I think of the Gospel of Mark as the Associated Press version of biblical literature: no poetry, no drama, little context, few adjectives, quick-moving, short, and to the point. Just the facts, ma’am.
And so it is that Mark covers the truly momentous occasion of Jesus’ baptism in just a handful of verses. Mark doesn’t set the scene. We don’t know what Jesus was feeling or what he was wearing. We don’t know how Jesus got all the way to the River Jordan from his home in Nazareth or whether anyone was with him. We don’t know if he was on a personal spiritual pilgrimage or whether he’d joined his home synagogue’s summer mission trip. Come to think of it, we don’t know what time of year it was.
Then again, maybe that is part of the reason for Mark’s spare style. He leaves it to us to fill in the blanks, read between the lines, and see God’s Spirit at work.
And so I invite you this morning to put yourself in Jesus’ dusty and well-worn sandals. Take a moment and think about why you have journeyed all this way. Consider what or whom you are looking for. Ask yourself what you are hoping to find or to feel. Ponder just what it is that you need from worship this morning.
And now, returning to Jesus’ sandals at the bank of the muddy Jordan River, look around at the long line of lost and seeking souls who have come out into the wilderness to find redemption and hope and maybe, just maybe, a savior. They flock to that wild man John the Baptist like moths to a flame. Jesus’ motives may be somewhat different, but just like everyone else, he takes off his sandals and steps into the brown water that his ancestors crossed thousands of years earlier on their wayward journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Just like the others, Jesus lets his cousin John lower him down into that water and lift him up into the newness of life.
I invite you this morning to imagine yourself, just like Jesus, coming up out of the waters of baptism, newly alive to the blessed truth that you belong to God, newly conscious that you are beloved of God, newly attuned to the brokenness and pain of the world, newly aware of God’s presence in it, and suddenly awakened to your place in that world.
Mark is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing, but, except for that hair-raising flight to Egypt when Jesus was still in diapers, it is the most dramatic thing Jesus has ever experienced. God’s Spirit is breaking into the world—again—this time as the skies part to reveal something like a dove and a voice saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?
So overwhelmed is Jesus that he retreats into the wilderness, neither eating nor drinking as he tries to wrap his head around this belovedness business, the whole kingdom of God thing and how it jibes, or doesn’t, with the Roman Empire and the chief priests and all the people he grew up with who are just trying to survive. It takes Jesus—even Jesus—a long time to grasp the power of Love. Just when it seems he is beginning to understand the self-giving nature of divine love, evil shows up to remind him how hungry he is for the things of this world. Just when he is beginning to allow his heart to break open to the pain of the world, evil shows up to offer him an easy way out.
By the time Jesus has begun to live into the fullness of what it means to be beloved of God, by the time he emerges from the wilderness ready to spend himself so that others might know themselves beloved and healed and whole, some 40 days have gone by.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; this is Baptism of Christ Sunday—not Lent.
In the Before Times, this would be one of my favorite Sundays of the year, the day when I would have the opportunity to look you in the eyes, draw a wet cross on your forehead, and tell you that you are God’s beloved, that with you, God is well pleased. Some of you might get a little teary; and I would weep at the joy and beauty and wonder of it all.
But the coronavirus pandemic, which has now taken some 375,000 American lives and upended many millions more, will not allow for that today.
And still, and especially in light of Wednesday’s white supremacist insurrection at the United States Capitol, it seems to me that we would do well to reflect on various kinds of baptism, to come up out of the comfortable waters of privilege and look and listen for how the Spirit is breaking into the world yet again. It seems to me it might take us a while, as it did Jesus, to fully absorb both the pain and the hope of what is happening and to begin to understand our role in it. I would like to explore some of the power dynamics of the situation, especially the struggle between good and evil, democracy and white supremacy, next week, on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday.
But for now, at least for me, to go all in on political and social analysis feels too much like escape. For now, at least for me, it seems more important to lament: to sit with our anger, our pain, our distress, and our anxiety—to ground ourselves in God’s dream for all creation and to look up from the blood-stained waters of our nation’s past and present to see where and how the Spirit of Love is moving. If it is too soon to talk about healing and coming together, and I believe it is, the time is always right to realize that healing is hard and holy work.
When we see the heavens torn open or the U.S. Capitol under siege, we are shaken to the core. And when our world is rocked, when our framework for understanding how things work is stripped away, we find ourselves in what can become a transformative, teachable moment. It is when our hearts are broken open that the Light gets in; it is when the ground is shifting that we can build a better foundation.
On Wednesday afternoon, when the conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, and Trump loyalists had broken into the Capitol building and were making their way through the Rotunda to the House chamber, when the halls were filled with the sounds of breaking glass and angry chants, security officials told House members and journalists in the gallery to reach under their seats and grab the “escape hoods,” protective masks that had been developed after the deadly 9/11 attacks.
I have read and heard several Congress members and journalists compare their experiences on Wednesday to the horrors of 9/11, and it feels instructive to me, if for very different reasons. You see, the 9/11 attacks, perpetrated by foreigners who were directed by Osama bin Laden, allowed us to sustain the delusion that our greatest enemies, the gravest threats to our safety and well being were located outside of us. And so we waged two foreign wars, we abused Muslims and other foreigners, we spent obscene amounts of money to fortify national security, and we used threats to the “homeland” to justify all manner of surveillance and restrictions.
But Wednesday’s violent coup attempt, carried out by a mob of white Americans, gives the lie to the myth of the enemy “other.” The home-grown plot to overthrow Congress and steal an election should force our nation to confront the truth that our greatest liability, our deepest wound, our truest enemy comes not from without, but within. The white supremacy that fueled Wednesday’s attack is rooted in our own history; it is part of who we are. It is who we are.
And if we—as individuals, communities, institutions, the church, and a nation—want to heal or come together or live into the fullness of who we are created and called to be, we must come to terms with that.
Sure, Donald Trump could be removed from office for inciting sedition—and I believe he should be—but that will not resolve our fundamental problem. Everyone who infiltrated the Capitol and destroyed property could be tracked down and arrested, but that will not facilitate racial justice. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris could say all the right things, but no political party or platform can adequately address the 400 years’ worth of racial hatred embedded in our hearts, our laws, and our institutions.
Only spiritual transformation can do that. Only a deep and wide commitment to the work of anti-racism can do that. Only the Spirit of Love can do that.
Which brings us back to baptism and belovedness.
May we consider Wednesday’s horrible display of hatred a baptism of fire. May it awaken us to all the ways God longs to move within us and among us to heal us.
And still, as much as I long to look into your eyes, to tell you that you are God’s beloved, and that with you God is well pleased, I confess that I could not, right now at least, say the same to the individuals who participated in Wednesday’s rampage or to the many, many more who share their hateful beliefs. I am too angry, too sad, too wounded for that.
But I believe that God, in her infinite heart of Love, does say that—to all the hateful parts of me and to all the people I consider hateful. I do want to be able to see my enemies and the wounded parts of myself with God’s eyes. And with my very desire, with our feeble attempts to love as God loves, God is well pleased.