Sermon: New Life
January 7th, 2018 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Mark 1:1-12, Psalm 29, Genesis 1:1-5
The Beginning: A New Year
Happy New Year! It is 2018! It is a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. In the life of the wider church, we move from the Christmas season to Epiphany (the celebration of the coming of the Magi, the wise men) which was January 6th, and then jump right from that to the celebration of Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry.
This is the Lectionary year that follows Mark’s Gospel for the most part, so let me take a moment to introduce Mark. The writer of the Gospel of Mark is believed to be a young man named John Mark, who was an assistant to the disciple Peter. John Mark traveled with him and recorded Peter’s first-hand recollections and teachings about Jesus. Peter even refers to Mark as “my son” in his letter of 1 Peter. It is not believed that Mark was actually Peter’s son, but that Peter thought of him as a spiritual son. John Mark was also the cousin of Barnabas, and through that connection he traveled with Barnabas and Paul on their missionary journeys.
John Mark seems to have had his feet in two worlds – John is a Hebrew name and his mother had a home in Jerusalem and hosted many Jewish believers in Jesus. Mark is a Greek name, and points to his family connections to landowners on the island of Cyprus, which was part of the Roman Empire. So with this breadth of experience and his skill with languages, Mark then receives inspiration from God’s Spirit to write an account about Jesus, probably encouraged by Peter or Barnabas as well.
There is an ancient church tradition that characterizes each of the four gospel writers with an image that represents their particular style and focus. Mark is represented by a lion. One of the reasons for that is the way Mark starts his book. There is no birth, no Christmas story, no gentle explanation of who Jesus was. Instead Mark leaps right in, like a lion, and declares with a roar, “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” With that introduction, he bounds right to John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism and the start of Jesus’ ministry.
Our heads are spinning already – The beginning? God’s Son? Who is Jesus? Mark’s opening declaration is reminiscent of how the writer of Genesis begins the whole scripture story of God. “In the beginning, God…” “In the beginning, God created…” It makes us wonder if Mark sees the arrival of Jesus like another new beginning, the beginning of a new creation. What kind of new beginning is this? One that is Good News! And without even ending that sentence, without even drawing breath, Mark is roaring out the prophet’s words, “Prepare the way!”
Imagine for a moment that you are sound asleep, you are dreaming of better worlds (given the cold we have endured these past few weeks, it’s probably Florida or Arizona). Suddenly the door bursts open, a bright light shines full in your face and a loud voice breaks in on your dream world saying, “Wake up! Get ready!” Then without any more warning, water is splashed in your face to emphasize the point. It’s time to stop dreaming and enter the most important day of your life. (N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone)
That’s exactly what Mark does with the opening of his Good News story. John the Baptist’s ministry and message was surprising to the Jewish world of the time. They had been dreaming about a sign from God, but John’s message was not what they had expected. The dream of the Jewish people was that God would repeat the rescue that He had done for them in the Exodus, which they celebrated every year with Passover. God had turned their situation of slavery around by bringing them through the water of the Red Sea, through a wilderness time, and into the Promised Land, accompanying them as a cloud and pillar of fire. But over the centuries the people had been forgetful and unfaithful. They had become separated from God. They had been conquered in wars and taken away from their homeland into exile, and even though they had physically returned home, they did not sense the return of God’s presence.
Now John was out in the wilderness, telling the Jewish people that they should not just dream about the Exodus, they should reenact it! John was turning it into a drama and they were to be the cast. They were to turn around, for they were headed in the wrong direction. Repent means turn around. They were to go through the water and be baptized, leaving behind the sin that enslaved them. In place of God’s presence in the cloud and pillar, John said the Holy Spirit would be given to them. They would have heard echoes of the words of other prophets, promising that God would one day pour out His Spirit on them.
We heard these promises spoken to us in our scripture readings during the Advent season; we retold the story of Jesus’ arrival, of his birth. And yet, it can feel as though that all happened a long time ago, that we have become separated from God once again. The world has gone astray in many ways: in the hatred and fear, the brokenness of personal lives and national life, in terrible suffering and injustice. So as we start a new year, perhaps we should heed John’s call to not just hear the story, but to enter into the story once again as participants, like a member of the cast. Let’s look at the four rapid scenes that form this wake-up call for a new beginning, the beginning of the Good News.
Preparing – repentance, confession, forgiveness
The first scene is John’s call to “Repent, and be baptized, a new thing is coming!” We must get ready for the fresh start which Messiah is bringing. The first step is to recognize that we are headed in the wrong direction and confess that, which is really just apologizing to God.
There is a joke in England that everywhere the Queen goes, she smells fresh paint. That’s because when people are told that the Queen is coming to visit, everyone scurries to clean up and make everything look good. When that bright light shines into our slumbers, we realize we need to clean up our inner selves – our thoughts, our inner motives and desires, our hopes and plans. This isn’t just a guilty attempt to hide the dirt; repentance is a life-giving and life-renewing action. True repentance breaks the chains that hold us down in the dirt. Confession is what frees us to receive a fresh start and a new beginning. It opens the door to allow God’s forgiveness to enter into our hearts and lives.
