A Disturbing Peace
A sermon based on Mark 1:4-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on January 13, 2019* (2012)
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Baptism is one of two sacraments we recognize in the UCC (the other is communion). Sacraments are traditionally described as outward signs instituted by God to convey or give sign of inward grace. Jesus began on his Way with baptism, and so have most His followers ever since.
Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer, WHO, as we heard,
appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Scholars think John and his followers were reenacting Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan to take the Promised Land as a symbolic taking back of the land God gave them. Basically they were protesting Rome’s sacrilegious and oppressive conquering and occupying the Promised Land. And John added the opportunity to also protest the Roman run Temple by offering a way to confess sins and repent without going to Jerusalem or paying for it. (“Sin” in the Bible means missing A mark God aims us at; “repentance” means turning toward God). John’s leadership in the protest and end-run around the elite did not end well. Rome arrested and executed John, and later, Jesus. But before Rome did, Jesus went out to the river Jordan to join John’s protest.
Since the text asserts that ALL who went out to John “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” – read literally Jesus can be considered to have done that. Jesus confessing and repenting bumps up against the post Easter images many hold of Jesus as superhumanly flawless.
There is a long tradition that Jesus was fully divine and that he was fully human. No one has to agree, but I understand fully human to mean Jesus was not superhuman, rather he was a lot like us a human who from one perspective or another may have had what some might call flaws. Rome who arrested and executed him certainly thought he did. Even after his baptism the Bible suggests he was considered by some flawed as a glutton and a drunkard. He’s also chased out of town after his first sermon in Luke. In Mark (3: 21). his own family tried to restrain him thinking he was out of his mind. He calls a woman and her child dogs. He hangs around with ner’ do wells. He disrupts the Temple. He even challenges the Bible.
Considering Jesus as the perfect being to create a way to salvation, may but need not, consider him living without what we’d call flaws. As fully human Jesus can (but doesn’t have to) be understood as like us in that regard, at least when he first meets John because Mark tells us Jesus went to John who was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and that those who were baptized by John confessed their sins.
And I can see nothing wrong with that. Theologically he can be, but Jesus does not have to be, imagined as superhuman. First John 2:6 referring to Jesus notes that “whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” Humans can only do that if it does not require superhuman powers, if it does not require us to be without fla in our minds or others.
So we can, if we choose, imagine Jesus as fully human and hear the story of his baptism in Mark as suggesting that the human Jesus may have been considered by himslef or others as missing some such mark before he was baptized because he went to John who was doing only one kind of baptism we know about; it was: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” I did not write that, my seminary professors did not write it, it was not written as a part of a progessive Christian plot. The author of the earliest Gospel, Mark, wrote those words. And Mark tells us ALL who were baptized by John confessed their sins. In Mark’s gospel, like it or not, this is where Jesus’ story begins. Jesus participating in a civil protest against the government and being immersed in water in a ritual that appears to have required confession of sins. That is not squeaky clean, but that is fully human. It also fits with the grit in the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke. Those Gospels start the story of Jesus differently but hardly a Disney-like beginning.
Jesus in the two Gospel Christmas narratives is a peasant baby conceived out of wedlock. That’s not very Disneyesque. Luke even tells us Jesus started out in an animal trough surrounded by cultural lowlifes, the rough and tumble shepherds. Hardly the makings of a feel good story plot if you think about it– not a place we’d want to see any wee ones starting out, let alone our children or the very Son of God. Mark does not have a Nativity story but his start has this same sort of earthy grit to it. In Mark the person who baptized Jesus, the one who gets him started is even odder than shepherds. He runs around dressing and acting strange, even for back then. He’s not just challenging Rome and the Temple. Our lesson tells us John was “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” In Mark Jesus ministry has a gritty birth, the baby found in a manger in the Christmas narratives. The Feasting on the Word commentary on our Markian text observes:
Here is a reminder that the gospel is down to earth, grounded in the real, tactile, sensual, fleshy world. In these few verses are references to river water, clothing from camels, diet from bugs, and tying shoes, a bird analogy and an interesting weather phenomenon, Mark’s earthiness gives us a hedge against faith and worship that are too ethereal, otherworldly, abstract. 1
Jesus gets baptized and if the text is accurate, he may like all the others out there confessed failings. Then we are told that “just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” Heaven is torn open and a connection to earth is made once Jesus is baptized in the Jordan. Jesus’ ministry begins with this fracture between the two worlds that lets heaven seep out onto earth. And what seeps out is a like dove. The universal sign of peace descended on Jesus. We tend to picture this as a gentle descent and landing. But maybe the dove swoops or dives. The Feasting on the Word had this interesting take on the dove’s arrival:
We may ask . . .how the dove descended. Gently if the classic pictures of this scene are to be believed. But birds sometimes dive-bomb (for example to protect their young)! A dive-bombing Holy Spirit would fit with the accompanying ‘”torn a part” sky. 2
The commentator then goes on to ask “are our baptism rituals so nice we neglect to mention the uncomfortable implications of inviting God’s Spirit to invade our lives?”
Jesus’ Way is not about an easier life, but a better one for one and all. Whether we see Jesus as sinless and perfect or fully human like us, once that dove alights there is no doubt that Jesus’ life becomes full of love and light and God, and difficulties. Love calls him to be compassionate and caring for everyone. Love beckons him to seek peace through non-violence and love. All of that is beautiful stuff, but it also means that Jesus has to challenge cultural preconceptions, verbally fend off opponents, protest the status quo and in the end face rejection, betrayal, arrest, torture and death.
It is supremely ironic that a heavenly dove lighting on Jesus, and a ministry of heavenly peace, love and non-violence, leads to earthly hate and violence and death being inflicted on him. It is supremely sad that following Jesus’ Way of love still can lead to hate and violence. Ideas of doves and peace and love still upset people. Just go on line and read the notes on threads below posts about loving others, or check out the awful letters to the editor in the papers when notions of peace or love are raised. Or listen to the political rhetoric when anyone suggests we take a step towards doing the things Jesus taught, like feeding the poor or tending to the sick or welcoming the stranger or God forbid loving our enemy. This month we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. precisely because he transfomred the world with others by following Jesus’ Way of love and non-violence and opposed oppression. Rev. Dr. King’s heavenly acts of love led to earthly hate and violence it led to and his own death too. And that was not that long ago . . . in many of our life times. Oddly heavenly Love brings out the worse in some. That dove from above did a great thing for spreading love, but it also led to opposition we’d never dreamed of, earthly hateful responses to love. That’s the gritty non-Disney, non-squeaky clean part.
Baptism is a powerful Christian rite and it is a good and great and holy thing, but it’s a sacrament that also portends sacrifice. Life is not easy and a life lived moving toward love can make it even more difficult. Jesus’ Way has a lot of uphill climbs. But you know what? It may not be easy but it sure is awesome. There may be grit and ugliness and even hate tossed at those on Jesus Way, but there’s lots of good stuff too. Lot’s of great stuff. A dove lighting on Jesus is the start of a Way that has changed the world, and is changing it still, for the better.
In the oldest Gospel, Mark, heaven connects with Jesus at the start of his ministry. The Holy Spirit joins him, and God claims Jesus as son, beloved and one with whom God is “well pleased.” The Way of the Jesus stirs things up in heaven and pleases God. It brings God to earth incarnate in humanity, real humanity, in fully human being. And Jesus matters.
But Jesus and Jesus’ Way causes violent hateful storms. Yet overall they have led and lead to much more love and compassion in the world. In the end Jesus Way of living, the Way he teaches us is so powerful that Jesus’ death is overcome by a resurrection.In one way or another Jesus lives on as an experiential reality– and the whole world was and is transformed by that fact. And those of us who choose to step onto Jesus’ Way, while not made flawless, are saved from the lesser ways we may have been.
None of us, and no church comprised of us is perfect. Humans are not flawless. Churches are not flawless. We fail to hit marks God aims us at. But we are acting as a part of the body of Christ on earth now. Fully human and, I dare say, at our best fully divine. And whether we think Jesus was perfect when he lived in human form or not, we experience him here, now.
There is an experiential reality to Christ in the grit and grime and muck of life for sure, through Love where God’s work continues on in us. It does so when we let our actions and our being open up, like Jesus, to being are filled by the Holy Spirit– touched by a disturbing dove. The Spirit – the dove– that brings storms of love to wash away hate. Each baptism remembers all of this, that life is hard, that we make mistakes, but also that the God of love is always with us and if we let it do so, love can transform us as humans into better beings, and transform the world into a better place. Today on this “Baptism of Christ Sunday,” it is good to remember this.
* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2012.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year A, p 236
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