Baptism of Our Lord--Letting it Rip
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Baptism of Our Lord, Year B: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
One of the things that always amazes me about the Gospel according to Mark is how forcefully we are thrust right into the middle of the action without a moment’s notice. Matthew’s got his genealogy and flight into Egypt, Luke his songs, canticles, annunciation, and visitation, John his cosmically poetic, philosophical meditation on the logos, but Mark just starts right in—we are plopped into the wilderness with old camel-haired, bug-munching John the Baptist.
Some folks like to suggest that Mark is somehow unartful, primitive, and not much of a story-teller. The immediacy of the opening is read as crude, and ham-fisted, as if Mark lacked the sophistication to come up with a better lead-in (what I call the “dark and stormy night” school of Markan interpretation). But this way approaching the opening of Mark’s gospel misses the point of what Mark is actually, and quite skillfully, trying to show us by beginning in the middle of the action (in media res). Mark is all about the decisive, earth-shattering thing God is doing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Like a children’s pageant in which the curtain is raised a little early before all the players have quite found their places and everyone scrambles into position while adjusting their costumes, Mark’s opening catches us off guard and startles because he wants us to feel how radical this new thing God is doing really is. This isn’t about being ready and prepared (“Places everyone!”), and things humming along as usual. This is about a new kind of creation that takes us all the way back the first day in our Genesis reading. It’s a regime change, the inauguration of a new order of being, a fresh start.
St. Mark the writer is always concerned with keeping us off balance. He knows human beings too well not to expect us to find ways to maintain the status quo and pursue comfort and predictability and avoid the risky adventure of love. That’s why Mark’s Jesus is always such an elusive, enigmatic figure who tells those healed to keep their mouths shut. He heals, but he is not just a healer. He performs miracles, but he is no miracle-worker. That’s why in the “shorter ending” Mark’s Jesus doesn’t come back for reassuring post-resurrection appearances, but leaves us jarringly with the two Marys and Salome fleeing from the empty tomb in “terror and amazement.” Mark’s Jesus is strange, awesome, and other. Mark’s Jesus resists our attempts to domesticate Him and turn him into a plaything of conventional piety. Mark’s Jesus always slips through our fingers and wriggles out from under the conceptual nets we cast in order to contain Him, control Him, and possess Him (which is just another way of forgetting all about Him and His Lordship over us).
Did you pick up on that amazing little detail in verse 10—“And just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him…”? That phrase “torn apart,” from the Greek σχίζω, says it all. It’s the root of the words “schizophrenic” or “schism.” So, for Mark Jesus represents a tear in the fabric, a rapturous rupture in the predictable order of things, a rip that makes room for the Kingdom of God to break forth. It’s no accident that this tearing open, this schism, this break with the old way of doing things takes place in the wilderness. Mark seems to be suggesting a couple of different things.
First, Mark sets us in the wilderness because he knows that we need to come undone in order to be remade. We need to have all the ways we like to have things according to the preferences of our fragile little egos exposed in their dead-endedness for something else to come alive. Deserts, wildernesses, big open spaces have the nasty habit of reminding us how small and constricting the world of our thoughts, judgements, and preferences can be. It takes a while—forty years if you are the Israelites—for the grumbling, the hankering after the glory days, the in-fighting, and temptation to scapegoat someone, anyone, instead of face ourselves, to settle down. Like a muddy pond that gradually settles and becomes clear, wildernesses provide the container for all of our habitual ways of securing ourselves to come to light, and fall away. Lo and behold, we see the God who has been there all along waiting patiently for our temper tantrums to subside.
Second, Mark plops us down in the middle of Timbuktu because he wants to remind us that in the very midst of the various wildernesses of our lives—the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, a difficult diagnosis—God is with us, descends upon us, anoints us. Just as God’s breath tames the chaos, the formless void, of the face of the deep and calls forth life from those roiling waters on the first day of creation, so God’s Spirit is with us no matter how many side-roads and detours we seem to have turned down. In fact, the Baptism of Jesus in the wilderness is a sign for us that before it even occurs to us to ask, seek, or know God, we are already a sought people, we are already a known people, we are already swimming in the healing, cleansing waters of God’s unconditional love.
