The Baptism of Jesus is often treated like the necessary means of getting Jesus into the right space with the cosmos: that if he doesn’t get dunked, he’s stuck. Or else we treat it like the perfunctory reason behind our religious rite. But baptism is way more than that. It’s the start of something awesome.
Baptism doesn’t get Jesus into heaven – it’s the opening act.
Epiphany 1B | Mark 1:4-11
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Imagine a world without Christmas.
A horrible thought, I know. Some of you are saying “No. I don’t want to.” A world without Christmas is like a world without joy.
C.S. Lewis explores this idea in his most famous book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When the four children arrive in Narnia it’s always winter but never Christmas.
For many of us, the very thought of being without Christmas is like stealing joy from the world. It’s sucking up all the good and making it disappear; like a parent giving away all your toys.
Lewis uses that image to tell a story of a world that is cold without the presence of generosity and joy that Christmas brings. There, helping others is illicit and illegal. Friends are punished after helping these strangers to the woods.
It’s such an apt metaphor for a world without Christmas. Like an eternal winter full of the bitter cold we had last week but no carols, hot drinks, or candy to warm our hearts and sweeten our nights.
It’s an apt metaphor for when you know that joy and it’s stolen from you. As we read in our birth stories in Luke and Matthew, the oppression of Rome and it’s fake king are tangible and present.
Always present, like the Empire surrounding the Rebel Alliance and the John Williams score ominously announcing their promised return. Everything looks hopeless for our heroes!
In those two birth stories, we see the darkest nights come before the light is born into the world.
But the evangelist we call Mark doesn’t give us the darkness or the baby. He throws us into the thick of it.
No Time For That Foolishness
If you’re reading along in your Bible you can see this is the beginning of Mark.
The only thing we didn’t proclaim this morning was the announcement:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
and the quote from Isaiah. That’s the opening to the gospel. Then it’s on to John and the baptism of Jesus.
This evangelist doesn’t have time to talk about babies and shepherds and flights into Egypt and taxes. Mark’s got bigger stuff to deal with!
It isn’t that Christmas is missing, it’s that Mark isn’t concerned with HOW the light comes into the world half as much as THAT the light comes. And for 3 or 4 hundred years, Jesus’s followers were right there with him.
So for us, we might think about it this way: this isn’t about stealing your Christmas as much as diving straight into why Jesus is so awesome.
Losing Jesus Along the Way
I’ve often chuckled at the old saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” because outside of the nativity, Jesus is not on our minds all that much. It’s kind of like Jesus is trapped in that manger against his will.
If Jesus is the reason, then we seem content going about our business without asking why.
We know better, don’t we? As Paul tells us, we are the hands and feet of Christ. As the earth proclaims the Good News in all of God’s glory. We are how Jesus is known.
So now that we’ve heard the birth story, shouldn’t we make like Mark and get to it?
A Bigger Story
The Eastern church, which first gave us the Epiphany, tied it to the baptism of Jesus. It created a holy trinity of holy days: Baptism, Resurrection, and Pentecost.
It gave us a sense of the central arc of the Christ, not just the human Jesus. This pattern gives us the beginning of his earthly ministry and the culmination of it. And then then the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon the people.
So we can see in this brief story the will of God to not only come into the world, but actively reshape it through Christ. That celebrating a baby’s birth is worthless if we aren’t going to love who he grows up to be.
So this grown up Jesus comes to the river to be baptized by John. His first appearance in this story written about him is to submit to another and receive a liturgical blessing in baptism.
He doesn’t explain it away or justify it. He doesn’t give the reader something to chew on about his greatness above John or that he has to fulfill the scripture. John does that for him.
He goes into the river to be baptized, goes under the water, and when he comes up everything changes. The heavens tear and the spirit comes to him like a dove. And the voice:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Not Getting In
In the church, we might say this is why we do baptism. We might try to make the argument that this is a requirement—that Jesus had to do it or he wouldn’t be “in”.
That all feels like half the story. Like saying you hug your Mom and kiss her on the cheek because you have to—that’s just what you do. Or you take your kids to soccer practice and cheer them on because that’s what parents do.
You don’t do these things because you have to. You do them out of love. And you reason that love gets tangible somehow. To share it and to know it, we have to DO something.
This baptism is about Jesus doing something; getting going.
But it wasn’t about getting “in” for Jesus here. This is all about the manifestation of his call. He felt called into the wilderness, to the river to be baptized by this prophet offering repentance of sin. And Jesus took it.
He needed to make his confession.
Jesus received his baptism as an act of God’s love and mercy. That he might be forgiven; like we all need to seek forgiveness. Even Jesus sought that connection. And he finds it.
The Rest of the Story
Do you remember what happens next? In the next part of the story? This is my favorite part. It is so Mark. What happens after God opens the heavens and speaks to Jesus in the middle of the river?
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
It’s the temptation. We’ll get to that in Lent. That’s next.
And its in the desert that Jesus goes 40 more days without uttering a word in the text.
But then he goes to Galilee where he’ll meet his first disciples and invite them on a wild journey. A journey full of exorcisms, healings, spontaneous food creation, walking on water, stilling of storms and a trip up a mountain where God will speak again.
Before all that can happen, Jesus goes into the water and then the desert.
To offer the love to the world, he has to receive the love of God.
We’ll renew our baptismal vows in a few moments. For those who haven’t been baptized, think of this as training for the real thing. You can get started now. It’s not going to hurt.
But we do this today to remember what it is we’re called to do. And we share continuously here in the why…in the why we do these things. Because we keep learning. We keep focusing on the love God is showing us and showing the world in us.
We’ll renew our baptism because we need the reminder. Don’t we? We need to remember that it isn’t about the liturgy—the prayers or the music or the sermon or the readings or the candles or the procession or the decorations—it’s about the love which is behind the whole thing.
And we need the constant reminder that we are not passive receivers of God’s love. That we were not put on this planet to soak up love like a sponge, but to reflect that love out into the darkest corners.
We remember that we are called to the radical love of Jesus. And that we’ve already promised to make our lives about sharing it.
So in this new year, let’s shake that etch-a-sketch, wipe that dry erase board, wash that chalkboard, reset that calculator, restock those shelves and give a little mercy to one another and to ourselves for the last year, last few years, maybe even a lifetime.
And receive the water of new life as if for the first time. Let the mercy of God wash you and reclaim you. And may your heart be full of love for sharing.