“And a voice came from heaven” Mark 1:11
The placenames Saint Mark uses in the story of the baptism of Jesus would have meant much more to the people of his time than they do to people reading his words today. The verses mention five places, Judea, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee and the River Jordan and for Mark’s contemporaries each of those places would have meant particular things.
Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 4 says, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. “And people from the whole Judean countryside” went out to him says Mark.
Judea was the name given by the Greeks and Romans to the area Jewish people knew as “Judah.” It was a name originally given to the land occupied by the tribe of Judah, when the people of Israel took control of the land in the book of Joshua, and it later came to be the name for the Kingdom of Judah, the southern part of the kingdom over which King David and King Solomon had ruled. Judah was the homeland.
When the Assyrians invaded in 721 BC, Israel, the northern part of the Kingdom was lost, but Judah survived for more than a century more, falling to the Babylonians in 587 BC. Four hundred years later, Judea, as it became known, was a Jewish kingdom again for a century, from 164 BC until 63 BC when it fell to Roman invaders.
Judea was the homeland, it was the heartland. Judea was a place of traditional, conservative Jewish people and it was the countryside from where people came to John the Baptist seeking repentance and change. If people who would have been staunch and old fashioned in their views could seek something new and different, there was no-one who might not change. Are Christians now, in their own ways, like those people?
It wasn’t just the country people, the rural farming communities who went out to John the Baptist, Saint Mark says in Chapter 1 Verse 5, “and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”.
Jerusalem, the second place mentioned, was an international city, it was a cosmopolitan city, it was a city of learning. Jerusalem was the seat of the Roman governor and would have seen the comings and goings of Roman officials and Roman soldiers. Far more importantly, though, for the Jewish people Jerusalem was the holy city; it was the place where Solomon had built his Temple, a Temple that had been rebuilt after the time of the exile in Babylon. Jerusalem was the place of the high priest and the religious leaders.
The call to repentance, the call to a different life and a different relationship with God was not just a call heard by country people, people who may have been thought more impressionable, people who may have been thought more susceptible to things that were novel, the call was also heard by the sophisticated and the learned, the people who had encountered many movements and philosophies and religions. If Christians are not like the people of Judea, perhaps they are like the people of Jerusalem? If the people of the holy city felt the call to change, do Christians hear a similar call?
Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 9 says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth.” Nazareth is distant from the capital and distant from Judea; but it is not just people in Jerusalem and the south who are dubious about Nazareth, it was not even a place held in high esteem among those who would become apostles. In Saint John Chapter 1 Verses 45-46, it says, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'”
Perhaps there is something of Nathanael in most people now; a tendency to dismiss certain people because of their background, a tendency to hear only those people they wish to hear (this is certainly the case with the users of social media). People like people who are like them.
Judging people by their background just as much applied to the people of Nazareth itself. In Saint Mark Chapter 6 Verse 3 Mark tells of Jesus’ return to his home town. He speaks in the synagogue and is not well received, there is grumbling. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him”.
Saint Mark’s reference to Jesus coming from Nazareth might have reminded some of those who heard his words of their own reactions to the background of Jesus. It should challenge people about whether we judge on the basis of background.
Nazareth is in Galilee, the fourth placename. Galilee is a region that was home to Jesus for most of his ministry. Much of Jesus’ the time Jesus spent teaching and healing was spent around the towns of Nazareth and Capernaum, and, obviously, from his calling of his disciples, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was not an obvious place for Jesus to minister, it was not only distant from Jerusalem and Judea, but travellers had to pass through Samaria to reach the south and, as is made clear in Saint John Chapter 4, relationships between Jews and Samaritans were not always cordial.
Why choose Galilee? Why choose somewhere that was perceived as rustic and remote? If the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus in Saint Mark Chapter 14 Verse 70 is recalled, it tells of Peter being challenged, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean”. The Galilean accent was so distinctive that Peter was picked out in a crowd. Galileans are not expected to be sophisticated or cosmopolitan, they are certainly not expected to speak foreign languages, on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, the gift of tongues surprises the crowd, in Acts of the Apostles Chapter 2 Verse 7, it says, “Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?”
God works through unlikely people, people on the edge, people who were far from being powerful or influential. There is a lesson there in having confidence that God can work through anyone, no matter how rustic they may be, no matter how far they are from those who are “important”.
The Jordan river is the final place. Jesus “was baptized by John in the Jordan”. Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 10-11 says, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” Heaven and earth meet at this moment; God declares his presence in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Jordan is a place for new beginnings, a place for moving from one life to another. Crossing the Jordan brought the people of Israel into the Promised Land. From being slaves in Egypt, they were now their own people with their own land. The people who came out to the Jordan for baptism came there for a new beginning, to move from an old life to a new one. Jesus is a new leader, one who will lead his people through the waters of the Jordan to a new life in this world and the next.
It is fitting to read of the baptism of Jesus at the beginning of a new calendar year, a time when there is a challenge to change. The new beginning is open not just now, though, but every day. Every day there is the opportunity to turn to God, to change, to believe.
Five places: Judea, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee and the River Jordan. All sorts and conditions of people coming to begin anew, challenging people to be like them.