. It is always interesting to me to be involved with this process of sorting out what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s hard to know exactly what we’re supposed to be doing but listening for that still, small voice to direct us is a good start.
Like Mark’s gospel, baptism is only the beginning of the Good News. The rest of the story takes place in, on, and through us for the rest of our lives.