Torn Open: Baptisms are Events

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 the Baptism of Jesus (January 7, 2018) on Mark 1:4-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.


Did you ever wonder what it’s like to be baptized in the Jordan River?

Now, I know I’ve shared the following images and video before but on a day like today, when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and the upcoming baptism of Shane Kurtz, I felt like I needed to share these images again. A few years ago, an old friend of mine served as an assistant for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (aka the ELCJHL). She lived in Jerusalem and spent time in the various congregations that make up the ELCJHL. One of those churches is this one (show image) – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethany Beyond the Jordan. This church serves mostly as a pilgrimage site because it overlooks a spot on the Jordan River where tradition says Jesus was baptized. The Jordan River, as you can see here (show image), isn’t really much of a river at all. It’s more of a muddy stream at this point. And the track the river follows isn’t exactly the same as it was 2000 years ago. In fact, Jesus’ traditional baptism site is sometimes like this – (show image) – dry. But it occasionally fills with a little water (show image). The tent like structures in the back serve to keep visitors safe and out of the sun. The stone stairs and pillars are old, and were used by the ancient churches that once stood on this site. One thing visitors to this place like to do is to actually step into the Jordan river itself. But what would that look like? Well – it might look something like this: (show 15 second video).

Now, doesn’t that look…I dunno…warm? Last I check, it feels like it’s -5 outside here in Northern New Jersey. And I’m sort of tired of wearing multiple pairs of socks, long underwear, and winter hats while walking around my own house. I am ready to be somewhere warm. And looking at these images of Jesus’ baptism site – with its bright sun, white sand, and plants full of green leaves – I sort of want to just jump into that river – and let the sediment rich waters – full of yellows, oranges, and reds – wash over me. That water, from here at least, looks warm and inviting. But we all know that looks can be deceiving. And my friend who took that video told me that the water in the river was ice cold that day.

Now, we have no idea what season it was when Jesus went to visit John in the wilderness. We don’t know if it was spring or summer, winter or fall. Scripture doesn’t really give us many details when it comes to Jesus’ baptism. And our reading from the gospel according to Mark spends more time talking about John the Baptist than it does about Jesus’ baptism itself. This gospel doesn’t really pause and reflect on what this baptism of Jesus is all about. Details that might help explain this event are just not there. Instead, the text moves really fast. Jesus shows up and the first thing he does is go straight into the water. And as he comes out of the river, with the red, yellow, and orange waters dripping off him, Jesus sees the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit coming down. The inherent separation of God and humanity is broken, it’s torn apart, by this Jesus who walks into the water. But the text doesn’t linger on this point. You would think that Mark might want to spend a little more time describing what the heavens being torn apart might actually look like. He could have spent at least one or two sentences explaining or making more plain what was going on here. But he doesn’t. Mark doesn’t give us any time to really linger on Jesus’ baptism. Instead, Mark wants to move on. He’s rushing us through this moment, trying to get to verse 12 and beyond. Jesus’ baptism is important – but Mark doesn’t slow down and try to explain what this event is all about. We might have questions about this moment, like why would Jesus need to be baptized? And why would Jesus, the Son of God, the one who had no sin, need a baptism for the forgiveness of sin? We might want to pause, reflect, and try to uncover and explain everything about this moment. And in some ways, we’re invited to do that because I stopped reading the story at verse 11. We assume we’re supposed to linger on this moment. But looks can be deceiving and Mark is in a rush. He doesn’t want us to explain this moment; this baptism of Jesus; he wants us to experience it and to recognize the event it actually is.

So what if we let Mark take us through Jesus’ baptism as fast he wants to? There’s no time for us to linger. There’s no time for us to wonder why Jesus was at the River Jordan once he shows up. Instead, once Jesus arrives, he’s down there in the river , submerged in the yellow, red, and orange waters that make up the Jordan. And when he stands up, we suddenly see something new. Because we are, at that moment, witnessing an appearance of God [working preacher, Karoline Lewis] that we have never seen before. Because at this moment, God is standing right there, in the water. And God is surrounded by more than just water, and sand, and lush green leaves. God is surrounded by people of all kinds and from many different places who are there, confessing their sins. All of them were yearning for God. And God unexpectedly showed up and walked into the water with them, letting everyone know that they are not going through this life alone.

Jesus’ baptism is, above all, an event. And the baptism that we practice, the baptism that we experienced, are events too. Now our baptism might not have been filled with the special effects like Jesus’ was. And the water used to cover us might not have been full of red, oranges, and yellows. But as the gospel according to Mark shows, our baptismal moment is focused on what comes next. Because God knows that there are verses to our own story that are still being written. None of us can predict exactly what our future might bring. And none of us know where life might take Shane or us next. But we do know that, in special moments that are filled with water and prayer, God makes a promise to each of us that we will never go through our life without Jesus by our side. When Jesus stood in the River Jordan, everyone saw God in a way they hadn’t seen before. And later today, when the waters of baptism are poured over Shane, we will see God doing a new thing. Jesus will become Shane’s companion, guardian, and friend forever. And as we bear witness to God doing a brand new thing for him, we are all reminded that the God who walked into the muddy waters of the Jordan is still here, walking alongside each of us and he is our companion, our guardian, and our friend – through this life and beyond.