Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Baptism of Our Lord

Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

There are few things quite as satisfying as a really surprising ending.  As a little boy, I used to love reading mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie to name a few, just to get that thrill when all is revealed in the last several pages.  Indeed,  if a movie is advertised as having a huge plot-twisting ending that no one could possibly see coming, you can better believe that the likelihood of me shelling out some cash to see that movie has just gone up dramatically.  It naturally follows, I suppose, that finding out information ahead of time can ruin a good story.  Think about the time that someone has spoiled an ending to a book or movie or sporting contest for you.  Is there anything more frustrating than that?    All that work and emotional energy, all of that now wasted, as you found prematurely that Bruce Willis was actually dead in the movie the Sixth Sense or some other such mind-blowing turn of events.
So, then, a question.  What happens when the punch line is given too early or when the great mystery is revealed in the first couple of pages?  If you have ever spoiled an ending for someone, told them who the killer is or who hits the winning shot, you know exactly how that question is answered.  You apologize; you feel guilty and wish that you had kept your mouth shut.  I can virtually guaranteed you that, if I somehow knew how the Broncos’ game was going to end this afternoon and began to tell you all, I would promptly be shouted down. And that, I suppose, is where you and I differ entirely from Mark the Evangelist.  Not only does he give away the punch line, literally in the very first verse of his Gospel, but he does so unapologetically.  “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” is how he begins his Gospel, and this is not some cryptic set of clues that will only make sense in light of later information.    No, he comes out and says it: this Jesus, this one on whom this whole story will focus, this one who will do battle with any number of dark forces and finally be put upon the cross only to rise again,  he is God’s Son.  And what is more, Mark seems to give us, as the readers, information that could be pretty useful to other characters in the Gospel, as Jesus’ disciples and opponents alike fail to make any sense of who he actually is.  So, what is going on here?  Why would Mark seem to take the tension of the story?  Why would he give us the information that should, if he had been paying attention in freshman English class, come not at the beginning but at the end of the story?  Why does he want to take that joyous ending from us?
Well, it just might be the case that, instead of taking away that tension of the story, in giving the punch line before he has told the set up, Mark has introduced something radical into the way we make sense of both Jesus and our world.  For while Mark will certainly tell us that Jesus is the Son of God, that really is does not answer the question.  For right after doing so, please notice what happens.  We see Jesus lined up for baptism by John; a baptism that we are told explicitly is for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  And if the question that comes to mind is something along the lines of what on earth is the Son of God doing in a place such as this, or why is this Jesus, this Christ, queuing up with sinners who need to be washed of their pride and misery, then you have already been struck by the tension that Mark is intending.  For the question that Mark will continue to ask us as readers is this: can we bear a Messiah, a God, who comes this close?  How will we respond to a God who does not stay in his heavens, but rather tears them wide open and descends to earth with a ferocious mercy? What will we do with a Messiah who comes not to dominate and subdue, but rather to forgive and heal?  A Messiah who will not leave us alone to fight the forces of darkness, but rather will tear them down and leave us with only his peace?
Try as we might, try as we do to keep God in a box so that we can control and manipulate this God, this is a tension that we cannot escape from, as God the Father and Holy Spirit confirm that this Jesus belongs to them. From this point forward, indeed forever more, God will be known as the one who hops in the river with sinners, and God’s good will towards humanity will be found only in the one who has chosen to be numbered and counted among the outcast and the downtrodden.  Yes, this is the God who is not ashamed to love and forgive regular folks, to be known as the one who cares for them so deeply that he will undergo the very ordeal in which they recognize their need of him.  And this, one could rightly say, this is the meaning of Jesus’ baptism.  That he is once again confirmed as God’s son, given this name above all names, the very instant that he sinks to the depths of the human experience. 
“The beginning of the good news,” say Mark the Evangelist, and far from spoiling the story for us, Mark has instead asked of you and me a more radical question, still.  Because, you see, in the waters of your own baptism, this Christ was poured over you, and that same voice that tore the heavens wide has also claimed and sealed you.  The same Spirit which animated this Jesus the Christ, that Spirit lives in you, breathes in you, and calls out to you that you, too, are daughters and sons of God the most high.  “You are my child, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.”  Because of the waters the baptism, these are now your words, too.  You belong to this Christ and this Messiah, the good news of his love is now written in your heavens as the Holy Spirit continues to work on and in you; indeed, as the Spirit continues to work death to all that which would keep you from this Messiah, and continues to raise you to the new life that is yours by baptism, you too are utterly precious in this God’s sight.  How’s that for a beginning?  
So, then, the question, if this is how the story begins, with a God who will be found in the waters of baptism, in that least likely of places, how indeed will it end?  And that, I think, is the question that Mark wants us to ponder, and it is a good one as we scan our life circumstances again at the beginning of the year.  Indeed, what does it mean for our own lives that this Christ, this Messiah is so very committed to you that he will find you in the places you think he could never inhabit?  What shape might the future take for a God who begins by stepping stubbornly and irrevocably in the cracks of human existence, into the moments of pain and terror?  How will this Christ’s ever-faithful presence shape the way we think and act?  For all is yours; you are God’s beloved child for now and for all time.  This is your beginning, and whatever else you may encounter, nothing will have the power to take this from you.   As for the rest of the story, as for how God will continue to bring about God’s reign both here at Centennial and in your daily lives, as for how this beginning will continue to take on flesh and propel us towards a future,  these are open questions.  For the story has just begun.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

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