Mark 1:4-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 John the baptizer appeared[a] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He 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. 8 I have baptized you with[b] water; but he will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[d] with you I am well pleased.”
Mark’s one of my favorite books of the bible. It was the first written of the gospels. Its raw. The theology is thin. The language is not flowery. For me, it makes it seem a little more engaging and mysterious, somehow. When I read Mark, I always feel a little as though I’m discovering Jesus for the first time.
The different gospels start at the different moments. They reflected something about about what each writer understood about the importance of Jesus within the context of time. For Matthew and Luke, the unique birth narrative really helped explain that, from birth, Jesus was surrounded by what was sacred and born with sacred purpose. John suggests that Jesus was somehow connected to the beginning of time but that this holy sacred figure was revealed through this one place and time. Mark picks up a good deal in to Jesus’ life. His holy mission starts with a call. It starts with his baptism as an adult and moves through that brief bit of time he started a religious reform movement within an indigenous faith tradition. His is a life of full of holy rumors and mystery. There are many more unanswered or vaguely answered questions than clear answers of certainty. I love it. For me, if the only holy book we ever had as Christians was the Gospel of Mark, it would have been enough.
Today’s text from Mark begins with one of those lingering questions… Why was Jesus baptized? Those who were coming to John the Baptist were coming to repent of their sins. Was Jesus a sinner? I’m sure it’s no underestimation to say that there have been thousands of pages written about this one question but I’ve never found any of them to be fully satisfying and I’m good with that. When certainty and faith overlap too much, certainty becomes the false god of what is really fundamentalism. I’m OK with the question because the gift of having to think about who Jesus might be helps me feel closer to Jesus and more connected to who Jesus might be. So, if Jesus was a sinner and became my savior? I’m cool with that.
More generally, the whole idea of sin is problematic for a lot of people. I get it. One of the parodies of Christians has become people who considered themselves free from sin and willing to let others know they are drenched in it. The way sin has been used accusationally to shame other people or try to simply uphold dominant ideas of what is normal is awful. There is, however, a difference between sin being used in an accusatory way and someone personally recognizing they have something to confess…
I have done things in my life I wish I wouldn’t haven’t have done. Now, just in case any of you are worried, I’m not planning on listing all of these for you. For most of you, this list I carry with me would probably be more boring than anything else. But that’s the thing, it's not boring to me. Its meaning making and identity shaping. I’m not talking that realm of wondering or simple regret that point towards decisions I’ve made that now I’m not as certain about. That could be another sermon. I’m talking about those ways in which I hurt someone by my direct action, my inaction or somewhere in between. I’m talking about those acts that range from the deeply personal to those acts that were done on my behalf because of the social group I’m perceived as belonging to. I’m even talking about those ways that, in this role as conference minister, I’ve leant in to fulfilling the role - or hiding behind it - more than I lean in to what I think I might be called to do in that moment.
For me, sin is partially defined by that feeling in the pit of the stomach somewhere between nervousness and nausea. Its that thing that sometimes haunts me in the middle of the night but is as likely to haunt me in the middle of the middle of the day when something spurs this or that memory. It's those things that make me feel angry with myself; angry and alone. These are the things that I spend a lot of time over trying to rationalize or put into a wider context. Sure, almost every time I can figure out what might have been going on that made the decision I made feel like the best possible decision at the time. Sometimes others help me with this context setting but, when it comes down to it, there is a good bit that sticks to me like the tick that burrows into your skin after a walk through high grass. I know I’m not alone in this. Most of us probably understand this very well.
So, here comes John the Baptist. It's easy to portray him as suffering from some mental illness or another but here was this guy out in the wilderness living a life many at this time may have considered a punishment. He was living out the punishment many of them may have thought they deserved. Remember, this was a time before therapists or any other understandings of mental health. There weren’t many ways to deal with some of those things that might have caused you mental or spiritual pain. Here was this guy saying come over here, confess, repent, be put in the water and you’ll have an opportunity for wholeness again. No wonder folks went flocking to this man. So many people had been hungering for something just like this.
And then this guy points to Jesus and praises him. “You think I’M something,” he says. “Well.” And then Jesus comes along and, again, I don’t fully understand why. Jesus come along and asks to be baptized, too. We don’t know if he confessed anything or what he might have confessed. We don’t know what he might have had to repent from if anything at all but, there he was. He was baptized and as he was lifted up out of the water by John’s tough love, the skies seemed to open up. Jesus saw a link between heaven and earth established.
The text from Mark doesn’t say anyone else saw it. This was Jesus’ experience. This was a story that he must have told. The Holy Spirit came down and, with it, he heard a voice that called him God’s child; a voice that called him Beloved; and a voice that told Jesus that God was well pleased with him. The experience was so powerful that the next line of scripture says it drove Jesus out into the wilderness for awhile. When he came back, it was Jesus inviting people to repent and receive this gift.
The most remarkable aspect of this story for me has been what Jesus heard and the seriousness with which he took the message right away. The answer to dealing with that corrosiveness in our soul that wakes us up in the middle of the night is expelling it through confession. It doesn’t mean we’re not unchanged but it does mean that we make room for this other message. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. This can be a hard message to receive when so much interior room is being taken up with messages of self-loathing and shame. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us.
This message can sometimes be harder to live in to, even though we want to. We tend to build our lives to protect us from our fears more than to receive grace, forgiveness and real love that cuts through all the crap. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. This message didn’t first lead Jesus in to interacting with the world, it lead him to the wilderness. He had to disconnect a bit in order to connect with this most important truth. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. We tie so much of our affirmation to how much money we make, or the approval we receive, or even a stupid little thumbs up emoji on Facebook. This attempt to corner the affirmation market is intentional. It works to get our attention for a while and a more than a bit of our money. It can even add noise that makes that central message of Christ harder to hear. Jesus didn’t have facebook or TV or a smartphone or the internet and he still needed to get away to hear this message more clearly. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. It's no wonder it might be hard for us to hear this from God with so many competing voices that want to market this affirmation to us. It's hard to remember that these words are more than an affirmation that is sold to us again and again and again. This is something that’s given to us. Its free. It's forgiveness.
This is one of those days of the year we get to think about or remember our baptism and think about what it might mean. At its root, remember this: You are a child of God. You are God’s beloved. God is pleased with you.