January 10, 2021
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday and this liturgical year we read the story from Mark’s gospel. But before we get to our reading… in light of the events that have occurred in our country this week, someone asked whether or not we preachers who follow the liturgical calendar and the lectionary… if this was the Sunday where we would drop all that and find the piece of scripture that says what we need it to say in order to satisfy our own ears and the ears of our congregations. I think there was the underlying assumption in that question that baptism… the theology of baptism… these stories of Jesus and John in the Jordan… that they did not have anything to say to the core issues of why or what is the proper response.
Saints… here’s the thing… it’s not our place to use scripture for our own ends… we read from scripture to hear God’s word to us… to hear God’s voice speak… we come to scripture each week and we open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit here and now to enlighten us how these stories… stories often that we’ve read and heard innumerable times… stories that don’t always seem to fit exactly our own lives or come to us from a world and a time so different from ours… on the surface at least… stories that require thought… intelligent and well-informed nuance… and most importantly submission to the Spirit… in order to gain the wisdom we so desperately need to guide us as disciples. This whole discipline of reading scripture and listening to that scripture being expounded upon… this discipline is here so that we will be shaped by scripture… shaped by the Spirit… so that God’s Word will find true life in us as we try to live out our faith. If you think today’s scripture is only about two people standing in a river a long time ago pouring water over one another… you’re not hearing.
Today we are reading a story that calls us to repentance. Scripture is the best guide we have to defining that repentance. Let me say this… if you are compartmentalizing your life… so that there are the words of your faith and the words of your politics… then you need to repent. If there are the words of your faith and the words of your business practices… you need to repent. If there are the words of your faith and the words of how you see others in this world, especially those who are not like you… you need to repent. The Word of God is not here to be compartmentalized for our comfort. The work of the Spirit is not here to be ignored to satisfy our own feelings of what we want to be true… or to make room for prejudices. The Lord Jesus Christ is not here for us to pair with the other idols we want to serve to our own glorification. Our call is to follow Christ and glorify God.
So… having said all that… I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today as Jesus comes to John in the Jordan to be baptized.
READ Mark 1:4-11
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That’s John’s message to the Pharisees and the Sadducees over in Matthew’s gospel… self-righteous people of God who presumed they did not need to repent… that they did not have any need of John’s baptism… they had other credentials that made them special in God’s eyes. They had their family positions. They had their own acts of piety and holiness. They had their own self-created and well-crafted bubbles of social protections around them that kept them above and closer to God than this rabble who had gathered on the shoreline. They had their own traditions that kept them from having to repent in such a crude manner from such a weirdo like John. Inside their bubbles, they were the masters. They devised the answers to the questions they believed most important. Answers that supported their positions. Answers that justified their actions so that they could never be found at fault. They created rules that others had to follow. They defined what was and what was not. These Pharisees… these Sadducees… make no mistake… they believed that they spoke for God and held in their hands the measuring stick for judgment and condemnation.
These brood of vipers… selling their poisons as a tonic for all that ails you... encouraging all who will listen to look upon their success and their privilege… their coziness with the seats of power… the Sanhedrin… the Romans. The Herods were their friends. You want to know who is to blame for all your woes. You want to know who is keeping you from participating in the blessings of God… the blessings that have rained down so abundantly on us… listen and we’ll tell you… buy our salvation and we will add savior to the titles we have collected and keep shiny on our mantelpieces. Join us and you too will breathe the rarified atmosphere where repentance… where accountability for actions don’t exist… where the fruits we offer will always be better than John’s nasty… bitter… sour tasting fruit of repentance. You are not here to humbly serve your neighbor and lift the common good for all… that’s for the losers. You want to be a winner like us. In control. Answering to no one. If you are not using everything to your advantage… consequences be damned… then you are not doing it right.
You brood of vipers who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now… even now… says John from Luke’s gospel… even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. And the crowds standing there on the shores of the Jordan… their feet still dry… their focus still on how they could save themselves… how they could still be their own god… their own lord and savior… the crowds asked John, “What then shall we do?” And John said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
And Saints… they heard the truth of John’s words. They knew he spoke like the other prophets who still tried to teach them from the pages read in the synagogues every week… and they thought… yes… yes, here is the way that we can save ourselves. We can perform good works which will appease… which will get us on the inside and take away any guilt. We can walk in the shadows of the Pharisees with our good deeds for all to see. We can lift ourselves up with a repentance of our own making… with a repentance that comes with little cost to us but great reward. Self-justified. In control of our paths of piety and purity. Our own selves… our own sense of worthiness there at the center of our own world… a world that we will create… a bubble that will work to let everyone else know what are the requirements of the one true holiness. We will indoctrinate our children with our self-created truth in our homeschools and our universities of limited learning so that they will grow to be exceptional and safe within our bubble. We will twist reality to suit ourselves and claim that everyone who does not see things as we do… they are liars who are hopelessly lost… who only want to destroy our bubble… who only want to tear us down and take what is ours… that we built ourselves with our own two hands without help from anyone. John told us what we had to do in order to be saved… and we have done it… and then some. God saves those who save themselves.
And John said… no. You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
The testimony of John the Baptist in John’s gospel… John… there in the Jordan… John was not the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world… the world as it was. Not the world we wanted to be. Not the worlds as our self-centered, self-created bubbles wished would be. The true light came into the world… into the darkness… to give light… full of grace and truth. Important words. Grace and truth. Not grace and supportive lies. Not grace and fabricated conspiracies. Grace and truth. To all who received him, who believed in his name, this one who would come after John… he gave power to all to become children of God… children who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh… or of the will of man… that’s the important phrase that needs to be repeated… or of the will of man… but of God. Not self at the center. Not self pulling the levers or wielding the power. Not self granting justification or mapping the way of sanctification… but of God… God… always at the center… God always being given the glory.
So in Mark’s gospel, this scene in the Jordan is Jesus being anointed Messiah in the waters of repentance… in grace and in truth. John baptizes with water, but this one will baptize with the Holy Spirit… the same Spirit that descended upon him was the same Spirit that saw that the Word would become flesh and dwell among us. Jesus is anointed by John without fanfare in the Jordan. No one notices as his ministry begins not from somewhere on high… not surrounded by the luxury and splendor of the Temple… not under the watchful eye of the powerful who would seek to use him for their own advantage. A wild prophet speaking the truth of God’s ways… with some water anoints a man standing before him in the river with the same call to repentance… the same call to glorify God and to bear fruit worthy of repentance… to put God at the middle. And the Christ submits and humbles himself and prepares for service by giving the entirety of himself to others so that God will be glorified… so that God’s will will be done… so that God will be at the center of his life. That is God’s call that Jesus answers. That is how Mark tells the story. Jesus will leave this place and go into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan to put the self… to put his own glorification at the center… to set Jesus in conflict with God.
Saints, let us be clear. Our baptisms are signs of what God has already done. Our baptisms are done as a sign that God has claimed us as God’s own, that God has made us God’s children, that God has called us each to ministry… to a life lived by the grace and the truth exhibited by Christ. And God has done this based entirely upon the heart and character of God… not upon our own deservedness. God is at the center… because without God at the center… we’re just wet. We have been baptized by the Holy Spirit not to set ourselves apart from the world but to take that same grace we have been shown into the world. We have been baptized by the Holy Spirit not to lord over others or to glorify ourselves with our own salvific status while condemning others… but to humble ourselves to serve others as Christ serves… the fruit of the Spirit defining our path forward. Amen.