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The sermon for week January 08, 2012

January 8, 2012
Mark 1: 4-11 He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
Acts 19:1-7 “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”

In the way the Church keeps time today is the first Sunday after Epiphany. The word itself means “manifestation” or “showing.” Epiphany is a season in which the Light increases as the identity of Christ becomes clear. Today a season of new life begins for the Church as Jesus joins with us in baptism. Epiphany is a time to recommit ourselves to the journey of faith which began with our own baptism. It is a perpetual season of discovering our true identity as it is reflected in the Light of the life of Jesus.

Epiphany falls in early January when we may be feeling wistful for the scents and sounds of the Christmas season now that the decorations are put away. Given a choice, we may prefer to linger at the manger with the shepherds and the wise men. But the gospel of Mark never mentions the nativity of Jesus. Mark’s gospel begins in the wilderness where people from all over the Judean countryside and the city of Jerusalem came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. As we have just defined it, Mark’s gospel is one long Epiphany, beginning with the baptism of Jesus.

Mark describes what happened: “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 on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is a strange scene with layers of meaning. Scholars have long debated why the one who was “tempted as we are, yet without sin” should submit to John’s baptism of repentance. The prudent preacher treads softly on such a loaded text as this.

According to the text there is nothing about Jesus that distinguishes him from all the other men who came to John to be baptized that day. Mark is careful to describe Jesus as coming from Nazareth in Galilee; but that is all. From what Mark tells us we can only assume that Jesus was born and raised in the Jewish community, where he would have read the Hebrew scripture and worshipped in the synagogue.

Jesus offered this explanation to his cousin, John, about his need to be baptized by him in the Jordan River with all the others on that day, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” he said. (Matt. 3:15) So Jesus submitted to the baptism of John in the Jordan River; but when Jesus came up out of the water everything had changed!

In her book Holy the Firm Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize winning author and naturalist, describes the event as though her words were a broad brush dipped in sun drenched colors.

“Christ is being baptized,” she writes. “The one who is Christ is there, and the one who is John, and the dim other people standing on cobbles or sitting on beach logs back from the bay. These are ordinary people—if I am one now, if those are ordinary sheep singing a song in the pasture…

He lifts from the water. Water beads on his shoulders. I see the water in balls as heavy as planets, a billion beads of water as weighty as worlds, and he lifts them up on his back as he rises…

Outside is bright. The surface of things outside the drops has fused…It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable. There is no speech nor language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time.

There is only this everything. There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise”…

As Dillard suggests in her poetic description, Jesus’ baptism is an act in which the world that had become segregated comes together again, in “one glare of holiness.” It is an act that includes both the human and divine, the ordinary and extraordinary. It is sacramental… an outward and visible expression of an inward and spiritual grace.

In Dillard’s description we are given an artist’s vision of the extraordinary in the ordinary; a verbal reminder that divinity is not so much hidden as disguised!

The distance between the ordinary and extraordinary, the human and the divine often appear insurmountable to our limited faith and human imagination. Mark’s gospel provides a window for us from which we can see how Jesus goes about narrowing that gap.

In his baptism Jesus became totally identified with all those who had plunged into the water before him. John called them “vipers.”’ Others labeled them prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, poor, sick or disabled. Jesus called them family. Jesus became like all of us, so that we might become like him.

Just as Jesus would later change the Law by fulfilling it; Jesus reinterpreted the significance of baptism from the repentance of John to the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the power of God to perform the work of God. By submitting to John’s baptism Jesus expressed solidarity with all humanity and created a signature in water that became a sacrament of the church.

In the community of faith ordinary people bring a child to the baptismal font swaddled in its parents’ love to receive an earthly name and claim a sacred inheritance.

Water, taken from a tap is poured over another tiny head, and once more faith transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. Divinity drops its disguise. The human and the divine are one. And as Annie Dillard observed, “There is only this. There is only this everything.”

Water not only takes the shape we give it; but it changes significance according to how we use it. By faith ordinary tap water becomes holy water and ordinary babies are recognized as divine. Such a transformation is possible in a community of faith where baptism is a sign and symbol of God’s delight in us. Baptism is a watermark that acts as a powerful reminder that we belong to God and to each other. Each time a person is baptized it is a sign that God exists, welcomes and calls us to live out our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus did.

In our baptism we pause at the water’s edge like Jesus, encircled by a cloud of witnesses. We are marked with a sign of faith and immersed in a story, deep and wide in its proportions. Baptism is a sign of the new birth that begins the process of Epiphany in us, a process which conforms us into the image of God’s Son through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

In Jesus Christ, God has entered into our lives in the most intimate way, so that we could enter into his life through the Spirit. Jesus came to live among us as we are, so that by imparting his Spirit to us, we may become as he is! The Holy Spirit is the power that makes our ordinary lives divine.

Baptism is about transformation, but none of us has the power to affect it. We may record the day in photographs; but if your baptism was anything like mine, the means of my transformation does not appear in any of them.

When I emerged from the waters of baptism at the age of 16 my wet head was full of the “theology of good intentions.” I had met Jesus; but the Holy Spirit was a stranger to me. I had no idea that another baptism was even possible.

And neither did the believers Paul encountered in Ephesus, in our reading this morning from Acts. They confessed they had received the baptism of John; but admitted: “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul ministered to them in prayer; and a group of frightened disciples were transformed into apostolic prophets and teachers fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Like the elements of wind or fire with which it is often identified, the Spirit is a Mystery whose identity is most often revealed in the power to effect change…to comfort those who mourn, to bring harmony out of division, to bringing healing and reconciliation, renewal and transformation within and among us.

Where the Spirit is, “There is only this everything…this one glare of holiness.”

The Spirit is the DNA of God expressed in creation. It is the Light that shines in the darkness, the energy in the wave, the music in the sound, the math in the numbers, the architect’s line, the poet’s muse, the baby’s first breath, the color red.

How are we to speak of the mysterious working of the Spirit, without resorting to poetry? The Holy Spirit speaks the language of love, and we can only stutter in our attempts to describe the experience. Love is the energy that gave birth to the Church. It is nothing less than the energy God uses to transform the world.

By submitting to the baptism of John, Jesus identified fully with our humanity. By our baptism in the Spirit we are fully identified with his divinity and empowered to carry on the work of Christ in the world. At Pentecost the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, creating the Church…not from a select group; but ordinary sons and daughters, young and old, slaves and free. What a colorful and eclectic group the Church was born to be!

We may not have emerged from a muddy Jordan at our own baptisms; but like Jesus, our identity as a child of God is affirmed in baptism. Surrounded by the community of faith we are named, and claimed as a child of God, disciple of Christ and member of the Church. It is a sign of belonging to God and to each other.

The water of baptism creates a family of faith united by a common vocation. It is belonging to God that sanctifies us in the work God has called us to do, whether that work is diapering an infant, assembling an automobile or balancing a corporate account.

At the baptism of Jesus we are all included when the Voice from heaven speaks, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

God is still speaking, as the ad campaign for the United Church of Christ suggests. And God will speak through the ordinary elements of bread and water and through ordinary people like you and me who, in a season of transition, bear all the signs of Epiphany as we develop the vision of what God is calling us to be.

So welcome to the season of Epiphany, the season of listening for the God who is still speaking, the season of becoming transformed into the Church with whom God is well pleased.

Thanks be to God! Amen


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