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Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Deep End - Mark 1:4-11 (Blackburn's Chapel)

This morning is “Baptism of the Lord Sunday,” which, as you have probably already figured out, means we’re going to be talking about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John and also our own baptism. You can see the font is right here in a prominent place, reminding us of baptism throughout the entire service. Right after the sermon, we’ll have an opportunity to reaffirm our baptismal covenant, to recommit ourselves to the great work that God is doing within us, and you’re all invited to be part of that.

Now, as we talk about baptism, you have to realize that this is a topic that also brings out a great many of my gratuitous bad preacher jokes. Indulge me in this one: The Baptist and Methodist were arguing yet again about baptism, as Baptists and Methodists are prone to do when they get together. The Baptist insisted that anyone who received baptism by sprinkling wasn’t actually baptized. “You have to be immersed,” he insisted. The Methodist thought for a minute. “What if you go in up to your knees?” “Not good enough,” came the reply. “What about your waist?” “Still not good enough.” “What if you go in up to your chest, surely that has to count for something!” The Baptist held fast to his argument. “Still not good enough. Unless the top of your head gets wet, it doesn’t count.” The Methodist grinned and said, “Terrific! That’s the part we baptize!”

OK – time to lay bad jokes aside. Let’s turn to today’s Scripture reading:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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 Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


Thus begins the Gospel according to St. Mark. Matthew and Luke begin with events that naturally flow into Jesus’ birth, John begins with a theological dissertation that attempts to use our finite language to describe the infinite nature of God.

But not Mark. See if this sounds familiar. Mark begins out in the country, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mark begins off the beaten track, beyond the end of the bus route, outside the reach of the cell phone towers. Mark begins on the banks of a narrow, shallow river in a place that is barely a wide spot on an infrequently-traveled road. ­May we pray.

It is commonly accepted that Mark is the oldest Gospel. These words we have just read are the first words to be written down about Jesus. When I sit down to write a sermon, the beginning point is often the toughest part. By the time I have finished reading and studying and researching, I have a general idea of what I want to say. I know the main point I intend to make. I know much of the content I want to cover. I have an idea what illustrations and stories and jokes I’ll use. I know how I want you to respond, and I know what I want the “take-home” assignment to be. But boy, that beginning point is hard. I know that I’ve got a limited window to capture your attention. I want to set the scene for you, and allow you to imagine with me where we’re going to be headed over the course of the next 20 minutes. Sometimes I want to make you laugh, sometimes I want to make you cry, sometimes I want to make you think, and sometimes I simply want to make you wonder. I know the rules of good communication, that I am supposed to tell you what I’m going to say, and then say it, and then tell you what I just said.

Granted my grandfather had a different rule of three. He said, “A good preacher should stand up to be seen, speak up to be heard, and shut up to be appreciated.” He also shared several other axioms with me as I grew up. One time, he told me, “You know, I’ve heard plenty of good 15-minute sermons given in 45.” And another time, “that preacher sure passed up a lot of good stopping points.”

I imagine that, for Mark, as he sat down to write this Gospel, he thought long and hard about what he wanted the Church to know about Jesus. I imagine he thought, “What’s the most important thing I want to say about Jesus? What’s the first thing I want them to know?”

And so, I think this starting point of Mark, Jesus’ baptism in the country at age 30, this beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, was a carefully chosen event. That is not to say that everything that happened before Jesus’ baptism is unimportant or insignificant, but for Mark, the real life of the story begins at baptism.

Perhaps Mark is making more of a theological point here than we first gave credit. Because for those who claim the name of Christian, our spiritual lives also begin at baptism. And there are three components to that spiritual life that I want us to focus on today.

The first is cleansing. It may seem obvious here, but water is used to clean. Have you ever had the experience of getting really nasty, dirty, sweaty somewhere and then having an opportunity to take a bath? I remember back when I was about 14 years old, our church youth group went to a youth convention in Fort Collins, Colorado. With several other churches, we chartered three tour buses to make the drive from Niagara Falls to Colorado. I don’t know if you’ve ever made that drive, but it’s about 36 hours straight.

We left at midnight between Sunday and Monday, and arrived shortly after noon on Tuesday. Now, it was the end of July. Even in western New York, it is hot at the end of July, and much like around here, not everyone has air conditioning, including my family. I was 14, my glands were working overtime, and I hadn’t yet realized that you could take showers at times other than the beginning of the day. I was still trying to figure out that whole ratio of how much deodorant and cologne you’re supposed to wear. In those days, I was wearing too little of one, and too much of the other. So, after what had already been a long, hot, sweaty day, I climbed aboard a tour bus for a 36-hour ride. I was pretty gross when I got on the bus; you can imagine how nasty I was when we finally got to Colorado.

The first thing I did after we checked into the dorms was to take a long, hot shower. I stood there under water that normally would have been way too hot and felt it pour over me, just washing the grime and filth and nastiness away. I distinctly remember thinking that no shower or bath in all my life to that point had felt so good.

