January 11, 2015
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Owen and Olivia played a game with their Grammy this week called “sink or float?” In this experiment, the twins took turns finding objects around the house to drop in a bowl of water. “Sink or float?” they’d ask with a giggle. The rock sunk with a splash. The plastic doll floated. The ice cube floated. The snow…it melted. I laughed as they shared with me their joy in discovering the properties of water.
Sink or float? I laughed later as I read through our scripture texts for today and thought about baptism. Not necessarily my own baptism, but the first baptism I ever did as a pastor. Poor Jacob Gerlich had no idea that I was secretly praying that in the game of “Sink or Float : New Pastor’s Edition” you’d float! (The good news is, he did!)
And that’s perhaps a theological truth as well as a physical one: that in our baptisms, we will always float.
This morning we give thanks for that, remembering and celebrating our own baptisms, considering the possibility if we haven’t yet experienced the water and blessing ourselves. The church lectionary calls today “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday and churches around the world will be reading the same passage from Mark that we are this morning.
The story in which Jesus miraculously grows from a newborn baby to a young adult in just the time it takes us to pack up the Christmas decorations. It’s only been two weeks, you know, since we were anticipating and celebrating the birth of our savior, born as a crying and vulnerable baby into the arms of unsure and overwhelmed new parents. Two weeks. And yet, here we are with Mark, witnessing the not-so-newborn Jesus step into the waters of the Jordan river to be baptized by his mentor John.
This is where Mark begins, after all. With water. Not with angels or shepherds or stars and wise men. Not with innkeepers and stables and angry kings. Mark begins here, years later, with John’s call to repentance and new life of a different kind.
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John was a prophet who preached and baptized Jews and Gentiles in the wilderness of Judea. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a few decades ago, some scholars have speculated that John was a member of the Qumran community. Similarities in their concern with the end of times, ritual purity involving water, and distrust of the aristocratic priests of Jerusalem certainly back this idea. This would explain some of John’s behavior, why he was so concerned with the spiritual life, why he led people away from the established temple and into the wilderness to baptize them, and why he believed so strongly that someone better – better than the current order of temple priests and better even than himself – would come to lead them.
7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Mark tells us that just as John finishes saying these words, he looks up to find Jesus of Nazareth standing on the river’s edge. And while the other gospels take time to question whether Jesus, the sinless son of God, needed to be baptized, Mark just takes us right into the action. Water splashing, light shining, God working.
10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Most pictures portraying this event are fairly sweet. Doves gliding through the air, Jesus looking up at the sky serenely, water dripping in appropriate patterns and amounts from Jesus’ face and hands. But Mark’s description isn’t as serene as that. “He saw the heavens torn apart.” Torn apart. Not just that the clouds parted and the sun shone. The sky was torn apart. There is only one other story in scripture where the Greek word for “torn” is used. Matthew and Mark both use the word to describe the curtain in the temple that is “torn” violently when Jesus takes his last breath on the cross.
It must have been an unsettling event, there at the Jordan river as the heavens were torn at the moment of Jesus’ baptism and the voice of God echoed, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
We repeat these words every year, as we remember this moment in Jesus’ life and in our lives. “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Some years we come forward, to dip our fingers in a bowl of water, remembering the feel of forgiveness. Some years we get to witness the baptism of another, sharing in the joy of a life promised to God. Next week we will do something similar, as we follow our own tradition of infant dedications – lifting up Delaney Jane Calapa and Clayton Delaney, asking God’s blessing upon them and promising to raise them to know God’s love and grace. In our tradition we baptize older youth and adults, dedicating infants. But whether baptized or dedicated as a baby, the promise and affirmation rings true: each one of us at all times is a beloved child of God.
That is what our baptisms are for us. A reminder of what already is – God’s grace poured out in abundance over our lives, forgiveness with each confession, a fresh start when sought, a promise that God will always be near. That no matter what, we are God’s and God loves us.
We need to hear that a lot, don’t we? That we are worth something to someone? That despite our mistakes and our failures, our faults and our insecurities, we’re still okay people? I know I need to hear it. I crave that affirmation.
It’s funny though, because I seek it out in strange ways. I’m a facebook junkie. I like to make the excuse that it gives me something I can zone out to for the 2 minutes I might have in between every “Mom, I need…” that I hear each day. But really, I know I’m addicted when I can’t stop checking facebook for that little red number that pops up at the top telling me how many people have “liked” my recent post. Facebook gives us the chance to “like” videos or pictures or posts and have things we write or post “liked” by our friends in return. Twitter, Tublr and Instagram invite us to collect thousands of “followers,” “fans,” or “friends,” most of whom we’ve barely met.
As preacher and blogger David Lose points out, one of the reasons social media is so popular and powerful is because they creatively offer affirmation in plentiful doses. Deep down, he says, we know that this kind of affirmation doesn’t mean all that much. Or at least shouldn’t. “Many of the folks we encounter via the web, after all, don’t really know us and we don’t know them, so how can their “likes” or “hearts” create any enduring sense of value or worth? And yet it’s hard not to wonder what was wrong with the picture we posted to Instagram if only twenty people liked it when another picture garnered two hundred nods?”
So even while this affirmation might be somewhat superficial, we crave it because we are social people. God has created us to live not alone, but with others, in families and in community. So we have created these social networks to help us feel connected and valued.
But as MIT professor Sherry Turkle has discovered, people today report feeling simultaneously more connected and lonelier than ever before.
Because while we may crave affirmation, what we need is acceptance.
Acceptance. Being welcomed and valued just as you are.
“All are worthy, All are welcome,” we say here at Good Shepherd. It means that we don’t expect you to change who you are before you belong here. That you can be the person God made you to be – with no strings attached – and we accept you.
Now, if I’m honest up here I’ll also admit that we don’t always get this 100% right as a community of faith, but it’s what we believe God is calling us to do and be, so it’s what we’re trying to do and be. A place where everyone is welcome, feels at home, and is challenged to grow and sew God’s love deeper and wider.
Acceptance. Belonging. Beloved.
This is what our baptism means. That we are accepted by God as we are, and offered a new chance to live into that acceptance. That we belong in a wide community of faith that proclaims hope and justice and love. And that as we constantly grow and change and live into who God has named and claimed us to be, we are beloved. Unconditionally. All the time.
“You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
This week as I prayed over these scripture passages I wrote down the words that spoke to me. The first word I wrote was “beloved.” The second word I wrote was “wilderness.” It isn’t lost on me that John went out to the wilderness to baptize people. The wilderness is where we spend most of our time: wandering, wondering, struggling. It’s also where we tend to be most receptive to God’s voice and presence. We’re often more receptive to God’s voice when things aren’t going as well as we’d like, when we feel like we’re alone in the wilderness. When we’re scared. Lost. Uncertain. Times when if tossed into a bowl of water, we’re pretty sure we’d sink, not float.
When I was learning to swim, I was convinced I was always about to drown. Now, one of the first steps to learning how to swim is learning how to float. I remember my dad holding my hand and then supporting me with his knee, the water of the pool deeper than I could touch with my feet. I remember the warning, and the feel of his knee moving out from under me. I remember the panic, the flailing, the gulps of air mixed with choking water. Then the knee was back, the hand supporting my back. I caught my breath and looked at him with wild eyes. “How could you!?!” my child-self demanded “You let go! I almost drowned!” My dad smiled back with patient eyes. “Melanie, I love you, but I have to let go for you to learn. Remember, you were made to float. When you feel like you’re sinking, don’t fight it and flail around so. You’ll only make it worse. When you feel like you’re sinking, lay back in the water. Be still. Breathe. Trust me. You’ll float.”