Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord (transferred) – January 15, 2012
There is one Body and one Spirit; There is one hope in God’s call to us: in the name of our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
There is one Body, one Spirit, one hope … these words form the opening phrases of public worship whenever we actually celebrate a baptism. I expect, however, it was not the way in which John began the baptisms of repentance to which he called the people of his time. And, yet, I wonder if hope may not have been a wish of those masses who responded to John’s cry in the wilderness. Hope … stemming more than likely from a wee bit of despair.
There are any number of ways in which we might read, examine, and understand scripture. We can read it primarily through a sociological lens, or a political one; or with an eye toward history, or more likely some combination of these and other methods.
Joanna Dewey, a Marcan scholar and teacher, says this about Mark’s gospel, especially when we are tempted to use an historical eye too exclusively: “Mark is not accurate history; it is a good story about the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And, so there is another way in which we might read, examine, and seek to understand scripture … as narrative, and it is as narrative that I propose we look this morning. What do we learn if we simply read Mark – or at least this passage — as a really good story?
Mark is written to tell us that all of God’s story is unfolding just as it should – and just as it had been foretold. So let’s listen again: this time to Joanna’s translation:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the anointed one, the son of God, was just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will pave your way, the cry of one shouting in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the lord, Make his paths straight.’”
It was John baptizing in the desert and proclaiming a baptism of turning around for pardon of sins. And the whole Judean countryside and all the Jerusalemites were going out to him and being baptized by him in the Jordan River, publicly admitting their sins.
And John was wearing camel’s hair with a leather band around his waist, and he was eating grasshoppers and wild honey. And he was proclaiming, saying, “After me is coming one stronger than I am, the strap of whose sandals I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.”
And it happened – in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And coming up from the water, immediately he saw the heavens being ripped open and the spirit like a dove coming down onto him. And there was a voice from the heavens, “You are my beloved son. I delighted choosing you.”
From the beginning of God’s story … we hear good news. It is present in the creative power of God heard in Genesis — sending wind to blow across the dark void; present as God calls light into the world; present as God announces the very goodness of that light.
And it is present in Mark’s rendition of God’s story in Jesus; as he comes to the Jordan River to reveal a baptism both connected to and apart from John’s.
There is a connection between repentance and following Jesus – even as John tells us of the disconnect; the incompleteness of the baptism of repentance that he offers: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.”
If, in addition to commemorating Jesus’ baptism this day, we were baptizing another and recommitting ourselves to a life in Christ through the Baptismal Covenant – we might see that connection more clearly. For when we participate in the sacrament of baptism, the desire for and the actions of repentance are visible in the promises made by parents and godparents on behalf of the one being baptized. I know you can recall these words: Do you renounce — turn away from – the evil powers of this world? Do you renounce – turn away from – all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? The answer is, “I do.”
Baptism – Jesus’s and ours – acknowledges boldly a condition that was and is. Evil and sin is present in the world. It is part and parcel of the human condition and we need not look terribly far to find it. It lies in both the overt and the passive actions of our collective humanity that lead to poverty and the extreme disparity between the richest and the poorest in the world. It lies in actual violence inflicted on each other through hate and war and thirst for our own power. It lies in the exploitation of the resources of creation for individual comfort or gain.
These conditions were present in John’s and Jesus’s day no less nor more than they are in our own. It is the despair of this reality that may have driven those crowds of people out to John, seeking some way, some path, some one that could turn their despair into hope. It is the despair of this reality that perhaps drives our own longings for the same.
Yet it is not John — nor even our own repentance — who can shatter despair and bring about hope. “After me is coming one stronger than I am, the strap of whose sandals I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.”
If, in addition to commemorating Jesus’ baptism this day, we were participating in the sacramental action of baptism, the questions of examination would take another tack: Do you turn to Jesus Christ … do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Again, the response is, “I do.” And the promises we would reaffirm in the Baptismal Covenant version of our creedal profession of faith would be made with an acknowledgement and understanding that we can only do any of it with God’s help.
