Those who make their living researching and publishing cultural archeology, such as John Pilch who I quote frequently (and who can be accessed here: http://liturgy.slu.edu/index.html if one fiddles with the links to get to the readings of the day), point out that something is going on that would have made perfect sense to any of Mark’s readers. When a child was born, that child was soon after claimed by his father as the father’s own. In doing that, the father claimed paternity over the child. In doing so, the father had to take care that he not claim another man’s offspring as that would have been a great offense. We see the latter in Matthew’s story of Joseph contemplating what to do about Mary and her pregnancy. Yes, he can punish Mary but also, he has decided not to take the child to his house. The dream he has subsequently gives him implicit permission to do so and Jesus becomes part of the house of Joseph. (Matt 1:20) Here the true father, God, gives permission to Joseph to take the child and his mother as his own, yet God reserves the right of naming.
In our time, family has become a much more loose association. Participation in family has become somewhat of an optional thing as well. Social structures have given us that option. In places and times when police and fire protection were none existent and there was not even a poor house or county home much less social security, family took on all these duties. Being claimed into the family was a bestowal of the benefit of being looked after and the imposition of responsibility to be looking after the affairs of the family. One who wanders about without family, might just as well wander unprepared into the desert and wild places.
Factions and tribes are the larger crowds made up of multiple families units that have made common cause, the crowd that follows Jesus eventually is a faction. The people of Nazareth who seek to stone him are a tribe of sorts. But, at base level, a family cared for you and you made common cause with it first, acknowledging its claim on you, even against faction or tribe. The radicallity of Jesus’ call to leave father, mother, and kin (Mk 10:29) for the sake of the Gospel is really much greater than we assume since most of us can, frankly, do without them if we must, even if we go it alone as a result.
It is no accident that men were named by their own name and the appendix of their father’s name. It declared a greater reality that stood behind the man. Bjorn Swenson was backed up by, at minimum, Swen and his sons. You wanted to pick on Bjorn, you could do the calculations as to whether you were a match for Swen, Bjorn, Bjorn’s brothers, cousins, and extended family.
The opening verse of the Gospel of Mark makes an astonishing claim: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” (1:1) A mere 8 verses later we record the episode of the Baptism of Jesus. In it, the claim that Mark makes at the beginning is repeated: Heaven tears open and the voice of the mighty is heard: “You are my son.” God claims Jesus officially here. He is not of the family of Joseph as supposed (Mk 6:3) and never was but he is of the family of God.
This is, in a strange way, Mark’s version of the birth story. That story, quaint as it might be, is not relevant to Mark. What is relevant is the establishment of paternity, and that in olden days was established by the words of the father who acknowledged the child.
This also means that Jesus has a family that is as yet unseen. James, Jose, Judas, and Simon (6:3) are not his family even though they think they are and attempt to take responsibility for him (3:32) No, the real brothers and sisters of Jesus are: “Those who do the will of God.” (3:35) There should be no surprise here. A child is expected to assent to and execute the will of his father speedily. Why should the children of God be different.
More than that: After Jesus’ baptism it is clear who he is and who will “contend with him at the gate.” (Job 31:21; Ps 127:5) It is God and the whole heavenly host. This is shown immediately. As soon as Jesus is baptized and claimed, he is sent to the wilderness, the wild places, to do battle with the tempter and the forces of evil. He goes there, it would seem, with no preparation or companions to help him do battle. The text however, makes it clear that the heavenly hosts are with him and on his side as he does battle with these forces. Wherever he might roam or go to, these will be at his side and contend with him if the situation demands that the will of God be asserted. Along with them will be those who, though they be of earth, do the same will of the father.
That means, it would seem, that the cross of Christ is not a human achievement brought on by the cunning of the sadducees and the might of Rome, but a deliberate act of God to permit it to happen. Certainly the forces of heaven could have intervened but were told to stand down. (Jn 19:11; Jn 18:36)
It is pointed out now and again that this baptism of John is not Christian baptism as it is not baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the Holy Spirt makes an appearance and Christian Baptism certainly makes the point that: “By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.” (Titus 3 quoted from the Small Catechism of Martin Luther) As Luther would further say:
“It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
“[Baptism] signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life”
So, certainly baptism prior to Christ’s resurrection is not Christian baptism. But, part of what is happening here at the Baptism of Jesus ought also be considered part of the baptism of you and I, specifically, the assertion by God that we are now part of the family of heaven. That claim is maybe an ambiguous one in our times as we interpret family differently from the people of biblical times but the claim is nonetheless real. In specific it would entail total allegiance and obedience to God. Further, keeping with the nature of family in ancient time, it would mean solidarity with our brothers and sisters and also faith that the forces of church and heaven will contend on our side in this world against the tempter and the forces of evil.
Allegiance, obedience, solidarity, and Faith. Maybe the outcomes: Victory over evil and Resurrection ought to be mentioned as well, yet the latter does not come without an unappreciated last and 7th one: self sacrifice even unto death. But as a whole these seven parts (I attach no significance to the number) of the claim of God on us do describe baptized life. They also might ask us embarrassing questions: Have we paid any attention to them or are we living out of subtle allegiances to other powers, obedience to no one but ourselves, solidarity only to those that suit us right now, faith only in situations we can predict the outcome for reasonably well, victory witnessed only as spectators, resurrection merely as a concept we have going for us (thank you Bill Murray) and self sacrifice left merely to Jesus? Maybe we even have gotten to the place where we deny that a battle is even going on that might require all these parts of God’s claim on us.
If so, shame on us. Yet, as far as we are Lutherans, we continue to welcome newly baptized with the words: “We welcome you into the Lord’s family.” Those words need to mean something and not just: “Nice to meet you.”