Sermon of the Week:
The Torn-Open Sky
Special Music: I Was There to hear your Borning Cry
Hymn: Baptized in Water
Keywords: Baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit, Democracy, Capitol Insurrection. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
In reading about the texts for today’s sermon,
Particularly this reading from Mark, about the baptism of Jesus,
I came across this fascinating question, posed by a pastor from Minneapolis
Named Elton Brown.
Pastor Brown asks: just how did that dove descend?
Let’s briefly recap everything:
All four of the gospel narratives tell us that Jesus began his adult ministry
here, at the Jordan river,
where Jesus presented himself to the wild and hairy personality that we call John the Baptist
And asked John to dunk him under the water too.
Mark is the oldest of the Gospels.
It was written first,
and as you read it you get the sense that Mark is in a hurry,
that he’s got all this stuff inside of him that he just has to get down on paper.
It makes those of us who fret over what to say a bit jealous,
Those of us who wonder where to find the right words,
Or toss and turn over what can be useful to talk about during a time of national crisis
(and take your pick, my friends, Covid or insurrection or nationalism or racism).
Mark was one of those creatives who was so full of content, so bursting with this story
That it feels like he simply erupted,
using short, staccato sentences in the Greek
favoring words like ‘immediately’ and ‘just then’
to stitch story to story.
One can imagine Mark just writing and writing and writing from start to finish
This narrative is just that important.
It is a short book…the shortest gospel
And it feels more like a sprint than a marathon—
A story of urgency.
As an aside, the other Gospel writers,
At least Matthew and Luke,
clearly had a copy of this text on their bookshelves.
They match Mark’s content and storyline quite closely
even as they seem to want to slow down,
to linger in their telling of the story.
They’ve had the benefit of hindsight
Maybe 10 or 15 years having passed
Since whatever incident or impetus prompted Mark to put pen to paper to get it all down.
Scholars think that it was probably a major disruption in the community—
Something like the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem
around the year 69 or 70 –
That must have been the catalyst for Mark,
maybe some feeling caused by that disruption
that the time was right to take all these stories about Jesus
that were being shared in oral form
person to person, mother to son, father to daughter, neighbor to neighbor
and to write them down,
to preserve them
to help them be shared more widely to people who desperately need to hear
what the overarching story had to say.
When I was a kid, I’m guessing 8 or 9 years old,
I lived in a small rural town called Atlantic, Iowa.
If you live here in Kansas City,
you can take 71 highway due north and drive through it just before you hit I-80.
I was out on my bike with a friend one afternoon,
And it felt like it was a long way away from home
Because it was out there where the town ended, where it just stopped,
Some concrete parking lots and strip malls and the discount store on one side of the highway
And on the other side was farmland for as far as the eye could see.
Atlantic isn’t all that big a town,
and I couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes from home on my bicycle
but like I said, I was 8 or 9
and it felt like I was about as far from home as I could get.
We were riding our bikes out there by those shops
And we could sense a storm coming
The way that you do, some summer afternoons
The wind shifting a bit
The skies darken
Birds start flying the other way.
And I remember looking out across the highway,
across some of that farmland
And seeing my very first tornado
Maybe three or four miles away
Clear cyclone shape as it touched the ground…
And what do you do?
Well, I freaked out.
I don’t think I said goodbye to my friend:
I just turned and pushed my bike to go home
as fast as my legs would get me there
Up the driveway
into the garage
And started telling my mom and my brother and anyone who would listen
That there was a tornado coming and it was crazy
And can you believe that I saw it
And were we in any danger
And what should we do
And how would we be able to handle it and someone grab the dog
You begin to get a sense of the immediacy of such things
When you’ve experienced the urgency of the now
A bona fide, real and present danger
Palpable and raw.
Tornadoes can do that, whether you’re 8 or an adult.
We were ok. The tornado didn’t come into town.
But I was thinking about that this week reading Mark
Taking in the news
Praying about all of the whirlwind of our lives and this crazy week.
As a church, since October we’ve been praying for wisdom, guidance,
and peace for our leaders, lifting up those of good will and the common good, that is,
the good of the lot of us, not just some of us. We’ve been praying for justice too.
And as a church, since mid November, we’ve modified that some,
praying for a peaceful transition amongst the same.
I’m still praying for that, even after five people were killed at the US Capitol this week
During a, what, a protest, a riot, an insurrection, an attempt to thwart our democracy?
