Sunday, January 11, 2015

Life Begins in the Water

Genesis 1:1-5 / Mark 1:4-11
Baptism of the Lord
January 11, 2015
William G. Carter

We will spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Mark this year. Mark has no time for Christmas. He speaks of no manger, no shepherds, no angels singing the Christmas tidings. The little town of Bethlehem is never mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. No, Mark is in a hurry. Immediately he wants to get to the work of Jesus in the world.

I realize this is abrupt for a lot of people, especially if they have not yet taken down the Christmas tree. Ours went out on Friday. The ornaments went in their boxes for another year. Truth be told, the electric candles are still in the windows and there are two crèche scenes that we keep out all year around.

But Mark will have none of it. For him, the story of Jesus begins in the Jordan River, as the Lord comes forward to be baptized. We don’t know what Jesus has been doing before then. Mark doesn’t say very much. He says Jesus comes from Nazareth, a town up in the hill country. In chapter three, he tells us Jesus had a mother and some brothers. In chapter six, Jesus goes back to preach in his home town and the people say, “Where did this woodcutter get all of this?” That’s all that Mark tells us about the back story of Jesus. As far as Mark is concerned, the life of Jesus begins in the water.

There is a strange prophet out there. You will remember his name was John. He worked along the river, probably just a few miles north of the Dead Sea. It’s the lowest point on the earth, 1407 feet below sea level. The desert is extreme. The air is as dry as a bone, and John was working by a stream in the desert. He yelled at the snakes and welcomed the sinners.

Everybody who came to John had the past purged away with the offer of a new beginning. “The Powerful One is coming,” John promises. On the very first day of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes to put John out of business. There will be no further need to announce the Messiah is coming some day, when it is the day when he shows up.

Mark portrays a dramatic scene. He doesn’t say Jesus had any sins to confess, but he does make it clear there is a new beginning. As Jesus stands up again in the river, the sky is ripped apart like an old cloth. The Spirit comes down on him like a pure white dove. And a Voice booms out with a couple of quotes from the Bible. Psalm 2: “You are my Son.” Isaiah 42: “I am pleased with you.” Just as quickly, the whole thing is over.

There is no lingering by the river. It’s time for Jesus to get to work. For the next fifteen chapters, Jesus will hardly sit down. There are broken people out there who need to be healed. There are hungry souls who must be fed. There are those out there who believe themselves to be so privileged that they has stopped listening for God, and Jesus will speak generously to them, like a sower hurling seed all around a rocky field.

Mark has it right: Jesus begins in the water. And he keeps at it.

One of the difficulties of being the kind of church that baptizes babies is that some of those babies never grow up in their faith. I tried to think of a nicer way to say it, but I will leave it like that. The reasons for infant baptism are based in scripture. Just as the Jewish baby boy has no say in being circumcised as a member of God’s Tribe, parents of the Christian flock can declare their children will be raised in the covenant of Christ. Baptism is when the journey begins. But it doesn’t stop there. A simple drive-by splash and dash won’t do the trick. We have a God who grabs us by the shoulders and says, “Grow up! You’ve been baptized. Start paying attention and grow up.”

It’s like the story Will Willimon tells. When he was a United Methodist pastor in South Carolina, he says he got tired of long-time Methodists who sneaked off to neighborhood revival services and suddenly came back saved. He had a hunch some of them were merely falling for old-time showmanship and emotional manipulation. That’s not real faith, he said. It has no root system. It has no real depth. It will not last.

But his real scorn was for the guy who said to him, “I was a faithful Methodist for thirty-eight years. I showed up every week, sang in the choir, wrote a lot of generous donations, went to Bible study. But then I found Jesus and nothing else mattered.” Pastor Will said, “Henry, what do you think we were trying to get through your thick skull for those thirty-eight years?”

The Christian life doesn’t always neatly divide into “before” and “after.” Not if we have a God who rips open the heavens, comes down in the Spirit, and keeps speaking in the words of scripture. Certainly there is a beginning point in every person’s faith, but God is so sneaky that we might not notice when faith actually begins. And remember, too, that God is involved in the whole journey, not only in the moments when we wake up to see his hand, but in the long years of preparation and waiting, and in the long years of confirming our faith by the way we live our lives.

