This is how it happened. Around that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the river Jordan. That very moment, as he was getting out of the water, he saw the heavens open, and the spirit coming down like a dove onto him. Then there came a voice, out of the heavens: ‘You are my son! You are the one I love! You make me very glad.’ All at once the spirit pushed him out into the desert. He was in the desert forty days, and the satan tested him there. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him. After John’s arrest, Jesus came into Galilee, announcing God’s good news. ‘The time is fulfilled!’ he said; ‘God’s kingdom is arriving! Turn back, and believe the good news!’
Part of the fun of learning to read is learning to listen for echoes. If you were browsing in a bookshop and saw a novel with the title Pride, Prejudice and Passion, you would recognize at once that the author was echoing Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. If you were a Scottish football supporter and saw a headline saying ‘Old Firm up to New Tricks’, you would know at once that this referred to some new controversy involving the ‘Old Firm’, the two great Glasgow clubs, Rangers and Celtic. And if you switched on the television and heard the announcer describing a new series in which people were determined ‘to boldly go’ somewhere exotic or dangerous, you would recognize the echo of Star Trek. This echo recognition functions at every level of writing and speaking. The evidence suggests that it has always done so, ever since humans spoke and wrote words.
Part of the excitement of learning to read the Bible is listening for the echoes that one text sets up when it refers back to another – which the author assumes, or hopes, that you will already know. This passage is one of the classic examples. Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and as the spirit comes down on him like a dove there is a voice from heaven: ‘You are my son! You are the one I love! You make me very glad.’
Now if this is the voice of God himself (and Mark clearly intends us to understand that that’s what it is), then presumably God can say what he likes. But, as regularly in the New Testament, the ‘new’ thing God is doing and saying is the fulfilment, the coming-of-age if you like, of all kinds of things he had been saying in the Old Testament. And here there are two passages which those with sharp ears will be able to detect. Only if we pick up these echoes will we be able to ‘hear’ what Mark was wanting us to hear.
First, there is Psalm 2. It’s a short, powerful poem about the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God. The world’s kingdoms huff and puff and make a lot of noise, telling one another that they can do without God; and God looks down and laughs at them, installing his own appointed king, and warning the nations that they must submit to him. It’s a vivid statement of the ancient Jewish hope, told and retold in one story after another.
And at its heart is the word of God to the king whom he is appointing to rule the nations. The king himself, in the poem, tells what he heard: ‘I will tell of the decree of yhwh: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”’
So Mark wants us to hear that the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism is appointing him, as his own ‘son’, to the role of the king who will bring God’s rule to bear on the foolish, warring nations. The second passage reinforces this and gives it particular direction. It’s from the first of the ‘servant’ poems in Isaiah 40—55: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.’
The ‘servant’, then, is the one who makes God very glad, and who will be the means through which God’s justice will extend into all the world. But, as we read on in Isaiah, we discover how the ‘servant’ is going to do this. It will happen through his own suffering and cruel, shameful death.
There is no doubt, as we read on through Mark’s gospel, that these are the themes that the author wanted us to hear, as ‘echoes’, right up front. And, as we do so, we should see how they help him to get us on track for his larger theme of God’s kingdom.
Jews of Jesus’ day associated the idea of God becoming king with the ancient memory of their great story, the Exodus. That’s when God brought them out of slavery, through the Red Sea, into the desert, and then through the river Jordan into the promised land. That’s what it meant, in another ancient song, for God to become king (Exodus 15.18). Now Jesus is, as it were, leading the way through the water into the new world, the new time, the new possibility. He goes into the desert for forty days, like the Israelites in the desert for forty years. Then back he comes, and makes the announcement: ‘This is the time! God is becoming king, right now!’
This is the ‘good news’ for which Israel had longed (another ‘echo’, this time of Isaiah 40.9 and 52.7). And anyone who hears this message must also hear another one, the one to which we pay special attention in Lent: ‘Turn back’ – turn back from doing things your own way, from organizing your life according to your own hopes and whims. If God is becoming king, and if Jesus is being installed as the human king through whom God’s kingdom is now happening, the only appropriate reaction is to abandon our own little hopes and schemes and let God be God in our lives. And through our lives.
Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, help us to believe that you are the world’s true king, and to turn back from all that gets in the way of your rule in our lives.