At this time of year, our lectionary seems to be leaping around a bit. Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany when the magi visited the Christ child, after first promising King Herod that when they’d found the newly born king, they’d be back to tell him all about it.
We all know what happened next. They returned home without going back to Herod and he got very angry and ordered the massacre of all the male children under two, to make sure that he wasn’t going to be opposed by some upstart King. But this event was marked in our calendar at the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th, nearly a fortnight ago.
Then today we fast forward to the Baptism of Christ, an event which took place at the start of Jesus’ ministry some 30 years later.
When he was in Thailand in December, Pope Francis referred to King Herod, while speaking about the treatment of refugees both in Thailand and worldwide. He also mentioned that in some parts of the world border walls separate children from their parents, however, he didn’t mention any country or leader by name, though the world’s press had a field day speculating on who or where he was thinking of.
Herod was a leader who inherited his wealth from his father, a man of great influence and power. Herod loved to acquire land and build cities and large and grandiose buildings worthy of his dignity and grandeur and preferably named in his honour. He also had as many as ten wives.
When the magi didn’t return, Herod became enraged that he’d been tricked and cheated, and sent his soldiers to kill all the baby boys under the age of two. He wanted to be certain to get rid of anyone who could be a threat to his position of control and leadership, and the easiest way to do that was kill them all.
Herod was surrounded and protected by sycophantic aides and patrons. As long as the wealthy were making money, they’d look the other way and not speak out. Anyway, if they did they’d quickly be history. Herod had many friends in high places who’d put him in place as the ruler of Palestine, Roman leaders such as Mark Antony, Sextus Caesar, Emperor Augustus and Octavian, but they expected loyalty and for him to deliver for them in return.
You may wonder what kind of person could order such gruesome slaughter. Herod must have been criminally insane, you might think. According to historians, Herod the Great had descended into increasingly poor physical and mental health and that made him paranoid and led him to horrific acts of betrayal and murder. He had grandiose delusions, attacked his enemies like a school bully, had a poor grasp on reality and was very insecure. By the way, he died not long after the birth of Jesus.
Over the last few days we’ve heard news of some extraordinary events on the other side of the Atlantic and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has asked us for our prayers. I am sure that we all hold the people of the United States in our prayers, as they navigate the transition from one presidency to another.
Meanwhile in this part of the world we find ourselves in another lockdown, with our Churches closed.
However, in the dreadful story of Herod we see that even in dark times goodness and divine love finds a way through, even in the midst of the most fearsome of regimes. Joseph was warned in a dream to escape down the road toward Egypt, before Herod launched his campaign of infanticide. And it’s the child that survived that continues to carry the hope and salvation of the whole world.
There’s a certain irony in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism being the Gospel for the first Sunday after Epiphany. In the church’s tradition, Epiphany is the season when we recall the manifestation of Jesus to the world. Yet Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, like his gospel as a whole, has an air of secrecy about it.
In Matthew, God’s declaration about Jesus, “This is my son” (Matthew 3:17), reads like a public announcement to both John and the crowds gathered at the Jordan. In contrast, Mark portrays God’s declaration as though it were a private matter between God and Jesus: “You are my son” (Mark 1:11). Likewise, it’s apparently Jesus alone who sees the heavens split open and the Spirit descending upon him. In the three other gospels, these events seem to be portrayed in a much more public way.
Portraying this baptism as a private transaction between God and Jesus suggests that Mark doesn’t recall the events surrounding the baptism so as to provide a strictly historical account, but more to provide a rich theology around baptism.
God’s words to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, allude to Psalm 2:7 and also to Genesis 22:2 where Isaac is the only beloved son of Abraham, to Isaiah 11:2 where God’s spirit rests on the king of Israel, and to Isaiah 42:1 where God’s spirit rests on the servant in whom he delights.
So, Mark’s telling us that, in his baptism, Jesus’ future course is mapped out before him: he’ll be the servant of God, who will offer his life as a sacrifice. Like Isaac, he’s the son of a promise, a promise that nothing, not even death, can break.
In fact, it’s precisely through Jesus’ death and resurrection that His sonship and messiahship are confirmed and God’s promise fulfilled. According to Peter, in his resurrection Jesus receives the Holy Spirit from His Father, and His installation as Messiah is complete. Moreover, because Jesus has received the Holy Spirit from His Father, He can give the Holy Spirit to all those who (like us) believe in him and are Baptised in His name, sharing with them this precious gift.
Mark’s first chapter is about new beginnings. He writes of Jesus’ baptism as “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), recalling the start of the first chapter of Genesis, our Old Testament lesson for today. “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), God’s Spirit hovered over the waters, while God spoke and called heaven and earth into being. So also at the Baptism of Jesus, God’s Spirit came over the waters and his voice declared Jesus to be his Son.
So let us hope and pray that out of the darkness and chaos of what has happened across the Atlantic will emerge light, and the light will be good and signal a new beginning. And let us hope and pray that out of our current lockdown and the rapid vaccination of those most vulnerable in our society will emerge light, and that light will be good and signal a new beginning for us all.