Jan 11, 2015 Baptism of our Lord
This week I’ve been think a lot about transformation. I have been witness to people’s pain and hopelessness, and watched as new opportunities have presented themselves to transform that pain into joy. This week I saw the return of a shelter guest with their 30 day sobriety chip from AA. This week I sat with a dying mother, a woman strong in her faith, and prayed with her daughter, a woman who had walked away from the church. This week I listened as a colleague wrestled with his calling to priesthood, and yet still experiences God’s grace in the midst of his confusion.
Yet, even in the midst of these revelations of God’s grace, I found myself at a loss for words of wisdom about the baptism of Jesus. So I sat here, looking at our beautiful stained glass windows, praying for inspiration and a new way of hearing this gospel story. I have played with all the traditional questions of "why did Jesus need to get baptized" and "what does it mean to be baptized in the Spirit". So when all else fails, pray. And so I did.
The first window is for Advent...the time of preparation and waiting. It is the start of the new liturgical year. We sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and read the story of John telling us to "prepare the way". We watch, wait, and hope for God’s incarnation.
The second window is for Christmas...the celebration of the in-breaking of God into our world through the birth of a child. We celebrate the coming of Immanuel--God with us--and read about angels and shepherds.
The third window is for Epiphany...a time of revelation, of seeing things in a new way, a time of light and life. We celebrate and magi who come bearing gifts, but who chose to return home on a different road. We celebrate the naming and baptism of Jesus, and our calling to be among God’s beloved.
The fourth window is for Lent...another time of preparation. But this time we're wilderness wanderers, reflecting on our sin and call to obedience. Again, we prepare for the pending death of Christ. We fast and pray. We read the Passion narrative and are told that the temple curtain is torn.
The fifth window is for Easter...the celebration of rebirth. We celebrate our risen Lord through praise and thanksgiving, and we participate in the outward signs of inward grace--the rites of baptism and confirmation. We experience new life in Christ, and we are reconciled and healed. We rejoice with Alleluias abounding.
The sixth window is for Pentecost...the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Again, an in-breaking of God. A celebration of new spiritual gifts of healing, teaching, and preaching. We go into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, which is symbolized by a descending dove.
The final window is a tribute to St. Francis and a reminder to be instruments of peace and to preach the gospel, using words only when necessary.
And in meditating on these windows, the words of Mark's gospel came over me. Suddenly I had new eyes and ears for this gospel. So let's look at it again.
John the Baptizer is proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins and telling people about the coming of one who will baptize in the spirit. This is the Advent moment if you will. Be prepared. Watch for the one who is coming. And people from all around are coming to hear this message--this annunciation if you will--and they are waiting.
And then Jesus comes into the picture. Mark doesn't give us a birth narrative the way Matthew and Luke do, so in some ways, Jesus appearing on the scene is Mark's birth story...Jesus is coming to be "reborn" through baptism. And when he comes out of the water, God says "You are my Son, the Beloved".
Then it's almost as if the entire Lenten, Easter and Pentecost stories happen simultaneously for Mark...or maybe it's a foreshadowing of the events to come. Because as Jesus comes out of the water--out of death into new life--the heavens are torn open and the spirit descends on him like a dove. We see these events elsewhere...when Jesus dies on the cross, the temple curtain is torn; when Jesus is raised, it is into a new life, a heavenly life; and when the Spirit comes into the upper room, it is with a breath or wind like that of creation, descending like a dove.
So maybe I'm stretching our liturgical seasons a bit here in trying to make this connection with Mark. But then again, I think there might be something to it. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and he is known for writing in a way that foreshadows events to come. Maybe in this little opening piece of the gospel, Mark is telling us not only about the life of Jesus, but also the life of discipleship. We too have to prepare, wait, watch for the in-breaking of God, die to this life and be born anew, and then go out rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. It isn't a simple, stayed life, but one that is filled with the creative power of God.
Which brings me back to those traditional questions: Why does Jesus need to be baptized? What does it mean to be baptized in the Spirit?
According to theologian Lee Barrett, Jesus’ baptism and death on the cross are intimately linked. God naming Jesus as “Son” at his baptism, points the way to his suffering and death: “...Jesus voluntarily joins the ranks of penitent sinners. This trajectory is continued through [Mark’s] Gospel as Jesus accepts multiple forms of suffering. In fact...the “messianic secret” is the scandal that the Messiah must suffer, even to death. The victory of resurrection and anticipated return is inseparable from the obedient suffering; the crown cannot be had without the cross.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, Kindle Edition)
We know the Spirit is a creative force--it was there in the beginning as God's breath, breathing life into a formless void. We know that the liturgical action of baptism is an outward sign of an inward change--that somehow we are being called into relationship with God who knows us as "beloved". We know that the Spirit is transformative--it can enter into dark places and create light; it can energize us and send us out into the world just as it did for those early disciples in the upper room, and for those disciples of the early church. Being baptized with water in the Spirit drives us to participate in and proclaim with boldness the Good News of the Kingdom of God!
This morning, I invite you to meditate on our beautiful stained glass windows. How do they represent the story of your life in Christ? Where are you witnessing and experiencing transformation?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.