Setting the Stage

Mark 1:4-11

At the beginning of William Shakespeare’s play, King Henry V, a lone actor stands on an empty stage.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Thus begins the prologue of the play with lines spoken by the Chorus. When we hear the word “chorus” we usually think of a choir. In Handel’s Messiah there are chorus’s sung by a large choir interspersed among the arias and recitatives sung by soloists. Or, if the 49’s aren’t playing well we might hear a chorus of boos from the crowd. But in Elizabethan drama the chorus was a single actor who usually introduced the play, provided narration, and sometimes offered commentary along the way. The characters in the play were usually completely unaware of the chorus. He was there only for the audience’s benefit. In fact, the word “chorus” comes from the ancient Greek to mean “a commentary on the action.” In this case, in King Henry V, the chorus sets the stage for the impending battle between England and France. Concluding his introduction he proclaims,

Admit me, Chorus, to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

Derek Jacobi I’m not.

In similar fashion Mark, in this prologue to his gospel, inserts himself into the story. Mark is the chorus and he sets the stage for the dramatic story of Jesus. A number of weeks ago, when we did our little Messiah concert, we noted how Mark very intentionally introduces the prophet Isaiah in the first two verses as a theme that carries throughout the gospel. Then, in a very clipped and condensed fashion, Mark sets the stage further by introducing the one crying in the wilderness who announces the “way of the Lord.” In doing so Mark covers a lot of territory in a few, short verses. The first scenes are strung together in rapid succession, building a sense of expectation, as one prophecy after another is featured in Marks’ short introduction.

The rapid pace of these opening scenes allows Mark to capture the reader’s attention while moving in to the main story of Jesus ministry as quickly as possible. But these opening scenes are fraught with significance. John the Baptizer has been in the wilderness along the Jordan River proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. From the very beginning Mark has set his sights on the political culture of the Jewish ruling elite. John is not seen at the obvious center of power, in Jerusalem, at the temple. He is in the wilderness, on the periphery of power. Mark creates a tension immediately between the message of John and Jesus ‘out in the wilderness’ against that of the priests and scribes in Jerusalem. In typical Jewish hyperbole, Mark has “all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem” seeking John in the wilderness. According to the dominant nationalist idea of salvation, Jerusalem was considered the hub of the world to which all nations would one day come. Mark turns this movement on its head: far from embarking on a triumphal pilgrimage to Zion, the crowds flee to the margins, to find repentance. Surely the priestly-types in Jerusalem, whose social power derives from controlling the means of redemption in the temple, will take strong exception to this “wilderness revival.”

Next Mark makes a point about John’s clothing and cuisine. “Clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” What’s the deal? Well just as a gaunt, bearded face and a stovepipe hat would immediately conjure up the image of Abe Lincoln for us, so John’s garb would evoke for Mark’s readers the great prophet Elijah. The last cry of the prophetic voices of the Jewish Scriptures, the book of Malachi, says this: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” John is Elijah. Jesus even says so later on. So Elijah has come to announce the “day of the Lord” (I use ‘Lord’ here intentionally). But this isn’t the end. It is just the beginning. As significant as John’s baptizing ministry is it is not the subject of the Gospel. John is brought onstage, as an envoy, only to introduce the theme of the Gospel: the kingdom mission of preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. As the envoy, John also introduces the “one who is more powerful than I.” The sandals are a symbol of subordination and seem to depict Jesus way of discipleship. John submits to this one, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But in the context of the setting, what happens next is quite surprising. In fact, it’s almost anticlimactic. One day, while John was baptizing lots of people, Jesus emerges from the crowd. He came from the nowheresville town of Nazareth in Galilee, the notorious territory regarded with contempt and suspicion by most Jews from Jerusalem. Again the ideological distance between Jerusalem and Jesus is quite apparent.

“And Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan,” it says. So, whereas John submits himself to the coming one, it is Jesus who submits himself to John’s baptism. Why would he do this? It was quite clear to everyone that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. It was also understood that John’s baptism did not confer the forgiveness of sins. John’s baptism was for those who had already repented of their sins. As the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, put it, baptism was “for the purification of the flesh once the soul had previously been cleansed by right conduct.” Josephus goes on to say that this right conduct was “to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God. And so, out of the basic Jewish concern for purity, John washed clean the bodies of those who had already washed their souls clean with repentance. And, I must admit, it is most likely that the baptism John practiced was dunking the whole person under the water because the idea was to clean the entire body (but don’t tell my Baptist friends I said that).