I’ve told some of you about my baptism. I hope you do the research to learn something about your own. I was baptized at thirteen months of age. I have always been a late bloomer. My parents had moved into a new town, Mom was three months pregnant with my sister, and they phone up the minister at North Springfield Presbyterian Church in Akron, Ohio. It was close to the trailer park where they were living. The minister said, “Come and meet with me about thirty minutes before the worship service.”

When they got there, three other couples were there, each with a little baby boy. The minister handed out an information form to each. That’s when my dad realized he had never actually been baptized, so the preacher went to the restroom, got some water in a small bowl, and baptized him in the church office before the service. “First things first,” he said. That’s how my father and I came to be baptized on the same day.

Neither one of us knew what would come after that. Certainly it continues to be quite a ride. I was raised in a family that went to church every Sunday. Faith didn’t all click right away, because it never does. I fidgeted through worship services, and endured church school classes led by good-hearted people who read the lessons off the page. I went to youth group gatherings to see pretty girls, and stayed up so late on teenager retreats that I fell asleep in those emotionally charged moments when the leaders gave the sales pitch for Jesus. Yet the Lord got through. I must have sat through a few thousand sermons as a kid, and I started to understand a couple of them. See, that’s my promise to you. Just keep showing up!

A lot of us have been on the long trail. For others, it's still awkward and new. When I survey my Christian life, I see it began in the water of baptism. That was when my conversion began, a conversion that is pretty much still going on. I mean nothing spooky by that. For me, conversion is nothing less, and nothing more, than the clear and growing certainty that we belong to God and we are doing what he is doing in the world. Jesus began by teaching, healing, feeding, serving, and inviting others like us to join him. As we join him, we have the growing conviction that we belong to him, that we are part of something really big.

This “something” is what Mark calls “the kingdom.” God’s kingdom is not a single geographic place. It’s a condition of the heart and mind of those who call him King. In the baptism of Jesus, God has somehow torn open the heavens and come down here. Jesus, the Christ, is offering all of us something different, something new – and God is ruling over all of it.  

It’s something like the annual invitation at New Year’s Day: cast off the old, embrace the new. We’ve had enough of the tired old destructions of the world. Let’s try it as God wants it to be.

Or as my very first middle school teacher addressed our new class, “No one in your new school needs to know you were a horrible kid when you were in elementary school; now you can behave like a brand new kid.” It was a liberating invitation. A new beginning. Christ is the Beloved Son of heaven, right down here. In time, there will be a whole new dominion over earth, and all of it will belong to God.

For the Christian, life begins in the water, the shocking yet comforting water of baptism. We baptize because God has come to us in Jesus Christ. Everything is different because of him. It is God’s turn to rule over earth as he does in heaven. We have had enough of the old ways of evil. God’s kingdom says it’s time for something new. It’s time for something so holy that it makes a difference in  the world.

I will long remember what one of the crazy uncles said at a baptism party that I attended one Sunday afternoon. He got it right. The pews had been full that morning. People buzzed about the baby’s dress. Now all the romantic members of the family were in the living room, opening her presents, and gushing over the gifts. The guest of honor, the little girl who had been baptized, was tuckered out. She fell asleep in the high chair.

There are yellow balloons and the remnants of a big cake. It’s a big social occasion. The neighbors are there. Among the sandwich platters and the sherbet punch, the little girl’s crazy uncle wanders up for another piece of salami. He hears some relatives cooing over the gifts, sees the little girl snoozing in her chair with chocolate icing on her chin.

So he goes up to the child and says in a loud enough voice: “Don’t ever forget what we did to you today. We commissioned you to fight the Devil.”

Conversation came to an immediate halt. The socialites looked like they were splashed with ice cold water.

With that, the uncle punctured their silence and spoke again to the little baptizee: “And when you fight the Devil, don’t be afraid. Jesus is on your side. He was baptized before you.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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