Epiphany 1 B: Powerful Words for a New Year

Mark 1:4-11

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I don’t know about you, but from time to time – okay, so maybe a little more often than from time to time – I find myself wondering whether my preaching makes a difference. That’s not to say I doubt that it should make a difference – we’re talking about proclaiming the Gospel, after all! – but whether it actually does. On a Sunday like this, that question feels both more persistent and more urgent.

It is, after all, one of those “minor” feasts, the Baptism of our Lord, and I can’t help but wonder how many people understand why Jesus’ baptism matters. Or why Jesus was baptized in the first place. Or how our baptism is connected to Jesus’. Or why/if our baptism matters. And all of this is intensified knowing that our folks have a lot of other things to worry about just now: the economy, a divided government, an increasingly polarized culture, wars and rumors of wars – and that’s just on the global front. At home, they may be preoccupied by concerns about their kids, or their jobs, or getting into college, or losing a loved one, or a parent struggling with memory issues, a sibling struggling with addiction, the prospect of finding a life partner and more. All to say that there are probably a lot of things that feel more pressing than commemorating Jesus’ baptism or remembering their own. So what’s an honest working preacher to do?

Well, perhaps the place to start is with the very questions that plague us (or at least me!). Why is Jesus’ baptized? Interestingly, we’re not the first to worry about this. Indeed, Jesus’ baptism by John was one of the early and rather thorny questions the Evangelists had to deal with. If Baptism is about forgiveness, why, after all, would the sinless Son of God need to be baptized? And, further, what does that mean about his relationship to John?

The second question was easier to resolve. Each of the Evangelists goes out of his way to report John’s own clarity about Jesus’ superiority: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Got it. John may baptize Jesus, but Jesus is clearly more important.

The first question, though, is a little trickier. (John doesn’t even report Jesus’ being baptized, but instead has John the Baptist report seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus!) The other three Gospels do share an account of Jesus’ baptism, however, and unfortunately, they do not resolve the question. In fact, when you listen to the essentials of Mark’s terse account, perhaps what is most striking is that Jesus doesn’t really do or say much of anything that sheds light on what’s going on. As Mark writes, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

Do you see what I mean? Jesus is rather passive in all that happens. But, on second thought, perhaps that’s just the way it should be. After all, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. This is the start of his long and difficult journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. And so at his baptism, Jesus doesn’t have to do anything, but rather simply receives the gift of the Holy Spirit and of God’s favor. Indeed, it is a powerful word of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment: “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” How might Jesus have longed to hear such words? And how much strength might he have drawn from them at various points in his ministry? No, he doesn’t need forgiveness. But to know who he is – indeed, whose he is – to hear that he is accepted, loved, pleasing. I suspect these were powerful words that shaped not only that day but also his entire ministry.

And here, perhaps, is the connection to our own baptism and a reminder of why that event – which most of our folks will not remember and perhaps have not often thought about – matters so much. Because each of us also longs to hear words of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment. Which is precisely the gift of Baptism. We do not have to do anything to receive God’s promises. Indeed, the beauty of infant Baptism is that you can’t do anything – not even make a decision for Jesus, let alone commit your life. Rather, we are passive recipients of God’s blessing and favor. We are called God’s beloved children not because of something we do but because of who God is – a loving parent who wants nothing more than to see us flourish.

In Holy Baptism God just chooses us. In Holy Baptism, God says that we are enough. Already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. And that identity of being God’s beloved child – precisely because it is established by God – cannot be taken away from us or, for that matter, lost by us. Rather, God continues to come into our lives to call us beloved and blessed and promise once again to be always both with us and for us. That promise and blessing, in turn, helps us face all the challenges we mentioned earlier. Problems at home or in the community, concerns about the world or our personal lives. We can face whatever might be plaguing us with greater confidence knowing that God is on our side.

Think, for a moment, of all that will happen in the coming year – the decisions that will be made, relationships started (or ended), careers changes, schools entered, illnesses endured, challenges surmounted, risks taken, adventures dared, love shared. So much will come down the pike in the coming weeks and months. Some of it we may anticipate and be prepared for, but much of it we simply can’t imagine. Daunting. Until we remember that God is with us through all of it. God is on our side. God will not abandon us but will walk alongside us, strengthening us, encouraging us, granting us grace sufficient to become the people God wants us to be.

“You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” Powerful words, Dear Partner. Words that will shape and strengthen us throughout this new year. Thank you for sharing them. They matter more than you might realize. And thank you for believing they are addressed also to you. Because they are.

Yours in Christ,


Post image: Baptism of Christ, Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Italy.