“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

By now, John the Baptizer is no stranger to us. He’s made an appearance in our gospel lesson three times in the past six weeks. The Gospel of Mark begins its telling of the story of Jesus out in the wilderness with this John, the one who baptizes. And while Mark doesn’t tell us very much about John, we do hear some specific details about what he wore and ate: “[he] was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

It had been hundreds and hundreds of years since the voice of a prophet was heard by the people of God. That last prophet, Malachi, foretold a day of both judgment and hope. In the very last few sentences of the book of Malachi we hear these words, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” John the baptizer is dressed in the same attire as Elijah, who was described in the book of 2 Kings as “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” And with these subtle details, those who hear Mark’s gospel are made aware that something long-anticipated is happening.

And what’s happening, the gospel of Mark is careful to note, isn’t coming from a place one might expect, like a central place of power or a place revered for its holiness. But its happening on the periphery, out in the wilderness. And while it’s an unexpected place, perhaps, the wilderness is not an unknown location for the people of God. Like it was for the ancient Israelites after they were freed from bondage in Egypt, the wilderness can be a place of wandering and uncertainty for sure, but it is also a place where God is found; a place where God’s presence guides and where God shapes the people to be more fully and deeply God’s own.

Like all the prophets in the centuries before him, John calls the people to repent, to literally turn around, to turn away from systems of destruction and turn back toward God and God's way of being in the world. But unlike the prophets before him, John proclaims a “baptism of repentance.” Baptism wasn’t unheard of at the time, being used occasionally as a cleansing ritual for new converts and in some smaller communities as a purity ritual, but this baptism of repentance is unusual enough that this prophet John becomes known as “the one who baptizes.”

John is calling the people back to the waters, and passing through the waters always marked a new day for the people of God. They passed through the Red Sea to escape bondage; they passed through the Jordan to enter a promised land. John calls them again to turn back to the waters as a sign of preparation for God’s coming new day. And if this isn’t exciting enough, John tells the people as they come that there is another one coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit.

All of this sets the stage for Jesus’ first act in the gospel of Mark, and it goes like this: “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." 

Mark’s original hearers must have been left scratching their heads because on the surface this first act of Jesus seems to be one of the more anticlimactic verses in the gospels. “He came from where? And did what?”

He came from Nazareth of Galilee. In his commentary called Binding the Strong Man, Ched Myers writes, “One would expect the hero to be credentialed through miraculous origins or a solid genealogy (something Matthew and Luke cannot resist). Mark, however, stresses Jesus’ obscure origins, ‘from Nazareth,’ tantamount to introducing him as ‘Jesus from Nowheresville.’”

And this Jesus from Nowheresville shows up on the scene just like all the other people who are turning toward John in the wilderness. That Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan is something Christians have grappled with throughout the centuries; in fact, some of the early Christians even found it somewhat embarrassing that Jesus—being pure and sinless—would go down into the waters of repentance.

“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

This significantly insignificant first act of Jesus in the gospel of Mark reveals something about the identity of God that will unfold in more obvious, explicit ways throughout the story of Jesus. And it shows us this: that God is—primarily, first and foremost—the One who is with us.

Jesus spent the first 30 years of his life in Nowheresville, and based on the little we know about those decades we can assume it was lived in an everyday, mundane kind of way. As priest and theologian Sam Wells puts it: “...[Jesus] spent thirty years in Nazareth [simply] being with us, setting aside plans and strategies, and experiencing in his own body not just the exile and oppression of the children of Israel living under the [Roman empire] but also the joy and sorrow of family and community life...” Jesus came from Nazareth and in doing so shows us that God is with us, really with us.

And his first act is to come just like everybody else to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus isn’t above the people or simply among the people but is fully with them, and his baptism in the Jordan embodies that proclamation. It’s as if Jesus, in coming to be baptized by John, is being baptized into us, showing that his life is given over to us completely, fully immersed in all of hurt and in all of our hope. God isn’t just revealed when the skies break open and the voice affirms Jesus’ identity, but it is in Nazareth and in the coming to these waters that we surprisingly find God to be revealed as the one who is with us, so incredibly with us that it’s easy to miss.

“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

Though we get an inside peak at the significance of this baptismal moment—when those skies are torn open and the Spirit descends and a voice comes from heaven—Mark seems to indicate that it was only Jesus who saw and heard this affirmation. Those with whom Jesus journeyed to the Jordan to be baptized were oblivious to what was unfolding before them. It’s as if the gospel of Mark is teaching us how to see what we most often see only in hindsight: that God is doing something new and it is often, perhaps especially, going to rise up from the margins, the periphery. And that new thing will be so deeply and intimately with us that we’re likely to overlook it.

“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

God is with us. Really, really with us. And God is doing something new among us, even now. We’re called to turn toward it together and prepare ourselves to be ready to receive it. And it is probably going to come from places like Nowheresville and will most likely unfold before us in everyday kinds of ways.

So, let’s get ready, because “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Amen.