I think that’s sorta what baptism does for us. But instead of washing away the grime on the outside, it makes us new on the inside. It does beg the question, though, does more water equal more cleansing? This is a question Christians have argued about and divided over throughout the centuries. Which is the right way? Dunking? Sprinkling? Pouring? Does more water equal more covenant? Does less water mean less of God’s grace?

You already know the answer to this. The power in baptism does not increase because you used a waterfall or a firehose. The power in baptism does not come from Pastor A.J. or Reverend So-and-so or Preacher Whats-his-name or even John the Baptist. The power comes from God. The power comes when we link up God’s Spirit and life-giving Word with simple things. Spirit + Word + Water = Baptism. Spirit + Word + bread and wine = Communion. It is God who does the good work within us and through us and on our behalf.

That brings us to the second aspect of what baptism is. First, as we’ve just said, it’s cleansing. Secondly, it’s claiming. In today’s Gospel reading, Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and a voice was heard from heaven: “This is my beloved son.” Baptism is a time when God claims us, places a mark on us, if you will, as members of the family God.

Did you know that I have never performed a Methodist baptism? It’s true. I only perform Christian baptisms. Baptism claims people as Christians in the name of God, not as members of a particular denomination. There is no such thing as a Methodist baptism, or a Baptist baptism, or a Lutheran baptism, or a Presbyterian baptism, or a Catholic baptism, or a Biblical baptism. There is only one baptism – a Christian baptism. Baptism claims each of us as belonging to God in Christ.

You all remember several years when the Harry Potter craze hit. I had several people who wanted to know what the church’s stance on Harry Potter was. I thought, “Our stance?” The comment came from people who were concerned that Harry Potter was going to teach impressionable children about witchcraft and sorcery. Now, I happen to think Harry Potter is a great story that teaches a whole lot of other things about life, and coming of age, and difficult family circumstances, and meaningful relationships and friendships; how evil it is depends on how evil you choose to make it. There, that’s my stance on Harry Potter!

You may remember that in the story, Harry is scarred on his forehead as an infant, and that because of that scar, or that mark, he has a very specific role in overcoming the forces of evil. In that mark, a claim is made on his life. If you can understand that, then you can understand the similar way God marks us and claims us as His own in baptism. Baptism seals us with a new identity as God claims us as members of His family. As God did with Jesus, God looks at each of us and says, “This is my beloved daughter.” “This is my beloved son.” Baptism marks the beginning of a brand new life that belongs to God.

And it is belonging to God that brings us to the third aspect of what baptism accomplishes. First, it cleanses us from the inside out. Second, it claims us as God’s own. Third, it commissions us to participate in God’s ministry.

Do you remember learning to swim? Maybe you took lessons. Maybe you had a family member or friend who guided you through the process. Maybe your experience was like mine, in which an older sibling took it as their responsibility to throw you in the deep end. Regardless of what your experience was, there is one critical thing you have to do to learn how to swim. At some point, you have to get in the water. On the sideline, you can practice technique, perfect your stroke, and learn how to breathe. But at some point, what makes you a swimmer is that you actually get in the water.

The Christian life is the same way. You can’t be a Christian from the sidelines. You have to live the life God has called you to lead—a life of healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked—a life of sharing the good news anywhere and through every means you can.

God wants you in the water. God wants you in ministry. It is not only pastors and missionaries and other so-called “professional” ministers who do God’s work. In baptism, God cleanses us, and claims us as members of his family, and then commissions us with the work of that family. Jesus said he was on earth to be about his Father’s business, and that’s exactly what we, as his followers, are to be about as well. Look around, and you will see opportunities for ministry everywhere. There are always people in need of God’s love and healing and grace; there are always people to whom we can be the hands and feet of Christ.

It’s a commission that comes with a promise. Jesus told us to baptize and make disciples, and promised that he would be with us, even unto the very end of the age. In his writings, St. Paul says that God, who began the good work within us by claiming us as His own at baptism, would see the work through. We are not in this alone, but we work as members of God’s family, united with Christ, and united with one another.

Perhaps you are here this morning and you have never been baptized. If that’s the case, I want to talk with you. Baptism is a huge, life-giving commitment to God, and I would be honored to help you make that commitment.

For those who have been baptized, I want to give you a chance to reaffirm the covenant made at your baptism, however long ago that was. Think of this as being similar to renewing your marriage vows. From time to time, married couples renew their vows, not in order to be re-married, but as a way of recommitting themselves to one another. So too, in renewing our baptismal vows we each have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to God. You’ll see in your bulletin that I am about to ask you the same vows that were made at your baptism. Then, if you choose, you are invited to come forward, where I will touch the water and then make the sign of the cross on your forehead and say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

I invite you now to take advantage of this opportunity to recommit yourselves to Christ, as you remember that God continues to cleanse you, has claimed you as His own, and commissioned you for a life in ministry in service to the world.

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