Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
January 10, 2021
— We are a Baptized People
Believe it or not it is something of a hard time to write a sermon. There is a lot rolling around out there in the political climate, the health situation, and the daily, ongoing crisis that so many people continue to face in these unprecedented days. We witnessed something this last week in our nation’s capital that I feel pretty comfortable saying not one of us ever expected to see in our lifetimes. Never would I have predicted that our nation’s Capital Building would be overrun and desecrated as it was. There was absolutely no excuse for that outrageous display of complete disregard for our American democratic process. In the very occasion that our electoral votes were being officially accepted, we witnessed blatant disrespect to the process of being democratic. After all, it is the people’s willingness to be democratic that makes us democratic. It is not our papers or words or titles or laid out processes that make us democratic. It is not our wishful thinking that makes us a democratic republic. It is our actions, our following through, our work and toil, our practiced commitment, our fight to hold that very delicate thread that is our democracy. It is not our buildings but the people and work that they represent. A number of you have probably noted that on such days as Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day or Independence Day that it was the sacrifices made in our nation’s history that secured our freedoms today.
This was not how I envision my sermon going today when I planned out my topics a couple of weeks ago. Today was the big baptism message as we all took the opportunity to remember that we are a baptized people. It was a nice and comfortable but important reminder that we are in God’s family, safe and secure. But this week exposed our lack of safety and security as Americans. It escalated tensions surrounding our President – no matter how you feel about him. This week laid bare the cracks in our nation in ways that we have not seen them in any kind of recent history. This last year has been hard enough, contentious enough, scary enough. I had joked about having an exorcism service for 2020. Maybe that is what we need to consider. But kidding aside, what can something like baptism say to the world as it is right now?
It might surprise you to learn that baptism, our beginning sacrament, the original act that set us off as people of God in God’s family, has a LOT to say to the world and the troubles of this day.
Both baptism and the beginning of the world emerge from the deep. While the creation is not baptism, per se, God brought everything into existence by first hovering over the deep and separating things and creating space for life and making life happen. It all began from that encounter with the deep, with the water or something like water. Order, life, possibility, everything that is came from the chaos of the deep. The deep represents chaos, void, emptiness, and death. Where there was nothing but deepness, God brought forth order. There is a reason why it is so impressive that Jesus could walk on the water and calm the storm, the water and waves and storm were death. The ocean and weather are powerful and unpredictable. They always win. They still win today. The one who is Lord of the storm, Lord of the ocean, Lord of the deep, that Lord is truly Lord of all.
Baptism is our descent into the deep. In the Orthodox tradition, when they baptize babies in the old school tradition, the priest holds the baby upside-down and dips that baby in the water headfirst. You can still find videos out there of priests dunking babies in the water headfirst. I think the practice is less and less accepted today because it is terrifying to watch, but that notion underscores the point and the theology behind baptism – through death we are given new life. Paul in Romans says the same thing about us and Jesus. By baptism, we are united with Jesus in his death so that we can be united with him in his eternal life.
Baptism says that where we see chaos, death, hopelessness, the scary deep, God brings forth life.
But the message of baptism is even greater concerning Jesus’ own baptism. This is the reason why we have baptism as a sacrament today. Jesus told his followers at the end of Matthew’s Gospel to go forth and baptize followers of his as they shared the Good News, but baptism is itself a sacrament for us for this reason – Jesus did it himself. Our two sacraments are both things that Jesus did himself. We are copying him, remembering him, somehow sharing in him when we rejoice in baptism and communion.
Mark’s story of the baptism of Jesus is also special because his gospel was the first, the earliest, of the stories. His gospel was the first one, so Mark’s story is the one others are measured by. Mark’s account is simple and stark. He does not add other teachings or warnings or background like the other gospels. Mark focused on these dramatic points: 1) everyone, everyone came out to the Jordan to be baptized – the whole countryside and the whole town of Jerusalem; 2) the heavens are literally ripped open when Jesus came up out of the water – that’s the actual word (“ripped or tore open”) not used in any of the other stories; 3) God’s message that Jesus is God’s Son and well favored – we are not sure who actually heard that, everyone or no one but Jesus, remains a mystery.
It is impossible to appreciate just how tough it was in Jesus’ day. We have never had to deal with being ruled by another country that believed very differently and charged extreme taxes and killed lots of people if they caused problems. The Romans had no hesitation being heavy handed. Plus, your rulers were not on your side being puppet kings of Rome. Lives were short, hard, and painful. Religion was walled off and ceremonial for the wealthy. Actually, something that they already did at the Temple was baptism. Baptism was not something new. There was already ceremonial bathing at the temple to make someone clean before they entered holy areas. But you already heard the difference – it was at the Temple.
John was baptizing people in the wilderness, in the Jordan river, away from the church powers so-to-speak and everyone was coming out for it. People were sick and tired of the way life was, the way the rulers were, the way the religion was, the way life was (sound familiar?). They desperately wanted God to do something new, to help them do something new. Mark makes this point that it was immensely popular. The prophet John was offering people a new way to prepare for what God was about to do. He gave them a new way to get washed, to get cleaned up and ready, and to help them look forward to what God was about to do. They were desperate for this new thing, to be a part of what God was about to do.
There was nothing usual or expected in what God was doing. That is reflected in the tearing of the heavens, something like an explosion of glory. What does it even mean for the heavens to be rent apart? Was it just a lot of light or did it look like outer space? Also, however God made the pronouncement, it was saved and preserved for all time. Whether it was audible or not, everyone is left with the certainty that it was Christ. This is where Jesus became the Christ or the Anointed One – God’s Messiah. That is also what this event signifies: God’s appointment of Jesus to be his Son, the one who will carry out God’s plan.
There is nothing usual or ordinary in the days today, either. I don’t know whether the heavens are going to be ripped open or whether we will hear God’s voice directing us to something amazing and new. What I do know is that baptism still means something today, even though it probably happened for each of us some time ago – for me 48 years ago. And yet, that baptism is still just as meaningful today as it was then, not just because God was marking me as one of God’s family, though that is pretty impressive in itself, but it also heralded that God was about to do something new in my life. God is doing something new in our lives right now. Baptism is a sign that you are open to this newness, that you crave this newness, that the God of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow is working something right now for us to help us face the challenges of this day and get us ready for tomorrow.
For all of us who are baptized, let us never forget that we are claimed by God and that God is giving us a new sense of grace and love. As difficult as the world can be, God’s creative love can bring life out of the deepest, darkest times. May God’s Spirit wash over you and me and show us all that a new day is coming.
To God be the glory. Amen.