February 11, 2018
Last week, we stood on the banks of the Jordan River and listened to John as he called everyone in the crowd to get ready to change—to change what we think, to change what we feel, to change what we do. We acknowledged that John’s presence not only prepared the crowds for what was coming next, namely, a message from Jesus of Nazareth, the likes of which they had never heard before. John’s presence also prepared the religious and political powers that be as well as the Roman occupiers for the disturbance that was coming. It is said that sometimes before an earthquake the farm animals and the wild animals know that something is up before we do— that they behave differently. On the banks of the Jordan River, John was that animal—acting strangely but, in retrospect, for very good reasons. He could see the earthquake that was on its way.
Then, Jesus of Nazareth showed up. Now, this morning, I want us to see what happened and then I want us to see the implications of what happened, too. What happened? Jesus shows up on the river banks. He leaves his home, his family, his friends and his life behind. The truth is that everyone who has ever risked responding to that nagging voice inside that says, “I think this is a calling!” has run headlong into such a crossroads moment. We realize, “If I do this, this is going to cost me—big times.” At the same time, there is the realization that if I don’t do this, I risk not being the person whom God is calling me to be. I will miss out on some things. Some people will think less of me. Some people just won’t understand. Yet, I have to do this. Though Mark doesn’t tell us of such inner workings, I assume that they were there for Jesus. There is a cost to discipleship from the start…
Jesus shows up on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John. In the other Gospels, John argues with Jesus about this saying that it is Jesus who should baptize him. In Mark’s Gospel, John says this to the crowd, before Jesus ever arrives. We don’t even see Jesus being baptized. Instead, Mark takes us to the moment when Jesus breaks the water after the baptism. The skies split open. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus. A voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
In some of the other Gospels, this voice speaks to the crowds who are watching or, perhaps, to John, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here, the voice seems to speak to Jesus. This matters, theologically. The voice in the Gospel of Mark is speaking directly to Jesus, himself: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” Instead of defending Jesus’ authority to anyone else, the voice seems to be saying to Jesus, “Good job! You showed up! You are already loved.”
If you think about this point, you might catch the implications at an even deeper level. If the voice is speaking to the crowd then it seems like the point is for the crowd to be wowed: “Wow! This guy has some real authority. Wow, we better listen to him and do what he says!” If the voice is speaking to Jesus, then the effect is very different. That voice is saying, “I already love this man, no matter what else happens. That’s already in the books.” God’s unconditional love for Jesus is a fact. If the crowd was really listening, their question might be: “How can we be loved like that, too? We want to be God’s beloved sons and daughters, too. What would it take for us to be loved like that?”
Let me carry this point a little further. The most basic universal understanding of God or the gods and how they worked was that they needed, in some way, to be convinced or even bought if you had a shot at getting their love. You needed to be clean enough or pious enough or righteous enough or holy enough. You needed to offer the right sacrifices or do enough holy things. God or the gods were stingy and reluctant to love human beings. Getting that love was going to cost you—big times!
John the Baptist, in some ways, bought into this “transactional” view of God’s love. The crowds and the Pharisees and just about everyone else were unclean. They were vipers. They were sinners who had no idea how in need of forgiveness they actually were. The only hope was to repent, to wash away those old sins, to die to an old way of life. The only hope was that God would see this willingness to change and give them a chance to be loved again.
It’s not that what John was saying wasn’t true. The hardest thing in the world for any of us to do is to come to a realistic, honest assessment of ourselves and sustain that honest view. We catch glimpses of who we are and what motivates us and the view is not always all that pretty. When we are honest, we see that we are capable of the great and the terrible, of acting morally and ethically and then forgetting such concerns altogether, of acting selflessly and then acting in blind devotion to our most selfish motives. There are default settings inside of us that have to do with self-interest and tribalism and denial and defensiveness. There is plenty for us to try to cleanse and leave behind.
The funny thing is that even though this is exactly what John was asking of us, this is not what Jesus was going to call us to hear. John says that we should humble ourselves and get right with God and hope, for all we’re worth, that God will love us after all. What Jesus speaks to us about is a God who loves us not transactionally—as payment because we’ve done the right thing or said the magic words—but who loves us unconditionally not because God owes us but because God loves us like a loving parent and we are all God’s children. None of us deserve or are owed this love. John is right about that. Instead, when God loves us it is a sheer act of grace on God’s part. This love is more than any of us deserve—which, you’d think would make us all pretty grateful to God and pretty gracious to one another, right?
Think about it this way… If baptism is all about our sinfulness and brokenness and shame and trying to earn God’s love, then why is Jesus getting baptized? If baptism is about how awful we are, then John is right in the other Gospels when he says that he is not worthy to baptize Jesus because, in fact, he is not more worthy than Jesus. Do you hear it? It’s all about how holy you are. Is baptism something that is done by priests and pastors because they are holier than everyone else? Are priests and pastors just those lucky few at the top of the pyramid of perfection?
Dear God…NO!!! Let me tell you a story. Last fall, I was invited to do something really special. I got to baptize a dear friend who had never been baptized before. (Presbyterians like me aren’t about “re-baptizing” people—a sermon for another day.) Almost all the baptisms that I do are infant baptisms or occasionally the baptism of a young person on Confirmation Sunday. This was a genuine, grown up adult. And the wrinkle was that this baptism was to going to take place in Lake Michigan.
I had not done a baptism by immersion before! What did I do? I looked it up on the net, of course! It turns out that there are youtube videos galore of instructions and demonstrations about how to do such baptisms. (I knew that youtube videos could teach me how to fix my washing machine. I didn’t know that I could learn a new wrinkle on baptisms.) In any event, I watched the videos enough times to boost my confidence until it was the day to meet at the lake.
Friends and family and a handful of church members were there as witnesses—or perhaps as lifeguards if needed. There was a lot of love embodied there, just like every other baptism. What was also there, though in a different way was the experience of fully participating in that baptism. We waded into the water together. I put my arms around her and we leaned together into that water. The feeling was one of immersion for both of us—this sense of being in this moment together and of God being with us, as well. (It kind of made me want to end one of our infant baptisms by taking out the bowl and just dumping it on my head. I promise I won’t!)
This experience has led me this year to think differently about this beginning moment for Jesus. In his baptism, the rite that John was practicing is transformed and made new. It is is not a way to buy God’s love but to participate together in it. In baptism, if we are an infant, our parents show up with us and declare their intent to give us the chance to participate in the church until one day we might make the choice show up because this faith is now our own. And what we celebrate is the God who already loves that child and is with him or her every step of the way. With an adult, we don’t baptize to make God love us. We baptize because God has loved us all along and because we are ready to participate in that love and allow it to change us.
Baptism doesn’t mean that our path is going to be easy. Let’s remember…almost as soon as Jesus is baptized, he is driven into the wilderness—a place where things are hard and a place that is full of temptation. Again, almost all of us who have ever tried to respond to a calling have had that experience. It is almost guaranteed that really early on things are going to get tough. It’s going to be tempting to quit. It’s going to be tempting to listen to all the people who say to us, “What? Have you lost your mind?”
Baptism does mean not only that we are a beloved child of God but so is every other imperfect person. How in the world could we possibly love them? How in the world could we possibly love ourselves? How in the world could we ever find a sufficient way to love God back, the God who knows us, warts and all, and loves us anyway?
That’s what we get a lifetime to figure out. That’s what we get to explore together in Lent…