Looking up to the Sky

a sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord [Year B]

Mark 1:4-11 and Genesis 1:1-5

On the morning of January 1, 2021, when the world seemed so bright and full of hope, I logged onto Facebook to find that one of the guys I went to high school with had posted this:

“On this same morning in 2003, I couldn’t remember most of the night before. I literally looked up at the sky and said, “God, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but PLEASE help me.” I haven’t had a drink since. I don’t tell this for pats on the back. I want you to know, should you need to, that you don’t have to feel the way I felt this morning 18 years ago ever again.”

Wow. What honesty and openness. I had never known my friend had struggled with a substance abuse problem. There is a tendency we all have to keep our brokenness and our problems hidden, but in this case it was out there for all see see. I also imagined he was not the only one to mark each January 1 as a day of rebirth, given that New Years Eve is often viewed as one last chance to live in chaos and craziness before joining the gym, or spending more time with family, or pouring the liquor down the drain. But aside from all of that I was moved by my friend’s vulnerability in sharing it. I especially am grateful for the way he phrased it, that he looked up at the sky and cried out to God. I rejoice with him in the new life he lives, just as we should all rejoice in the newness anyone experiences when they are redeemed. This January 1st was just another day for me. For my friend it was a powerful reminder that God reaches down and saves us.

That, my friends, is the God we believe has claimed us. Like we see in the beginning of all things, this is a God who can and does move over the waters of our chaos and the darkness of the world and brings about order, who brings about light, who brings about good. This is a God who constantly works to rebuild and restore. And to do all those good words that begin with ‘re’—renew, redeem, reform, reclaim. This is just how the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is, the God who brought Moses through the Red Sea, the God who sent the prophets like Isaiah in the midst of ruin with words of hope. The deep and the formless void is not too scary for this God, even when the deep and formless void is within us. We aren’t able to make a new start because the calendar year changes. We are able to make new starts because God always grants new beginnings. That’s what God does. That’s who God is. Faithful. Full of promise.

This is the God who sends Jesus into the Jordan River probably on some random, chaotic Tuesday when John the baptizer is busy washing people with water. Something is clearly afoot because everyone is there like a mob—people from the villages and farms and people from the big city. John is washing and cleansing them as part of another ‘re’ word: repentance. Repenting sometimes gets a bad rap, but really it means a turning around, a changing of direction. Looking up at the sky and crying out. Soul-searching is what it is. John the baptizer knows God’s kingdom is about to break into the world in a new way. Perhaps all those people are, too. They are tired of the same old, same old. They are weary of the dysfunction. So John is busy trying to prepare people for the new. He’s helping them turn around from the ways they’re going, to renounce the things drawing them from God.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the midst of this scene Jesus steps in and presents himself for this baptism. He’s just one of the masses, blending right in. The whole world doesn’t even know it, but the point when Jesus is baptized becomes the point all of earth can look up to the sky and cry out, “We don’t know what’s wrong with us, but God can help us.” The world may not have caught on just yet, but that moment when Jesus bursts out of the Jordan’s waters becomes the moment that God’s redeeming love bursts onto the scene of creation in a new way that will have lasting effects on all of us.

            The Baptism of our Lord is either mentioned or recorded in all of the gospels, and it was one of the very first festivals the church ever celebrated. In fact, many eastern Christian traditions still read the story of Jesus’ baptism when they celebrate their Christmas. For us that may seem strange. In our time events like Christmas or Epiphany get all the attention, and that’s OK, because they have an important message to teach us. But to the earliest people of faith what this occurrence said about God was too powerful and too extraordinary to skip over. It’s the real beginning to a new creation, no turning back. From here on out, everything that Jesus does and says is for us. From here on out, God is reaching down and pulling our lives out of the void.

