Mark 1:4-11 – the 1st Sunday of Epiphany (Baptism of the Lord) – for January 8, 2012
“…in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee…” (Mark 1:9)
The professor* surveyed his office. With retirement probably troubling his thoughts more than next semester’s plans, his gaze fixed on the student perched on a chair. The old scholar’s eyebrows, like lenticular clouds—the disc-shaped, high-elevation clouds sometimes mistaken for UFOs—raised as he dropped stapled papers onto his desk.
The document landed near the student. No grade. No scribbled notes.
The student glanced up at the still standing professor. (A quick, stolen look, because he feared eye contact with the person who’d determine the fate of his passing or failing Introductory New Testament.) And yet, before the student averts his gaze, he knows the professor, with brows still arched, concentrates only on the waiting, anxious younger man.
The anxiety was obvious wasn’t it? How could it not be obvious to the old man? After all, he’d likely taught thousands of students during a distinguished career. He surely knew his silence and high-elevation eyebrows and power to bequeath a grade could make almost every young man or woman awaiting his judgment as nervous as . . .
. . . a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs?
No, don’t use a worn out trope to describe the feeling of impending doom. How about as nervous as . . .
. . . a student doubting his decision to go to seminary rather than law school, or just simply doubting and self-analyzing and dreading there’s no future. Yeah, that feeling.
Can’t the professor see that? Smell it, even? Doesn’t the cramped office reek of fear and looming disappointment?
And why, damn it, was there no grade on a paper that took hours and hours to write?
The professor speaks. “A fine essay,” he says. “Solid writing. Not the best in the class, but good. You should feel proud.”
Proud? Not with doubt lurking. Not with knowing this old-as-the-hills and wise-as-a-serpent scholar probably always begins with a compliment, with a bone tossed to the foolish student. After the opening niceties, there will be criticism, laughter, humiliation . . . all leading to the professor telling the student—as he has revealed to those multitude of other students—that he gave no grade because it wasn’t even worth an F. If F is the worst, then “no grade” meant you’re so bad you can’t even detect the faint shadow of an “F” in the far distance.
The student can’t hear “fine essay” or “solid writing.” Not when the worst is yet to come.
The professor clears his throat. Then he offers two life-changing words. Two transformational, glorious and unexpected gifts.
This is how the professor begins his sentence, this is how he begins creation, this is how he helps transform a fearful student into a curious pastor and writer and person: “What if . . .”
Those. Two. Words.
I was the student. In the overblown scene I’ve depicted, the paper tossed onto the desk—without a grade—was my understanding of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. I had no idea what I was doing in seminary. I’d never “studied” the Bible. I didn’t know shit and certainly didn’t know Greek . . . let along ancient Hebrew or how to do scriptural exegesis or even—of the vast array of ignorance I possessed—that the Bible was not originally written in English. That’s how bad it was at the beginning of seminary.
What if . . . the professor suggested, John the Baptist was more than just someone to prepare believers for Jesus’ arrival? What if . . . the Baptizer was Jesus’ rival? What if . . . there’s more to this story than what appears on the surface?
A preeminent scholar on the New Testament nearing retirement, he’d surely weathered thousands of students trooping into his classroom; fools for Christ who wanted to follow Jesus and serve the church. Many, like me, had last “studied” the Bible in a sixth grade Sunday school class.
What if . . .
I won’t bore you with what I learned about John the Baptist as a rival of Jesus (though I did unearth insights that startled and upended my naïve Sunday school faith), because I’m more interested in the power of those two words.
The professor was the first of many to gift me with curiosity and a faith-filled doubt. He challenged me to see the Bible not as set in stone, but a living text, always inviting interpretation and re-interpretation.
Whenever I read about John the Baptist, the one “not worthy to untie the thong of” Jesus’ Birkenstocks, I’m again that young student in a stuffy office. I’m on the verge of epiphany. Yes, I redid my paper. Writing is revision! Yes, I eventually got a grade. More important to seek knowledge than secure a grade! Yes, I’m still unsure about the Baptizer’s role in (or beyond) the Gospel stories. But I continue to wonder, doubt, ponder, question and seek a faith where the heavens are torn open . . . not to unleash fear and division, but to reveal God’s incredible love for Creation and creature.
What if . . .
*The professor was Dr. Eric Lane Titus. Don’t know what happened to him after I left Claremont years ago. I continue to give thanks for how he influenced me.