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Friday, January 6, 2012

The first Sunday after the Epiphany

Chinese artist He Qi depicts the baptism of Jesus.

"Baptize me, who am destined to baptize those who believe on me with water, and with the Spirit, and with fire: with water, capable of washing away the defilement of sins; with the Spirit, capable of making the earthly spiritual; with fire, naturally fitted to consume the thorns of transgressions. On hearing these words, the Baptist directed his mind to the object of the salvation, and comprehended the mystery which he had received, and discharged the divine command; for he was at once pious and ready to obey."

"On the Holy Theophany Or On Christ's Baptism," (4th of Four Homilies) by Gregory Thaumaturgus (3rd century).

Prayer

Lord our God, O Holy One of Israel, to the waters you call all those who thirst, to the feast of your covenant you invite all the nations.  As once at the Jordan your Spirit tore open the heavens, and your voice proclaimed Jesus your well-beloved sons and daughters; lead us by your Spirit through the water and the blood, that our love for you may strengthen us to obey your commandments, and our love for one another be the victory that forever conquers the world.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.


Some Thoughts on Mark 1:4-11
We are now heading into the season which follows the Episcopal Church's celebration of Epiphany.  The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally the Baptism of our Lord, and the reading is taken from the Gospel for that year. As such then we see that the baptism narrative is taken from the Gospel of Mark. It actually has three parts to it. The first part is the preaching of John.  The second part is the baptism itself. The third portion is Jesus' vision.

The beginning of our reading today falls in the very earliest of passages in Mark's Gospel and it includes the tail end of John's preaching and flows easily into the baptism of Jesus.  John the Baptist is preaching that the "strong man" is coming.  The combination of Greek words and how Mark opens his narrative make it unmistakeably clear that Jesus is the eschatological (end time) figure that Israel has been waiting to arrive. John's ministry has been to prepare the people and to be a moniker of the signalling the Lord's arrival.  In language and clothing he appears as a voice heralding a new time and a new mission. (You might refer to the post for the second Sunday of Advent to read more about this part of our passage.  You may also want to read Joel Marcus' work on Mark, page 163, specifically.)

The baptism of Jesus implies that perhaps Jesus was a follower of John the baptist. Such ideas and wrestlings with who baptizes who are age old and should not take away from the idea that the incarnation, God in human form, comes and is present with us and that he himself is baptized.  I find myself drawn less to the idea of authority and whose student was whose and ever more closely invited to see that as John proclaimed there is a new Way being formed. There is a new structure to the world being made.  Jesus and his baptism, like our own baptism is a part of that structure.

The action takes place on the edges of society, in the wilderness, not in the safety of sacred space. And, the act itself challenges us to ask were are we as a church doing the work of baptism?  Where are we doing the work of heralding a new structure and a new Way to the world? Are we locked away where only a few can hear or are we out in the world, on the edges, inviting and encouraging people to see that there is a different way a new and every revealed way of being the kingdom of God?

The third part of the narrative today, following the proclamation and baptism, is the vision.  Reading through the scriptures we might remember or rediscover Isaiah 64:1-2:

Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down
to make known your name to your enemies,
and make the nations tremble at your presence,
working unexpected miracles
such as no one has ever heard before.
The images that are before us also remind us (I think intentionally) of the deliverance of Israel from the army of Pharaoh through the waters of the Red Sea.  Certainly, this is part of our own baptismal liturgy.  But we know what is coming next... Jesus is to go into the desert wilderness for a time of temptation. 

The baptism is the launching of Jesus' ministry. It is the first corner stone of the new structure. It is the first step along the way for every Christian.  It is a movement through the waters from sin and imprisonment to freedom and life eternal.  There is another image here which is rooted in scripture and repeated in our baptismal formula and that is the death of Jesus on the cross.
Like bookends the beginning of the Gospel offers a vision of the end, wherein here at the baptism the heavens are ripped apart, the spirit descends, and God pronounces that this is his Son.  We can compare this to the temple curtain which is ripped apart, Jesus breathing his spirit out, and the centurion making his proclamation. (Donald Juel, Mark, 34-35)  Just as Jesus is baptized here in the waters of the Jordan so does every Christian man, woman and child find their baptism at the cross of Christ.
Today as you look out over your congregation you will see a group of people who more than likely believe that the government is not way it was meant to work, that power rests in the hands of the most wealthy people in the country, and that the current state of politics promises no change. They sit there also with the knowledge that they work hard and help their community and their neighbors; as do most Christians which Pew research says make up the majority of those who give time and treasure for this work.  They are also worried about their future economically and they are concerned about who will take care of them. The holidays are over.  Many have returned from vacation needing a vacation and the promises of what the shopping season promised are not what they expected.

It is a lie to pretend that our world mirrors the wilderness world in which John made his proclamation or Jesus was baptized.  We live lives in the Episcopal Church that are foreign to most of the people in the rest of the world.  It seems to me there are two very real places though in this gospel that hit right in the heart of where most folks are.  The Gospel today recognizes that the world is not the kingdom of God and a new time is before us in this instance to turn, change, and make things different.  We are the inheritors of God's vision and we are the ones who by walking the Way of Jesus make so transform the world around us that we shall in the days to come experience something new and different.  We are a part of this building, Jesus is the cornerstone and we are the living stones being built up into the kingdom of God.

The second thing is this. In a world where not belonging is the norm and secret boundaries divide people clarity about living in the family of God and how you become a member is Good News.  Most places you will not be told how to belong. Most places you will not have the opportunity to be invited to be a part.  The "in" crowd is small and not many people are sharing the secret entrance rites.  But in the family of God everyone is a member.  In fact the moment a person recognizes the Grace of God moving in their lives they are "in."  Baptism is the public rite of initiation which reminds them and the church that they are already God's sacred possession. They are God's sons or daughters, they are God's beloved, they are the ones upon whom Jesus breathed the breath of life and for whom Jesus died on the cross.  Baptism is the clear sign that reminds us (not God) that we are his people and the sheep of his hand.

That my friend in the wilderness of this world is VERY Good News.


A Little Bit for Everyone




4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:4-11

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