Sunday, January 11, 2015

Words of Love

A Sermon preached on January 11th (Epiphany I) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Today is not only the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which we celebrated here at St. Augustine’s on Tuesday, but also the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. We don't have any Baptisms this week, so we have no live action to illustrate the gospel reading, but we will have two Baptisms in just under a month on Feb. 1, when we will also celebrate Candlemas – or the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. But it is still worth talking about the Lord’s Baptism today – and in fact the readings leave me little choice!

"You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" says the voice from heaven to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:11). This is only the 11th verse of Marks Gospel, so at this point Jesus has done absolutely nothing to deserve this statement: He hasn’t said or taught a word, he hasn’t healed a single person, he hasn’t welcomed a single outcast of Jewish society. He has done nothing – he has just been.

Now I’m a fan of the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant. I’ll often quote from it in sermons and I think it does a good job in making our promise to follow Jesus Christ both practical and real. I expect that is why over time other Anglican churches, including the Church of England, have adopted and included it in some way in their own baptismal liturgies. But there is a danger in the Covenant promises to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being” (see, I told you I often quote from it in sermons). It is the danger of conditionality, of assuming that God’s love and forgiveness and God’s promises are in some way dependent on us fulfilling our own promises or even that the promises we make at Baptism are all that church is about. Well that is not what Jesus’ Baptism teaches us. If we believe that Jesus was more than just a good human being, that he is also God’s Son and God, then he really did not need to be baptized, he had no need for a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) as he was without sin. Interestingly in his Gospel, the Evangelist John is careful to avoid any mention of Jesus being baptized by John. But I think that’s a mistake, because Jesus’ Baptism contains important signs and messages for us all: 

“As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.” (Mark 1:10) This dramatic description tells us that Jesus’ Baptism stands for the end of humanity’s self-inflicted separation from God and instead, through Jesus, for a new form of communication between heaven and earth. In Jesus we hear God, in Jesus we know God and the curtain between heaven and earth is drawn back at this moment as an invitation to us all to join the kingdom of heaven or of God and to start making it real for everyone else. That is, by the way, where the promises of our Baptismal Covenant come into play.

“As he was coming up out of the water, he saw …. the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” The Hebrew word for spirit is ruah, it can also be translated as breath or wind – as in the first lines from Genesis we also heard this morning: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” As an aside for our German speakers in the congregation, the phrase “formless void” is in Hebrew “tohu wabohu” – so now you know where that German word comes from! Anyway I believe that we are supposed to think of the first creation, with the wind or breath or spirit from God sweeping over the face of the waters, when we hear of the Spirit or breath of God descending on Jesus over the water of the Jordan. Jesus' mission that begins her with his Baptism is the beginning of our new creation and of our new life.

However the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus is also the Spirit of God empowering and equipping him for that ministry and in fact pushing him into it, right after our text in verse 12, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” John the Baptist tells us that while he baptizes with water, the one who will come after him, Jesus, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) In our Baptismal liturgy we too first baptize with water and then, making the sign of the cross, we proclaim that the candidate is sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism.” And God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is what empowers und equips us for ministry. It is the “help” we call upon when we promise to fulfill the covenant promises with God’s help.

As I said earlier, God calls Jesus beloved and is well pleased not because of what Jesus has done, or will do, but just because of who he is: God’s Son. But the phrase “with you I am well pleased” also recalls the repeated phrase in Genesis, and God saw that it was good: light, land, sea, plants, animals, and humans. After Creation is finished, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) We are not the Son of God, but we are God’s sons and daughters, and in God’s eyes we are already and always very good and a reason for God’s pleasure.

Jesus had no need of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, nor did Jesus need to go the Cross for himself. Both events, which from the beginning and the end of Mark’s Gospel are what we call vicarious – they are for another, they are by Jesus for us, they are so we know forgiveness and they are meant to make it possible for us to accept that we are God’s beloved. 

We do not have to be baptized to be beloved by God. We are God’s beloved because of who we are - as part of God's Creation we are aready very good – and because of what Christ has done for us. But we do have to be baptized to be able and to be willing to hear what God is saying to us all along: Our baptism into Jesus is simply the moment when we can start to hear these words spoken to us. 
My homework for you this week, yes it’s not just the Confirmation class that get homework, is to start each day by reading this sentence slowly to yourslef, but with your own name at the start: “Chris (……), you are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s what God is saying to you every single day and all day. Let these words change you, let these words renew you, let these words refresh you, and let these words strengthen you as you proclaim the Good News by word and deed, as you seek and serve Christ in all persons, and as you strive for justice and peace. Because these are God’s words, the words of love and life. You are God's beloved and with you God is wekk pleased!


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