Genesis 1: 1-5, Psalm 29, Mark 1:4-11, Acts 19:1-7
Presentation conveys something of the message. Someone getting a face tattoo or wearing a swanky suit are communicating something. As an example of this Br. Jacob felt he needed to shave off is substantial beard recently while looking for a job upon moving to DC.
In an art gallery the art obviously uses style to respond to the world and project a message—in literature, the same. Hemingway is much different from Faulkner is much different from contemporary Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Even if they were to tell the same story it will be not only different but the difference will indicate something.
In Matthew there are almost 3 full chapters before the baptism of Jesus. It is in Matthew that we have a long genealogy, the visit of the wise men, the escape to Egypt when King Herod orders the killing of the infants, the massacre of the infants, the return from Egypt and then 12 verses about the ministry of John the Baptist. The account of the baptism of Jesus isn’t really all that long in Matthew but it is definitely longer than Mark and afterwards the sky is “opened” with a voice and dove coming out as if it were some sort of sliding door.
Mark, a decidedly shorter book, doesn’t even mention the birth of Jesus much less any other detail. Paired with Genesis 1:1-5 there is a particularly austere feel—like a Hemingway novel. No frills or flourishes but yet poetic. As if walking into a darkened gallery or museum. The scene hovers as almost a mirage in the distance. We hear the Gospel of Mark open a few verses earlier—“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Quoting then from the prophet Isaiah, “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…..” “And John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness”– In the wilderness–as a Wildman clothed in camel hair and eating locusts and honey. Here is a bit of detail—but just barely—a touch of color on a otherwise simple canvas.
But then Jesus appears—almost as a mirage. Though it has been years since I read “The Stranger” by Albert Camus my distinct memory from this book was the central scene being over-hot and the feeling cloudy headed with the main character on the beach. This was my feeling when I read this passage earlier in the week. Simple austere language. Jesus coming into sight out in the desert. We sense that something is happening. The readers hear the prophet Isaiah, we know Jesus is going to show up.
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
The calm breaks the sky is torn open and Jesus is driven into the desert, into the wilderness. This is not Matthew’s account with the heaven opening and then being led out into the wilderness. Before we reach chapter 2 Jesus has been tempted by the devil in the desert, begins his ministry, meets a man with an unclean spirit, heals many at Simon’s house, goes on a preaching tour of Galilee, and cleanses a leper. Jesus is baptized. We enter into wildness.
Jesus is baptized. We enter into wildness.
The baptism seems to initiate something. Historically, or chronologically, it comes on the front end of Jesus’ ministry. Is it, however, critical to Jesus’ ministry? Or is it merely what happened? Incidental?
I would wager that many of us don’t have a strong theology of baptism. If we do think it important I imagine we are not entirely clear why this is the case. Many people, unless theologians or just generally very interested, don’t typically develop elaborate theologies on this topic. In the Brethren Encyclopedia it was noted that early Brethren often wrote about baptism but usually focused on mode or method rather than a deeper theology and biblical understanding. Additionally, they were often writing polemically against other related groups. For example, against the Quakers who believed that such rituals should be left behind in favor of the more spiritual. Or, against the Mennonites who didn’t think that the one being baptized needed to be immersed in the water. And all these were against the Catholics and others who baptized infants rather than believing adults who were choosing to follow Jesus and enter the faith.
Brethren when they managed to talk about baptism beyond arguing over method said it was a sign of one’s entering the way of Jesus–that is, a sign of one’s discipleship and reconciliation with God. What does it mean to enter the way of Jesus? To be reconciled to God?
I often want safety. Recently I have wanted rest. I feel tired. I’ll admit it—I wasn’t looking forward to writing this sermon. But as I began to read and re-read the passage this past Monday I realized that God’s call on our lives is no joke. It isn’t guilt. It isn’t drudgery. It isn’t a safe job in a steady, if somewhat boring, company. It is, however, as the theologian murdered by Nazi’s, Dietrich Bonhoffer, says—“a call to come and die.” He wrote in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” about cheap grace and costly grace. He describes in a well known line, “The call of Christ is the call to come and die.”
