(Preached at St. John’s UMC on 8/18/2013. Immediately following the sermon we responded to the proclaimed Word through participating in a Baptismal Remembrance)
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Why Does Baptism Matter?
He sat silently in his office staring at the phone. Minutes passed and the moonlight continued to spill across his desk until he mustered up the courage to dial the number. The man was well respected in the community, owned the local hardware store, and he was a good Christian who regularly attended the local Methodist church. For years he had listened to pastors preach from the bible, he had helped as an usher for longer than he could remember, and felt that he was fulfilling his Christian obligations. That was until 6th months previous when the preacher talked about baptism from the pulpit. Now the man had heard this sermon before: “Baptism is our way of being incorporated in the body of Christ, into the church. We baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit because Jesus commanded us to.” He had heard the message time and time again and frankly he didn’t see the point, if he was doing everything else the bible said he needed to, why should he get baptized?
For whatever reason he could not stop thinking about that sermon in the coming days, weeks, and months. His mind began to wander at work and at church. He neglected his obligations to perform usher duties and eventually he stopped attending church all together. The pastor had known for years that the man was not baptized, and had made a point to bring it up with him after Sunday services when they would shake hands. This went on for sometime until he eventually gave up. So when he received a phone call late one night with the man’s fervent breath on the other end of the phone, baptism was the furthest thing from his mind. So he gathered his belongings and rushed to the hardware store.
“I can’t describe it Reverend,” the man said while keeping his eyes affixed to the ground. “I never understood it, the whole baptism thing. I mean I’ve seen you up there with babies and grown men and women pouring water over their heads and I’ve always wondered: what’s the point?” The preacher scratched at his dropping eyelids and kept listening. “The problem is, I don’t understand it, but for whatever reason I know that its time for me to be baptized. I’ve been siting here all night alone and God told me its time.” “That’s fantastic!” the pastor responded, “we can have your baptism at the beginning of the service on Sunday.” “No” he said, “we’ve got to do it right now. I’ve waited far too long.”
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So begins the gospel according to St. Mark. This particular gospel is unique because it is short, direct, and unreserved in its descriptions of the life of Jesus Christ. When we discover Jesus in Mark’s gospel we are getting the real deal, nothing watered down, just straight up good news. Of the four, it’s my favorite. I love how Jesus confronts his disciples, and us, throughout the pages with their inability to recognize who he is. They witnesses miracles, healing, teachings, and divine interventions yet they continually stumble while trying to follow their Lord.
So here we are at the beginning. Mark begins by announcing that this is the beginning of the good news in order to remind the reader that, like the book of Genesis (which also means beginning), God is about to start something new. Just like God calmed the chaos in the first moments of creation, God will definitively change the world through coming in the form of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptizer, the camel hair-wearing cousin of Jesus, is out in the wilderness preaching about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from all over the place start going out to him, from the Judean countryside and even some Jerusalemites. They all gather at the edge of the river Jordan and are baptized by John confessing their sins. Mark even gives us the details about John’s outfit and eating habits; at first it might seem like insignificant details, or facts that just add to the craziness of this man in the wilderness, but this is important. John is clothed in the attire of a prophet, different from everyone else. And here he is as a prophet calling the nation of Israel to repentance through a symbolic cleansing.
John is achieving something remarkable; he has succeeded in bringing a wayward people toward repentance and thus reorienting their lives in such a way as to be acceptable to God. So as the people gather on the banks of the water John addresses them: “There is someone coming after me, he is far more powerful. You think I’ve done something great? This guy coming later, I’m not even worthy to untie the straps of his sandals. Yes, I have baptized all of you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”
And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately as he was coming up from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a tremendous voice came from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Why does baptism matter? This is a question often flung around in churches and denominational disputes. If we do all of the things that the bible asks of us, why do we need to be cleansed by the waters of baptism? Why do we need to baptize babies? Have they truly sinned when they are only weeks old? Why would an unbaptized participating Christian need to participate in this sacrament?
Baptism matters because we are who God says we are.