So the question remains: Why did Jesus submit to a baptism of repentance. Surely he had no sins to repent of. Reformed theology tends to make the point that Jesus didn’t need baptism for himself, but that he did it to be a good example for his disciples – for us. Since Jesus was baptized, so should we, the thinking goes. But for those people actually watching Jesus get baptized they would have had no such understanding. And they didn’t see heaven open up or hear a voice speaking.

Wait a minute, you might say. Doesn’t it say heaven opened up and a voice spoke? Yes, it does. But look more closely at what it really says: “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” It says “he” saw and heard but there is nothing to indicate that any of the others saw and heard. One of the interesting memes of Mark is what’s called the messianic secret. The disciples will struggle with who Jesus is until the very end of the story. But here Mark gives us, the readers, a glimpse behind the scenes. Here we find out about the unseen forces that affect the destinies of the actors on the stage of history. Much like the chorus does in a Shakespearian play, we get a dramatic aside, which, at the very beginning, lets the reader in on the secret of the hero’s true identity.

But I think it is important to say that Jesus baptism was genuine, not feigned. And I believe it was a genuine act of repentance. But not a repentance from individual sin as we might believe. It was, instead, a repentance from the structures and values of society. Jesus was repenting from the entire established temple system. Jesus baptism was a renunciation of the old order. In his baptism Jesus is declared an “outlaw,” so to speak. His mission will be to challenge the oppressive structures of law and order around him. And these oppressive structures were not just man-made ones. Jesus is now doing battle with the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces that rule this world. Hence immediately after being baptized Jesus goes off into the wilderness to do battle with Satan.

And so Mark sets the stage for the great conflict that is the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we journey through this story in the coming weeks we will see that Jesus takes on these powers in a very strange way. Instead of exchanging blow for blow, he takes the blows, yes, and even dies as the means to accomplish his end. So here Jesus courageously rises out of the waters of baptism, having renounced the power of this world, and starts his journey to the cross. Do we dare follow?

Now, when it comes to the issue of baptism for us today I realize that there might be several perspectives represented among us. Some of you are baptized; some not. Some might consider baptism to be an important act of being a Christian; others just might not see the need for it. But I would like to talk about “our” baptism this morning as an act of commitment, whether that be out of the actual physical act of baptism or whether that be in a metaphorical sense. The question is: What does following Jesus in baptism mean for us in light of Mark’s take on the story?

As I mentioned up front the gospel of Mark is a discipleship manual. It was written to encourage his community to follow Jesus. As a community of baptized believers Mark was extolling them to live out their own baptism as did Jesus, no matter the cost. And it was a costly endeavor. It took courage.

Though our circumstances are quite different we too are called to live out our baptism by following Jesus. And that takes courage. Because for us, as it was for Mark’s community, following Jesus is not a “I am his and he is mine and doesn’t it make me feel good” love song kind of faith. It’s more a “We are his and he is Christ, he calls us to His service” work song kind of faith. As song-writer Ken Medema goes on to say:

You’d better read the book;
You’d better count the cost
Before you tell him what you’re gonna do.
He’ll send you to the hungry and the hopeless,
You’ll be one with the down and out,
A sister to the stranger, a servant to the outcast.
That’s what you’ll be all about.
He calls us together to give our lives away.

In other words, following Jesus is about making a commitment whether we’ve been physically baptized or not. No matter where we are faith journeys individually we are still called make a commitment of faith to follow. And as it did for Jesus that might mean repenting of an oppressive system that seeks to put the screws to so many people. It might mean being subversive. It might mean challenging power structures; speaking truth to power. It might putting ourselves in challenging situations. And I know it will take courage.

I believe that for the church to be relevant in the 21st century we need to be bold in our following of Jesus. For Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church I believe that is what will ultimately make a difference in this neighborhood. Jesus has already set the pace. So, let’s put on our walking shoes and get going. Amen.

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