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Defining Moments

Mark 1:4-ll
Genesis 1:1-5

Each one of us can no doubt point to moments that have defined our lives; crossroads, when our choices or events changed our direction. A choice to marry…or to end a marriage….the birth of a child… a death…a choice to follow God’s way….the decision to come out as a gay or lesbian person….a choice of career….a choice to change countries… a choice to break silence about abuse … a choice to live in a way that is not self-betraying.

Today we read about a defining moment in Jesus’ life as he chose to be baptized and to begin his public ministry. Last week we were still reading stories about Jesus’ birth and wise men who visited, Today the adult Jesus bursts on the scene. We know next to nothing about Jesus’ childhood. Mark’s gospel doesn’t even begin with birth, but with Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the wilderness. This is a turning point in Jesus’ life; at the beginning of a journey. Had he been experiencing a strong sense of God’s call in his life? Was he struggling to discern exactly what that meant? What brought him out to the wildnerness to this dangerous, risky place?

Let’s try to make sense of this story as Mark tells it. There are lots of signals that the writer is telling readers to pay attention! something incredibly significant is happening! Let’s unpack some of these. First you have John a dramatic figure, dressed like the ancient prophet Elijah, Elijah’s return was said to herald the coming of God’s Messiah, the one God would send to save the people. Mark invites the hearers to make those connections. Not so hidden text….Pay attention this Jesus is the Messiah long promised!

And then there is the place where this all happens, the river Jordan, the sacred river through which the Israelites passed in order to enter the new life of the Promised Land, the healing river in which Naaman bathed to be cleansed of leprosy. Images of Moses, the exodus from Egypt, and the entry of God’s people into the land of promise would be evoked. Not so hidden message!….Pay attention this Jesus is the new Moses, liberating the people.
And there’s a third major connection Mark wants his readers to hear as well. Mark speaks of the Spirit being like a dove, hovering over this new beginning. The symbolism would not have been lost on the readers of Mark’s gospel familiar with the stories in Genesis. They’d call to mind the Spirit hovering over the water at the birth of Creation They’d remember God’s affirmation that “It is good, It is very good”; Ah! Mark is saying Jesus was the beginning of a new creation; a new age is coming! They’d recall Noah’s dove who after 40 days and 40 nights of chaos brought the covenant promise and olive branch to Noah to say that life was possible- that there was still a place where life could grow and renew itself. Ah! Mark is saying that in Jesus there is a promise of a new beginning to life even in the chaos of this Roman occupation. In Jesus there is hope even though it feels as if the world is falling apart. They’d hear all of these key messages just in the way Mark told the story.

The first act of creation was the creation of light-and the distinction between light and darkness, and the naming of the light and the naming of the darkness. The Priests, many centuries earlier than Jesus who wrote this account of creation were saying not only that God was at the Source of all that is, but that both light and dark, both order and chaos are part of integrated creation, companions of creation and the creator. The universe is not alien and unfriendly, they are saying, but at its very source is the creating breath of a Spirit of life in whom we live and move and have our being. And there is another thing they are concerned to say, that God saw what God had created and said that it was good.

In this season of waters breaking in the God-forsaken town of Bethlehem and new life emerging in the chaos, and darkness of political turmoil, military threat, economic hardship, physical discomfort, we are reminded again of God’s love affair with creation, and with embodiment.

OK so there’s all those clues hidden in this scripture, but there is another whole level to read this scripture as well- A contextual level. What’s going on. It happens in a time of empire, when Rome had trampled and occupied Palestine. Resistance movements came and were crushed. People are intrigued by John’s message, and crowds flock to listen. This is enough to make the civil and religious authorities anxious. They wonder: who is John, and what does this message of repentance mean? Herod’s spies were hanging around the edges of the crowd, and John’s life was in palpable danger, because he was seen as a possible revolutionary.

The Jordan River was a dangerous place for Jesus to be. Simply by being identified with John, Jesus was taking a risk. I wonder if those whom Jesus later calls as disciples were also out in this crowd gathered around John. In fact soon after this, John is arrested and put in prison, and this news seems to have spurred Jesus into action with his own ministry. I wonder what was stirring in Jesus to make him want to go to this place where danger lurked, where resistance was gathering.