            Part of the reason that this event is so clarifying has to do with rivers, and the Jordan River in particular. Not many of us live near a river anymore, nor are our livelihoods directly impacted by one. We laugh in Richmond about how the river divides us, and at best we retreat here for recreation. But in Jesus’ time rivers were constantly bringing life to everyone around them. They had cycles of flooding and drying up that made soils fertile and irrigation systems work. The Jordan River, which was not all that mighty, was also the boundary between wilderness and the Promised Land. When Jesus stands there in the water, he is showing us that he is God’s path to deliverance. Jesus is a bridge. He is a flood of God’s grace, ever new, ever reliable. We have taken what it means to be human and dragged it through the mud. Jesus takes back what it means to be human and plunges it in the cleansing waters. We take our human nature and degrade it with things like hatred. Jesus raises up human nature as God’s Beloved. The heavens are torn open. God speaks. God is well-pleased with him. Creation begins again.

            There is only one other time when something is torn like this in Mark’s gospel. It happens here at Jesus’ baptism, when we first meet him, and then at the very end when he dies, when we think his ministry is over. We hear that Jesus cries out in a loud voice, breathes his last, and then the curtain of the temple is torn in two. The curtain in the temple separated that which was common and profane from that which was holy and sacred. It was a barrier that had stood in the temple and in people’s relationship with God for a long time. In his death, Jesus takes that which is an end, a boundary, and makes a new beginning. God’s holiness is open for all, forgiveness and mercy abounding, not sequestered anymore. God reaches down and saves Jesus by raising him up. And because Jesus has been given to us, in so doing so raises us to new life as well. New beginnings. Sin and death no longer have us bound.

            I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the own dark times in my life, the choices I made and the influences that formed me. Maybe it’s because I now have teenage children of my own and that’s making me remember what it was like to be in those exciting but confusing times. Like many of you, I had very rough days back then, days when I wasn’t sure who I was or what was going to become of me. It was a lot of soul-searching at times that wasn’t fun. One thing I realized even as early as college was that my faith, through my church, had instilled in me the notion that of my own worth. I’m not sure that was ever a stated objective of my congregation’s youth ministry or Sunday School program but that was the message that got across anyway, many times over. I was a worthwhile child of God and no matter how dark and chaotic my world got, no matter what people said about me and no matter what I might be persuaded to think about myself, a claim had been made on my life for good. God would always, always, always give me a new beginning because I was grounded in his love. Like a river it would always be there for me to return to, a soil that would always been made rich.

I hope that doesn’t just sound like something inside a Hallmark card, because there’s no telling how many times it saved me. God’s claim on my life in baptism, reiterated to me numerous times by family, friends, and pastors, anchored me in a way I couldn’t even articulate at the time. Of course I made mistakes, let people down, let myself down. No matter what barrier tried to contain me, Jesus could tear open a hole in it for me to experience God’s constant grace. I hope that each of the young people growing up in our congregation today receive the same kind of message. It will guide them through their life until they draw their final breath. They have elements of brokenness, shortcomings, but ultimately they are God’s and because of Jesus, God is well-pleased with them.

            These are dark times for our country. We saw images this week that are difficult to process. Relationships in our government and in politics have been dragged through some of the worst mud we’ve ever encountered. We know our enemies are laughing at us and rejoicing at our stumbles. We are angry. We are disappointed. Some of us feel betrayed. Others feel assaulted. A lot of what I’m feeling is grief. Most religious leaders I know are fatigued from a year of constantly trying to narrate hard things in the light of God’s Word. And now there’s been a violent attempt to overthrow our government and execute leaders. Like my friend’s prayer said, we don’t really know what’s wrong with us. It’s like void and chaos.

When these feelings come, maybe it’s best to start back at the river. Maybe it’s just best to go there and look up to the sky God can tear open. And repent. Before we do anything else. All of us, together. From the whole countryside and the cities. Sounds like red states and blue states. Then, standing there, before we say another word to each other, remember again who works really well in void and chaos, over the formless face of the deep things. It is the God who always works new beginnings, who brings about light and good. And does so in the mud of a riverbed. At the boundaries of the holy and profane. On the cross of death. In the life of a man sent to love and give and serve until he breathes his last.