“The call of Christ is the call to come and die.” This call to discipleship, to be reconciled to God and enter into the way of Jesus to be transformed, is nothing but the call to come and die. To die to yourself—sometimes like in the case of Bonhoffer, even the call to literally die. When we think following Jesus will help you to “make it” or that your church should be a respectable institution in the community, remember that Jesus said he did not come to save the good but the sinners. He hung out with people on the edges, people without power, people without anything but God in this world. This is not so much a call to us the alleged “respectable” to go to the margins. WE–are those who need saving. We are hopeless. We are those who need redemption. We need peace. We need justice. If our church is a bunch of people who think we have it together that we should go help them then Jesus’ and the prophet’s words should ring in our ears ________weep, wail. Certainly we are to go out—this mission, I would argue, is what it means to be the church—we must go out but not assuming that we are the ones who have it together.
Jesus was baptized–in this simple austere passage–one verse “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Jesus was baptized and launched into a flurry of action and danger of healing and preaching. This baptism, to our eyes a strange ritual that may convey something, may not convey something, that might mark a new beginning, that might mark a decision, that might symbolize commitment or repentance or joining a new community, that seems important, but that we aren’t sure if it’s necessary for any of this. This baptism Jesus submits himself to and in fact includes it in his going away instructions to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, where we read, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Go, baptize, teach.
Baptism is the entering into the call of God on our lives.
Baptism is the entering into the call of God on our lives. We see this quite clearly in Jesus. Jesus comes is baptized and then things begin to move. Above I listed all that happens before the end of the first chapter in Mark. Indeed this sounds like exciting stuff–if we pause to reflect, however, we will probably note that most of our lives–even for those of us baptized or just actively following Jesus–do not sound at all like this. You will (hopefully) not be surprised that even those of us who have official–even full time–work in ministry do not live lives of action packed adventure.
It is at this point, however, that we should pause to consider what we mean by adventure. I would suggest that our idea of what an “exciting” life is, is inordinately or disproportionately shaped by movies in which heroes run across roof tops and weeks or years of time are condensed into 2 hours. In this, not only is untenable action depicted, but the camera skips ahead over the mundane (who of course wants to spend their evening watching their hero sit impatiently through an evening of waiting or spend 30 minutes watching the antagonist nap for 30 minutes on a flight across the Atlantic). In the TV show Breaking Bad about Walter White, high school teacher turned meth producer and drug lord, we see Jesse, Walt’s partner, spend a day with enforcer and sometimes hit man Mike. At a point when Jesse has become obviously impatient, Mike in his gruff, gravely, not amused way turns to Jesse and says, “kid this job is 80% waiting.” His point is his job is not all kicking down doors and high speed chases but often sitting and watching a house for hours or days.
While I wouldn’t draw many parallels from such decidedly destructive work and that of Jesus, it is instructive to consider that whether you are following the way of Jesus or are feeling called to this, there is waiting and patience and endurance even on this adventure. Directly following Jesus’ baptism we read that he was “driven” by the Spirit into the desert–and then tempted by the devil, with wild animals, and cared for by angels—all of which sound rather impressive and perhaps even thrilling. He was, however, there for 40 days praying and fasting alone–presumably lonely and bored at some point along the way.
When I have felt strained and distressed these past weeks and months I have begun to be reminded that it’s not all me and what I can muster. The Spirit is with us and moves in us. The Spirit can fill us with joy and patience and calm and courage. The passage we read in Acts tells of the Apostle Paul finding disciples on a trip through Ephesus. Upon meeting them he asks if they had received the Holy Spirit. Dumbfounded they replied they didn’t even know there was such a thing. After sorting out the confusion and baptizing them in the name of Jesus they too receive the Spirit with dramatic effect.
As we enter this New Year and are again reminded that we indeed move in the Spirit may we follow Jesus into the wildness. As noted in the beginning, I am going to leave a few minutes open know for your response. In what ways do you feel the calling of God on your life this New Year? In what ways would you like to experience God or follow Jesus this year? How do we see God calling this community?