Mark 1:4-11 and Acts 19:1-7.
Schedules in the secular world are crazy before Christmas, but every worship planner knows the church’s schedule goes wild once Christmas is here. Just 12 days, a few Sundays, and so much holy story to remember… raise up… relive.
The arrival of the Magi. Jesus’ dedication in the Temple on the 8th day. The prophecies of Simeon and Anna. The massacre of the innocents. The flight to Egypt.
But there’s more– there’s good King Wencelas, Amal and the Night Visitors, and all those hymns and carols we hope to squeeze in before the decorations are taken down and it’s all packed away until next year.
And the baptism of Jesus falls in here too. On Epiphany in the Eastern Church, and later that same week in the Western Church. I always wondered why the church wedged the celebration of Jesus’ baptism into
an already over-packed season?
I guess it’s that In Mark’s account of Jesus, without any birth stories, the Gospel begins with John baptizing Jesus. Jesus’ baptism IS the opening of his public ministry.
Much like the Kings coming and telling Mary and Joseph what they have learned of this child, God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism and the Holy Spirit’s descending is another revelation: who this Holy One is… and what he’s called to do.
I admit, I, like Adam, love the poetry of the wise men so much, were it not for Clementine’s baptism today, I might have directed our attention this morning to the Magi and their gifts.
But the Spirit works in mysterious ways… So, as we get ready to access welcome and blessing and grace of baptism, let’s think about what Jesus’ baptism is about…
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Do you ever find yourself uncomfortable with the company you’re seen keeping?
In college, I always had a work study job… often in the dining service. You had to wear these crummy red and white striped shirts and hygenic paper hats. But I always liked working. And it wasn’t the horrible outfit. I just didn’t like my classmates thinking of me among the poor sods who needed to work.
Later in college– I was got arrested at a nuclear protest. Rather than keeping all the protestors together, the police — thinking they’d show us– spread us out through the whole jail. There were 7 guys in the cell with me — a rougher crowd than the college kids I’d come in on the paddy wagon with. But all night long, rather than being rightly scared, I was worried: the other folks in the cell didn’t know I was arrested for protesting. What if they thought I was also in there for drunk driving or shoplifting or whatever had gotten them locked up?
A male friend of mine tells of accompanying a woman to a reproductive clinic, because she was afraid and needed someone to help her get home. He said, while she was in with the doctor, he sat in the waiting room, actually sweating! …because a bunch of people he didn’t know were assuming he was the “guilty” boyfriend.
When my kids were little, one of our neighbors called to ask us to go to the drugstore to buy the RID shampoo when her kids came home from school with lice. She was afraid someone might see her and know. I wondered, why would it be ok for people to wrongly thinking my family had lice? And what did my neighbor fear she’d done wrong? Send her kids to school?
I know someone who in this day and age feels guilty about having cancer– not that he’s responsible for getting sick, but his illness is too clear an indication he needs help for comfort.
All of us wants to be recognized for what we feel is good and strong and impressive about us. And getting mistaken for someone you’re not, unless it’s in you favor, isn’t much fun. But the discomfort I’m talking about is our fear of letting our vulnerabilities show in the company we keep, almost guilt by association… more like ‘recognition by association.’ Letting others see what we perceive as a weakness.
We afraid we’re going to be mistaken (or identified?) as one of “them” — those folks whose bad decisions or missteps or mistakes has wrecked their lives. Speaking theologically, we’re afraid of being seen as sinners.
It’s not that we don’t like sinners. “Some of my best friends are sinners.” We know we live our lives out among them. And many of us build our identities, even careers, on being able to help out in a bind.
We just don’t want to be seen as ONE OF THEM. Don’t want to be recognized as peers to — quote/unqute — “those people.” Seen as part of their set: untucked, rumpled, flawed, needy.
I’ve always wondered, if I were Catholic, how I would feel being seen waiting to go into the confessional?
Wouldn’t we rather try to be seen as better than we are? To be seen as together, self-controlled, powerful, self-sufficient; with more to give than we need to receive.
Beloved, many of us, most of the time, aim at being known as better than we are. And there’s a pathos in that. Maybe even some hopefulness. But, my question… is all that wishng we were, wanna be, would it were so… is it effective?
* * * * * * *
Have you ever been to an AA meeting? Much of the spiritual power available in 12-step programs
comes from the first step– in acknowledging “I have a problem over which I have no control
and my life has become unmanageable.” Well before any mention of a higher power, the whole crowd has already embarked on a different tack from the way we upstanding types try to pass.
If you ever tried to imagine the Jordan was like when John was out their baptizing? Think of a 12-step meeting, minus the coffee. John’s crowd was gathered by their common admission of sin: they were a broken, guilty, sorry set of human beings. The attendance list that day could have read like
the arrest listings in a small town newspaper. Some were big time sinners: everyone knew their crimes. Others, well, you might have been surprised to see them out there. But if you were there to see them…
But their sundry and sordid situations shared something in common: life had beaten all the illusions of innocence out of this crowd. So they trekked out to the wilderness, to this madman waist deep in the river, hoping against hope that muddy Jordan water could wash them. Clean their lives up. Turn them around. Set them on a better course.
But then Jesus showed up. Not to take over the show. Or to show himself as better than anyone. Or even to set himself apart as different. Instead, he got in line right after the last sinner. And waited his turn.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus got baptized? John even tried to talk him out of it. And his P.R. people — this stunt must have made them shudder as if they themselves had been dunked in the cold water.
Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him:
~ to speak with people pastorally, inviting them to change their lives, or
~ to preach a firey sermon exhorting people to resolve to leave behind their evil ways, or
~ to help them when they came out of the river, gasping, all wild-eyed, spitting out water & trying to catch their breath, or
~ to give them a hand at the shore, up out of the river and onto the dry land of their new lives; or even
~ to offer to give John a hand, to spell him from all this dunking…
What was Jesus thinking being seen with that crowd, at the end of that line? You know how stories spread. Especially in church! How we like to throw stones. Even in church!
Can you say the two different paths I’m pointing to? Church keeps prattling about how much God loves sinners all the while church folk go to any extreme in order to make it look like we’ve never so much as sinned. (We wouldn’t want mouths to start wagging or stones throwing!)
Only Jesus seems unconcerned about what people see or say or think. Who knows what he had to be sorry about? But somehow, he wasn’t afraid of the blame that could come of the company he kept.
He got in line. Waited his turn. Went under just like the most hurt and hurtful ones there that day.
Oh, yes, we heard the story: God spoke. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. It was an epiphany, a God sighting. Jesus WAS different.
But the rest of us — out in the wilderness, our feet stinking, feet sinking in the muddy banks along the river’s edge, hoping against hope…
Beloved children of God, there’s no reason to even worry you’re going to be mistaken for one of them.
Because there’s no mistake: we are one of them.
But here’s the good news: Anytime any of us gets baptized, it’s a god-sighting. Because God looks down on us — feet stinking in the muck — and God sees us completely for who we are. And loves us all the more. And then walks us into, welcomes us in the muddy waters of life. Amen.