Fake Tan?

Week of Sunday January 11 – Baptism of Jesus
Gospel Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

BushfireThe Sampson Flat fire remains terrifying in its potential. As with most bushfires the bulk of us are insulated by living down on the safety of the city plains. We might see the glow in the night sky, or pillars of smoke topping out into great cumulo-nimbus clouds, but we are safe.

Yesterday, though, the fire hung over us all. Our street was murky and dim. The light was eerie and yellow, heads ached and eyes watered. My daughter laughed at her partner as they left to go home. "You look like you're wearing one of those fake tans!" It's the last thing he would ever do, and we all laughed at the incongruity of the thought, as Australians do in the face of tragedy and disaster. (To help people affected by the fires, visit the Volunteering SA website and follow the links.)

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Every culture has unwritten knowledge which is known to everyone except the visitor, who is often left floundering and wondering what everyone else is talking about.  In another culture we miss some of what is going on because we don't know the underlying stories.

So it is with this story of John the baptiser, and the baptism of Jesus. In the time of John and Jesus people would wash and baptise themselves as part of religious ritual. Much earlier, for example, Naaman went and baptised himself in the Jordan. (2 Kings 5:1-19) The idea that someone would go around baptising other people was new. So we may miss that there is something radically new in the fourth verse: John the baptiser. We say John the Baptist, and think we know all about him. He's the odd bloke that was all hairy and wore camel skins and stuff. We can also miss what that's about. Smith writes

Just as a gaunt bearded face and a stovepipe hat would immediately conjure up the image of Abe Lincoln for those socialized into modern American mythology” writes Ched Myers, “so would John’s garb have invoked the great prophet Elijah for Mark’s readers. [eg 2 Kings 1:8]

 In this very short description of John the baptiser, who immediately made Mark's first listeners think of Elijah, there is a rich condensed image that our time finds hard to understand and fully appreciate. There is something new— a baptiser, mashed up with something old− Elijah, the one people thought would be coming back just ahead of the Messiah.

It's like Australians talking about swaggies, or Clancy of the Overflow. While my American friends are heading to Google, I remember childhood stories of swagmen. And unbidden lines of poetry bubble up in my memory.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
   "Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are."

These words "tug at my heartstrings" in a way that my friend Kathy in New York State can never quite understand. And as we swapped emails about the fire, she spoke about a land of snow and ice, images of her life place, which I will never understand in quite the same way.

When we enter the New Testament we are all in a strange country. There is a sense in which that is by design. Intimately connected to the old, to the unceasing faithfulness of God, something new is beginning in the New Testament stories

The imagery is designed to introduce us to an old new country.

This week begins with the reference to wilderness.

Throughout the history of God’s people, the wilderness has been a place of repentance, formation and preparation – from the exodus of Israel from Egypt, to Elijah, to John the Baptizer, to the temptations of Jesus, to the Desert Fathers and Mothers and beyond... (Smith)

The double mention of the River Jordan calls us back into the old country with an image of entry into The Promised Land and new beginnings. It also us what new beginning is starting now in the Jesus story.

There is the image of the divide of the waters and the heavens. For example, 

‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down!’ (Isaiah 64:1)…  Jesus ‘saw the heavens rent open’ (1:10)... (Loader)

... and  (Jack Spong says somewhere that)

 Moses walked down into the Red Sea and the waters parted, Joshua came to the Jordan and the waters parted, Elijah struck the water too, but when Jesus went down to the Jordan the very heavens were parted! There is something new and greater here.

There is a coronation of sorts: "Today you are my beloved son." It's straight out of the coronation Psalm. (2:7) God's favour rests upon this one he has chosen.

There is…

a clear allusion to Isaiah 42:1, ‘You are my servant in whom I am well pleased’, which links Jesus to the prophetic calling often associated with the Spirit… (Loader)

But it is somehow all new. This man is also a baptiser. And he is an even greater baptiser. The first baptiser is not even worthy to untie the thong of his sandal! This new, greater baptiser, will baptise with the Spirit. And in this new old land we are forced to ask what does it mean to be baptised in the spirit, in the breath?

SmokeIt is surely different. When you get plunged down into the waters of the Jordan you shut your eyes and your mouth. But to be baptised in the Spirit…in the Breath? It's suggesting that we breathe it in. There is something in the air, hanging around everywhere like the smoke of a bushfire. And yet something intangible that we can't quite grasp, getting in to every part of us, making our eyes run, seeping into the houses of our lives even though we shut the doors and windows. But when you go out to take a photo to send to friends overseas, really quite hard to capture.

What is this baptism in spirit? Did people know what Mark was talking about? Bill loader alerted me to a mistake that I have been making for 40 years. As I've sought to understand this new old country and the puzzling question of spirit, I've read The Book of Acts, and the story of Pentecost.

But Mark wrote before The Book of Acts.

Here is both the person of whom John spoke and the Spirit with which he will baptise… If we did not know Luke’s writings and his report in Acts of the day of Pentecost, we would expect that this immersing in the Spirit is about to take place. Doubtless this is Mark’s meaning. Jesus is about to baptise in the Spirit; he is about to commence his ministry which is the good news of God. (Loader)

Jesus' baptising in spirit, according to Mark, is not some signal event− wind and tongues of fire− it is the whole ministry of Jesus, starting straight after his baptism. It is the same ministry of Jesus which Mark challenges us to follow—

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8)

So Jesus baptising with the spirit is when he visits the sick and lift them up, like Peter's mother in law. And when we visit her− and her sisters and brothers today− we are stepping into, and breathing in, the same Spirit.  It is to sit and eat with those who are poor and different and ostracised, and love them and help heal them by accepting them. It is to help the paralytics− those of us stuck and bogged down in life− to start moving again. It is to feed the multitudes, with bread and with words of freedom and love. It is to give ourselves and restore people to life.

How do we to this? Where do we find the power? Simply by loving and accepting as best we can, as we constantly re-listen to the stories of Jesus and re-shape and re-model our lives according to this story of the new old country. Then people will say, "Has she been out in the smoke? There is something about her, a breath of difference, something I can't quite pin down." And they will say it because we have entered the new old country and become immersed and saturated inside and out by its story. The doing of it makes it our story.

We have to breathe in the smoke− this strange, intangible yet real breath, and let it change us, and the way we live. If we do not, if we are all talk, and people will look at us in a strange light and say of our faith, "He's just got a fake tan."

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Of course, I'm not saying that the Spirit is a bushfire! And I am accutely aware that although we lost crop to a fire one year, and that although all our scrub was burned out in another, the metaphors in this post are very easy for someone who, just by luck, lives on the safe plains of life. Not so for a Hills dweller who has lost a house. I would not preach using this image; indeed, I have wondered if the imagery is "just wrong."

I've resisted wiping the whole post because I think there is also a truth in the metaphors I've used. Life burns. We can either despair as something or someone we love is harmed— even consumed— in its flames, or we can seek to discover the spirit that is not destroyed by them. A Spirit which is as penetrating as the smoke. I leave it for you to ponder.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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