(Click above link for the Scripture texts upon which this sermon is based)
Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
Today you get a treat, three scripture readings instead of just two.
In addition to the Mark text,
the primary reading on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday
and in addition to the reading from the Acts which
Pat offered for us a moment ago
the other reading for us today is from Genesis,
the first five verses of our Bible.
They are a fitting match for our other reflections 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.
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good;
and God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
and then our primary reading for the day, from the Gospel according to Mark:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer 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.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist,
and he ate locusts and wild honey.
‘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.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water,
he 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.’
May God bless to us our reading, and our understanding, and our applying of these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
“It isn’t what I expected.”
If there is a mantra to the last several years—this may be it.
“It isn’t what I expected.”
How often have we said or heard that…?
Just look at the economy:
the jobs that just aren’t there,
the starkly rearranged retirements…
You go to the doctor,
you talk with your teacher,
your coach wants a word with you,
the college notification site delivers disappointment…
…”this isn’t what I expected.”
It’s not all bad news…this unexpected world.
In fact, it’s almost always decidedly ambiguous…it’s mixed:
Thirty years ago, who would have expected:
the fall of the Berlin Wall,
or the Arab Spring,
or the devastating rise,
and now the hopeful signs about AIDS.
or how, over those thirty years,
the percentage of the world living in extreme poverty
has decreased from 52 to 21%.[i]
“It’s not what we expected.”
For the Bible, “NOT what is expected” is familiar terrain.
Genesis’ first creation story describes, in the beginning,
a world of void and darkness—
–and from that chaos,
God hovers—and there is light,
and there is form,
and there is purpose.
It is NOT a coincidence that the writer of Mark’s gospel
announces the account of Jesus’ life and ministry with the words:
“The BEGINNING of good news of Jesus Christ…”
BEGINNINGS in the Bible, it seems,
leads us into a world where what happens next…
…is NOT what we expected.
…Like Jesus’ baptism.
Think of all the baptisms you have witnessed.
Tame or wild,
in a rushing river or a few drops from a font,
with a crying child or a slightly wary adult—
–OUR baptisms rarely conclude with the heavens being “torn apart.” Do they.
We just sang, in our opening hymn, about the “sweet, sweet Spirit” of God…
and, in Mark, God’s Spirit TEARS APART the heavens
with the message we all yearn to hear:
“You are my beloved…
…with you I am well pleased.”
But…are there any words in all of life we would cherish more than those?[ii]
And it comes in an unexpected, shaking event…
…as the heavens are torn apart?
The UNEXPECTED, in our world, has come to be seen as a curse.
We dread that which we don’t expect.
The Bible, though, often paints a vision of the UNEXPECTED
as the grace and blessing of God!
At creation, there is chaos and order.
There is darkness and light.
At baptism—water is both cleansing and refreshing,
AND it is powerful and dangerous.
Several things come tumbling out of this right into the middle of our lives:
Maybe first is the UNEXPECTED nature of the darkness we encounter.
In Darkness, too, we sometimes miss the very presence of God.
So, as Barbara Brown Taylor notes:
There is one word for darkness in the Bible that stands out from the rest.
It shows up in the book of Exodus, at the foot of Mount Sinai,
right after God has delivered Torah to the people:
“Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near
to the thick darkness where God was” (20:21).
This is araphel—
–the thick darkness that indicates God’s presence
as surely as does the brightness of God’s glory—
–something God later clarifies through the prophet Isaiah,
in case anyone missed it earlier.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things” (Isa. 45:6–7).
Here is a helpful reminder to all who fear the dark.
Darkness does NOT come from a different place than light;
it is NOT presided over by a different God.[iii]
God is in the darkness.
God is in the light.
God is in the UNEXPECTED—even that which we fear.
“Not what we expect,” in other words, is a gift and a challenge.
It’s true of darkness—and it’s true of WATER…
The beginning is all water, essentially a flood.
And floods represent anything that threatens
to upend, frustrate, and drown life.
In the redemption story of Genesis,
God installs a vault called the sky to keep such chaos at bay.
All the more impressive, then,
that at baptism we are asked to submit to these dangerous waters.
We don’t think of it that way—it’s NOT what we EXPECT—but that’s what it is.
