New Beginnings: Water & Spirit
Today is one of my favorite Sunday’s in the church calendar – Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the day we remember the baptism of Jesus. Last year we didn’t get to celebrate this Sunday together because I was on a cruise ship in the
Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with stories about the birth of Jesus, which we’ve just heard over the last few weeks. And even John, though he doesn’t have a nativity story, talks about Jesus in the beginning, being the word, being the light of the world. But Mark has a different approach entirely. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and Mark is also the oldest gospel, the earliest written, though still some 30-40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It is as if Mark, in his eagerness to record something of the life of Jesus, just can’t slow down enough to give us many details. When stories and parables appear in Mark and Matthew and Luke, Matthew and Luke always give us many more details than Mark does. Mark can tell some of our favorite stories in just a few scant verses. Mark 1:1 reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then Mark is off and running and immediately, we’re taken to today’s text, the Baptism of Jesus. Mark doesn’t seem to care who Jesus’ parents were, or how he was born. He wants to get to the point, the good news. And so for Mark, the only beginning that matters is Jesus’ baptism, which symbolizes for us the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is ready to begin preaching and teaching in earnest, and he starts by being baptized by John, his cousin, as many were doing.
Today, we revisit a text from the gospel of Mark about John the Baptist. In our second week of Advent, we read the first part of this passage together, and heard John the Baptist preparing the way for his cousin Jesus. Here, we read again of him calling the people to be baptized as a symbol of repentance, a symbol of readiness to change the direction of one’s life, a symbol of forgiveness for sins. And then John tells the crowds about one who is coming, one who John is not even worthy to serve as a slave untying the master’s sandals. John talks about another baptism, a baptism not just with water, but a baptism with the Holy Spirit that this other one will bring. And then, Jesus appears on the scene. In Mark’s short and sweet style, the baptism of Jesus takes up just three short verses. Jesus comes to be baptized by John. And as Jesus is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit coming down as like a dove on him. And then, God’s voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Why does Jesus need to be baptized? In Mark’s short account, John asks no questions, but in Matthew, at least, John wonders too. Why does Jesus come to John to be baptized, when John is just the one preparing the way for Jesus? Today we celebrate baptism as an outward symbol of God’s grace that is already at work in our lives, from the time we are born, before we even know what to call it. And indeed, Jesus being baptized today could accurately reflect such a meaning. But when John the Baptist was baptizing, before Jesus began his ministry, the meaning baptism held was somewhat different, as John himself indicated. When the crowds were coming to John, he told them, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s baptism has a different meaning – it is a preparation, a symbol of repentance, something John calls the people to do because he knows the kingdom of heaven – God’s reign on earth, has drawn near. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia, and it is my favorite Greek word, as you may remember me saying before. It means literally, “a change of mind”, a change of purpose, a complete change of direction. John seeks people to come to him who need a complete change of direction, a total change of their mind.
Is this something that Jesus needs? Does Jesus need repentance? We immediately want to respond, “of course not!” because we understand today that repentance has the sense of asking for forgiveness. And we don’t believe that Jesus needs forgiveness – it is we who need forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t need to repent. I think, though, if we turn back to this other meaning of repentance, this idea of a “change of mind,” perhaps we can better understand why Jesus comes to be baptized by John. Jesus is about to embark on something new – we’re not sure how he has been preparing for this day, what he’s been doing before this. But we can gather that he drew comparatively little attention, at least, before this moment. So for Jesus, this was indeed a change of direction, a change of purpose. It was a beginning for him, a beginning of his public ministry, a beginning of the attention, good and bad, that would be lavished on him by friends and enemies. A beginning of a time he probably knew or at least felt already would end in suffering and pain, betrayal and denial. But a beginning of a time of hope and promise – his chance to reach out to people who felt rejected by God or who were rejecting God. A beginning. A new purpose. A change of direction.
This understanding of baptism as a symbol of God’s grace helps answer our questions about why Jesus comes here to see John, to be baptized. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus doesn’t need to turn a new direction in the same way we do – he doesn’t need to get off a wayward course. But his baptism does mark a change in direction for him, in that now he begins his ministry of preaching and teaching. Now he changes his identity from Jesus, child of Mary and Joseph, to Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God. So as he prepares for a new phase in his life, he marks this with his own baptism. Why? Because, I think, Jesus also seeks that outward sign of God’s grace and love working within him. Jesus is at the beginning of a journey that ends with a cross and his death. He’s at the beginning of a time of ministry that will have him constantly pursued by those who would harm him, constantly harassed by those who disagree with him, constantly on call for those who need his healing, his caring. Jesus will spend time during his ministry seeking places to draw away so that he can talk to God. Even Jesus needed these times of centering, focusing on his purpose. So, even Jesus must have been comforted by God’s clear voice declaring that he is loved by God, affirmation at the beginning of a difficult journey, that God is with him and in him and blessing him in his ministry, guiding him, touching us through him.
We hear again and again that God loves us and showers us with grace. God loves us unconditionally. But do we believe it? Sometimes, I think that we, like Jesus, can find comfort in an outward symbol that reminds us of the love of God we always carry within us. Since I’ve been here, we’ve shared together many baptisms. And as we have, I’m guessing that as we shower babies with an outward symbol of God’s grace, you are all sure of the inward grace and love that God is showering on them. As sure as we are of God’s love for these children, we can be sure of God’s love for us, for you and for me. It’s that simple, and that certain.
My great uncle Bob – you might remember he passed away last year – he was a United Methodist pastor too, and he performed my baptism when I was 5 months old. I can tell you it is a bond that he shared with me his whole life. The bond was special, of course, because of our relationship, and because of the path I’ve taken to become a pastor, as he was. But it is more than that. As a pastor, I’m bound to every person – child and adult – I baptize. How can one not be bound to another when one witnesses God’s grace and love outpoured upon another? In the same way, then, every time you witness a baptism, every time you recite with me the vows of the congregation to support and nurture one baptized, you too are binding yourself in this sacrament, through our mutual witnessing of God’s grace.
Today you have an opportunity to remember, if you’ve forgotten, the love that God has for you. You have an opportunity to remind yourself that you are God’s child, that God pours grace upon grace out into your life, and into your heart. You have an opportunity to commit yourself again to God’s plan for your life, by joining me in the baptismal vows. You have an opportunity for an act of repentance: a beginning, a change of direction, a new purpose for a new year, a parting of the heavens as God smiles upon you to remind you that you are Beloved. Remember your baptism, and be thankful for God’s grace.