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.

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