In Genesis, God sees that the light on the face of the waters is good;
and declares that humankind is good;
much as God declares at Jesus’ baptism,
“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”
Of course, there are essential differences
between Genesis and the Gospels.
No vault separates Christians from the waters of chaos;
baptism insures no one against disaster.
Sometimes Art, Drama, Poetry, Music helps us get this more deeply
than any other perspective.
I was reading this week about these passages,
and a writer mentioned a story about a poem by Amos Wilder.
Thornton Wilder wrote the widely known American play, Our Town,
beautiful in its own right.
His brother Amos was a theologian.
During the Second World War, Amos published a volume of poetry
called The Healing of the Waters,
taking the title from 2 Kings 2:21,
in which Elisha heals waters in a bowl.
Here is Wilder’s “Homage” to those fighting the chaos of his day,
Nazism and fascism:
These on the crumbling levees match themselves
with the infuriate flood.
These beneath the waves toil at the primeval
Whose courses were laid against chaos.
These repair the moles erected of old against the
These descend where the nethermost piers of history
And place their lives, if need be, at the foundation of
all the ages of glory to come.[iv]
God is in the darkness, the light…
…God is in the UNEXPECTED and in the WATERS of creation and baptism…
…but still, the struggles all around us are poignant and real.
Broadly speaking, the ministry of Jesus in Mark’s gospel
moves from the Sea of Galilee up to Jerusalem.
If you would travel that way today,
you would find that the highway that winds up
from the sea to Jerusalem
is a rapidly ascending road through picturesque but rugged terrain.
The heat is high and the vegetation sparse.
Israeli military trucks lumber up the hill,
making it slow going to the Holy City.
Wrecks of tanks and rusting hulks
from military skirmishes of the recent past
have been left along the road as memorials
to the fallen along this bloody,
The name Jerusalem means “foundation of peace,”
though it has never quite lived up to its name.
Stuck in fuming traffic, inching along in the heat you could easily think:
“What a road for God Almighty to walk.”[v]
And yet, there is God.
God, in the storm.
God, in the waters.
God, in the darkness.
God, alongside the torturous paths we must walk.
God is relentless in taking initiative with us.
God’s light is relentless.
God’s cleansing, nourishing water is ENDLESS.
Even on those most challenging journeys you experience…
Andrew Solomon is a widely known writer,
known especially for his memoir about battling depression.
Upon hearing that the Taliban had banned all art
while they controlled Afghanistan…
right after the American invasion and the fall of the Taliban,
Solomon decided to go there to see what art may now be remerging…
His first stop was the U.N. offices in Afghanistan, where introduced himself
and said he was interested in re-emergence of art in the country.
The person at the U.N. said: “There are no artists in Afghanistan.”
Solomon said: “How about poets,
And the official said: “Well there are no poets…
…but there’s a man downstairs
who has been doing a survey of music…”
Under the Taliban, it had been illegal for a mother to hum to her child.
It was illegal for one to clap—for any reason at all.
Solomon found the man doing a survey of music,
and the man said: “There is NO music in Afghanistan.”
At this, Solomon’s translator, a man named Farouk,
said, “I’m not sure what you are looking for,
but there is a national museum in Kabul
that is reopening today…”
And so they set off for the small museum.
Once there, they saw wall after wall filled with empty landscapes.
The Taliban had banned all human likeness in paintings,
so a local artist, before the paintings were destroyed,
had gone into the museum with watercolor
and painted over all figures—
–leaving just the barren landscape—
–and now, with the reopening of the museum,
that same artist was there gentling applying WATER
to each painting…
…and the figures began to re-emerge,
populating the formerly EMPTY landscape scenes.
That artist mentioned to Solomon that he knew of one poet
who was starting to write again, so they sought him out.
He showed them one of his recent poems:
On the highest escarpment,
on the sharpest peak,
inscribe this epitaph of a futureless generation:
that instead of mother’s milk, we were given guns;
instead of education, we were given war.
Don’t blame us, we could do nothing for you.
And it turned out this poet knew a woman
who was doing poetry with some others.
And there Solomon discovered a colony of women
who were cautiously becoming visible again
with their expressions of art.
