Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mark 1:1-11 "Torn Apart"

         A priest was preparing to baptize a young child. He approached the father of the child and said solemnly, "Baptism is a serious step. “  And then the priest asked, “Are you prepared for it?"
         "I think so," the young father replied. "My wife has made appetizers, and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests."
         "I don't mean that," the priest responded. "What I mean is this:  Are you prepared spiritually?"
         "Oh, sure," the father answered, not missing a beat. "I've got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey all set."
         It is a funny story perhaps, but its point is clear.  Baptism is meant to be so much more than the trappings – be they appetizers and beer or a marble font and elaborate ritual.  At least, baptism was certainly much more than the trappings for the Gospel writer of Mark, whose account of Jesus’ baptism we just heard.  For this Gospel writer, baptism was nothing less than where the story of Jesus Christ begins. 
        You see, this earliest written Gospel has no birth narrative with shepherds and angel choruses.  That is found in Luke.  There are no magi, nor a star, nor King Herod.  We will read that version only in Matthew.  No – for the Gospel writer of Mark, we rocket right through the first 30 years or so of Jesus’ life and begin when he is an adult – at the moment of his baptism, when he, like so many other Jews that day, filed down to the Jordan River to be baptized by the new prophet in town, John the Baptizer. 
         Baptism was not a usual occurrence for first century Jews.  However, if you were going to be baptized, the Jordan was a wonderful place to do it – so full of tradition and history it was.  Flowing along a huge geologic fault in the earth’s surface that separated ancient Judah from the mountains of Moab, the river wound its way through the bottom of a valley near Bethlehem, bringing water and minerals into the Dead Sea, 124 miles away. 
         And oh, what a colorful history the Jordan River had!  It had been where Elijah had given his cloak or mantle to his young sidekick Elisha and then had been taken into heaven on a chariot.  The Jordan was where Elisha instructed the commander of the Syrian to bathe seven times to rid himself of leprosy.  And now it was the site of John’s baptizing and his calling people to turn away from sin and back to God, his imploring people to “prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”, as the prophet Isaiah famously said.
         When Jesus’ turn came, John dunked him like he had dunked all the others.  Jesus held his breath below the sacred muddy waters until his lungs felt like they would burst.  Then he came to the surface, coughing and sputtering, shaking his head, droplets of water flying everywhere. 
         It was then that he saw above him the very heavens – not quietly opening with a cooing dove gently being deposited on his shoulder (as one might conclude from a variety of artistic renderings).  Rather, the heavens were unceremoniously torn apart such that they – and he - would never be quite the same again.  It was at that moment that Jesus heard a voice that, according to this Gospel narrative, no one else heard, a voice that said, “You are my own dear son, and I am so pleased with you.” 
         As blogger Roger Owens wrote, “At this new beginning, (Jesus) is being reminded of his identity— reminded of who he is, who he has always been, who he will always be.
He did not achieve this, so he can’t lose it. He did not earn it, so it can’t be taken away. This is simply who he is: God’s beloved son.”  At this moment of baptism, God identifies with Jesus and seals their relationship with a powerful statement of approval.
         And so it was true.  Jesus would never be the same again – nor will we, we who choose to follow in his footsteps and be baptized into the Church founded in his name.  
         The Scarlet Letter Bible tells the story this way:
         “So John showed up in the middle of nowhere, dunking people in a river, telling people to straighten up because it’s time to break free. People came from everywhere, even from Washington DC, to renounce their misdeeds and get cleaned up in the river.
         John dressed in ratty coveralls and leather suspenders. He kept to a strict vegan diet. And his message: ‘Get ready for someone so cool I’m unworthy to even tie his shoes! I just got you wet. He’ll set your life on fire!’
       That was when Jesus came. He arrived from Nazareth and John dunked him in the Jordan River. As he emerged from the water he saw the universe as it really is, and he felt it resonate to his core: that he was God’s precious child, and God was joy.”
       The commentator of the Scarlet Bible goes on to note:  “Baptism might just get you wet. Or it might just change your life. In itself, there’s nothing magical about a dip in the water. Even if it’s a religiously motivated one, with a formal liturgy, specially blessed water, godparents, and the whole works.
         What makes it special is what you do with it after you get out of the water….Your baptism is when you realized who you are at your very core and you accepted that realization with joy. So much joy, that, as difficult as it may have been (and still be), it’s impossible not to live the rest of your life out of that moment.”
         Most of us, I suspect, however, do not remember much about our children’s baptisms, let alone our own.  If yours was like mine, you probably can figure that your parents held you in their arms as they mumbled affirmations to questions that neither they nor we can likely remember. Then the minister dotted your head with water as he or she spoke your name.  What we probably most recall are the stories told about us – whether we cried or smiled and whether we did anything embarrassing in front of the home church congregation. 
