Standing in the Waters

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So after weeks of going through the announcement and birth of Jesus, suddenly the story seems to stop.  We must wait, almost suspended in time, until Jesus grows into an adult.  From our 21st century seat, we know that Jesus is figuratively waiting in the wings, waiting to emerge with the Spirit of God in his very being. But remember, it wasn’t just the thirty years before Jesus committed to public ministry that we waited.  It was the centuries upon centuries and ages upon ages that all of Creation had waited for the dawn to break.  In essence, Creation has been groaning and straining for this very moment. And so Jesus goes to John at the Jordan to be baptized.  And just as each of us received the gift of water in our own Baptism, Jesus kneels in the Jordan and John bends over him and baptizes him.  The work has begun.

The writer of the Gospel According to Mark depicts that at this moment of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are opened and the Spirit emerges in the form of a dove.  We read of the heavens being “torn”, violently ripped apart so that they could not go back together in the same way.  The Greek word there is a form of the verb schitzo as in schism or schizophrenia. It is not the same word as open. I open the door. I close the door. The door looks the same, but something torn apart is not easily closed again. The ragged edges never go back together as they were. Mark wasn’t careless in using that word: schitzo. He remembered Isaiah’s plea centuries before when the prophet cried out to God, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” In other words, at this moment, God’s Spirit on earth becomes present in a brand new way.  A new ordering of Creation has begun. 

It was at that moment that the heavens opened and spilled onto the earth.  The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.  And we hear what the world has always been straining to hear: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Even though the writers of several of the Gospels have presented Jesus as the Son of God in the birth stories, it is not until this moment that the title is actually conferred.  This is the moment toward which all of Creation has been moving.  This the moment for which we’ve been waiting.

The story of Jesus’ Baptism calls us to remember our own.  It, too, is our beginning as the gift of God’s grace washes away those things that impede our relationship with God and gives us new birth, new life.  And it calls us to do something with our life.  But I actually don’t remember the day of my baptism.  It happened when I was a little over seven months old, on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1962.  It was at First United Methodist Church, Brookshire, TX and Rev. Bert Condrey was the officiant.  I had a special dress and lots of family present.  That would be all I really know and the only reason I know that is from one picture of my grandfather holding me in front of the church.

And, yet, we are reminded to “remember our baptism”.  What does that mean for those of us who don’t?  I think “remembering” is something bigger than a chronological recount of our own memories.  It is bigger than remembering what we wore or where we stood or who the actual person was that touched our head with or even immersed us in water. It means remembering our very identity, our creation, what it is that made us, that collective memory that is part of our tradition, our liturgy, our family.  That is what “remembering” our baptism is.  It’s not just remembering the moment that we felt that baptismal stream; it is remembering the story into which we entered.  It is at that point that we affirmed who we are (or it was affirmed for us) and we began to become who God intends us to be.  And for each of us, whether or not we noticed it, the heavens tore apart, spilled out, and the Holy Spirit emerged.  And we, too, were conferred with a title.  “This is my child, my daughter, my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And in that moment, whether we are infants or older, we are ordained for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.  We are ordained to the work of Christ and the work of Christ’s church.  Caroline Westerhoff says that “at baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world.  [So then], ministry is not something in particular that we do; it is what we are about in everything we do.”  In other words, our own Baptism sweeps us into that dawn that Jesus began.  And, like Jesus, our own Baptism calls us and empowers us to empty ourselves before God.  As we begin to find ourselves standing in those waters with Christ, we also find ourselves ready to be followers of Christ.  

Jesus was still wet with water after John had baptized him when he stood to enter his ministry in full submission to God.  As he stood in the Jordan and the heavens tore apart and spilled into the earth, all of humanity stood with him.  We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ.  As we emerge, we feel a cool refreshing breeze of new life.  Breathe in.  It will be with you always. Submit your life, empty yourself, so that there will finally be room for Christ in this world.  Then…it is up to you to finish the story.  This day and every day, remember your baptism, remember that you are a daughter or son of God with whom God is well pleased and be thankful. You are now part of the story, part of this ordering of chaos, part of light emerging from darkness, part of life born from death.  You are part of God’s re-creation.  And it is very, very good.

You must give birth to your images.  They are the future waiting to be born.  Fear not the strangeness you feel.  The future must enter you long before it happens.  Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Wilderness Re-Creation

ADVENT 2B: Isaiah 40: 1-11

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40: 3-5)

First of all, with all due respect to Mr. Handel’s presentation, this passage was probably not originally written with us or our tradition in mind! This really is talking about the people of Israel. It really is talking about bringing comfort to a people who have wandered in the Judean wilderness. Probably written toward the end of the Babylonian exile, this writing offers a vision where a highway (a REAL man-made highway) through the wilderness will be made level and straight. If, as most assume, this part of the book that we know as Isaiah was written after the exile, it would have been soon after 539 BCE when Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and, not really caring whether or not the Israelites stayed, allowed them to return to Jerusalem. So imagine a highway that, typical of the ancient world, would have originally been built to accommodate royal processions. And so God is depicting a highway made for a grand procession led by the Almighty.

The just-released exiles are returning. But to what? Their city and their way of life lay in ruins. They can’t just go back and pick up where they left off. They have to feel that God has deserted them. They are looking for comfort. They are looking for solace. They are looking for God to put things back the way they were before. But God has something different in mind. Rather than repair, God promises recreation; rather than vindication, God promises redemption; and rather than solace, God promises transformation. God is making something new–lifting valleys, lowering mountains, and ultimately, when all is said and done, revealing a glory that we’ve never seen before.

So 2020 has handed most of us a new understanding of this passage.  (Wow! Thanks 2020!)  As a community, as a country, as a people, we sort of have our own little wilderness thing going right now. Now we haven’t been conquered by Babylonians yet (and for that we ARE thankful!), but our life has changed—probably, if we’re honest, forever. And in this season that so quickly elicits traditions and memories of past years, it is easy to start to feel like we are truly walking through an unknown wilderness, full of masked strangers, distanced friends, and communication via these little boxes of faces on Zoom.  The wilderness sometimes seems to be closing in on us.  And the pathway out seems to be murky at best.

But think about this passage.  We are given a vision.  We are not promised solace. We are not promised that Emmanuel, God With Us, is coming to put our lives back together. In fact, can you feel it? The world has begun to shake. The valleys are rising; the mountains are leveling. Something incredible is about to happen. The light is just beginning to dawn. Life as we know it will never be the same again. Soon the fog will lift and we will see that the road does not lead back to where we were. It instead leads us home. But we’re going to have to be willing to leave what we know–forever.

When we prepare ourselves in this Season, we’re not looking for the Messiah to come and put all the pegs back where they were.  We’re not preparing ourselves to go back to the lives to which we’ve become accustomed.  God is not going to “fix” it.  I mean, think about it.  God’s not usually in the “fixing” business.  God is more into making all things new.  So we have to open ourselves to the new creation that God promises and here in the wilderness, God will re-create us too.  So, open your eyes, learn to wait, prepare your hearts for something new, for the glory of the Lord to be revealed.  And, in the meantime, wear your mask!


The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask. (Nancy Wynne Newhall)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli