The Unmistakable Melody of a Divine Voice Singing – January 10

A sermon based on Mark 1:4-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 10, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Thank you for a week of vacation. I read and rested and mostly had a nice quiet time with Nancy. Well, it was quiet until Wednesday, January 6th “The Day of Epiphany” on the church calendar. After a nice afternoon nap, I checked in on the news around 4 and found out what was going on in our nation’s capital and Nance and I found ourselves riveted to news. We were sad and tearful and disturbed at an epiphany of another sort, the stark reality of the vulnerability of our nation and the unholy misuse of politics and religion.

The violence that unfolded desecrated the capitol building and the democratic process for sure, but it also desecrated the American and Christian symbols on the flags that rioters carried into that bloody battle. I was particularly disturbed by the Christian symbols and Jesus’ name on flags carried by those involved– as if the unholy actions were somehow holy.

This year the Sunday after Epiphany is “Baptism of Christ Sunday,” today. John the Baptist and Jesus’ non-violent movements both grew out of the unholy usurping of country and religion back in their day. The church calendar lifts up the earliest foundational story of both movements, about John and his baptisms, as well as Jesus’ baptism.

Later gospels accounts report that John was preaching fire and brimstone sermons out there in Jordan but, in the bare basics of Mark’s telling that Laura read so well, we do not find fire and brimstone. We learn instead that John was in the wilderness offering baptisms of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the River Jordan– as I will explain in a moment, it was also a protest and people came from far and wide to see him and to be baptized and to protest.

It was a popular movement that John reportedly did dressed as a prophet and eating honey and locust which signaled he was also a religious ascetic with a strict dietary discipline. One of the purposes of letting us know John has the trappings of a prophet and religion is to poise John at the very start of Mark as a First Century Elijah. Elijah was supposed to re-appear before the Messiah came, and be a forerunner who prepared the way. Mark lets us know John was the second coming of Elijah making the way for the Messiah . . . which, we know, turns out to be Jesus. To hammer the point home Mark tells us John made that prophesy himself proclaiming, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark’s letting us know that John was good, but he had nothing on “The One” who was coming and admitted it.

Of course, “The One” referred to is Jesus who shows up in the next verses to be baptized. But before we get to those verses it’s important that we understand a little more about what John was doing out there in prophet’s clothing that brought Jesus and many, many others out to see and hear him and be baptized. John was not just having baptisms in the wilderness and Jordan River because it was a convenient or a nice spot. John’s acts and location added up to a sophisticated and well-planned non-violent protest of Rome’s occupation of Israel and occupation of the Temple by Rome’s appointed religious elite. This non-violent movement was challenging the unholy usurpation of politics and religion. Such unholy usurpation has upset people for millennia, like it did most of America on Wednesday. John invited people to re-enact Joshua leading the Jewish people out of the wilderness and into the Jordan to get to the Promised Land. John invited people to make that holy crossing and entrance.

He also provided an untainted by Rome ritual of repentance and forgiveness, a ritual the Temple held a monopoly on. Simply put, John had people symbolically –and non-violently– take back both the Roman occupied land and the Roman occupied religion and mediated individual care at the same time. John was symbolically offering to God’s chosen ones what God chose for them both in the politics in the land and in religious essentials. He did this without violence, and according to Mark he did it without fire and brimstone sermons. Not unlike coming to worship on Sunday people could step into John’s ritual and experience God and justice and transformation personally and corporately.

And Jesus came out to participate in the ritual and the challenge. He partook of the non-violent protest. Scholars believe Jesus became a member of John’s movement. It’s thought Jesus picked up the baton to keep the protest and transformative work up after John was arrested. But Jesus took the movement out of the wilderness and into the countryside and then to Jerusalem. And Jesus did not baptize. Nor did he preach fire and brimstone words to God’s people. He non-violently did what Mark calls proclaim the good news. He proclaimed it in loving words and deeds and directed his followers to do so too. The symbols of Christianity and the name of Jesus were never meant to stand for violence or unloving words or deeds. Jesus’ name in the Bible evokes non-violence and love.

Both John and Jesus were violently executed by Rome’s elite, because they evoked non-violence and love for all as they challenged the unholy usurping of politics and religion by Rome. And those nonviolent love centered challenges started with these baptisms John was doing and the one Jesus chose to have. Mark does not have a Christmas beginning with the infant arrival of Christ, he starts with Jesus’ adult baptism.

John’s protest was not just aimed at transforming the nation through challenge, it was also aimed at transforming individuals so they could do transformative work that politics and religion were not doing, acting for the well-being of all. Mark’s starts his Gospel with the adult Jesus’ baptism, and in three short verses brilliantly captures the power and the mystical and the divine nature of the event. Mark tells us Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan and as he came out of the water, Jesus “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.’”

In other gospels the public sees the dove and hears the voice, but in Mark, the earliest story, ONLY Jesus sees the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. It’s Jesus mystical vision and only he hears God’s voice, directed to him “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased.” This is a very holy vision for Jesus alone. It matches other Biblical accounts of major figures hearing God’s call. Abraham; Jacob and Moses encounter God in unshared visions. Jesus’ dad, Joseph, and his mom Mary have such visions alone. In Mark it is Jesus who has a solo encounter. It’s Jesus’ epiphany if you will –and it is his alone. See, in the Bible God meets alone with those being called to profound tasks. In Christianity there is no greater call or profound task than to be the Son of God.

In Mark, after being baptized and having a vision of the Spirit and hearing God’s voice, in the next verses Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days of temptation by Satan, while in the company of wild beasts and angels until John is arrested.

After Jesus’ personal epiphany he takes time to take care of himself. He does this throughout his ministry. I want to suggest that after the events that occurred Wednesday, the 2021 Day of Epiphany, that we all make sure to take care too. We can and we must continue non-violent love centered justice work in the days ahead but right now I think it is important that we take time to reflect and recover as Jesus modeled before he proclaimed the good news.

I suspect most of us can’t report dramatic encounters with God like those Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, Mary or Jesus had. We probably didn’t have baptism visions as powerful as Jesus did. I was baptized as an adult and the pastor did indicate beforehand that it would be a transformative moment. It was a nice moment. But I did not sense a profound transformation. I did not see heaven tearing or a dove in a vision. Nor did I hear God’s booming voice speaking to me on the chancel at that time. But looking back over two decades I can report that ever since I have become aware of a Divine melody in the background of life. Throughout the ups and downs and busyness of life when I stop and listen I hear God’s voice singing to me “You are my child, a beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And I hear it, not because I am more special than anyone else, or because I am a Christian, but because my baptism started transforming me into someone willing to be receptive to that God song.

I think of the God song traveling on a cosmic radio wave out there. It’s not just for me or Jesus, but, for everyone to tune into and to stop and hear. And when anyone stops to listen –and please hear me– I am encouraging us all to take lots of time throughout the week to stop and listen in this very turbulent time. When you stop and listen to it you will know that the realm of God has come near, and you will repent– which means turn and listen to God– and then you will hear and hopefully believe the good news. The good news includes that you are God’s child, a beloved, and with you God is well pleased.

Stop and listen. You will hear that you are loved, that you matter much. When we listen to that God song we soon come to understand that the song is for everyone. Everyone is loved and matters much. And here’s thing, that understanding put into action is what makes politics and religion –and our own actions– holy and eligible to have Jesus name and Christianity attached to it.

May we all stop and listen and hear that song and in the days to come may we base our actions on the understanding that everyone is loved and matters much. Let us also pray that the politics in our land and the religions of our people act on that God song too – so we as a nation can live it out in word and deed . . . Non-violently. Let it be so. AMEN.