That, I think, is one of the things we are to make of Jesus’ baptism by John. Remember, Jesus hasn’t done a blessed thing yet. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove is not some kind of merit badge or gold star for good behavior. It is gift—sheer, unmerited, undeserved, uncontrollable gift. And when God pronounces to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” it echoes both the goodness of the creation in the Genesis account, and our own basic goodness as children of God created in God’s image and likeness. Original blessing instead of Original sin. Sometimes, this seems like it’s too good to be true—What do you mean God is well-pleased with me? I gambled away my kids’ college fund, wrecked the car, eat asparagus with my fingers, and have a wandering eye. God can’t be well-pleased with the likes of me! It’s hard for us to allow ourselves to be doused and anointed in God’s unconditional love. It’s hard for us simply to receive this love, to open to it, to yield to it, to let it wash over us. We always want to turn it into a reward for good behavior, something we earned under our own steam, or we resist because our God is one of our own making—grim enforcer rules, keeper of checklists, reminder of requirements, and disher of rewards—instead of the already well-pleased Living God of profligate grace.
So this sudden beginning-in-the-middle by Mark signals to us in the most powerful possible way that from the get go there is no earning, no merit, no storing up, no accumulating in the economy of God’s grace. The Holy Spirit rips through the fabric of that whole false picture of who and how God is. The Holy Spirit drowns out those old voices, those decades-old tape loops that play seemingly without end in the backs of our minds—you’re not good enough, holy enough, smart enough, thin enough, straight enough, rich enough. The voices of conditional love that use good behavior as leverage. Those voices are drowned in a burial at sea in the waters of the Jordan. Coming up for air, we see that those old ways relating to God, to others, and to ourselves, have been torn asunder and that there is a new light shining in the wilderness—the light of being a son or daughter of God, one in whom God is well-pleased.
The whole of the Gospel according to Mark is an unfolding of Jesus’ experience of absolute intimacy with God as Abba, “papa,” “daddy,” that is sacramentally enacted at his baptism. Everything else that happens—the temptations in the desert, the healings, the transfiguration, the headlong rush to the cross, the empty tomb—all of that is grounded in Jesus’ experience of Himself as Son of God. It is from the experience of God as Abba in the depths of his being that all else flows. And so it is with us. It all starts with receiving the graced pronouncement of ourselves as beloved sons and daughters of God. The Baptism of Our Lord is not something that happened to somebody else sometime back in the dusty past, but an expression of an ever-present reality—God’s love for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit rips open our shame, our laziness, our complacency, our hard-heartedness, our propensity for violence, our stinginess, our indulgence in gossip and judgment of others. It washes us clean, not just once, but in every moment.
When we enter the Church through the great doors, we pass the font each time and some folks dip their fingers in holy water and make the sign of the cross. This is not a superstitious or magical bit of medieval piety, but an embodied, intentional reminder of our baptism—we pass through the cleansing waters that remind and make present for us that we are God’s beloved daughter or son. The waters of baptism rinse out our eyes that we might see the world as on the first day of creation—entirely new, entirely good, entirely well-pleasing in God’s sight. Those waters are what help us respect the dignity of each of person, urge us onwards in the building up of the Kingdom, working together for peace, justice, and reconciliation. Knowing ourselves as loved we work to be that love when we leave this place having heard God’s word and having been fed at his table.
There’s one other place in the Gospel according to Mark where the word σχίζω occurs—right the moment of the crucifixion: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” The curtain of the temple is torn in two in the same way that the heavens are ripped apart at the descent of the holy spirit. The curtain of the temple, that divider of all things holy and sacred from all that is impure, and mundane comes down, because that old order of clean and unclean, insider and outsider, sacred and mundane has been destroyed. Those categories go up in smoke like kindling tossed onto the fire of God’s love. The all-inclusive love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has rendered all places holy, and all people worthy of the crown daughter, or son, of God. At the first ripping—it was God who pronounced Jesus as His Son to the people. At the second ripping, it is the outsider, the least likely of all, the one allied with the persecuting, executing imperial powers—the centurion with blood on his hands—who professes Jesus as God’s Son.
The challenge for us is to resist the temptation to get out our needle and thread and mend that rip in the curtain with our needle and thread. Somehow we like curtains, fences, walls better than the unboundaried openness and inclusiveness of the One whose love washes over all people without exception and coos in their ear—you are my daughter, you are my son, you are my beloved. The Baptism of Our Lord is a day when we let it rip—holiness sloshes all over everything and we come up for air with our eyes opened by love, to love, so that we might be love to least of these, even to those centurions in our lives. “And just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”