Sunday, January 14, 2024

Baptism of Jesus

“The Face of the Waters” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Genesis 1:1-5, NRSVUE)

Gospel Reading   (Mark 1:4-11, NRSVUE)

Many years ago, Val and I lived in the small city of Weehawken, New Jersey. For those of you who don’t happen to know much about the New York metropolitan area, Weehawken lies on the west bank of the Hudson River opposite Midtown Manhattan, much of it atop the southern end of the tall cliffs known as the Palisades.

Weehawken is only about three quarters of a mile square, but it has an outsized reputation for several reasons: it has unobstructed panoramic vistas of the New York skyline; it is the home of the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel; it is the place where Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had their infamous duel; and the rents there are a whole lot cheaper than those across the river.

Weehawken has a lot going for it, but it isn’t exactly a nature lover’s paradise; in fact, it is about as built up as a town could possibly be, with people clamoring for the good commutes and million dollar views that its prime location affords. And so when the natural world drops in and reminds you of it’s presence there, which it does every once in a great while, you can’t help but take notice.

Val found this out one spring morning when she was taking our dog Jessie for a walk. Jessie was a ten year-old Cairn Terrier who was as sweet and non-threatening as dog could possibly be. And while we understood that, the bird who had taken up residence in a tree down the block didn’t understand that.

I say this because, the instant that Val and Jessie rounded the corner into what this bird saw as it’s territory, it swooped down from it’s perch screeching, and got uncomfortably close to them before abruptly changing course and darting back up to the tree.

For several months we tried to steer clear of the area — whether Jessie was with us or not. Any time we happened to drift a little too close to the aforementioned tree, the bird up there would squawk — and we’d quickly move on because we didn’t want to get dive-bombed again.

At the end of the day, we didn’t really know why the bird was doing this. Did it feel threatened? Was it trying to protect a nest full of babies? Did it have anger management issues? Its hard to say, but you can’t really blame the poor creature — we saw it’s aggressive actions as an encroachment on our territory, but this little bird was convinced that we were invading it’s space. It just a question of perspective, I suppose.

The surprising intensity with which this tiny, winged resident of Weehawken made its presence known definitely got our attention — setting us on edge, disrupting our routines, and making us stop and think about what we were doing. And this experience is what came to mind for me when I was reading and thinking about Mark’s account of Jesus’s baptism.

As our passage for today begins, John appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People have come from far and wide to the banks of the River Jordan to confess their sins and to be baptized by this strange man —

this man who wears clothes made out of camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey,

this man who says he’s not even fit to tie the sandals of the one who will come after him (who, of course, is Jesus).

If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it should — we heard the beginning verses of this story about a month ago, on the second Sunday of Advent.

What we didn’t hear then, though, were the final three verses that appear in today’s reading, the ones that speak of Christ’s arrival on the scene, not at the time of his birth but decades later, at the time of his baptism.

Mark certainly doesn’t waste any time here; by the end of the first eleven verses of his Gospel, we’ve already encountered John, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God — the final three in the span of just three verses.  

“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,’” is how Mark wraps-up the opening section.

This is, it’s worth noting, a very different beginning to Christ’s story than we see in either Matthew or Luke. There’s no sweet baby Jesus lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes here;

there’s no twinkling star in the sky guiding those who wish to pay homage to the cute little newborn king here;

there’s no kind Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh here;

in fact, there’s no Christmas story all here.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is probably well into his thirties by the time we actually get to meet him, and the description of his first appearance is incredibly matter-of-fact: we’re told simply that he comes from Nazareth in Galilee to the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John.

We won’t even hear a word out of Jesus’s own mouth for a little while yet; in today’s reading, John talks and the voice from heaven talks, but Jesus is conspicuously silent.

After he is baptized, Jesus heads out into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Upon his return, after John was arrested, Jesus arrives in Galilee and only then finally speaks, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

There’s that word again: repent.

The Greek word metanoia, the one that our Bible’s translate as repent, means to change one’s mind, to see things from a different perspective.

John’s and Jesus’s use of the word, though, points to something far bigger, because the perspective from which they are calling us to see things is God’s.

Indeed, the entire gospel story — the life and death and resurrection of Jesus — invites us to consider how God would actually live as one of us if God were one of us. The example of Jesus encourages us to go and do likewise, to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, even though these things aren’t always easy to do.

As Christians, of course, we often speak about God as Trinity, God as one in three and three in one; God as Parent, Son and Spirit; God as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer — frame it how you choose. In today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel we meet Jesus and we hear from God. But this story also reminds us of the abiding — and sometimes uncomfortable — presence of the Holy Spirit.

As soon as Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.

Now I won’t speak for you, but for me the appearance of the dove has always conjured up an image of the Holy Spirit meekly and silently gliding down to earth from above — and this kind of makes sense because, for whatever reason, the dove has evolved into a symbol of peace.

But Mark’s description of the torn apart heavens seems kind of inconsistent with a sweet and gentle depiction of the Holy Spirit, and so I can’t help but wonder whether the dove in this story might actually be a bit more like that little bird we used run into on the streets of Weehawken — that is to say, surprisingly fierce and determined as it takes flight.

That bird, for all it’s bluster, for all it’s fierceness and determination, wasn’t actually trying to hurt us; but it was trying to change our way of seeing the world around us (or at least the little corner of it that we happened to share) and encouraging us to alter our behavior. And it’s unexpected behavior definitely got our attention.

It seems like God might be doing something similar here, calling upon the Holy Spirit to swoop down from the torn-apart heavens in order to get our attention.

From time to time, God has dependably sent us such messengers — often from society’ margins — in order to provoke us into seeing things in a new way;

to shove us out of our comfortable, familiar places;

to impel us to act differently;

to draw our focus the gospel;

to remind us to welcome God’s Spirit into our lives as Jesus once did;

to call upon us to make justice and righteousness a reality for all people everywhere;

and to make clear to us, in no uncertain terms,

that truly welcoming God’s Spirit will mean living lives that are not only joyful, but also challenging and even uncomfortable sometimes.

You know, much John the Baptist’s life was,

much like Dr. King’s life was,

much like Jesus’s life was.