Jan 12th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Mark 1:1-15
It has been quite a week. Last Sunday, we heard again the story of the wise men visiting Jesus and Herod’s attempt to silence God’s voice and thwart God’s plan. If we concur with tradition, between Christmas Eve and last Sunday, around two years had passed.
But this week, Jesus is fully grown. If, as some of our choristers surmised on Thursday, that means each day of this week was 4.2587 years long. Maybe that’s why some of you look so tired. It has been quite a week.
Such problems come, of course, whenever we try to harmonize the gospel stories into a seamless whole. It can’t be done. Nor should it be done. Each gospel was written for a particular purpose to a particular audience and used particular images and language.
This winter and spring, our attention will be focused on the Gospel of Mark. Generally believed to be the first of the gospels written, Mark is the shortest gospel and serves as the framework upon which Matthew and Luke write their stories.
Professor Lamar Williamson tells us that “the purpose of Mark’s Gospel is to bear witness to Jesus Christ as proclaimer and embodiment of the Kingdom of God, and to challenge readers to follow him in anticipation of his final coming as Son of man.”1 Mark believes that the best way to tell people about the Kingdom of God - the way God created the world to be - is to tell them the story of Jesus. Mark chooses narrative as the vehicle for sharing the good news, over doctrinal dissertation and discussion. Through stories about Jesus, Mark will tell us what God wants the world to be.
And Mark will waste no time. There is a sense of urgency about his gospel. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately.” He uses it nearly forty times throughout his gospel. There is no time to waste. Immediacy is the key.
Perhaps that is why Mark spends no time or ink telling us anything about where Jesus came from - his birth, his upbringing, or his early story. Mark doesn’t seem to have time for that. We meet Jesus, fully adult, as he begins his work and public life. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” is how the gospel begins. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to know before this moment. It’s just that it is seemingly unimportant to Mark and his message of the Kingdom of God found in Jesus.
Mark begins his story, not in a stable, but on a river bank. Mark is, presumably, the first to draw the connection between the prophecy of Isaiah and the person of John the Baptist. Mark does not mention any family connection between John and Jesus. But he will go on to draw connections between them throughout his gospel.
What Mark does do is to put Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his public ministry. Why? It introduces the ministry of repentance and reconciliation that both John and Jesus were all about. But, if John’s was a “baptism for repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” from what sins did Jesus need to repent?
The proud never see a reason for repentance. The arrogant never can find a cause to apologize to God or another human being. The self-important never do anything wrong in their own eyes and never find a reason for confession.
The humble, on the other hand, know their weaknesses and their shortcomings. The simple know their imperfections, their faults, and their flaws. The self-conscious are aware that they are not gods.
In the first - the beginning - of the many lessons and examples that will follow, Jesus goes to the river to be baptized to show us the way. Jesus goes into the water to show us how the Kingdom of God begins: by humbling oneself and realizing one’s faults and failures. Jesus goes into the water to remind us that God is God and we are not. Jesus goes into the water to show us that God is ready to meet us there - at the water - and welcome us home.
A lot of ink and blood have been spilled over the subject of baptism. How old must one be to be baptized? Must one have a theological understanding of the meaning of baptism, prior to being baptized? Should one be able to explain the intricacies of the faith as a re-admission requirement for baptism? And all of that is before we get to the subject of principle importance: how much water is required for an authentic baptism?
One wag posted a cartoon on Facebook this week of Jesus going into the Jordan to be baptized by John. “What do you mean I have to go under the water?” Jesus says. “Can’t you just sprinkle some water on my head?” To which the cartoon John responded, “I am John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian.” Let’s leave how much water out of the conversation for the morning.
But, let’s take a moment to think about the heart of baptism’s meaning.
For many, baptism is the last step in a long journey of faith, during which lessons and experiences are amassed and a level of intellectual understanding about being Christian is attained. Baptism becomes an end product - the final step - the culmination of one’s Christian education and faith formation. “Believer baptism,” as it is referred to in some Christian circles, is the expression of this understanding.
But, for Presbyterians (and others) this seems to put a condition on God’s grace. God will welcome you and call you God’s own when you know enough. Grace now comes with a string attached. God can save you, if and only if, you understand just what it is you are doing.
So, what if baptism were the first step in the journey of faith, instead of the final step? What if baptism was a beginning instead of an ending? What if, as Jesus began his ministry with his baptism, we began our life of ministry and service with baptism?
And what if, from time to time, we returned to the water to be reminded of who we are and whose we are? What if, as individuals and as a congregation, we came back to the water to listen for God’s voice calling us the “beloved?” What if, by drawing near the water, we are reminded of the calling God has placed on us - individually and corporately?
When parents bring a child to be baptized, or when a young person seeks baptism, or an adult wants to be baptized, they are embracing a new kind of life. Parents promise to raise their child in a particular - even peculiar - way. Young people and adults confess that they want to live the Jesus life - a life that discloses that God has a plan for the world and its people and that God’s plan is anchored in love, justice, understanding, and compassion.
Baptism - and the reaffirmation and renewal of baptism - marks the moment when we cease living on the world’s terms and begin living on God’s terms. It is our beginning - or the remembrance of our beginning - that calls us back to the path of Jesus. It is the moment when God claims us as God’s own - or when we remember that we belong to God.
There is a danger in long-term pastorates. There are probably more than one, but the one that occurs to me most often is that I have used all my really good stories and illustrations. So, if you’ve heard me tell this story before, my apologies.
When I was a seminary student and the intern at the First Presbyterian Church of Shelbyville, Kentucky, we celebrated the baptism of Chase Logan. (It occurred to me that Chase is now over thirty years old and creeping up on forty!) Chase’s parents presented him at the front of the church to receive baptism, leaving his sister, Adrienne, sitting by herself in a pew. (Adrienne might have been all of five years old.)
The questions were asked, the prayers were offered, and Chase got the rude awakening that baptism always brings with a handful of cold water on the head. But then, the pastor (my dear friend Roy Sharpe) began walking Chase into the congregation to introduce him to his new family and for his new family to get a good look at him.
In that sanctuary, there were two main doors. One that was little used and the other that was heavily used. Adrienne was on the side of the church where the little used door was located. Roy was walking down the aisle toward the heavily used door.
When Adrienne saw Roy heading for the door, she got up, ran down the aisle, across the front of the church, and up the aisle to where Roy was - pulled on the sleeve of his robe - and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “He’s mine.” Don’t you go taking my brother out the door - “he’s mine!”
Now, Roy is every bit as sharp as his name implies, and just like that, Roy looked at the congregation and said, “Did you hear that? That was the voice of God.” And it surely was.
At his baptism, Jesus heard a voice from heaven say, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” At Chase’s baptism - and at our baptisms - the voice says, “You are mine” and we mostly assuredly are.
However, there is a word of warning that must be shared. Mark’s gospel tells us that at his baptism, “…the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty day, tempted by Satan.”
This is not by accident. When we identify ourselves with God - when we choose a life that is reconciled and centered in God - when we decide on a life with God and the way of God - we leave ourselves open to temptation. It may be that we are not tempted more than anyone else. It is just that we are aware of the temptation to walk away from God, or choose a way that is not God’s way.
Being claimed in baptism sets our feet on a difficult and challenging way of life. It is not a way of life the world understands or values. But it is the way of authentic and abundant life.
Beginnings. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Baptism - the beginning of a new life. Beginnings. Beginnings that guide us now and forever more. Amen.