The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Cosmic Crossing

By placing the opening scene of his book at the Jordan River, who is Mark’s author alluding to?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Mark 1:4-11

For Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012: Year B—Baptism of Our Lord

Mark knows how to move it along. Written in the very midst of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 C.E. (a minority view, but the way I am going to read the text), the urgency can be felt in the velocity of his narrative.

Even the opening line, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, suggests that the author isn’t convinced he will make through to finish the rest of the story.

At the Jordan

Mark presents John and Jesus in quick succession placing them in an environment rich with biblical/historical significance. They are at the Jordon, a point repeated twice in four verses. This is where Joshua led the people into the Promised Land and, like the Red Sea, the waters miraculously parted for them. 

As Jesus comes up from under the waters of the Jordon, parting the surface of the water, is he emerging as a Joshua figure that will lead the people against their enemies and retake their land? This would be a welcome reading for a people in the midst of a revolt against their Roman occupiers.

It is also the place where Elijah’s mantle was passed on to Elisha, illustrated by Elisha performing the same miracle that Elijah had just performed: the parting of the waters of the Jordon. After which the company of prophets saw him and said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” This seems similar to the way John saw the Spirit resting on Jesus.

Cosmic Crossing

Much has been written comparing this tearing open of heaven and the voice pronouncing “This is my Son!” with the tearing of the temple curtain and the soldier’s pronouncement of, truly he was God’s Son, as a kind of cosmic crossing into time. Is this a tear in the firmament that separated the realm of God from the realm of humanity.  Is this a parting that will never be repaired? God will continue to be among God’s people in a way God has not been before.

This cosmic crossing is further emphasized by its location at the Jordan River, where miraculous crossings have occurred in the past, one by a conquering leader of his people and the others by great prophets who speak truth to the leaders.

The Hardest Question

By placing the opening scene of his book at the Jordan River, does Mark’s author intend to allude to Joshua or to Elisha? Or does he intend to bring both to mind? And what does that tell us about the nature of Jesus’ mission?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. elizabeth griffin says:

    Your reading speaks to me. I think Mark is making connections for his fellowship. He shows them that this upstart Jesus person who is bringing good news is part of a greater story, and will continue that story. This, I would think, might be reassuring for them, especially if they are witnessing the destruction of the world as they knew it.

    Only those who know the end of the story might see the renting asunder of temple vail and sky as a metaphysical commentary on Jesus, on God”s work in the world.

  2. Rev. Lou says:

    I was caught up in the image of the division between heaven and God’s people being ripped apart and therefore destroying separation. For years I have celebrated this day with “Remember your baptism and be joyful.” This Sunday I will change that to: “The heavens have been ripped open and the love of God rests on you.” There are several children in my congregaton who have not been baptized because their parents want them to make a decision about that. Remember your baptism then doesn’t fit for them. The heavens have been ripped open and the love of God rests on you, fits for everyone. Thanks for your insite.

  3. Jennifer says:

    There’s so much here to use. Which way do I go to proclaim it? As ‘Gentiles’ I think we miss so much of those blatant messages the gospel writers give us that Jesus is “THE ONE”. Like you pointed out, Russell, placing this baptism at the Jordan because of what had happened there in the past and who it had happened to.

    And I’m quite intrigued by the video that perhaps for Mark the incarnation is at the point of baptism. Maybe the voice is claiming Jesus. Maybe for Mark that was the important moment. Otherwise, wouldn’t he have mentioned something before this event?

    But this whole ‘heavens torn apart’ is gripping me right now. I found a quote from Annie Dillard which is this: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

    I’ve always thought of baptism as God claiming us, but wow! It’s not so comforting when I think in terms of claiming for hard work, persecution, thankless tasks, humility, servitude, obedience, emptying even unto death, death on a cross.

    Oh, my goodness.

    As I read on another site by Mike Johnson (no relation) The kingdom of God is for the meek, but not for sissies.

    Now: who will be first in the baptismal queue?

How do you read?