In his book entitled, “Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s who”, pastor/theologian, Frederick Buechner, expands upon what scripture tells us about John the Baptist. He writes;
“John the Baptist didn’t fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled. When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time.
The Kingdom was coming all right, he said, but if you thought it was going to be pink tea, you’d better think again. If you didn’t shape up, God would give you the axe like an elm with the blight or toss you into the incinerator like what’s left over when you’ve lambasted the good out of the wheat.”
We come together today, on the first Sunday of Epiphany, to celebrate the feast day known as The Baptism of our Lord, the day that commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John, the locust and honey eating, altar calling, repentance preaching, man of the wild himself.
It is a day that should cause us to reflect on the baptisms being done by John in the wilderness, on how Jesus’ own baptism forever changed those that would follow… and thus on our own baptisms as well.
For John, influenced by the Jewish traditions of the time, those rooted in Old Testament law, baptism was about repentance. It was a ritualistic washing away of ones wrongdoings that they would be made pure again… that they would be made right within their community and before God…
In following Torah Law, those who were washed by John, Jesus included, did so in what scripture deems as “living water”, natural bodies of water like the Jordan, or, in places where living water wasn’t as readily available, pools of water filled by natural springs, known as mikveh.
As is often the case throughout the Hebrew language, the word mikveh, means more than it appears. So while the word mikveh came to be linked most often with these ritual baths, it translates literally as “a collection or binding together”… a collection or binding together…
If we dig a bit further into the Hebrew, we learn that mikveh shares the same root as the Hebrew word for “hope” (tikvah), for “line” (kav), and for the notion of “hoping or waiting for God” (kivit I’Adonai).
That as people come together for worship, they should be washed from the impure things of the world, from their sins and wrongdoings, and bind themselves to one another as a community of faith in hopeful anticipation of God’s presence. Not too far from the purpose our order of confession which we begin our worship with just about every week.
It’s with this tradition in mind, that John the Baptist washes Jesus in the Jordan River… that Jesus comes to be washed… that through such, this ritual washing of repentance and forgiveness, of communal binding, becomes something far greater…
Mark describes that as Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, with the Spirit descending upon him like a dove and a voice coming with it proclaiming, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Suddenly, through Jesus’ baptism, through the heavens being torn apart and the spirit descending… John’s washing and his call for repentance for the forgiveness of sins, moves from a rite for entrance into community and for aligning oneself with God… to a promise that God aligns Godself with us…
As the heavens are “torn apart”, Mark gives us the Greek, skizo, in the form of a passive verb… the same we will hear again when the temple curtain is “torn apart” as Jesus breathes his last, thus framing the whole of Mark’s gospel with the in breaking of God’s presence through Christ as the Son of God. From baptism to the cross… from new life to death.
In all of our reflections on baptism, we are left with the question of what it all means. Of what it means for us as individuals… of what it means for us as the people of God, which we are baptized into.
In the verses directly following our gospel reading for today, Mark writes that Jesus was immediately drove into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he was tempted by Satan. In many ways, the same could be said for us. Marked with the cross of Christ, we too are sent out into the wilderness and tempted by Satan… at times, our lives torn apart…
Yet as it was for Jesus… the Spirit is with us in our times in the wild… from baptism to death… As Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed as he was led to his execution in the Flossenburg concentration camp, “For some this is the end, but for me it is the beginning.”
In our Lutheran language, we often speak of baptism as a “means of grace,” that is, one of the ways that God’s grace comes to us.
Physically, it is as simple as a splash of water placed alongside of God’s word. But spiritually, it marks the beginning of a whole new life. One of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Spirit, of our union with Jesus, and of our becoming part of the community of believers across the world.
As John the Baptist called for in his baptisms, we are called daily to recognize our sins and wrongdoings, and to repent… to acknowledge those things we have done against neighbor and God and do what we can to wash them away… to seek to bind ourselves to one another as a community of faith in hopeful anticipation of God’s presence.
But too, we are to rejoice in the good news made true in Jesus’ baptism… that the heavens have been torn apart by the Spirit, the gift given to us as it was on the day of Pentecost. The gift that offers us the assurance that even in our worst moments we are forgiven, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, forever… that names us as children of God whom God is indeed, well pleased…
May God’s grace and mercy wash away the worries of your lives… may it break apart the barriers that seek to keep you in the wilderness… and may the Spirit of God cause you to live out your baptismal life… growing in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God as God’s beloved children.
~Pastor Andrew Geib