Here we are just two and a half weeks after Christmas, and the Baby Jesus is already a grown man. Mark cuts to the chase even more quickly in his gospel, bypassing any story or even mention of Jesus’ birth, and begins his account of the “Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” with John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is here, on a river bank, that we first meet the man, Jesus. He has come with the “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.
You’ve got to wonder what drew all those people out into the desert to see this wild man, wrapped in camel’s hair, subsisting on locusts and wild honey, shouting about the need for turning your life around, getting it back on track to where God wants you to go. Here was a man who lived “off the grid,” we might say. But clearly he was a man intoxicated with God, convinced that God was furious with the way things were currently going, and positive that God had something– someone– in the wings, waiting to sweep in with fiery passion, to purify and set things right, to usher in a way of living that would please God.
There are times and places when such a “wild one” is very appealing–times when things seem utterly out of control, or calcified with sameness, places that are so full of excess and tawdriness that radical simplicity and necessity seem like a welcome relief. I think that longing is behind many of our New Year’s resolutions–after the feasting and partying and accumulating piles of “stuff,” we long for paring down, for cutting back on food and drink, for getting up and moving, for clearing out, for simplifying. Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild,” now made into a movie, illustrates such a longing. After too long a time of poor choices and being out of control, walking the Pacific Coast Trail alone appears to be just the cleansing, testing path she needs to take. John, like the camels whose skin he wore, represented that long, arduous trek, the “long, difficult miles in which we heal,” as someone has put it. (Nancy Rockwell, bite in the apple, 1/5/15)
The Temple and its elaborate structure and rituals and priesthood claimed to be the only way to God, the only way to forgiveness, but it also was incestuously intertwined with the Roman occupation. John’s wild and crazy call to a baptism of repentance sounded strangely clear and pure. And so the crowds from the whole Judean countryside and from all of Jerusalem were going out to him, and along with the crowds came Jesus.
“The human imagination is consumed with images of water,” Frank Yamada writes (cited by Kate Huey in weekly seeds, 1/11/15). And it’s no wonder–our bodies are primarily made up of water. We live in the waters of our mothers’ wombs for 9 months before we are born. We can survive longer without food than we can without water. Water cleanses, purifies, gives birth, destroys; and our biblical heritage reflects that obsession with water, beginning at the beginning–when God’s Spirit hovers over the face of the waters, the deep, the tahom. The stories of Noah and the Exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea carry on the theme; and the waters of baptism are no less primal and important.
This baptism of John’s in the River Jordan was about as far away from the sweet, relatively dry, sterile, and contained infant baptism that we are used to…just about as far away as John in his camelhair loincloth and locust-encrusted teeth is from me, or most other ministers you know. Though it is dangerously dried up now, the Jordan River then was a muddy, rolling body of water full of history. It was the boundary that the Israelites crossed over from their wilderness journey from slavery into freedom in the Promised Land. It was the site of the prophet Elijah’s ascent into heaven in a chariot of fire, as his prophetic mantle was passed on to Elisha. The Jordan was a place of transition and succession, pregnant with possibilities. (Alistair Roberts, “Politics of the Individual,” 1/5/15)
John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins–a call to return from the exile you’ve imposed upon yourself, the exile you’ve experienced from God. The Greek root of the word for repentance means to “go beyond the mind you have.” John’s call to repentance comes to us too, across the years and miles. Go beyond the conventional notions you have about God, about church. Be baptized, or, remember your baptism.
It was to this river bank and to this baptism that Jesus came. Mark’s description of the baptism is typically short, but hardly sweet, in just 3 verses–
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Do you–do we– even listen for God’s voice? What voices do you listen to? I am occasionally struck by the number of different voices that are carrying on conversations inside me, and, yes, I’m an introvert, by that I do not mean to suggest that with a prescription or two from a psychiatrist something can be done about those voices. I’m talking about the voices of my parents, say, which I still hear as a pretty grown-up child–voices that remind me that my shoes could use a little shining, or those dishes need to put away, or, “You know, the lazy way is really to put those things away the first time, so you don’t have to go back a second time,” or “Who do you think you are?” I don’t know–does anyone else hear their parents’ voices inside their heads? I particularly love it when I hear my parents’ voices coming out of my mouth when I’m speaking to my own children.
But there are other voices that we hear and often pay way too much attention to–voices that may say, “you’re so stupid… lazy… a waste of space….” “You’ll never be successful.” “You’re not good enough….pretty enough… smart enough…. athletic enough…rich enough.” “You’re too old…too young…too fat…too skinny.” “You’re not worthy of being loved. Nobody will ever love you….” The voices of shame.
Which is why this baptism of Jesus–why our baptism–is so important. Whether booming or a whisper, the voice at Jesus’– and our–baptism says, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.” This is who you are. Beloved. This is who you are, Jesus,–God’s Beloved– as this same, dive-bombing Spirit will drive you further out into the wilderness in the very next verse, to be tested and tempted, to hone your identity before you begin your public ministry. This is who you are, children of God, –God’s Beloved–as that same Spirit compels us out into the world, into our homes, our places of work, our relationships, our activities. This is who you are, Second Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Bennington, –God’s Beloved–, as God troubles the waters, as God’s Holy Spirit hovers over the chaos and mess and violence of our world.
Nancy Rockwell describes John’s river ritual as a “drowning to the old self and rising into a new self that is now brother/sister to all ethnic groups, races and nations, even breaking the forbidden boundaries of gender and class.” [bite in the apple, 1/5/15] This baptism is a dying and being resurrected into a new self, into a brand new day, that will have its own challenges and trials, but also its own joys and arrivings. This baptism, this renewal, this fresh start into the abundant life of Christ that God intends for all of us is available to each of us, either through baptism for the first time or a renewal and remembrance of our own baptisms. The bowl from the baptismal font will be in the back of the sanctuary for you to dip your hands in –or maybe wash your face in–as you go out this morning.
But I also believe that we as a congregation are called to this baptism, this renewal, this fresh start into the abundant life of Christ that God intends for us, because there are people dying out there to hear the Good News that they are beloved of God. “On an average day in the United States, 9 churches close their doors for good.” [Angie Mabry-Nauta, The Christian Century, Jan. 7, 2015, p. 22] 9 churches a day. I am certain that none of them began with that in mind, and most likely, none of them before maybe 10 years ago thought this would ever happen to them. But we would be foolish to think it could never happen to us. We would be foolish to listen to the voices that say, “We’ve never done it that way.” or “We’ve always done it this way.” or “That makes me uncomfortable.” or “I don’t know anybody who does that.” To listen to those voices instead of the voice of the One who calls us into the troubled waters, the One who calls us to let go of notions and ways of being that no longer serve God or God’s people, that no longer bring to birth, to listen to those other voices is to lead us into exile.
We’ve been toying with the idea of a new name for our congregation–not just “Second” anything, but something new–”Hope United Church of Christ,” someone has suggested, although there is another smaller, fundamentalist congregation here in Bennington that has taken Hope for its name. What about, New Day United Church of Christ, with the slogan borrowed from another progressive church, “You can change the world from here”? There’s even a great choral piece, recorded by the King Singers, called, “You are the new day,” which I love. That’s not really the point. I’m sure together we can come up with a name that more accurately describes what we wish to be about; what we are called to be about. But be about it we must be. And soon.
Think about your own, new beginning that God can bring about, no matter what your age; and think about the new beginning that God can bring about for our church as you listen to this blessing for a New Beginning by the Irish philosopher and poet, John O’Donohue–
For a New Beginning
In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
~john o Donohue~
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark