January 8, 2012
(First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord)
(From The Lectionary Page)
This just in: Beginnings are fraught with emotional energy. Hope, expectation, the bubbling up of joy are the usual hallmarks. And usually between the ending of one reality and the beginning of a new, we can count on some time in which to prepare for the big change. Think of the summer before your freshman year, getting engaged, a pregnancy, or the last 18 months at the Cathedral. Gracious space to reflect, to dream, to plan.
And then there’s the Gospel of Mark, which doesn’t do any of that, which slams us without preamble, without preparation, into a new beginning with the breathless words, the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God. We are literally 4 verses into Mark’s gospel when we learn of John prophesying and baptizing in the wilderness near the Jordan and of Jesus coming from Nazareth to be baptized. Fasten your seatbelts. In the Gospel year that awaits us, we will encounter hope, expectation, and joy…and we will encounter other elements that also accompany all new beginnings: mystery, surprise, and irony.
Oh yes, irony. Today’s passage fairly drips with it, once we understand a few essentials. First, this business of repentance of sin, according to the 1st century religious establishment of the day, was something they had been managing quite well, thank you very much, for several centuries. Here’s how it worked: You sin. The Torah tells you what to do. You travel up to Jerusalem, taking a sacrificial animal with you or some cash to buy one once you get into town. You cleanse yourself in one of the sacred pools and you hand your sacrificial animal over to the priests of the temple. The animal is sacrificed, and its blood is sprinkled on the altar. Done. Sounds gory to our modern sensibilities, but it actually was pretty elegant theology. Blood was understood as the sacred vehicle of the nephesh – a word which we can best translate as that which makes us uniquely who we are – our selves our souls and bodies. To sacrifice an animal and offer its blood symbolized that the sinful but repentant giver of the sacrifice was turning his nephesh — his whole self — back to God. Absent that repentance, the sacrifice had no meaning. Temple Judaism was an efficient, orderly, economic system. The elite of Jerusalem lived well off the sins of their countrymen.
So the natural order of things was that people streamed up to Jerusalem to repent of their sins and thereby to keep the economy of Jerusalem ticking along. And yet Mark tells us that all the people from Jerusalem were going down to repent of their sins and be baptized by John in the River Jordan, thereby bypassing the religious establishment, and thus threatening both the sacred and the economic status quo.
And it is in that Jordanian wilderness, far from the 1st century equivalent of Wall Street or the Beltway, that Jesus of Nazareth bursts onto the scene. And Mark quickly piles on the irony from here. Jesus of Nazareth? To the elite of Jerusalem, to say nothing of Mark’s original audience, this was as good as saying, Jesus, Some Hick from the Sticks. This is the guy whose sandals John the Baptist is unworthy to kneel down and untie? Yes. Absolutely. The same one who kneels down in the Jordan River and undergoes baptism at John’s hand, in radical solidarity with all of the run-of-the-mill sinners standing there on the shore.
Mark tells us that the heavens themselves were torn open. Not elegantly, ritually opened, as the high priest would part the curtain on the Day of Atonement to enter into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Nothing gradual, nothing neat or orderly. The Holy Spirit is unleashed from the torn heavens, and lights upon the Beloved Son of God. In the midst of muddy Jordan River water, with the riff-raff of Judea standing by, God inaugurates a new way of being in relationship with humankind. This wasn’t a lovely christening. This was the cosmos being reordered, the status quo being turned on its ear. The power of sin and death to hold the final word for creation was about to be wiped out, washed away in the waters of the Jordan River.
And for whose benefit? Why, ours of course.
In his baptism, as Mark tells it, the Beloved Son of God will immediately be driven into the wilderness by the same Spirit of God to be tested. Thirty verses later, Jesus will have called his disciples, embarked on a ministry of proclamation, exorcised unclean demons, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and cleansed a leper. The time is at hand. There is justice to be done. There is mercy to shown. There is human brokenness to be restored. Nothing gradual, nothing neat or orderly about the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Today is all about New Beginnings. A new year, a new dean, and three beautiful new babies joining the Body of Christ in baptism. We do our best to manage our beginnings. Sometimes our efforts even give us the illusion that we are in charge of that process. And sometimes the Holy Spirit has other ideas entirely.
See, being baptized into the death of Jesus and living in the power of his resurrection requires something from each of us. It requires that we — beloved children of God each one of us – set aside our expectations of how and when or even IF God will enact the power of the Holy Spirit within us. It requires that we participate with God in the overturning the power of death in the here and now. That’s what those baptismal vows of community, repentance, proclamation, service, and justice are all about. Choosing to do something WITH that unmerited, unadulterated love of God in real time because for us as well the time is at hand.