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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 14, 2018 — Baptism of Jesus Sunday

Mark 1:4-11


The first verse of Mark’s gospel, a few lines before the section we heard this morning, says this:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  It’s a sort of title, or topic sentence, or description of what is to come in the course of the next 16 chapters.

But then, when the story actually begins, as we heard today, it begins not with Jesus, but with John the Baptist.  It begins with that iconic prophetic misfit, hanging out in the wilderness, far from civilized society, wearing a hair shirt and a leather belt, eating locusts and honey, preaching about repentance, about change, preparing the way for Jesus.

For the original hearers of Mark’s gospel, and for the people who made their way out to the banks of the river to see John with their own eyes, it would have been clear that the story didn’t begin with him, either.  Everything about John the Baptist—his dress, his diet, his lifestyle, his message, his very presence—was a reminder of a prophet who came before (nine centuries before, to be precise):  the prophet Elijah.  Elijah was an important Israelite prophet who was said to have performed healings and miracles, and who spent a great deal of time in the wilderness, and who called the king and the people to repentance and transformation.

For the original hearers of Mark’s gospel, and for the people who experienced the ritual of baptism that John offered, it would have been clear that the story didn’t begin with that, either.  Everything about that ritual of baptism was a reminder of other watery crossings that had come before:  the Israelites wading across the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land; Moses leading his people through the parted waters of the Red Sea as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.  And those watery crossings were reminders of another watery event that had come before, way before, all the way back at the very beginning, when God’s Spirit moved over the face of the deep and brought forth life.

The Gospel of Mark announces right up front that this is the “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”  But important as he is, the story doesn’t begin with Jesus, for the way was prepared for him before he arrived on the scene.  The story doesn’t begin with John the Baptist, for the way was prepared before him, too.  The story doesn’t begin with Elijah, or with Moses.  The story begins with God.

It is an eternal story, a never-ending story—the story of new life where all seems dead, the story of hope in the midst of despair, the story of freedom for the captives, springs in the desert, food for the hungry, justice for the oppressed, the world transformed, all things made new.  It is a story that rolls down like the waters of a mighty stream.

It is this eternal, never-ending story—this inexorable, ever-flowing river—into which Jesus stepped at the moment of his baptism, the moment recounted in today’s reading, when the heavens opened up and the Spirit came down and God cried out, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus joined a story, a river, a movement that was populated by John the Baptist, by Elijah, by Moses, a story that did not begin with him but went all the way back to the very, very beginning, all the way back to God giving birth to the world.

It is this eternal, never-ending story—this inexorable, ever-flowing river—into which so many others have stepped over the years, the decades, the centuries, the millennia.  This story includes the earliest followers of Jesus and those who are just dipping their toes into the waters of faith today.  This river washes over disciples whose names are known to millions, and those whose names are known to you, and those whose names are known only to God.

It is this eternal, never-ending story—this inexorable, ever-flowing river—into which every Christian steps at the moment of their baptism.  It is what gives each of you, each of us, our most important name:  Beloved.  It is what gives each of you, each of us, our most important identity:  Child of God.  It is what gives each of you, each of us, our most important responsibility:  to partner with God in nothing less than the transformation of the world.

Sometimes I think it would be more appropriate if we had, not the innocuous little dish of still water that fits inside our beautiful baptismal font, but Cargill Falls, or the Grand Canyon, or the Maine Coast—something that would remind us of the tremendous power of water.  For we are baptized into a great tide of love and justice that will not stop until it erodes all that stands in its way, until it washes clean all that tarnishes God’s creation, until it floods the whole earth with its all-transforming, life-giving, heart-changing power.

In baptism, we become part of the same story with Dr. King, whose life and legacy we honor tomorrow—and of all who continue his work for racial and economic justice, all the more necessary today, as racist ideas are enshrined in national policy and racist rhetoric is spoken unapologetically in the broad light of day, in the highest offices of the land.

In baptism, we are carried along by the same spirit that inspired this congregation, 15 years ago this month, to proclaim itself Open & Affirming, celebrating the presence and leadership of our LGBT siblings—all the more necessary today, as the rights and dignity of same-sex couples and transgender persons are still a matter of debate in the public sphere.

In baptism, we are united with Mother Teresa and Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu and Bayard Rustin and Antoinette Brown.  And with my grandma Ruth, whose name will never be in a history book, but who shared the love she knew from God with 3rd grade students and church school children and me.  And with the beloved ones who shared their faith with you, whose names and faces are engraved in your mind, whose influence dwells deep in your heart.

Yes, baptism makes us part of something so much bigger than our individual lives, part of the movement of God’s Spirit that has been stirring in this world from the very beginning, working through people like Moses and Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus, you and me and all who will come after us.  It makes us who we are:  God’s children, beloved and blessed, called to a purpose holy and high.

So in just a moment, I will invite you to come forward to remember (or imagine) your baptism, and take your place in the unfolding story of God’s love come to earth.  If you are already baptized, this is not double-dipping—the first time was enough, for God’s love cannot be undone.  If you are not yet baptized, or if you are not Christian, this is not a stealthy way of catching you unawares—the waters of grace extend far beyond the bounds of any human institution, religion certainly included.

Please come forward up the side aisles and use the center aisle to return to your seat.  As you come forward to be reminded of God’s love for you, I invite you to call to mind about all those with whom you are united by this sacrament—the ones who prepared the way for you; and the ones whose way you are, in turn, preparing; and the One whose love is the unstoppable power that prepares a way for each of us to live a life of wholeness, of compassion, of mercy, of justice, of joy—a life of unity with God, with all people, with all creation.

Here in the font there are a variety of stones.  Reach into the water and choose one.  You can carry it in your pocket, keep it in the cup holder of your car, put it on your desk at work or by your kitchen sink, wherever it will best serve as a reminder of who you are, to whom you belong, and who you are called to be.

Come now, and remember.



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