Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Have you ever had one of those conversations where you’re not sure who you’re talking to? An unrecognized person on the phone or a mysterious email? It happened to me this week. I got an email from someone who I didn’t recognize, signed only with a nickname. The note was brief and polite - Please call me to let me know when you have some time to help. Thanks so much.
I am a helpful person by nature and I really did want to help. But I also like to know who I will be helping and what the need is. I confess, there are times when I should remember someone, but I don’t, and it’s embarrassing to say, who are you, and what was I going to do? So I constructed my email reply carefully. Hi, I’ve lost the thread here. (It happens.) Can you remind me what this is for? Thanks.
The reply didn’t clarify anything - Just trying to learn when you have some time to help me. Thanks. This left me in a quandary since, not knowing who this person was, I had no phone number to call either. So I gave it another try, emailing back - What’s a good number? Soon I had another email that gave a phone number and said, Are we having trouble communicating???
So I called the number. And with good humor on both sides, we established that I was not the person the emailer had intended to contact. Identity mystery resolved.
Speaking of which, you might wonder if John the Baptist actually knew who was coming after him to baptize people with the Holy Spirit. Unlike last week’s version from the gospel of John where Jesus is named right away, here in Mark’s version the baptizer only says that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming..." It’s as if Mark pauses so his hearers will ask, Who? Who is that one?
The answer does comes in Mark almost casually in the next paragraph. Jesus came to John, and was baptized with a water baptism. But what happened after that was unexpected. The usual sequence of events was that people confessed after their cleansing water bath. But Jesus made no confession. (This may be Mark’s way of addressing the problem of Jesus being baptized to repent and confess, which otherwise raises the question of how Jesus might have sinned.)
Jesus made no confession at all. Instead as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens tearing open and the spirit as a dove coming down into him. This becomes the moment of identification. Jesus saw and the others heard exactly who he was. Son of God, the beloved, the one in whom God’s Spirit is pleased to dwell.
If it seems like I am belaboring this scene at the Jordan River, you’re right. It’s about being completely clear about the spirit that came to dwell in Jesus. For the rest of his short life he would be having to answer this question – what is this spirit that is in you?
For it is certain that people recognized in Jesus a spirit that had to be reckoned with. But they were not all convinced that it was God’s Spirit. And so they devised ways to test Jesus.
It’s important to know that in the ancient world there was a pervading understanding that creation is full of spirit. In the bible there are three Hebrew words that refer to spirit. The first and most frequently used is ruah, meaning breath or wind. It is the wind of God that swept over the face of the deep, as Genesis relates. The second word is obh and refers to the kind of speech that comes from a ventriloquist – speech that hides its source. The third word is neshamah which means a puff, or destabilizing sort of wind or breath.
In the Hebrew Scriptures then, whatever word is used for spirit also conveys its value. Ruah is God’s wind. It is fundamentally good in the sense that creation, which is God-breathed is inherently good. How can it not be, since it comes from God, right? Alternatively, the two other names for spirit convey a threatening or insincere* and untrustworthy wind.
In the New Testament, there is really only one word for spirit. The Greek word pneuma is used almost exclusively. It too means wind or breath. Another word, used only twice, is phantasma which gives the sense of something that is all about show but has no actual substance or value.
Since in the New Testament the word pneuma could mean a positive or negative force, it is always accompanied by a modifier that qualifies the kind of spirit it is. So there is the Holy Spirit, which is God’s creative and pure wind. And there is unclean spirit – the kind that
invades, infests, causes illness and pain, distorts, and is inherently untrustworthy.
When the Spirit of God showed up at the baptism of Jesus it sent an undeniable message – Jesus was entirely open to being possessed by God’s pure Spirit; there was no competing unclean spirit in him that needed to be confessed and expelled. Furthermore, the spirit in whom Jesus would teach and cleanse the world was God’s pure (that is Holy) Spirit.
Later, the risen Jesus Christ breathed God’s Holy Spirit on his disciples. Then he directed them to invoke the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit over all people. And so the community of Jesus was to go forward as a community identified with, filled with, and led by, God’s pure Spirit.
In Acts, Paul seems horrified to come upon some people who had never heard of the Holy Spirit, much less received that Spirit. They had been washed and repented. Yet these people had not heard about their need to be filled with God’s Spirit. Through repentance and confessing their sin they had emptied themselves, becoming vulnerable to any sort of spirit to enter and possess them. Paul soon corrected the situation and washed the people in Jesus’s name calling for God’s Spirit to fill them up. Which it did, leading them to spirit-led praise and witness.
What is your identity? We too need to be clear about our identity as baptized people. Perhaps now more than ever. The air is filled with spirit and we are called to careful discernment. Conspiracy means to breathe with - a negative word that infers the working of an impure spirit to fill people with unclean thoughts, destructive desires, and negative energies.
To be followers of Jesus is to breathe with God, and to breathe God. In and out, we breathe the love of God, glorifying the good that God called everything from the beginning. Until we ourselves become purely God’s praise. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.