Message: Born In The Jordan River
Mark 1: 4-11
Date: January 8, 2017
This is one of those Sundays when two major emphases of the season intersect and we need to make a choice as to which one we are going to emphasize in worship. It is the closest Sunday to Epiphany and so traditionally the Sunday when we think about the coming of the Wise Men to the manger. And some of you know how much I love the story of the Wise Men. Ours finally made it to our manger at home on Friday, which was the true day of Epiphany. They always arrive just in time for the Christmas decorations to be put away for another year. But in reality it was probably sometime much later that the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. Some scholars have determined it might have been as much as a year and a half after Jesus’s birth. So we have left the Wise Men out for one more Sunday. And we have sung the First Noel to help us think about Epiphany and to say that even centuries later, wise people still seek Jesus.
And then the other emphasis of this Sunday in the church is the Baptism of Jesus. You know, if we left the story of the birth of Jesus up to Mark in writing his Gospel, our celebration of Christmas would be very different then that which we have just experienced. There would be no angels, no nativity scenes with mangers and shepherd and wisemen. No Bethlehem. No miraculous conception or birth. No baby Jesus at all. Most of our favorite Christmas Carols would seem non-sensical. There would not even be a Joseph. In truth, there would be no Christmas to celebrate at all. So while we don’t have much use for Mark’s Gospel in December, in these January days when we have to pack away all the decorations for another year and start worrying about how we’re going to pay those credit card bills when they arrive, we begin to think maybe we should have paid more attention to Mark all along. Because in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ birth takes place when He is all grown up and without angel choruses or prophetic warning, when He shows up on the banks of the river Jordan as a thirty year old man, where this strange character John stands in the middle of the river, loudly proclaiming the word of God and splashing water on people while calling on them to repent. Indeed, if we didn’t know how the story was going to progress and end, we might think that this was really a story about John the Baptizer rather than Jesus the Baptized.
Mark tells us more initially about John, then he does about Jesus. In Mark’s telling the life of Jesus does not begin until he comes out of Nazareth of Galilee and is baptized. Mark doesn’t care about Jesus’ birth or infancy, where he comes from, where he’s been. No genealogies. He pays no attention to the stories of the virgin birth. Because for Mark, the life of Jesus begins, where it begins for all Christians, with Baptism. Isn’t it interesting that through historical data or scriptural references we can piece together some of the origins of the other Gospel writers. Matthew the Jewish tax collector who became a Disciple, Luke the Greek physician, John the son of Zebedee who grew up as so many did around the Sea of Galilee, learning the trade of fishing. But who is Mark. Where did he come from? What is his background? Jew or Gentile? So much of what we know about Jesus comes from him. Matthew and Luke both relied on him in writing their Gospels. Yet we know so little about him. Perhaps that is because none of that mattered to Mark because like Jesus, his life did not really begin until he was baptized.
Listen then to Mark’s Christmas story:
Read Mark 1: 1-10
And so, Jesus the Christ was born. Out of nowhere. Out of nothing. The Son of God came. And the great creator God parted the clouds, so He could get a better look at His Son. And just like a father standing at the hospital nursery window, He proclaims “Look at Him. Look at my Son. I am so proud of Him.” Does it bother us that Mark begins the story in this way? Well, I think it must. We much prefer Luke and Matthew‘s telling. So much so that we have structured a whole season of the year, several weeks of decorating and partying and gift giving around their accounts. Even John tells it better. He speaks in mystical terms about the beginning and the word being made flesh. But what’s the deal with Mark. That old scrooge. He would ruin our celebration. And so we relegate him to the after thoughts. Pack up the nativity. Take down the lights. Haul the tree to the curb. Prepare for the dark days of January and February. And, oh yes, Jesus came out of nowhere, out of nothing, to be baptized.
But wait, isn’t that usually how it is? Life comes out of nothingness?