There’s a feeling of urgency right now, of putting out a fire that was set ablaze
About wanting a rain shower to come and dampen the flames so that we can put it out
If we can agree enough about what to do in order to do that.
Come, Lord Jesus. Quickly come and help us.
So Mark starts his urgent story
And, notably, this Good News story, with John the Baptist,
the one who heralds the coming of a savior, someone to ameliorate this broken world,
to put things back together and, more than that, to make it better.
John was a character.
Again, Mark was in a hurry, breathlessly recounting what happened
But he took time to tell us what John wore and what he ate and how bizarre all that was,
Not because he wanted us, the reader, to think he was bizarre,
But to connect him to an ancient prophet named Elijah, another guy scruffy and wild
Who had a special connection to God.
John was a servant.
He loved the people, and spent time with them
Listening to them, hearing about their issues and their stress and their sins.
And then he dunked them in the river and pointed them to new life.
It was amazing, apparently,
People flocked to him to get some of that sensation of swirling water as they went under
Only to rise up, renewed, refresh, reborn.
But John wasn’t one to let his popularity, his importance, his role go to his head.
He wasn’t power hungry. Instead, he pointed to Jesus.
Ambiguously, at first. Jesus hadn’t been introduced just yet. That would be the next verse.
Here John talks instead about “the one who is more powerful than I am…”
“I dunk you in water. That guy brings the Holy Spirit…and when he brings it, watch out!”
The story then ends with just three more verses:
Jesus shows up,
He was baptized.
And when he emerges from that sensation of swirling water
And rising up, renewed, refresh, reborn
He sees the heavens torn open
And the spirit, descending, like a dove upon him
And there is that voice:
My son, my beloved you are:
With you I am well pleased….
And off Mark goes again with the rest of the story…he can’t hardly hold it in.
So how did that dove descend?
That was Pastor Brown’s question.[i]
Brown answered this way:
Gently, if 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-apart” sky.
Many congregations love to sing “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”
Perhaps preferring the “sweet heavenly dove”
To the wild-wind/fierce flame Spirit.
And then Pastor Brown ends with a zinger:
Are our baptism rituals sometimes so nice
That we neglect to mention the uncomfortable implications
Of inviting God’s Spirit to invade our lives?
I chuckled a bit at that image of our baptism rituals,
Remembering how I try to fill the font with warm water
So as to soothe, rather than shock, those infants
That I am honored and humbled to baptize.
Sometimes the warm water works.
Sometimes they cry anyway. Sometimes so loudly,
indignant that anyone would pour water on their head
during that wonderful dream they’re having…
A sign for all of us that sometimes the Holy Spirit intervenes anyway,
even when we’re trying to manage the Holy Spirit and make everything comfortable.
Do we try to do that too much? Dampen the movement of the spirit? Keep it comfortable?
I don’t know.
I do know that the Spirit moves where it will, regardless.
I believe the Spirit often speaks to us in a still small voice
In the quiet moments when we need rest and healing and calm.
It does seek to comfort the afflicted…
So don’t get me wrong.
But I also know that there are times that the spirit keeps us up at night
With that nagging conscience that we have to go make amends for something we did
Or how it prompts people to brave heroic acts to try to protect the life or dignity of another
Or it helps people run when danger approaches
Or it tells us that something is wrong,
and that the truth is ringing and it is only going to get louder until we hear it.
I do love that song, by the way,
There’s a Sweet Sweet Spirit.
But that’s not the only way the spirit moves.
Did that dove come down gently
Or was it more like a deluge, a sudden rain-shower over the Jordan river
With a crash from heaven telling Jesus that he was beloved, that he had a purpose,
That he was to pick up God’s cause of healing and feeding
and sharing compassion for our neighbor
and talking with tax collectors and prostitutes and calling out people’s hypocrisy?
There’s another favorite song I have for days like today:
Wade in the Water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
…God’s gonna trouble the water…
Is it one, or the other?
I don’t know, its probably both, depending on what God is up to,
but the possibilities have been swirling within me all week.
I would like to offer a few possible implications of all of this
for where we are this morning.
There are times when our faith comforts, and when it challenges.
We don’t often get to choose. That’s a God thing.
I tend not to like absolutes, either/or, when it comes to what God is doing,
But I do know that God calls us to do something when the water is stirring
And sometimes God calls out for the storm to simmer down,
Like when the disciples are in the boat, and Jesus is asleep.