Baptism – Water and Spirit
Which brings us to the next scene, baptism. Forgiveness provides the fresh start, the washing of the inside, which is demonstrated through the act of being washed with water on the outside. It is the outward sign of an inward change. But none of this – repentance, confession, inward change – is something we can do ourselves. The whole undertaking requires God’s help. That is why it was so important that the coming Messiah would add baptism of the Holy Spirit to John’s baptism of water. Though the Spirit, God does in us what we cannot do ourselves. In Galatians 3:27, Paul tells new believers that they are sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for in baptism they have been clothed with Christ. Our part is faith, believing, so that God can do His part in providing the new clothes.
God’s part quickly become clear in the next scene as Mark continues the story. No sooner is Jesus rising up out of the river, the water still flowing off his hair and face and clothes, then the heavens are torn apart! If the scene had a sound track there would be a loud ripping sound. Like that startling sound when you bend over in pants that have gotten too old and a tad too tight. It’s God, who can’t stand to be apart from His Son any longer, who can’t stand being separated from His children anymore. He rips open the divide between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm so He can enter in, so nothing can get between God and us any longer. It is exactly what Isaiah and the other prophets had been praying for, if you remember from our Advent readings, Isaiah says to God, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (Is.64:1)
I love the image that is on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning. The scene looks explosive – Jesus in the center, water flying everywhere, the Spirit descending in the dove. If you look closely, you notice that Jesus’ posture is unusual for a baptism scene. In fact, his posture looks more like the crucifixion scene. The word Mark uses to describe the heavens being ripped apart at Jesus’ baptism, schizo, is the same word he uses in only one other place in his gospel story. Schizo is used to describe the ripping of the temple curtain as Jesus breaths his last and dies on the cross. Mark, the story-telling lion, leaps from tearing open the divide between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, which starts in baptism to its completion by Jesus on the cross.
Voice – God speaks new life, new creation, blessing
Then a Voice booms. It’s the Voice of God that the psalmist wrote about: the voice that thunders, the voice that shakes, the voice that is powerful and majestic. This is the Voice that spoke the world into being as the Spirit hovered over the waters on the first day of creation. And if you didn’t think baptism was about new life, notice here the Holy Spirit once again hovering over the water and voice of the Lord speaking, in effect saying, “Let there be Light!” The Light that suddenly shines so bright is Jesus, sent to be the Light of the World, as also the Light of God’s Love. The Voice blesses Jesus with love and affirmation, not for the benefit of those standing around for it is spoken directly to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Psalm 29 says that in response to God’s voice, everyone in God’s temple will cry, “Glory!” I imagine that in addition to yelling “Glory!” everyone might also run to the baptism pool and do a big cannonball into the water.
A couple weeks ago a visitor stopped by the church when Greg Sawtelle happened to be here. Somehow the conversation turned to the baptism pool that lies under the platform. Greg shared that he had been baptized in it. When the visitor remarked that it must have been quite some years ago, Greg quickly responded that it felt like just yesterday for it was a life-changing experience that he will never forget.
Unforgetful! That is Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism. There is nothing ho-hum about it, nothing routine, nothing tame. No, Mark is dragging us out of bed, throwing water in our faces, ripping open the heavens and declaring that God is speaking new life, a fresh start, an astounding love that will not be held back any longer. The story-telling style of Mark, the lion, reminds me of another lion – the great Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. C.S. Lewis writes that Aslan “rushes on and on, never missing his footsteps, never hesitating.” Aslan is not a tame lion, but when Lucy asks, “Is he safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you!”
Mark starts “The beginning of the good news of Jesus…” The story that was beginning in Jesus’ baptism has continued over the centuries, and continues today. Our baptisms are part of the story of the good news of Jesus. Your baptism tore open the divide between God and you. The Spirit of God entered into you. You were given new life that is renewed each day, it is new every morning. And God speaks over you, “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
As a part of our communion time today you will have an opportunity to reaffirm your baptism. We will renew our vows in prayers that are printed on an insert in the bulletin. Then as the communion tray of cups is passed around, you will find a cup of water placed in the center of the tray. I invite you to get a little wet, to dip a finger into that water in a reenactment of your baptism, before you take one of the cups of juice. If you have not been baptized and feel God is calling you to put your faith in Jesus and to be baptized into a new life in Christ, please come forward after we sing the closing song to talk with me.
Following his baptism, Jesus headed out into the wilderness and faced the challenges of his calling. We don’t know what challenges are ahead for us in this coming year, but we can prepare ourselves by renewing our commitment to follow Jesus Christ and receiving his promise from Revelation 21:5: “Behold, I am making all things new!”
Song: “Spirit of the Living God” # 297