I think Mark’s description of the beginning of Jesus life, born of water and Spirit, mirrors the story of creation. In the beginning we are told there was nothing. A vast ocean of nothing. And then the sky divided and God’s spirit descended into the void, and out of nothing, a world began. And the gulf between the creator and the created becomes no more. The world begins. The life of man begins. Not as baby, but as man and woman. Created, not born, out of nothing, out of nowhere. And the creator walks in the midst of creation in the cool of the evening. One writer describes it this way: With one decision, history began. Existence became measurable. Out of nothing came light. According to James Slatton: The baptism of Jesus is a threshold-crossing story. The sky that divides the divine and human splits open.
At Bethlehem, Jesus was born in the flesh. At Jordan, Jesus was born in the Spirit. And as miraculous as Bethlehem was, Jesus never made reference to it. But He does talk about Jordan.
When Nicodemus comes to him in the night. “How can I see the Kingdom of Heaven?” “You must be born again” “But how is it possible to be born again.” And watch this. Jesus says: “You must be born of water and the Spirit.“ And during the week before His death, the so called leaders of the faith, came and asked: “By what authority do you do these things?” And Jesus recalls the day He was baptized. “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not? Remember how the sky opened. I was baptized. And it all began.” Baptism was the beginning. Brett Younger writes: It was in the waters of Baptism that Jesus heard the Spirit calling him to speak the truth and to live with grace. And the great theologian Paul Tillich wrote that Jesus is the only one who has been true to the voice. Jesus gave everything – his days and nights, His dreams and deeds, His labors and His life itself. Jesus gave himself to God‘s people – sharing, ministering, healing, and listening. When Jesus cried on the cross, “it is finished,” it was His baptism that was complete.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word came to Jordan to be baptized. In the beginning. Younger goes on to say that
Baptisms, like all beginnings, find their meaning after the event. Starting, by itself, is often of little consequence. Beginning is usually easy. Finishing is usually hard. Bobby Knight, who was, of course, the long time basketball coach at Indiana University, was once asked about a player who was doing a great job coming off the bench, “When will he get to start?” The coach responded, “You don‘t understand the game. It doesn’t matter who starts. It matters who finishes.” A month before the wedding glassy-eyed couples tell the minister that they are the perfect couple. (But I) tell them “You get no points for getting this far. On their wedding day almost every couple is capable of creating a life together filled with faith, hope and joy and almost every couple is capable of creating something worse than their worst nightmare.” Marriages can‘t be judged on the wedding day. In ten years you can start to see what they have done with it. Beginning is usually easier than finishing. Any husband can stand in the delivery room giving his wife ice chips and say, “You‘re doing great honey.” Every father looks good holding a newborn. (But) Fathers can’t be judged in the delivery room. In twenty years you can see how hard they‘ve worked at it.
Baptism is the beginning. All of our days are commentary on our Baptisms. Repentance, conversion, and growth are a lifelong process. Just as Jesus‘ life gave meaning to His baptism, so our baptisms wait to be given meaning.
At our Baptism, God opens the sky so He can see us better, and claims us as His son or daughter. And in the splash of the water and the descent of the Spirit, we begin. We hear that voice and the question is posed for the rest of our life on this earth. “Will we like Jesus, be true to its calling?” Don‘t misunderstand what happens at Baptism. It is not an act whereby we claim God, it is God placing His claim on us. The way we live the rest of our life determines whether we are going to claim the God who claims us or not. Baptism is the beginning. It is that moment when no matter who we are, or where we‘ve come from, whether it be Nazareth in Galilee or Lexington in Kentucky, grace showers upon us like the waters of the Baptismal font and God claims us as His own. You who have been baptized, remember who you are, remember when you were born of grace in the living waters of almighty God. And you who have not, come to the Jordan, so that God may claim you.
But there is more to it than that. Why did Jesus come for Baptism? God incarnate. The Word among us. Surely God had already claimed Him. Wasn’t John right? Shouldn’t it have been Jesus who baptized John? Jesus’ clear answer is no. Because this is not just a beginning for Jesus, but it is also the beginning for the church. Jesus’ baptism happens in the midst of community. And out of the chaotic, divisive faith that had come to characterize the Jews, out of nothing, the church was created. Will Willimon writes:
In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters and brought forth life. In baptism, the Spirit of God hovers over humanity and brings forth the church. Creation, newness, life is a gift of God who loves to bring something out of nothing.
