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02.22.15 First Steps in Lent Mark 1:9-22 Sermon Summary

by on February 25, 2015

Here’s a question pertinent to this first week in Lent: Why has baptism fallen on such hard times, especially since historically it has figured prominently in the church from the beginning?

Summary Points

  • The relationship of Baptism to Lent
  • One New Testament theology of baptism
  • Hidden meanings in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism
  • Four first steps we can take this week to get into Lent

Lent is the liturgical season lasting 40 days preceding Easter. On the calendar, it consumes 46 days because Lent includes fasting, and Sundays are not counted as fast days. Yes, this means that whatever you “gave up” for Lent is still fair game on Sundays. You’re welcome.

Lent is modeled after Jesus’ wilderness sojourn after his baptism. It originally emerged as the time for preparation for converts to Christianity before baptism. Today it is generally a time for the entire church to rededicate itself to baptism. However one looks at it, Lent is oriented around baptism.

The letter known as 1 Peter provides an example of the importance of baptism in the New Testament church. The author describes a relationship between baptism and the great flood of Noah’s time. He views baptism from three perspectives. First, God’s perspective—the waters of flood and baptism occasion the washing of sin. Second, Noah’s perspective—the waters of flood and baptism save us. Finally, there is the author’s perspective, which is that these waters offer us an opportunity to “appeal to God for a good conscience” on the basis of the resurrection of Christ.

Probably what the author is referring to in this third perspective is that, on account of the resurrected Christ’s ongoing priestly ministry of mediation on our behalf, we have confidence to approach God without fear regarding our sin. So baptism, for the author of 1 Peter means all three: the cleansing of sin, securing our salvation, through X’s resurrection.

One would assume that Jesus’ own baptism would be the foundational model for the church’s practice. As the tradition around Jesus and baptism evolved, this certainly proves true. But how this came to be would be a bit of a mystery if all we had was the first and earliest Gospel account of the event, namely Mark’s.

Mark doesn’t give us much compared other Gospels. Whereas Luke only casually mentions Jesus’ baptism, Matthew gives us dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist, and John gives us a long testimony from John the Baptist.

Mark’s account begins by informing us that John’s baptism is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that numerous people came confessing sin and were baptized in the Jordan river. Then Jesus is baptized. Period.

Even after Jesus’ baptism, Mark is relatively terse. With Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us Jesus was driven to the wilderness by the Spirit and tempted by Satan. But unlike Matthew and Luke, he doesn’t tell us the content of those temptations. Mark simply says he was “in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”

Then after John’s arrest, Mark says Jesus comes to Galilee and finally gives us a summary statement of Jesus’ message: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”

Since baptism became so important, why is Mark so stingy? Perhaps it’s because he’s written a short gospel and wants you to read it. Maybe he realizes that baptism is only the beginning, not the arrival, and what matters is living it out. Or maybe like other initiation rites, Mark is keeping it a secret. Only the insiders are allowed to know what happens when an individual is removed from her society for a time, given a new identity through some kind of trial, and then reintroduced as a changed person.

Or maybe there’s more to Mark’s account than meets the eye. Could Mark have hidden some meanings into his account of Jesus’ baptism? If so, maybe Mark’s hidden meanings can give us a clue how to observe Lent.

Consider the heavenly proclamation, which begins, “You are my son, the Beloved.” It’s a reference to Psalm 2, in which God adopts the king of Israel as a son. The point there is that, while other kings are waging war and expanding territory and wealth through military might, the king adopted by God is different. And thus the kingdom of God is also different from the kingdoms of this world.

Then the voice says, “With you I am well-pleased.” This is an allusion to Isaiah 42, the first of the so-called “Servant Songs.” In these lyrics we learn what pleases God most; it is a love for others that results in sacrificial service on their behalf, especially when that service is offered in faithful obedience to God.

Jesus hears these words, Mark tells us, “just as he was coming up out of the water.” So baptism identifies Jesus as the king blessed by God to inaugurate the kingdom of God. But not only does baptism identify Jesus, it identifies us. When we are baptized, we become part of the kingdom. We become, like Jesus, one of the servants of God and of the world.

This is the practical meaning of Jesus’ 4-fold invitation: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near, repent, and believe.” That the time is fulfilled means that God’s promise is being fulfilled. All our yearnings are being fulfilled. That the kingdom is near, a spatial declaration, might just as well be heard as a chronological one that the kingdom is now. With Jesus’ presence, the kingdom has come. Since this is the case, we are commanded to forsake other kingdoms (“repent”) and live from now on in God’s kingdom (“believe”).

And the rest of the Gospel of Mark shows us what this means. It shows us how to do this through the example of Jesus Christ.

So here are some first steps we can take together as we begin our Lenten journey. 1. We can start by remembering 1 Peter’s teaching on baptism—that it cleanses us from sin, that it represents God’s saving of us, and that the resurrected Christ is with us.

  1. We can remember God’s kingdom—that God is king and not someone else, and that God’s kingdom endures and not the others.
  2. We can remember that we are adopted into this kingdom through our own baptism. What is said of Jesus is true of us: “We are God’s beloved.”
  3. We can remember we are called to delight God, just like Jesus was and did, by serving others.

As we remember these truths, we rededicate ourselves to the baptismal life. We engage the season of Lent. And after these “forty days,” we will more meaningfully receive the resurrected Christ anew come Easter.

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