The foolishness of our baptism...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the start of a six week series re: Living as Fools for Christ. Today's texts - Genesis 1: 1-5, Psalm 29 and Mark 1: 4-11 are those assigned for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday by the Common Lectionary.

In my heart – in my head – in my sense of what is most important in our community and our
congregation at this moment in time is the gentle invitation from the Lord to live as God’s beloved. We are not called by the Spirit to become Republicans or Democrats or followers of the Green Party or the Tea Party. We’re not asked to become members of this or that church, denomination, synagogue, ashram or mosque. We’re not asked to read the scriptures daily, do any type of prayer or spiritual practice on a regular basis (as helpful as that might be) or even try to see the face of Christ in one another. Rather we’re simply invited to learn how to trust that from before the beginning of time, we have been created in the image of the Creator who calls us beloved. Listen to these two lessons read back to back and see if you don’t agree:

+  Genesis One at the very start of the Bible: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

+  And the story of Jesus according to St. Mark – the first gospel written and affirmed by tradition – that says: Beginning with the good news of Jesus Christ… (It was) in those days that 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 like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is not coincidental that the foundational stories of our tradition – the myths and histories and parables we tell and retell ourselves over and again – start with the affirmation that in the beginning:  God created, God called creation good and God called us the beloved of the Lord. Many other foundational stories begin with death or destruction:  Isis and Osiris, Zeus and his battle with the Titans, the sacred war of creation between Marduk and Tiamut. And while we certainly have our own myth of the flood in the Old Testament, both the Jewish and Christian Testaments begin with the blessings of creation and a sacred pronouncement that we are the beloved.

It is that affirmation – and its distinctive invitation to a way of living in this world that fortifies creativity and love – that I want to call to your attention today. You see, this is the day set aside for us by our tradition to be like the Blessed Virgin Mary, who pondered in her heart the significance of the baptism of our Lord. Most of us don’t think of our baptism very often:  generally our culture considers it either a nostalgic ritual linking this generation to the past by tradition, or, else it is treated like an unnecessary ceremony born of an out-dated world view steeped in superstition. In our small corner of the church, we tend to speak of the sacrament of baptism as a practice that welcomes a child or adult into the family of faith – a spiritualized Christian reworking of circumcision, if you will – that marks and receives the baptized into the community of Christ.

+  But what if baptism is more than tradition, ritual, reminiscence and welcome? What if it is God’s promise to us that trusting the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind, we will be mystically embrace by the Lord?

+  What if baptism is God’s assurance to us that whether we are resting beside cool waters, enjoying the richness of the banquet table or walking through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us - always? For ever? In life, in death and life beyond death?

That’s a rather high theology of baptism, I grant you, but it seems to resonate boldly with the story St. Mark tells us.  You see, Mark places the baptism of Jesus at the very start of his story. There is no Christmas celebration in Mark’s gospel – in fact, the Lord’s birth is only mentioned in two books of the New Testament –  signifying that baptism probably has greater worth than his birthday. Why else would it be discussed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and Romans? But let’s go deeper and consider the actual text:

+  When God first speaks to Jesus according to Mark’s gospel, the words Christ heard – and the words we are allowed to overhear, too – are: You are my beloved, Son, with you I am well pleased.

+  What do these words say to you?  What do they mean and what is their significance?

+One preacher called God’s address to Jesus after his baptism words of radical acceptance saturated with the blessings of identity, worth and unwavering regard. (David Lose, Working Preacher)

That’s one insight we can draw from this story:  when Jesus pledges himself to trust the Lord with his whole being by baptism, God promises to Christ – and to all of us through him – that God will be with us throughout all time. St. Paul likes to say that NOTHING can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At every funeral or memorial service I am asked to preside over, it has become essential for me to always include Paul’s confession from the book of Romans that says in part: We know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; for we know that in everything God works for good with those who love the Lord and are called according to God’s purpose. That is why we are certain that neither death nor life, nor angels or principalities and powers, nor things present, nor things to come, not height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.