It is Jesus of Nazareth, the new beginning of love and forgiveness that is risen and lives forever.

Notice how the creator of this icon tries to make the sky look like it is torn open.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God’s Superhero Suit

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas [Year B]

John 1: [1-9] 10-18 and Ephesians 1:3-14

We are in full-on Superhero mode at the Martin house right now. A few months ago, our four-year-old, Jasper, discovered the main characters of the Marvel and DC universes and it has been Spiderman and Batman and Superman ever since. He was Spiderman for Halloween and for Christmas someone gave him a Batman costume, and we wears both all the time. Sometimes he can’t decide on one, so he’ll wear a Spiderman shirt and a Batman mask. You can walk into any room in our house, even when we’ve cleaned up, and either see or step on a superhero figurine or accessory. Jasper has not seen one movie or comic book yet, but something about these characters fascinate him and spark his imagination. I think it’s not uncommon, given that movies in this genre gross billions in revenue.

Lately he has really become interested in the fact that all superheroes have what is called an alter ego, and he’s trying to memorize which alter ego goes with which hero. The way Jasper asks about a character’s alter ego is, “Who is such-and-such when they take off their suit?” And so we explain that when Batman is not dressed like a bat with the mask and the cape, he is a normal man named Bruce Wayne, Spiderman, when he’s not in his Spider outfit, is really a guy named Peter Parker. Yesterday he found his little figurine of Flash Gordon and that is where it got a little complicated because apparently Flash Gordon and the recent TV show The Flash are not the same thing. I had to look that one up.

The Word of God—that is, the very essence of what God is like and how God moves, the second person of the Trinity—has put on a special suit and it is Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t need to look that one up. John, the gospel writer, begins his story about Jesus this way, leaving nothing to secret, by telling us how the Word of God, who exists from the very beginning of time, has a human counterpart and that this human counterpart has some to live among the rest of us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.”

Before we learn anything that this human counterpart does, John states very clearly right up front that when we come to know who Jesus is we are coming to know what the heart of God is. Only certain people ever know that Bruce Wayne is actually Batman, or that Peter Parker is Spiderman, and the heroes tries to keep those two identities separate. It’s as if their power would be taken away if this was revealed. Not so with the Word of God. The Word wants to be known and seen as Jesus, the glory of a Father’s only Son. The Word wants people to see him and see his true identity, God’s Son.

And just as superheroes acquire or display some powers when they don their different suits, so does the Word of God gain certain powers and abilities when he puts on human flesh and comes to be among us. It is a power of giving like we’ve never seen. He gives us who receive him the power to become children of God, to be born anew and live with God in unity. His powers are strange, almost backwards from from we’d expect because they are rooted in his humility and servanthood, not in magic or wizardry or brute force.

This is the miracle of God’s incarnation, which is the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas. Incarnation means “putting on flesh” or “being physically present.” But the incarnation is not just the heart and meaning of Christmas. God’s act to become flesh and live among us and therefore undergo human life in broken world becomes the basis for everything else about Christian faith, from the manger (which John actually never mentions) to the cross.

This fundamental idea may seem kind of basic and obvious to you and me by this point. We marvel over story of Bethlehem, we sing the Christmas carols, we ask “What Child is This?” and think about God as baby all the time. I was amazed at how many of the Epiphany families who took part in the daily video Advent devotions showed nativity scenes. There were so many different and beautiful ones. I remember one young woman and her nephew, Callie and C.J., took us through her house and showed us three or four of them.

We just accept the incarnation as a fact, but for so many of the earliest Christians this was a challenge to get their head around. The concept of God, especially in ancient Greek culture, was all about attaining secret knowledge and intellectually contemplating beliefs and theories. To arrive at what God was like you needed to debate and argue different perspectives about life. You were supposed to reflect on private things of the soul, contemplate the universe, and so on. The idea that a God would just reveal himself so plainly and blatantly, as a person, was preposterous. One early critic of Christianity, a man named Celsus, wrote a long essay attacking the faith of Jesus that many people in his time read. It gives us a peek into ancient views on religion. At one point in it Celsus says, “If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God.”