John had created a strong following of people searching for a new way; people unhappy with the status quo, people looking for more integrity for their personal living, and for their culture. John’s message is both abrasive and attractive. John told them them that the in breaking Reign of God is very near. John preached, and it will require radical transformation of individuals and of culture –repentance- a whole paradigm shift! Life had to change right to the very core! Cosmetic changes to the surface were not enough. We have to change our way of thinking and acting.

Sounds like the calls for peaceful solutions in the Gaza horror from those who hold a vision of an end to violence between Arab and Israeli…. We have to change our way of thinking and acting. Sounds like the messages we are hearing from those who call for conversion of our thinking and acting around climate change, We have to change our way of thinking and acting. ….But, there is much resistance to the radical requirements of the new thinking…. Just as there was in Jesus’ day.

To symbolize the turnabout required in peoples’ lives, the dying to the old and the rising to the new, John practiced a ritual of baptism. It symbolized a new beginning, a commitment to be part of turning the world around, beginning with one’s own life. Baptism was not an end in itself, but rather the beginning of a process of a choice for life attuned to God.

Jesus asks John to baptize him as well. Did he do this in solidarity with the message of transformed living which John preached?  We don’t know. But baptism for Jesus did not just happen. It was a radical choice. Jesus chose to leave familiar places to go out into the wilderness. He chose to offer himself to this movement of transformation that John preached. After his baptism Jesus experienced the Spirit symbolized as a dove hovering over the water, and God’s creating Words of affirmation “This is my beloved in whom I delight” . It’s interesting that Jesus has not done anything yet in terms of ministry, in terms of calling his followers, in terms of healing, preaching. So God’s affirmation comes before he has “earned” it.

But baptism was just the beginning. Jesus’ life from then on was certainly not a roadmap all laid out, a plan in which Jesus just had to follow the dots to get to the treasure. It was not a beginning without suffering, and struggle. The very next words in Mark are that the spirit immediately led Jesus out into the wilderness, where for 40 days and nights he struggled with the meaning of his ministry, and the meaning of being a beloved child of God. He had to wrestle with what he was called to do, called to be, and with the path that would have the most integrity for him. He faced temptation, competing world-views pulling him in different directions. He wrestled with his demons, listening for the Spirit, opening himself to God’s possibility.
 How those words of being called God’s beloved, God’s delight, must have sustained and perhaps confused him in those times.

Baptism for each of us is a beginning, a time of letting go of old values and taking on new ones rooted in being a son or daughter of creation. As did Jesus, we too have to struggle with the call to discipleship, to wrestle with discovering what special gift we have been given by God, and what we are to do with it in the continuing creation.

But baptism is also about receiving, about being affirmed, about belonging. Jesus rose up from the waters with a strong sense of God’s affirmation, “This is my beloved, in whom I delight” Imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to have that sense of being God’s delight-God’s joy. Can you allow yourself to imagine receiving this affirmation for yourself; to imagine God’s spirit surrounding you with blessing; with affirmation; indeed with delight. Let yourself feel the power for life this can give-the healing this can give-the energy this can unlock with in you, as you let yourself be received and affirmed this way by the Source of Life that throbs at the heart of creation-this sense that you are not a stranger in a hostile universe- but that you belong- to a God who loves you- and delights in you,

Baptism is a radical act of choice that goes to the very root of things. It’s about how we choose to live and with whom we choose to journey. It’s about accepting the grace and affirmation of a living God and living courageously out of it. It’s about choosing to live life with the sense of God’s presence and calling on our life, even when this takes us into dangerous situations. Baptism is a radical Act.

Come Holy Spirit, rebirth us in your life-giving waters, breathe hope and possibility into our chaos, Help us to dance with joy and hope, when there seems little to celebrate, and to feel new life deep within. Bless us that we might choose life in all its fullness, and be part of creating justice and healing in our world. Sustain us with your affirmation that we too are your deeply beloved, your delight, and that you know us by name. Amen.



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