This sermon was delivered on January 7th, 2018. A world of things has happened to me since then, but still, this is an optimistic post, one worth revisiting, even as we are in the middle of this year.
–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian
4 John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 5 Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
New year, new me!
So proclaimeth the world as of January first this past week. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard those words said over the past week throughout social media, television and radio. It is the joyful refrain of a new year, one that everyone hopes to keep.
Every year we promise ourselves that we’re going to do better this year, that we’re going to be better people. We’re going to lose that weight, or write that book, or build that project in the garage. We’re inspired by a new sense of invigoration by the marking of a new year.
The cynical part of me always wants to roll my eyes at this, though. Are we really going to live up to these lofty ideals? Or are we going to break our resolutions immediately at the first hint of weakness?
But you know what? This year, I’m going to be less cynical. This year, I’m going to be more optimistic, and more positive about the world. So to start that vein of positivity off right, I’m going to preach to you about Jesus’s baptism.
Why not? New year, new gospel, new take on an old story.
Mark is our gospel writer for this lectionary year, and he’s an interesting case. He’s a storyteller, much more than the other gospel writers are, and he has precisely one purpose: to get you to believe his gospel, and repent. Whereas Luke wants an accurate account, and Matthew wants you to see that Jesus fulfills the prophecy, and John wants you to believe in Jesus first and foremost, Mark wants you to REPENT. All caps. Mark’s gospel is written to get you to change. And that’s mean’s he’s a great gospel writer for a new year.
So let’s start it off right, and start it of clean in the waters of baptism. New year, new you.
Starting with the Good Part
Mark, as you may note, does not begin with the birth of Jesus. No, Mark skips right to the good part: the beginning of Jesus’s ministry.
He doesn’t dilly dally with baby Jesus, prophecies, or any of that junk. Mark has a mission. And his mission is clearly demonstrated with his initial chapter: change your life.
He starts with John the Baptizer, and his ministry. I’ve gone into detail about John before, so I won’t here. Suffice it to say, if you want to get someone’s attention, John’s the man for the job.
John commanded attention. He was a wild man, a nazirite, dedicated to live for God’s glory alone. He never married. He ate certain diet, and wore certain clothes. He was connected to God’s creation in a way that few will ever attain or understand. He was a man of the land, and the water. His ministry was defined by the waters of baptism, ritual purification. Not even his harsh words and wild proclamations could drown out the power of his message: get clean.
His message rings clear: We must change. We live in such a way that we defiled by the sins of the world, the sins of the past, the sins that live within us. Baptism marks a decision for us, whether for ourselves or for our children: from now on, we live not for ourselves, but for God, and God’s kingdom.
Wow. What a way to start a gospel, right? The good news isn’t buried in a book or a scripture–the gospel is here and now. You want a better life? You have to change your life. You have to get clean.
Outward Signs, Inward Spirits
The message is clear then–baptism is the way to start a new life. How? And Why? Why do we get baptized? Why do we carry on this ancient jewish purification ritual?
Let’s start with the basics, then. Let’s look at how Jesus did it. Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan. There’s a big significance to that, perhaps unknown to many. Jordan was the river, back in the Exodus and the book of Joshua, that marked the beginning of the promised land. It’s a holy river because it marked the beginning of the kingdom of Israel. Joshua himself split the river, much like Moses split the Red Sea. It’s a river that marks passage from a state of being lost to a state of being found. So right there, we have symbolic meaning from the very geography of Jesus’s baptism.
However, for the sake of geography, you don’t have to be baptized in the river Jordan. You don’t even have to be baptized in a river. The earliest Christians built pools, fountains, and even fonts like ours in the early church houses so as to make baptism available to everyone. Baptism can happen anywhere. It even happened on the side of the road: When Philip ran in to the Ethiopian eunuch, he baptized him in a nearby pond.
So you can do it anywhere, with any size body of water, with anyone–anyone willing to make the commitment, that is. See, Baptism is more than just a ritual, one in which God cleans you inside and out. It’s a commitment. It’s a covenant, not only with God, but with the church, God’s people on earth.
We become a part of the church when we get baptized, and that’s a huge change. Not just the local church, but the church universal. Every Christian ever, from the beginning of time until now and until the end of time, is now your brother and sister.
When are baptized, you enter into a new life, literally. It’s no joke. Baptism is often categorized as a “second birth.” If you are submersed, you hold your breath, go down into the waters, and emerge–as if you are re-experiencing the womb. But this time, the womb is not your mother’s, but the water of the Spirit.
When you are baptized, you emerge clean, a new being, a new life, a new person. God’s spirit has blessed you, and infused you with the ability to good in this world, to work God’s wonders in your life and in other people’s lives. If you were dead in sin, you have become alive in Christ, and nobody can tell you that it’s not valid, not if that baptism is done in sincerity.
I tell this frequently, but my theology professor, Dr. William Abraham, once explained baptism to me in this way (paraphrasing of course): “People often go back and forth about whether you should baptize babies. I say, we definitely ought to. More than that, we ought to drown the little buggers in the water of the spirit, infuse them with it! Make sure that they know that they won’t go a day without the love of God surrounding them. Because they’re going to need it in this world.”
New Year, New You
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. Why not start the year with that inward grace overflowing within you?
I ask you, if you’ve been baptized, remember the blessing of your baptism. Whether you were a child or an adult, remember how much it meant to you. Remember the feeling you had when you first knew that God loved you, and when you knew nothing would ever be the same. Live with that feeling every day. When you wake up, remember that you are a new creation. If you messed up the day before, you’ve got a new day to start again waiting for you. You can do it. And God’s going to help.
And if you haven’t been baptized, and you’re really serious about your new year’s resolutions, consider it carefully. I would be absolutely honored to baptize you. Baptism is a commitment, a vow, and an important one that should not be taken lightly. But it is a joyful one. I encourage it, because I want to see everyone enjoying the new life we have together in Christ.
So New year, new you. Embrace the waters of baptism. Remember them, and be thankful. Amen.