Weekly Gospel Reflection — The First Sunday After Epiphany
This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to G‑d to be forgiven. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.
John announced: “Someone’s coming soon who is greater than I am — so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he’ll baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”
One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You’re my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”
There are (at the very least) three points the writers of the New Testament are trying to make — 1) Yahweh has returned to Israel; 2) the long hoped for Realm of G‑d has been established upon the earth; 3) what that looks like in “real life.” Obviously, though, things don’t look like they were expected to look.
Of course, these points create a lot of questions. In fact, it questions a lot of the long held beliefs of Judaism at the time — Yahweh’s appointed military king would destroy the pagans, the end of history, the resurrection of the dead at the end of history, etc. And, honestly, I think the reason a lot of the New Testament was written was to show people how some of those things can be understood in poetic (i.e., non-literal) ways.
An example of this way of understanding can be seen by looking at John the Baptist. John’s appearance is described here so that readers would realize that he was, in some mystical way, Elijah who was to come before Yahweh returned to the people of Israel (cf. verse 6 with 2Kings 1.1-8; see also: Malachi 4:5ff; Matthew 17:10-13). That is, John should be understood as the harbinger of the return of Yahweh. And if John is Elijah, then Jesus is, at the very least, the Messiah, Yahweh’s representative.
However, the writers of the New Testament, specifically the Gospels, are clearly pointing out that Jesus is, in some mystical way, more than the Messiah. They’re painting the picture and telling the story in such a way as to say that Jesus is Yahweh and, therefore, the true Ruler of all creation.
Furthermore, if Jesus is (somehow) Yahweh “in the flesh” (see John 1), then the Realm of G‑d has been established. The thinking here is a King can’t be a king without a realm from which to rule. “‘The time promised by G‑d has come at last!’ Jesus announced. ‘The Realm of G‑d is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News’” (Mark 1.15; NLT; adapted)! That’s the whole point of the Gospels.
But, as I stated above, it seems to me that part of the point of the rest of the New Testament is what that looks like “in the trenches.” That is, the writers of the New Testament are working from the world view that G‑d’s Realm has actually been fully planted (and is growing) through the vocation of Jesus. That’s their starting point, their framework. So, then, how does that work in the here-and-now? Through the power of the Spirit.
The reading states that John’s purpose was to prepare people for this shift in paradigm. Once that’s been done, and the world has been made ready, then the power to live in the “coming age” is through the Spirit.
The idea of “baptism” is the idea of being immersed into something. Think of a flowing river. You walk out into the water and then are plunged underneath the surface. In a very real sense, you’ve become part of the river; you’ve become one with the river; you’re “inside” the river.
John stated that Jesus would “baptize” us with the Holy Spirit. In the New Creation (G‑d’s Realm) that Jesus established, one will need to be immersed in the ebb and flow of this new world. And that’s done by the Spirit. As Paul wrote in Romans, “Now we can serve G‑d, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit” (Romans 7.6; NLT).
The long-hoped for Realm of G‑d has already been founded. It was started during the life and ministry of Jesus, inaugurated at his resurrection (see John 20 and note that the resurrection takes place on “the first day of the week” in the New Creation), and fully established at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. From that time forward, the Realm of G‑d has been spreading out as the waters fill the sea (see Habakkuk 2.14; Isaiah 11.9) through the power of G‑d’s Spirit.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.