Sermon for 1-7-18; Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. Maggie Leidheiser-Stoddard
Gospel – Mark 1:4-11
Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.[i]”
I’m not sure I’m ready. We celebrated Christ’s birth exactly two weeks ago. He was a baby two weeks ago! We were singing “Away in a Manger” and meditating on our infant savior wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feeding trough… and today he’s 30 years old and being baptized by his cousin John. From newborn to 30 in 14 days – why the rush? It feels unnatural.
I want to know what it was like for his young mother – how did teenage Mary feel when her toddler son took his first steps and became mobile? I want to know about the relationship between the 7 or 8-year-old Jesus and his earthly dad, Joseph the carpenter – was Joseph teaching his son the tools of his trade? And what about 20-something Jesus, the adult Savior who had not yet begun his public ministry – what was he like?
We don’t know. The Bible tells us very little about our Lord before his baptism. The Gospel of Mark is the second book in the New Testament canon, but scholars believe it to be the oldest of the four Gospels. This morning’s reading, which describes Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River, is his first appearance in Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel has no baby in a manger, no choirs of angels… this baptism account is the closest we get to a birth narrative. There’s no physical birth in this story, of course, but there is a spiritual birth, a beginning, a revelation – on this day Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Anointed One, and his ministry is born. For us, then, the Baptism of our Lord is the perfect meeting of incarnation and sanctification – it’s part Christmas, part Pentecost, and all holy.
The people who witnessed this baptism so long ago had no idea what was in store for Jesus – the teaching and preaching, the healing, the miracles, the controversy, the accusations, the death, and the victory over death – at the moment of Christ’s baptism, all that lay ahead. The ministry that began on this day in the waters of the Jordan River would last only three short years; and through that ministry, Jesus would save us all from bondage to sin and fear and death.
Perhaps you have a friend or acquaintance who has seemed to accomplish so much so quickly; a person to whom you compare yourself (even though you know you shouldn’t) and whose achievements are offensively impressive… the kid who set the curve on every test, the colleague who gets every accolade without appearing to put forth any special effort… our Lord himself is the ultimate example of this sky-high achiever. If we were to lay three years’ worth of our own words and deeds next to his three-year ministry, we might sorrowfully conclude that we were worthless worms, uselessly wallowing in the dirt… that is, of course, if Jesus himself had not told us of our infinite worth. Through the brief ministry which began on the day of his baptism, our Savior healed the sick and fed the hungry, welcomed the outcasts and comforted the brokenhearted, challenged the structures of wealth and power and lifted up the oppressed, rescued the condemned, and showed us all that we are good and worthy and beloved. And he did it in three years.
Those three years that changed the course of history and renewed our intimacy with the Divine began in the moment our Lord emerged from the waters of the Jordan. His baptism was a pivotal moment, a great beginning, a rebirth. You and I were born (or reborn) on the day of our baptism, whether we knew it or not. The little ones we baptize here will be reborn at the font this morning. This new birth is a moment of anointing, of recognition, of holy membership and reorientation. The waters of Christ’s baptism offer us a “sea change” (no pun intended). We leave behind the ways of sin and fear and death and join a communion of peace and hope and eternal life. The Spirit’s action upon us at our baptism is profound, and mysterious, and sanctifying. In baptism we are united with the saints and made holy. This is undoubtedly good news for these little ones about to be baptized and their families.
But what about those of us who are just a bit older? What are we to do, if we were baptized long ago, if we have been sanctified in those holy waters, if we have our membership in the communion of saints, and yet we find ourselves troubled, or aimless, or lacking in spirit? What if something is missing? What if something is not right?
My friends, here is more good news: every day, every moment offers us the possibility of conversion and new beginnings. These offers are both large and small, formal and informal, and they come in many guises – a new job, or a new neighbor, or a new prayer practice; an illness, or a polar vortex, or a broken heart – or perhaps just another new day. Conversion of life is possible in times of triumph or tragedy or normal routine. Whatever our particular circumstance, we all have (with a little help from the Holy Spirit) the power to remake ourselves in and of Christ.
Listen to these words from my current favorite spiritual thinker, the German preacher and healer Christoph Blumhardt, written in 1915:
“Brothers and sisters, break free from whatever ruts you have settled into! Whoever does not want to be set free – well, suit yourself – but don’t say you are living in Christ’s spirit. You can live in Christianity but not in Christ, the gulf between the two is great. You can settle down and feather your nest and think ‘Now I’ve got it made,’ but you’ll never win eternity. That is something altogether different… We seek the future city – the one God sets before our eyes – of which Christ is ruler.[ii]”
Every day, every moment offers new possibilities for making Christ alone the ruler of our lives.
Not money, not power, not praise;
Not security, not strength, not prestige;
Not luxury, not achievement, not self-satisfaction;
Not any of these things, nor any other, but Christ alone.
If we accept these offers, then we choose to make his way of peace and compassion, mercy and solidarity, reverence and extravagant love our way. If we do this at work and at play, in stillness and in chaos, in laughter and in tears, then we will know ourselves to be reborn and renewed and redeemed. And if we can quiet our hearts and minds and listen closely enough in those moments of holy renewal, we may hear the voice of God speaking words that our souls long to hear:
“You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Amen.
[i] Mark 1:11 NRSV