And the women said: “Don’t believe what you hear.
There is music.
There is LOTS of music.
Go see this man…he’s a singer…”
Solomon found the singer.
He greeted them—and Solomon said:
“You are a singer—and you couldn’t sing.
Didn’t you go crazy—not able to sing for all these years?”
“I thought I would,” the singer said,
“but then I realized there was a type of music
that even the Taliban couldn’t ban.
So I went to the market and bought 20 pigeons and 20 doves—
–and I brought them here…and they have been my music.”
And they walked into his house and all these pigeons and doves
were flying around
(the house was a mess)
but it was a house full of the music of these birds.
…But the singer then said:
actually we have a small music group…you should come.
And they went—to a building opposite the television tower.
There, in an unheated basement,
a group playing string instruments
practiced every afternoon for an hour.
It was so cold, they kept their gloves on,
(which didn’t help the playing)
but there they were—every day.
The leader of the group said to Solomon,
“you know, we are only 7 of us here today,
but there are 11 in the group.”
Andrew Solomon invited the whole group to come to his house—
–which he shared with some other journalists,
and which was, you know, HEATED—
–to all play together at 5 pm that Friday.
And then he thought:
“I should invite those poets I met,
and that singer,
and I need to find that artist,
and I’ll invite the other journalists I’ve met,
and for sure I’ll invite that man from the U.N.
who told me there was NO art in Afghanistan.
So, Friday at 5pm arrived,
and Solomon’s house was filled with the musicians,
and the poets,
and the artists,
and the singers.
They began to play—and they didn’t stop.
They played and played,
and when curfew was near,
Solomon said that probably everybody better head home,
and all together they said: “We’re staying.”
And the music continued, and then some dancing along with it.
They ended up playing all night—prolonging that sacred, holy moment
when the music came back to that war-torn place.
The ended up playing music for 13 hours.
They played through the night.
They played until dawn without stopping.[vi]
It was evening.
It was morning…and it was very good.
There is a truth to our life that we dare not forsake,
in the face of all situations…
…just like that music: God cannot be stopped.
God’s dawn comes every day.
God provides light in the darkness,
and God gives water to nourish every parched place.
This is the FIRST word, NOT the last word in our lives.
It does NOT “settle” things, or “fix” things—
–but it is always the place for us to begin—
–and it is our most persistent HOPE.
God’s dawn comes every day.
God provides light in the darkness,
and water to nourish every parched place.
Think of when you need to hear a forgiving word.
Think of when you need to speak the hard word of forgiveness.
Think of your deep places of GRIEF—perhaps as new as yesterday.
Think of times of radical dislocation in your life.
Times when you have to adjust
to radically altered circumstances…
Consider your scars, a deep loss,
a struggle with addiction,
a desperate need for some peace.
In each of these moments—
—God is RELENTLESS in taking initiative…with you.
God brings light in every darkness—as sure as the morning’s dawn.
God brings water to every parched place.
God brings the most welcome and needed word
that you will ever hear:
“You are my beloved…”
…and NOTHING in all creation
can stop that light,
–from finding a home HERE
…in all our most UNEXPECTED places.
[i] World Bank figure cited by Michael Kruse in Why I Won’t Shut Up about Positive Changes in the World on his Kruse Kronicle Blog, accessed January 10, 2015 at http://www.krusekronicle.com/kruse_kronicle/2015/01/why-i-wont-shut-up-about-positive-changes-in-the-world.html
[ii] See P.C. Ennis, “Reflections on the Lectionary, January 8, 2012” in The Christian Century, December 27, 2011
[iii] See Barbara Brown Taylor, “Faith Matters: Redeeming the Darkness” in The Christian Century, November 29, 2011. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-11/redeeming-darkness. For more, see also Jonathan Merritt’s article about Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark entitled “Barbara Brown Taylor tells Christians to Embrace Darkness” http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/barbara-brown-taylor-encourages-christians-embrace-darkness/
[iv] See Lawrence Wood, “Homiletical Perspective for Genesis 1:1-5” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1.
[v] From William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, January 8, 2012, Logos Productions
Image Credit: Dearly Beloved, photograph by Heiko Waechter.