I don’t have a crystal ball to see what the next 10 days are going to bring,
Much less the 100 days after that.
I am spending my time praying for the stability of our nation
I’m still praying for the peaceful transition of power
that those who actively seek to undermine it, like our President, will be held to account
that the white supremacists who walked through the capitol
with confederate and neo-nazi flags will be repudiated,
And for a reassertion that democracy only works when as many of us as possible
honor it the best we can.
It reminds me of the insightful words of Reinhold Niebuhr,[ii]
A theologian who wrote during the world wars
and nuclear threats of the 20th century:
Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; Niebuhr wrote,
But Man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
Putting aside his annoyingly male-centered language,
Using ‘man’ when he means ‘human being…’
What he was trying to argue was what a gift democracy was,
To help a people thrive
And the responsibility of the people of God to seek to undergird it
with the values of integrity, honesty, compassion, and pursuit of justice…
Jesus’ values, God’s values, theological values.
Because human nature is such that, left without those values,
We can devolve into conflict rather quickly.
I do think we need to be careful in not trying to push prematurely for calm
If calm is not what God is doing.
Who knows. Maybe this week God is helping rally all of us back to a common purpose.
Jan Edmiston, a pastor friend and blogger,
Wrote a post this week entitled
“Something Jesus Never Said: Let’s Pretend Like it Didn’t Happen.”[iii]
And she’s right.
Her point is that Jesus never avoided addressing a problem directly,
Certainly not to avoid dividing people, not for cheap grace
or because people would be upset that he was getting political.
Jesus did what was right because it was right,
And always, always, out of compassion for those he encountered
Out of love for the other.
She lists some examples:
Jesus could have avoided the woman at the well,
instead of engaging in conversation with her.
He could have just walked past Zacchaeus sitting up there in the sycamore tree
To avoid the criticism of dealing with a tax collector.
He could have avoided lepers, bleeding people, the mentally anguished,
doing anything on the sabbath,
to avoid the criticism of the pharisees…
And you begin to see her point.
Jesus was trying to show us something,
by his very engagement with the problems of our world
by leading with these core values of peace, justice, and reconciliation
love for neighbor,
tending to people’s real needs,
trying to help lift up the poor and marginalized, and so on…
as a way to build a better world, the Kingdom of God.
People thought he was mad.
They would put him to death for it.
But he lives, because love is more powerful than death,
And we find salvation, and hope, in that ever-living, ever-loving God.
Today is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
And upon reflection,
maybe it wasn’t the calm baptism we often think of
but a more dynamic affair
one where Jesus is launched into his ministry by the movement and power of the Holy Spirit.
During these dynamic moments, in our world,
We have an opportunity to follow Jesus
out of the water and into the world,
To love and to serve and to heal
to insist on truth and justice
to hold together both calls to repentance and calls to reconciliation.
Baptism is a sacrament of welcome, of inclusion in the body of Christ,
A sign and a seal that we matter to God,
No matter the color of our skin
Or our partisan affiliation
Or our sexual orientation or gender identity
Or any other worldly condition…
That we matter to God
And that we are all siblings, all family, because of God.
Baptism welcomes us into the church, the ek-lessia
Which literally means the called-out people, the people who have a purpose
The people asked to bear Christ’s very name, Christian, out into the world
So we can be like Jesus for one another.
Does that baptism comfort us, calm us,
Or does it agitate us, stir us up to do great things for God?
Well, yes and yes.
It can be both at the same time,
Because there is no greater comfort than knowing that you belong, that you matter,
That God loves you, no matter what…
And there is no greater calling than to be aware that that God who loves you
Equips you to serve and to love and to work so that this world God made,
so that all people who call it home, can thrive.
Today we’re going to ordain and install new leaders,
Ruling elders and deacons, people who aren’t going to do all the work of a church
But will help us figure out how to be the best church we can be
Whether during a pandemic
Or in response to hunger or homelessness or heartache in our community
Or when injustice reigns and needs to hear a resounding ‘no’.
So may we remember our baptism
And consider what it means to be both comforted by a loving God
And compelled to radically, endlessly, selflessly love others because of our Lord Jesus
The one more powerful than John the Baptist
The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
And may our baptism energize us
As we seek to serve a hurting world.
May it be so.
[i] “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 1:4-11, Baptism of the Lord” in David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds Feasting on the Word®: Year B, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 236.
[ii] From his book Children of Light and Children of Darkness (1944) Forward.