         However, just as baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel, so it is the beginning for our ministry as well – and therein is the crux of its importance.  Baptism is the beginning of our life in the community of faith we call the church.  It is when we enter the stream of God’s story.   It is when God’s words rumble through all eternity to surround and embrace us:  “You are God’s beloved son or daughter.  God is pleased with you.”  Regardless of our age, baptism is when we become part of God’s eternal narrative, and the heavens above us are torn apart, and, in so doing, we are never the same again. 
         As our blogger wrote, “Joined to Christ through baptism we make a discovery: these words to Jesus, just like the waters of baptism, these words—they spill over him and onto us as well. You are my beloved child. This endorsement spoken to Jesus—it belongs to us as well. We don’t earn it, or achieve it, or campaign for it. It’s simply given.
The deepest truth of who we are—beloved children of God.”  Through baptism, we become part of God’s people, part of God’s family.
         All this is pretty heady stuff that Mark’s version of the story leads us to reflect on, and it makes me think that perhaps we understand our baptism less than we think.  Baptism is really not some warm and fuzzy event for babies capped off with a catered lunch and a keg of beer.  It is more like an earth-shattering moment that reorients our very identity and, if taken seriously, changes our lives forever. 
         Perhaps it should be as UCC pastor Maxwell Grant speculates, “What if....what if instead of a little chaste sprinkling of water on the forehead or even a full immersion on the banks of a local river or something in between...what if the only way to (be baptized, to become part of God’s family) was by skydiving? The very idea makes my stomach do backflips (he writes). But think about it. Free fall, then the rip cord, and then a gentle floating down to the ground.”  Bet we would all remember our baptism then!
         And so each year, on first Sunday after Epiphany (which commemorates the magi finally reaching the Christ Child), we remember not only Jesus’ baptism, but ours as well. 
As your pastor, I try to make that remembrance more along the lines of sky diving than a ritualistic sprinkling of water.
         And so we will listen once again to those promises made long ago on our behalf – and we will reaffirm our intent to, come what may, remain in the stream of God’s story and realize in a new way that our joy is only really to be found in embracing the fact that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons, and so we need to live our lives as if that really matters. 
         Mind you, we do not reaffirm our baptism as a sort of magical way to make our life easier in the year to come.  That is not what baptism did for Jesus, and that is not what reaffirming our baptism will do for us either. 
         Baptism did not keep Jesus out of trouble, and it certainly did not make things turn out as he had planned.  I think part of the significance of his baptism was the realization that when he found himself in trouble, he found also that he was not alone.  He still had God’s blessing and the company of the Spirit.  And so it will be for us as we enter this new year that is so filled with fearful uncertainty. 
        As Episcopal priest Michael Marsh beautifully noted, “To return to the waters of our baptism returns us to the truth God knows about us even when we do not know or believe that truth, even when we have forgotten or denied that truth, even when we cannot see it in the world around us, and even when we have acted contrary to that truth. Those baptismal waters drown the other voices that speak untruth about us and each other. They embolden and strengthen us. They renew hope and refresh the weary. They cleanse our eyes that we might see each other and ourselves in a new light.”
         (As I noted,) none of this necessarily makes life easy. It doesn’t magically fix our life’s or world’s problems. Instead, it reveals life to be holy, sacred, and worth the effort. It lets us start from a new place and with a different truth. (After all,) where we begin in some way makes all the difference in where we will go.”
         When we renew our baptismal vows, we renew our commitment to the Gospel message to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  We renew our call to ministry, to discipleship, to following in the footsteps of this God man, Jesus. We affirm that we will continue to tear open that which needs to be torn open in our world, just as the heavens were torn open millennia ago at the time of Jesus’ baptism on the shoreline of the Jordan River.
         By renewing our baptismal vows, we commit to tearing apart that which separates the rich from the poor, tearing through hardness of heart to real compassion, tearing through rigid and meaningless rituals to find new ways for the church to be authentic in a secular world, tearing apart the chains that hold us prisoner, tearing apart all the rhetoric that keeps so many in the world from believing that they too are God’s beloved children.
         So let us come once again to the baptismal waters to claim our identity as God’s beloved children.  Let us come to renew our call to ministry.  Let us come to understand, once again, that God has revealed herself in humanity through Jesus. 
         As Michael Marsh wrote, “Whatever your life has been or might now be, the baptismal waters await you. Cannonball into the mercy of God. Immerse yourself in the water of God’s love. Splash in the waves of God’s forgiveness.
Backstroke through the pool of God’s grace. Dive deep into the gift of having been created in the image and likeness of God. Drift in the stillness of God’s peace.”  Imagine that you are skydiving - and prepare yourself for ministry in Christ’s name.


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