John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
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 like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”Mark 1:4-11
My sermon from Baptism of Our Lord Sunday (January 14, 2024) on Mark 1:4-11
So on Thursday night, the Special Gifts committee met to review the various ministry projects that you think should be funded by our Special gifts fund. These projects included such diverse ideas as supporting a Lutheran mission amongst the Navajo, building affordable housing in New Orleans, and even replacing the parking lot outside our church doors. Over the last few years, we’ve been a bit cautious in how we use the Special Gifts fund since there was a slight disruption in how it was funded. But things had resolved enough that the Committee realized we have some money to spend. Our Special Gifts fund is supported primarily by the Anna and Dominick Ricci Foundation who were former members of CLC. When Dominick died, they created a foundation to support the organizations they cared about. For almost fifteen years, their ongoing support has impacted our personal understanding of what giving, generosity, and ministry should look like in this place. Prior to the Special Gifts fund, generosity was sometimes tied to something very physical especially when something like a new boiler needed to be installed. When you made a financial gift to your congregation, you would get a tangible return to the money you put in. If, for example, your gift went towards the heat pumps installed in the sanctuary, you would physically feel that gift heat up the back of your neck. But generosity can be harder when it goes towards something that feels a bit more ambiguous like my salary or for Sunday School supplies that you’ll never touch and feel. The Special Gifts fund has forced us to re-evaluate and re-engage with what faithful generosity looks like since it’s less about what we get and more a response to what we’ve received. And while that might be easy to say, it isn’t always something we experience first hand since our lives are filled to the brim with different kinds of joys, struggles, tragedies, worries, and fears. What we need, I think, is something to seep through all the stuff life brings so we can faithfully respond to what God has given to us.
Now near the end of the Special Gifts’ meeting, our conversation turned towards water which, after two cold January rain storms, most of us would prefer to ignore. But if you’ve driven on our parking lot within the last few years, you know we’ve reached the limit of asking Brian to manually fill in the giant pot-holes that keep appearing. Our parking lot is at a low point on our property which means when the water flows down the hill behind the church, it pools on top of it. Yet that isn’t the only water issue impacting the pavement outside. Our property, as I understand it, also has a very high water table which means there’s a lot of ground water trying to break through our parking lot from below. That water is always present, moving and flowing, freezing and melting, seeping into every small crack and transforming them into large holes. The constant presence of this water impacts a lot of what we do since our ministry is built on how accessible this place is. We can, for a while, pretend as if that water isn’t there but there comes a point when that water will make it through.
And that image of water seeping through might serve as an appropriate metaphor as we spend today pondering Jesus’ baptism. Now it will never not be weird that Jesus was baptized since, to us, baptism is all about a sinner being washed clean and brought deeper into the body of Christ. That, though, wasn’t something Jesus needed so it’s not always easy to find some spiritual fruit to nourish our souls. Whenever I run into a biblical story like this, that’s typically when I do my best to step into it – by joining Jesus as he waited in the water for John. We can imagine being there, in and along the banks of the Jordan River while surrounded by shepherds, fisherman, old, young, the sick, and the faithful. The large number of people there made what we might imagine as a very private spiritual moment into something very public. Standing there, waiting for John to call us forward, probably made the whole experience feel a bit like some kind of spiritual assembly line. I don’t say that as a way to discredit John’s work or to act as if our rituals are more faithful than his. Instead, when we pay attention to the entirety of Jesus’ baptism, we notice how it wasn’t only some cosmic event where the heavens opened and a divine voice spoke. There’s also a large part of it that was very human. When Jesus went to the water, he experienced it just like we do. He felt the top of his head get wet and the gentle trickle of water droplets as they fell down his cheek. The silt in the river caused his nose to twitch and the air in his lungs grew hot the longer he held his breath. And when John uttered his special words and prayers, Jesus only heard a bit of them since most of it was probably distorted by the water covering his ears. When the ritual was finally over, the words from heaven were quickly replaced with the need to go up the river bank and back into the life he was already living. Jesus’ baptism wasn’t about where he had come from or solely about who John declared him to be. Jesus’ baptism was a beginning to what comes next. The fullness of Jesus’ ministry, the healing, the relationship building, and his willingness to show what life looks like when God’s kingdom comes near, happened after he came up from the water. Jesus didn’t need to get baptized to experience the mercy, hope, and peace we want faith to bring into our lives. But his baptism does invite us to notice what life is supposed to look like once we are baptized.
The waters of baptism, like the waters outside CLC’s front doors, do more than pool in puddles and flow down hills. These waters are meant to seep through us and into our world. These waters not only unite us with Christ but they make God’s words to Jesus, God’s words to us. God declared that you are beloved which, while amazing, isn’t necessarily something tangible we can grip onto, see, or even fully feel. But it is our beginning – an invitation to take the love that has claimed us and move it out into our parking lot and beyond. When we show, embody, and express that belovedness to others – that’s how we transform the intangible faith we hold into something true and real. And while we don’t always realize exactly how our baptism seeps through us, I’ve seen it move and flow in a place like our parking lot. It’s often out there where you check in with each other, asking about each other’s joys, hurts, and fears. It’s out there where you build each other up through the art of actually listening to what each other says. And when there are no words to describe the worry, anxiety, and sorrow someone feels – our parking lot is big enough to hold every tear. Our parking lot is a place where we want to do all we can to stop water from seeping through. Yet it is also one of the first places where the waters of baptism seep through you to make a real difference in our world. Those moments might not always be over the top or big or ones when we recognize what we’re actually doing. Yet it is often in these small interactions where the faith we are given grows into a love that always breaks through.