We may have loads of nativity scenes around and be able to talk about Jesus the human, but how often do we still go Celsus’ route without realizing it? By that I mean how often do we still find ourselves saying things like “If I could only mentally escape this chaos for a little bit I’ll connect with God”? “If I could just remove myself from the everyday I’ll experience that flash of faith again”? How often do we look to have an experience in creation—say, with birds—as if it is proof God is real? How often do we look for that one author or that one book that will transcend our realities and help us see the divine more clearly? Nature and good books are true gifts from God—don’t get me wrong—but we don’t have to seek them to know God, John says. Jesus is as far as we need to go. And we don’t need to go find him. He has come to us.

superhero powers, incarnational presence

There has been so much talk about how awful the year 2020 was. I think “dumpster fire” is the term I hear most often It is true that much of life was and remains disrupted by the things that happened in 2020, but I’m wondering if this past year didn’t also provide a great opportunity to reflect on the true importance and deep meaning of God’s incarnation. I wonder if the trials of 2020, particularly ones brought about by the pandemic, weren’t actually a window into seeing how a flesh and blood presence with one another is more lifegiving than we realized.

Just look at church life. Much of it has been disembodied this year. We’ve moved many ministries on-line, we’ve tried to limit personal contact as much as possible, dropping things off by the office without running into anyone. Our worship services and daily prayers on the internet offer time for people to reflect on God’s Word and pray, in some sense, together. But there is something about being physically present with one another that almost everyone seems to recognize the need for. It’s not just that we miss seeing each other and all the things that might come with that. There is something about life that depends on incarnation. There is something about our faith that can’t just survive on words and thoughts alone.

When we are actually together, when God’s people are assemble for real, it is like we are wearing our true nature. Our ideas or theories about love and forgiveness and community life eventually have to actually be practiced and honed, and to do that requires real togetherness, being in the same space. This is one reason why our bishops have not encouraged practicing some form of online Holy Communion, although several churches have done so. Sharing bread and wine around a common table of some form, which is what the Lord’s Supper is, brings us together, puts us in one another’s space. And in that God meets us and works to reconcile us, to remind us in the best way possible that we must share this creation. I know that for all the fun it has been to share devotions on-line, I have felt an overwhelming joy to see people in person, to hear people speak as one.

The Word of God is not just some ideal, something we reflect on. God means to meet us, grab us, touch us. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians uses a very physical word when he describes what Jesus does: he gathers. “The good pleasure God set forth in Christ,” he writes, is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on the earth.” He does not say Christ’s goal is to inspire all people, or to improve all people, or to get everyone to make the right New Year’s Resolutions so that their lives will be in order. Jesus is set before us to gather all things—all people, all kinds. Together. And so even though we give thanks for the ways that God gathered some of us through digital means in 2020, we look forward to the ways God may really gather us at some point in the future, maybe even in this new year. Because that is why he becomes flesh and lives among us.

An emergency vehicle, with siren blaring, “interrupted” my sermon right as I was talking about the Christian call to embrace the world’s suffering. Very cool.

This also suggests that our call as the church must involve being physically present for our communities and the world. We begin to fulfill our role as Christ followers when we clothe ourselves with the suffering of those around us. And that is what the Holy Spirit helps us do, and, thankfully, has enabled you to do over and over again this year. When we do things like that—when we pull up alongside those who suffer the effects of racism, when we reach out with food to the hungry, when we gather together with those who struggle under life’s load, when we bake a supper for someone going through a hard time, then we are wearing the suit of our superhero, Jesus Christ. And the God no one has ever seen will be made known.

There is no cape involved. No X-ray vision, no superhuman flying or jumping abilities (much to Jasper’s disappointment). Just thoroughly human abilities. Washing feet. Sharing bread. Embracing the wounded. Full on superhero mode. You know, the powers of the children of God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.