January 11, 2015
I consider today to be a hard-to-preach Sunday. I don’t say that because of the texts before us, but because this is a feast day. On any feast day, whether it is Christmas, Easter, the Transfiguration or the Baptism of the Lord, it’s hard not to wonder what I can say that could possibly be any different than what I said last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. Or the year before … well, you get the picture.
The Biblical scholars that I refer to on a regular basis say that when it comes to feast days, such as this one, a wise preacher preaches the text, not the feast. That is sage advice. Except the text we have before us in Mark’s gospel is about Jesus being baptized. So it would seem that preaching the text is remarkably similar to preaching the feast. What to do?
When I’m struggling to write a sermon, I take my questions to friends and family. Perhaps talking through the text will give me a spark of inspiration. This time I asked a good friend about his baptism. He’d told me once before that he was baptized in the last several years, rather than as a youth. He grew up in a denomination, as I did, that emphasized believer’s baptism. Although he expressed an interest in baptism when he was young, he didn’t pursue it. As I understand it, he didn’t put it off because of theological reasons or lack of belief. It’s just that the older he got the idea of getting in front of people and being baptized was a bit unnerving. He finally reached the point when it seemed strange not to be baptized so he approached his preacher and asked about taking this step. As he told me, the denomination he was involved with believed that baptism was a necessity for salvation. So the sooner he was baptized the better. But it was not necessary for him to be baptized in a worship service. His baptism happened on an afternoon.
That was the only aspect of his particular story that I questioned. In our tradition, whether we are baptized as infants or believers, we strongly believe that we are baptized into a congregation, into a community of faith. Baptism outside of a worship service is a strange concept to me. If I were to do this, I would definitely be breaking some denominational “rules.” When I expressed my concern about this to him, he said, “Well, Amy, do you think God cares?” My immediate and honest response was, “No. I don’t think God cares.”
My friend’s question and my answer led me back to our text from Mark’s gospel. What does Mark actually say about the baptism of Jesus? Is Mark outlining a doctrine or describing a significant event in the life of Jesus?
Mark’s gospel, from his first word to his last, is urgent. A fact that I’ve pointed out before is that the Greek word translated as “immediately,” is used at least 42 times throughout the gospel. Again, this conveys a sense of urgency. There is no time to waste. Jesus is here. The Son of God is in our midst. The kingdom of God is upon us. That’s what Jesus preached and taught. The kingdom of God is upon us. Now. Immediately. This immediacy means that not only does Mark not give us a birth story for Jesus; he also does not give us a backstory about John the Baptizer. With that familiar urgency, John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness. Does this mean he was traveling from someplace else and stopped in the wilderness? Was he born there? Did he grow up in the wilderness? Was he orphaned and raised by the animals there? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he appeared and was preaching and practicing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His message must have struck a nerve with people, because folks were flocking to him in droves from across the countryside of Judea and from all of Jerusalem. However John was not baptizing them and being done with it. As he baptized he preached.
“I’m baptizing you with water, but there is someone coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” As one preacher put it, John may get them wet, but the One who is coming will light a fire under them.
In the midst of this Jesus came to be baptized. Mark’s account has some significant differences from Matthew and Luke. John and Jesus do not converse. John does not protest Jesus being baptized by him. As in the other gospels, when Jesus rose out of the water, the heavens were opened. A dove descended. A voice was heard. But in Mark’s telling, only Jesus witnessed these things. He saw the sky split open. He saw the Holy Spirit like a dove descending. He heard God’s voice. “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Another interesting aspect about Mark’s version is that the sky did not just open, it was torn apart. The Greek word used here is schizo. You might have already guessed that we get words such as schism and schizophrenia from this word. Mark uses it only one other time. When Jesus hung from the cross and took his final breath, the curtain of the temple – that barrier that separated God from the people – is schizo. It was torn apart. Two preachers commenting on this made the same point. What is opened can be closed again. But what is torn apart is not so easily put back together.
God does not merely open the heavens when Jesus is baptized. The sky is torn apart. God breaks in and there is no return. The barriers that once separated God from us are gone. When Jesus was baptized, God rushed in.
Mark’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is not merely about a sweet moment. It is wild. It is dramatic. It is vivid. Seeing it in this light makes me wonder if I’ve been asking the wrong question on this particular feast day. It makes me wonder if I’ve been asking the wrong question about baptism all along.
Usually the question I ask of baptism – of Jesus’s baptism and of our own – is what does it mean? What does it mean to be baptized? Recounting the symbolism of baptism is easy. Jesus was baptized as an example for his followers, for us. When we are baptized, especially through immersion, we die and rise with Christ. In infant baptism, we emphasize that God’s grace is working in our lives whether we know it or not. We make promises at our baptisms, or they are made for us. We affirm our faith at our baptisms, or it is affirmed on our behalf. All of this is good. I believe that all of this is true. But I still think that another question needs to be asked. Perhaps the question is not so much about what our baptism means as it is what are we baptized to do?
Jesus’ baptism was not an end in itself. It was a beginning. In the next moment after God praised him and confirmed his identity as his Son, Jesus was driven into the wilderness. The moment he left the wilderness, his public ministry began. The skies were torn apart at his baptism, and so was his life. He was baptized not just to be God’s Son, but he was baptized to do God’s work. He was baptized to fulfill the prophets’ words, to show the hands of God in the world, to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was and is here. He was baptized to do.
What are we baptized to do? Whether we are baptized as infants or as older believers, whether we are immersed in a pool or sprinkled at a font, our baptism does not only symbolize our adoption as God’s children and our faith that God is working in our lives; it is a call to action. It is a call to a new way of living. It is a call to do as much as it is a call to be. It may seem that our baptisms are just a small splash of water – on our heads, on our bodies – but it seems to me that with our baptisms the heavens are torn apart once again. There is no going back, no easy mending of what has been torn. To be baptized is to be changed. Even if we don’t know it, remember it, or understand it. To be baptized is to be changed, and it is to be called to do. What are we baptized to do? Are we baptized to preach, to proclaim, to heal, to serve, to teach, to sing, to pray? What are we baptized to do?
That is my question. I ask it of myself, and I ask it of you. When you think of your baptism, yes even those who were baptized as infants can still think of their baptism, what do you believe it has called you to do? It was just a small splash of water, but that small splash changed everything.
What has your baptism called you to do?
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.