By faith God is with us always:  but this is not the only truth Mark’s story about Christ’s baptism celebrates. If we notice where this story takes place – just before the temptations of Jesus in the desert – then we realize that everything else Jesus does grows out of his experience of God’s holy promise to cherish him forever as beloved. One scholar put it like this:

Jesus’ baptism isn’t preamble to all that comes later in his life, it’s the highpoint and climax of the story in a nutshell. Again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him, telling them via word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. And (at) the darkest moment of the story, when Jesus feels absolutely abandoned, it is followed immediately by the story of resurrection, where the messenger testifies that God has kept God’s baptismal promise and continues to accept and honor Jesus as God’s own beloved Son.

+  Are you still with me because this is really important? If God is with Jesus throughout his lowest and most shame-filled experiences – if God refuses to quit loving even when Christ is nailed to the Cross – then in all things in our life we can trust that there is hope for those who trust the Lord.

+  "At our low moments, (we can) remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same one who promised in baptism to never, (ever) abandon us and to love and accept us always and still as beloved children, even and especially when we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)

That is the foolishness of the Cross – the foolishness of our baptism – the foolish-ness of God’s grace:  in it we confess that we trust that God’s love is greater than all sin, shame and fear. And I have to tell you that is only from within this trust, beloved, that I find the strength and solace to live creatively and compassionately these days. Like you it is easy for me to become discouraged in these times.Like you I don’t often see a lot of evidence that our culture values the way of trust, peace, justice and compassion. So I have to regularly turn my eyes to Christ and his experience with God.  For there, even when I can only see as through a glass darkly, another world comes into view.

+  A world where I am forgiven – and so are you. A world where we are God’s beloved – the Lord’s cherished friends – with whom God is well pleased. It is a world where we count more than what our credit score tells about us.

+  A world where God the least among us so much that they are raised up to change the world.  Did you know that Jesus was from such a nowhere town in Israel called Nazareth that it is never mentioned in the Old Testament, the Jewish Talmud or the history of the Jews as recorded by Josephus. It is so insignificant that no one had even heard of it. And yet by grace God raised up from Nazareth one who would bring hope and healing to a broken world.

+  Our African American sisters and brothers like to put it like this: In Jesus Christ we can see how a no body can be raised up to become a some body, who can tell any body that every body is loved by God. Because, since the beginning of time, we are all what…?

+  God’s beloved. Can you say that again: WE ARE GOD’S BELOVED!

Now I told you at the start of my message – and I am going to say it again right now – that most
of us don’t think about our baptism very often. But now would be a good time to revisit that oversight. Because we need more people who KNOW from the inside out that they are God’s beloved. We need more souls who have ANOTHER world in view – a world of grace and compassion – a world of God’s kingdom of peace and forgiveness – that upside down world that Jesus called God’s kingdom where we know we are mystically embraced by God’s love so we can give away as good as we have gotten.

+  We don’t need more cynics – we don’t need more gossips – we don’t need more broken hearts obsessed with shame and fear. We don’t need more FOX News or MSNBC pundits. We need more of God’s beloved who know from the inside out that God’s love is greater than all our wounds and all our divisions.

+  So you know those Christmas Eve candles you received when you came into worship? I bet you’ve been wondering what the devil are we going to do with these, right?

So I’m going to tell you:  we’re going to use them to affirm that WE are God’s beloved who know God loves us from the inside out.

+  We’re going to use them as a body prayer to confess that God is calling us to be light in the darkness. Hope in despair. Peace-makers in a world of violence. And women and men who love one another as God has already loved us.

+  Amen? Can I get a witness?  Amen?!

Just like Christmas Eve, we’re going to light one another’s candles; and as the light is passed from one candle to another. I want you to say to your neighbor:  YOU are a beloved child of God. Ok? Can you do that? YOU are a beloved child of God.

+  And then when all our candles are lit, we’ll raise up the light of Christ to the glory of God and pray a simple prayer: Marked by the Cross and sealed by the Holy Spirit: Lord, help me live as a fool for Christ in a world that takes itself too seriously. For I am a beloved child of God. Amen.

+  Are you ready…? 

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