When we examine the beauty of Jesus’ baptism as recorded in the gospel of Mark we get a glimpse of what God does with each one of us when we’re baptized: The Holy Spirit, a new creation, we are named.
Before the baptism even takes place John announces what Jesus will do: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Within Jesus’ life the Spirit is present in abundance: The Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism (1.9) and drives him into the wilderness to be tempted (1.12). Jesus casts our demons by the power of the Holy Spirit (3.22) and promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit will tell them what to say when they are brought to trial (13.11). We are baptized with the same Spirit that abided with Jesus throughout his life.
And immediately coming up from the water, he saw the heavens ripped apart. In other translations it says “he saw the heaven parting” (NKJV) or “he saw heaven open up” (New Life Version) but the Greek says: εἶδεν σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς literally, “he saw the heavens being ripped apart.” The use of the word σχιζομένους is particularly important considering the imagery that is attached with it. The word appears only one other time in the entirety of Mark: it is used to describe the Temple curtain being ripped apart at the moment Jesus died on the cross. In both circumstances what had been long sealed is suddenly flung open. This is the signal of a new creation, whatever was has been changed for good. God has ripped apart the heavens to declare Jesus as “the Beloved.” Every time we baptize, whenever someone is in Jesus Christ, there is a new creation.
In might seem paradoxical, but, in no Gospel is the humanity of Jesus more apparent, nor his divine authority more striking. In this one moment in Mark 1 all three members of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present with one another affirming both Jesus’ divinity and humanity.
God names Jesus in the baptism; his identity is forever sealed. For us today, the baptism of believers also establishes our identities. Jesus is who God says he is. So also we are who God says we are; in Christ Jesus we are the sons and daughters of God as Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians: “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3.26).
Last year, 40% of United Methodist Churches did not have a new profession of faith. Nearly half of our churches did not welcome a new person into the beauty of what it means to be the body of Christ. This number is perhaps higher than we might anticipate because many of us were baptized as children and only become true disciples/members later in life in confirmation or a personal profession of faith. But when we encounter the truth of God’s holy Word in Mark 1 we are to be held accountable to our own baptisms. What we have here, this church, the Word of God, the sacraments, the relationships, they are worth sharing with the world. They are greater than any treasure on earth because they sustain, they nurture, and they are eternal.
The text of Jesus’ baptism meets us where we are and allows us to encounter the Lord in the emptiness of our own lives. We get to hear the voice of a rough yet incredible prophet named John who calls all of us to turn around and accept the greater baptism of a risen Lord. It encourages us to experience Christ in a powerful and personal way. It gives us the space to start again and find newness in our lives.
And so there, huddled in the twilight of the hardware store, two grown men knelt on the faded carpet. The preacher took water from an ordinary coffee cup and ran it through his fingers, “Holy Spirit, bless this gift of water, use it to wash away his sin, clothe him in righteousness throughout his life, that, dying and being raised with Christ, he may share in the final victory.” And with three slow movements of his hand onto the man’s head, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Most of the time that we think about baptism we picture the perfect family standing at the front of the church with their baby in white, a clumsy pastor trying to hold the child and say all of the right words, and smiles and happiness throughout the congregation.
Most of the time that we witness baptisms we think its all about that baby or that family up at the front, but truly I tell you baptism has little to do with us, and everything to do with God. As one of my pastors once said, “Baptism is God’s way of saying yes to us.” You might’ve been baptized as a baby, or chose to later in life, or maybe you’re not even baptized but when the water is poured over someone’s head it is all about God. In that moment God names us, he declares triumphantly: “you are my child.”
God exists neither next to us nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us and, most important of all, for us. He is our God not only as Lord but also as father, brother, friend; this relationship is seen so clearly in Jesus’ baptism, and every time someone is incorporated through water into the body of Christ. What a great God we have, the one who created the heavens and the earth, entered into covenant with his servant Abraham, wrestled Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, called Moses from the burning bush, delivered his people Israel from captivity, sustained the nation through the judges and prophets, anointed the kings to lead his people, became incarnate in Jesus Christ, saved the world by dying on a cross, and was resurrected three days later.
Why does baptism matter? It matters because we are who God says we are: his children.