“Baptized, Beloved, Blessed”

Do you remember that we started the Advent season six weeks ago with words from Isaiah 64? The prophet put into words Israel’s longing and heartbreak, but also their faith and hope. They sounded like this: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …”


The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

Mark 1:4-11

January 10, 2021

Village Chapel Presbyterian Church

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Do you remember that we started the Advent season six weeks ago with words from Isaiah 64? The prophet put into words Israel’s longing and heartbreak, but also their faith and hope. They sounded like this: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …”


I told you that the prayer described by Isaiah was answered in hundreds of small ways – and eventually in an extraordinary way. Well, According to Mark, this is that moment!

 

It started like this: John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, like some echo of Isaiah, preparing the way of the Lord. He calls for people to be baptized as a sign that they want to stop straying and return to God. And people responded! Mark says they came from Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside.


Maybe they were just curious – as people were when a metal monolith appeared in the Utah wilderness, but Mark says once they were there, they jumped in with both feet! In fact, it is a sign of their longing that they confessed their sins and were baptized by John in the Jordan River.

 

Now we have had a long time for the shock of that to wear off, but we shouldn’t miss how scandalous this was!


Rick Morley reminds us that Israel had ways of dealing with sin, “explicit ways, Biblical ways: you went to the Temple and made a sacrifice.”[1]


Levitical law is written from the perspective that sin is inevitable, and it systemically effects the whole community if it’s not handled rightly. So, you washed in the pool of Siloam, and then, properly cleansed, made your way, uphill, to the Temple Mont.


John was ignoring all of that … and inviting others to join him!


Morley puts it this way: “Now, to us, this probably doesn’t quite get the blood boiling. We have no Temple. Our understanding of the handling of sin is a lot more democratic and accessible. We have general confessions in our liturgy … and most all of us have the sense that we can approach God at any time and say, ‘sorry, I won’t do that again …’


But, imagine the ire if Starbucks started offering Venti sugar-free skinny … communion.


‘Come in. Relax.’ they might say. Listen to the ephemeral music. [Chat with others.] Use your iPhone app to purchase at the register …Take and eat the Sacrament, prepared by a trained barista / sacramentalist.”


We’d fuss that they were doing something that only the Church should be doing.


But what would really bother us is if there was a line around the block!


Just like Mark describes.

 

And what’s worse, Jesus joins them out there in the wilderness. Not to rebuke John, or to protest his disrespect for Levitical law, but to be baptized too! Imagine!


And when he comes up out of the water, Mark says, “the heavens were torn apart!”


It is the same phrase from Isaiah 64 that we lifted up six weeks ago.


Jesus takes part in an unauthorized, unorthodox, counter-cultural, grasping for holiness act.


And the “heavens were torn apart!”


This is God’s answer to Israel’s prayer – this new thing; this departure from tradition!


This is how the Son of God strides onto center stage.


This is the one the voice from heaven endorses as his Son, the Beloved!


Wow! Just, wow!

 

And so, some 2,000 years later, we, the Church, celebrate the Baptism of the Lord!


We celebrate that God answers Israel’s prayer … and ours, in ways we do not expect.


We celebrate that God tore open the heavens and came down! Into all the mess and mud; into the thorns and thistles; into our beautiful and broken world!


And we celebrate that by claiming that just as we share in Jesus’ baptism, we share in his blessing too!


So when God says, “This is my [child], the beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” we believe with all our hearts that he is talking about us too!

 

Poet and pastor Jan Richardson has distilled that belief into a blessing. It goes like this:


“Begin here:

Beloved.

Is there any other word [that] needs saying,

any other blessing [that] could compare with this name, this knowing?


Beloved.

[It] comes like a mercy to the ear that has never heard it.

[It] comes like a river to the body that has never [been bathed in] such grace.


Beloved.

[It] comes, holy to the heart aching to be new.

[It] comes, healing to the soul wanting to begin again.


Beloved.

Keep saying it

and though it may sound strange at first,

watch how it becomes part of you,

how it becomes you,

as if you never could have known yourself [as] anything else, [anything less,]

as if you could ever have been [anything] other than this:

Beloved.”[2]


I wonder what we might add to Richardson’s words.


Maybe something like …


Beloved.

The blessing comes in times of upheaval and doubt,

when the world seems to be coming unglued.

It comes, even when God has seemed silent

and our voices have been raised.

It comes, in tones soothing, or surprising, or savage.

Despite the ravages of a pandemic,

or the slow creep of cancer, or the sudden crash of an accident.

Despite the loss of a job, or a dream,

and with it some measure of security or respect.

Despite the loss of life in the streets awash in flashing blue lights,

and a hundred signs that some people’s lives are judged to not matter.


Beloved.

The blessing comes with hands laid on those answering a call.

To those seeking strength to serve.

To those trying to discern the path that their lives should follow.

It comes through whispers in the night and hearts burning with fire,

with scriptures that seem to be speaking directly and individually,

and with the quiet encouragement of trusted figures.


Beloved.

The blessing comes, in season and on time,

or out of nowhere, when we have given up hope.

It comes, to those who have been yearning and those who have stopped paying attention.

It comes, because we need it,

and because God is generous with such blessings,

in that time, and this.

So remember that, every time you dip your hands in some water,

Beloved.

Amen


[1] here and following, from “Handling Sin: a reflection on Mark 1:4-11” 12/30/11
[2] from “Beginning with Beloved: A Blessing” 1/6/15
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