Baptism is a celebration of the church family because in essence every time an individual is reborn in the Spirit and the water, the church is reborn. When an infant is brought before the community to be baptized, he or she is a solemn promise that through God‘s grace the church will go on in the life of that little one. Out of nothing a life of faith begins and God‘s people are reborn. Peter wrote about what happens to the church at Baptism when he says: Once you were not a people, but now you are God‘s people. So many today who have been baptized say that they believe in God but not the church. That their faith is a private affair. According to a recent poll 90% of Americans say they believe in God, but less than 50% are active in the church. Those 40% who make up the difference are failing to complete what God began in them at their baptism. One writer claims that
the great heresy of American popular religion is the assertion that “religion is a private affair”. . . The Christian faith is neither a set of lofty ideals and noble propositions, nor is it a system of ethics and guides for behavior. The Christian faith is a corporate endeavor, a way of life together under Christ with his holy ones. . . . the church is Christ’s body, his visible presence here on earth, for better or worse, the only form which He has chosen to take in this world. One cannot claim to be “in Christ‘ without being in the body of Christ. . .Against the heresy of “religion is a private affair’ and the blasphemy of the self-made man,” baptism reminds us that from beginning to end, our salvation and therefore our identity are corporate products, corporate gifts.
When the Corinthian church fell into divisiveness and chaos, Paul said to them remember your baptism for in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body. And to the Ephesians he said the same thing: There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all. You see, just as Baptism is God’s idea, not ours. The church is God’s, not ours. And at Baptism we are adopted into the church, the family of God, through grace. It is the beginning. And every time we gather for worship, place our tithe in the offering plate, participate in Bible study, come to the altar in prayer, teach a Sunday school class, eat a piece of fried chicken at a pot luck, or serve in a mission capacity, we are continuing that which was begun at our Baptism. And every time one is baptized, the journey begins all over again. We sometimes fall into the belief that the church exists to somehow find God. But the truth is that in Baptism, God finds and claims us. The church is the instrument that God uses. “Go and make disciples, baptizing them in my name” That is our task. To bring persons to the beginning and then let God complete the work that He has begun in us. Complete our Baptism.
Will Willimon writes:
The other day I helped a minister baptize two people. One was a man about 30 years old. He had been converted to the faith a short time before and was now being baptized. The other was a three month old baby girl, the child of parents who were active in the church.
First the minister baptized the baby. After he baptized her, he took her in his arms and said to her, “Mary we have baptized you and received you into the church. God loves you and has great plans for your life. But you will need the rest of us to tell you the story, and, from time to time, to remind you who you are, and to keep you in God‘s family. We are going to specially appoint some of our members to guide you and watch over you as you grow in faith. And all of us promise to adopt you as a sister in Christ.”
Then the minister baptized the man. After he baptized him, he had him stand before the church and said to him, “Tom, we have baptized you and received you into the church. God loves you and has great plans for your life. But you will need the rest of us to tell you the story, and, from time to time, to remind you who you are, and to keep you in God‘s family. We are going to specially appoint some of our members to guide you and watch over you as you grow in faith. And all of us promise to adopt you as a brother in Christ.”
And Willimon goes on to say:
The promises of baptism, the burdens placed upon them, the evangelistic word of grace, the loving action of God, the demand for life long response are the same for all – no matter what the age. So at whatever age we enter those graceful waters, we emerge rising from darkness to light, from loneliness to community, as fragile and dependent as a new bom baby, needing the love and warmth of God‘s human family.
And so Jesus came to Jordan to be claimed by God and community, to begin. This morning I invite you to come to Jordan. Or Remember when you first came. For some it was many years ago, some only a few months ago. That was your beginning. As you come, ask yourself are you living your life as the completion of your Baptism? Is your life in the community of faith a life which complements that which was begun in the waters of Baptism? Are you being true to the voice which claimed you at your Baptism? Remember your Baptism and be thankful for what God has started in you.
Or perhaps you have never come to Jordan. Perhaps you have been wandering, seeing little in life. Out of the void, God wants to create life, abundant life. He wants to claim you today. Come and be bathed in the living waters of almighty God and take your place in God’s family. Today you can be reborn through water and the spirit.