“Setting the Stage”

~ Mark 1:1-11/Genesis 1:1-5 ~

A youngish Derek Jacobi wanders through the backstage of a theater, proclaiming:

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 to William Shakespeare’s play, King Henry V, in this instance Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 movie production, in which Jacobi plays the part of the Chorus. Now, when we hear the word “chorus” we usually think of a group. In Handel’s Messiah there are chorus’s sung by a large choir. Or if the football team isn’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 introduces the play, providing narration, and sometimes offering commentary on what is going on in the play. 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 ancient Greek drama as a commentary on the action. And so, in King Henry V the chorus sets the stage for the impending battle between England and France. Concluding his introduction he says,

Admit me, Chorus, to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

Derek Jacobi I am not!

In similar fashion, in his prologue to his gospel, Mark inserts himself into the story. Mark is the ‘chorus’, setting the stage for the dramatic story of Jesus. First, Mark quite intentionally introduces the prophet Isaiah in the first two verses that will be a theme carried throughout the story. Then, in a very clipped, condensed fashion, Mark sets the stage further by introducing the one crying in the wilderness, announcing the “way of the Lord.” In a few, short verses, Mark covers a lot of territory.

In typical Markan fashion the rapid pace of these opening scenes allows Mark to capture the reader’s attention while moving into 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 alongside the Jordan River proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. From the very beginning Mark sets his sights on the political culture of the Jewish ruling elite. John is 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’ with that of the priests and scribes in Jerusalem. In typical Jewish hyperbole, “all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem” seeks 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 triumphal pilgrimage to Zion, the crowds rush to the margins, for the purpose of repentance. So, of course, the priestly types in Jerusalem, whose social power derived from controlling the means of redemption in the temple, would necessarily take strong exception to this “wilderness revival.”

Mark, then, 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 John’s garb would have invoked the great prophet Elijah for Mark’s readers. The last cry of the prophetic voices of the Jewish Scriptures, the book of Malachi, said 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.” 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 only to introduce the kingdom mission (the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins) as the kingdom’s envoy. This envoy, John, introduces the “one who is more powerful than I.”  The sandals are a symbol of subordination and seem to depict Jesus’ way of discipleship. And John submits to this one, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But what happens next is quite surprising. In fact, it’s almost anticlimactic. One day while John was baptizing folk, Jesus arrived from the ‘nowheresville’ town of Nazareth from notorious Galilee, a territory regarded with contempt and suspicion by most Jews from Jerusalem. Again the tension between Jerusalem and Jesus is highlighted right up front.

Here’s how Mark puts it: “And Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan.” That’s all it says. Whereas John submits himself to the coming one, it is Jesus who submits himself to John’s baptism. Why would he do this? It is quite clear that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. It was also clear that the 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 our Baptist friends I said that).

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

Wait a minute, you say. Doesn’t it say heaven opened up and a voice spoke? Yes, it does. But look 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 great themes of Mark is 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 it is important to say that Jesus baptism was genuine, not feigned. It was a genuine act of repentance. But not a repentance from individual sin. It was a repentance of the structures and values of society. Jesus was repenting of his involvement in the entire redemptive program as practiced by the established temple order in Jerusalem. Jesus baptism was a renunciation of the old order. In 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 months, 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.

Dare we follow this Jesus? Mark’s gospel is a call to discipleship. But Mark makes it clear from the very beginning being a disciple of Jesus is not merely a private, spiritual thing. It is a public, community, social, and political thing as well.

In light of the events of this past week, that might, for us, mean following Jesus in very particular ways. The attack on the Capitol on Wednesday brought home what many of us have been seeing and feeling for many years now – our country is a mess, politically, culturally and spiritually. This out-going president, as bad, indeed, may I say, as evil as he is, exposed a deep-seated and pervasive spiritual rot that infects us all. And it has shown our idealistic notions of democracy and American exceptionalism to be quite bankrupt. And, I must say, American Christianity is at the core of the problem.

The problem? We have addressed it before and will continue to do so into the coming year – white supremacy! We are a thoroughly racist country, from our very founding to the present day. And the church, conservative and liberal, is complicit in its outworking. True, we could point fingers. There are many Christians, those of the conservative, Evangelical ilk, who have traded in whatever theological integrity they may have once held for the wholesale following of this cultic religion, Trumpism. Probably a better name is ‘Christian Nationalism’. This is how one religion blogger, James McGrath, commenting on the events of January 6, puts it: “This speaks so accurately and powerfully about the twisted brand of pseudo-Christianity that has wedded itself to the Republican Party and white supremacism. If your idea of ultimate evil is ‘the Democratic Party’ but not slavery, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and everything else that Trump has pandered to these past four years, you have not only betrayed Christ, you are immoral in a way that even most non-Christians can recognize.” Whew!

However, we, who are want to distance ourselves from such people, can be and have been complicit as well, just in a different manner. And this gets to my conclusion about what it means to live out our baptismal vows, to follow Jesus. We have tended to be bystanders! We are prone to throw up our hands and say, “what can we do?” And yet, I believe with all my heart that now is the time that we who claim to follow Jesus, we who believe that being Christian is not just a private, spiritual thing, but is, as I said earlier, a public, community, social, and political thing as well, must renew our commitment to act. We are not to just standby, but we must engage. In the coming days there is serious work that must be done to help our nation repent of its white supremacist racism and move toward healing and a restorative relationship with all its citizens. That, I believe, is the discipleship that Christ calls us to in this moment of our history.

This, indeed, will take courage. But I ask, as Christ’s followers can we dare take the risk of living lives of commitment and determination in the risky drama of love and peace? I believe we can. May we live out our baptisms with such courage. Amen.

 

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