I know you remember these words, too: Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship and in the breaking of bread … Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord … Will you proclaim in word and example the Good News of God in Christ … Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons … Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being? In short, will you seek to be a part of turning despair into hope? To each of these, our response necessarily is, “I will, with God’s help.” The actions are not our own; the action comes from and through God. And there was a voice from the heavens, “You are my beloved son. I delighted choosing you.”
Jesus’ baptism points us – at the very beginning of Mark’s story – to the Good News that God came to be with us, in the very fullness of our humanity. He who was without sin, nevertheless, is baptized into visible, full, total humanity and into visible, full, total relationship with God. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself…,” St. Paul tells us in one of his letters to Jesus’s early followers. (2 Corinthians 5:19)
Mark’s story sets us up – the listener – to know that in everything that Jesus says and does in the subsequent chapters, God is at work, showing us how closely and intimately and completely God relates to us as human beings who do sin, and who do need to repent and turn again.
Thus, Jesus, thus stands in the Jordan River in solidarity with us, just as he lay in the stable as a baby, just as he will hang on a cross of death, because God is in Christ, identifying himself with us in every aspect of our births, our lives, and even our deaths. This Jesus is, as we say, “Emmanuel,” – God with us; God for us — most especially in our deepest need for repentance.
Now there is no evidence in today’s gospel that anyone other than Jesus saw the heavens torn apart, or the spirit appearing like a dove, or heard the voice of God. But a gift of Mark’s storytelling is that we who are listening hear from the outset that God was delighted. Mark makes sure that we know, we see. And if we can only accept that Jesus stands in the Jordan in solidarity with us, then we just may be able to hear God’s delight also in and for us.
Dutch-born, Roman Catholic priest and prolific writer, Henri Nouwen, writing in his book, Life of the Beloved, reminds us that at our center is a voice that says: I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will satisfy all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, your spouse. Yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.
We commemorate again the baptism of Jesus, our Lord – and are reminded that, in following Jesus, we are one with him and through him one with God. We are reminded that baptism – Jesus’s and our own – is acknowledgement of something that already is – God’s deep and abiding love and delight. And as we acknowledge and grasp that which already is, might we also find ourselves willing to consider just how we might live our lives in response?
This week, we commemorate, too, the birth and life of another Baptist preacher, who called us as a people to repent specifically of the sin of segregation born in the bosom of racism. Nearly forty-five years ago, in August of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia in a speech entitled, Where Do We Go From Here? It is an apt questions to ask ourselves as we leave this place by way of the font.
King’s speech enumerated the great triumphs and strides made to that point in history through the Civil Rights Movement and it enumerated the great challenges still to be met. We can look at that speech – you can easily seek it out with a simple web search — and see great similarities of both the hope and despair that was a part of John’s and Jesus time, the hope and despair that was a part of King’s time and the hope and despair that remains in our time.
As the people of God in this community of faith – St. Paul’s – we are embarking on a year-long celebration of 275 years of presence in this city, on this site. May we not forget that ours is a rich history of faithful witness and sinful failing; a rich history of hope and of despair; a rich history of repentance and return; a rich history of accomplishments to be celebrated and challenges still to be met. So might we ask ourselves: Where do we go from here?
Wherever it is – and Jesus taught that the spirit of God blows where it will and takes us where we know not — might we remember and live fully into the truth that God has already called us by name, from the very beginning. Might we remember that we are God’s and God is ours. Might we not forget that we are God’s beloved, and that on us God’s favor rests. Might we know to the depths of our very beings that wherever we are God will be; that nothing will ever separate us and that we are one.
May we remember that this always was; always is, and always will be … through God’s action, God’s gift, God’s love. And may God’s light continue to shine from and through us and this place … revealing God’s sheer, sheer delight. Amen.
Anne Watkins, a member of St. Paul’s who served as our first Associate for New Member Ministry and is a Consultant for the Diocese of Connecticut. Anne holds a Master’s of Divinity from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is one of a few lay members of the congregation who will be invited occasionally to use their gifts as a preacher in this community.