"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

02 March 2009

Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus (moved)

We often think of the Bible as being so very old that we could never really get a handle on the real dates or even places where the stories are set. Cities are lost or destroyed, records are lacking, things just seem to get fuzzy when you’re thinking about going back almost two thousand years or more in history. But the more you look into these things, the more you will realize that those dates can be put together, places can be found. There is a lot of evidence. Ancient near eastern history helps us put a pretty decent dating on Abraham. We can pretty much guess when the Exodus took place by the lists of Egyptian kings. Counting from there, the Bible gives us enough evidence to put David at 1000 BC or so. And the nearer things get to our own time the better we can put those dates to the events.

Luke gives us a lot of evidence for when Jesus was born, living in Nazareth, and when he began his public ministry. Once you add up all of that with Luke’s comment that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry, you have a general date for the baptism at about 29 AD. It helps, I think, to put a date on it like that because it makes the events more real to us.

The way Mark tells the story seems far from real sometimes. Jesus appears out of nowhere. Mark has told us that Jesus is the son of God, but unlike Matthew and Luke he shows no interest in birth narratives or Jesus growing in wisdom and stature. First we meet John the Baptist, out preaching and baptizing by the Jordan, and then suddenly Jesus is on the scene. Only in Mark is there no sense of Jesus having a human origin, maybe because Mark understands that this one was from the beginning. All Mark tells us is that in the days of John, Jesus came from the place called Nazareth, which was a small town in the northern region of Galilee. He has a human home on one hand, but on the other hand he seems to appear out of nowhere.

Mark remains pretty matter-of-fact about it all. We don’t see the exchange between Jesus and John where John proclaims that he should be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. John doesn’t tell us that he knows who Jesus is or that he’s unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. Jesus simply shows up and was baptized in the Jordan by John, just like any other guy.

In fact, the whole scene smacks of an eerie first century normalcy! Baptism was a pretty normal thing, believe it or not. When ever a good Jew found himself unclean and therefore unfit for Temple worship, it was custom to go wash in the ritual bath, called the mikveh, and after full (sevenfold) immersion, that person would be considered clean. John is offering nothing new, though it may be a little interesting that John’s preaching ties baptism to repenting of sin.

The only thing about the scene that is not really normal is John himself. He’s out there dressed up like Elijah dressed, in camel’s hair clothing, and he’s claiming to be the prophet that Isaiah predicted, the voice of one crying in the wilderness "make straight the path of the Lord." But we still have no sense as Jesus enters onto the scene that he is this Lord, that he is anyone different.

But we know the truth, we know better. Something strange is indeed happening, something which has puzzled the church for two millennia! Mark has made it clear that the purpose for John’s baptism is for those who are repenting of sins, and here is Jesus, who has no sin, being baptized. Mark doesn’t even record John’s objections to baptizing the one who should be baptizing him. Mark tells us nothing, he just brings Jesus in as if Jesus were some ordinary Joe-Sinner coming to repent.

Mark is setting the scene, of course. Our first vision of Jesus is to see him humbled, looking like a sinner. He seems to be just a guy, nobody special, coming out of podunk Galilee looking to be baptized as if he were repenting of sin. Nathanael was recorded as asking "can anything good come out of Nazareth." We have no clue (yet) that anything good has come.

If you think about it, what Mark is doing makes perfect sense. He wants us to see some of what it meant for Jesus to leave the glories of heaven, the place he really did come out from, and walk among us as nobody special. He wants us to see that for thirty years, Jesus didn’t stand out, he was fully human despite also being fully divine. There were no trumpets that sounded his arrival, he had made no name for himself, he was a man, having emptied himself of the power and glory of heaven, and nobody could see that he was also fully God. In short, he didn’t wear a halo.

But make no mistake, this one is not just Joe Sinner. Yes, we see him humbled in a sinner’s baptism, just as we would later see him humbled in a sinner’s death. But just as soon as he goes down (into the waters of baptism, into the grave) he is brought back up again glorious. Our English translations fail us, for they usually read "the heavens were opened." Come on how special is that? We even say that to describe a rain storm, don’t we? That’s not what it means. It’s not a normal feeling word. In fact the word means that the heavens were ripped apart, torn, schizo, from which our word schism is derived. It’s almost violent, the heavens were, like the curtain in the temple later, ripped in two. Access between earth and heaven seems to have come to a new level, and God’s voice is heard to proclaim the identity of this one who is at once humbled and also lifted up in glory. God speaks emphatically to Jesus, YOU, you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.

I have to admit I took pleasure in reading the Greek text this week. How significant is it that God is emphatic that Jesus is the beloved son, how amazing is it that the words for being pleased are not tied to a single incident but are a state of being. God is continually pleased with Jesus, it’s not just about the baptism.

And immediately, the Spirit, which has descended on Jesus, casts Jesus out into the wilderness. Again our modern translations fail us, saying such things as "drove him out" or worse "sent him out". The Greek word is ek-ballw… THREW him out! It’s almost physical in its tone. The spirit casts him out into the wilderness (or as we commented around my dinner table this week "booted his butt to the boonies!") Here, Mark paints an even richer image, the wild animals were out there, the danger was great, and Jesus was tested by Satan.

Again, Mark spares us the details, except to say that angels waited on him. Moreover, there is no sense that Satan’s attacks ever cease. By not describing specific temptations or any victory over Satan Mark emphasizes the ongoing nature of Jesus ministry as a continuous encounter with the Devil, not limited to forty nights in the desert. Mark is painting a picture of a fierce struggle, in the wilderness, amid the wild beasts, confronting the Evil one, confronting evil itself.

And then just as quickly as the scene was set, Mark moves on to other things. Jesus demonstrates that authority over Satan by casting out demons, and his public ministry is begun in full force.

But in today’s reading, we have the first impression of Jesus as Mark would have us see him. He’s humble and raised, he’s the son of God with no real ties to a human origin and yet he is human in totality. He is real, from a real place and time, and yet bigger than life.

So what do we take out of all of this. I suppose the biggest hook on which to grab in this passage is how the heavens were torn in two. Suddenly mankind had a better access to God, who seemed until then to be so far off in heaven. Again when the temple curtain is torn at Jesus’ crucifixion, mankind would have access into the holy of holies, which was supposed to be God’s own ‘street address’ if you will. In these two pivotal events where Jesus is humbled to take on the role of a sinner when he himself has known no sin, we are given entry into the very presence of God.

So how then are we to live, as St. Paul would say. We are to live as a people who understand that we are sinners. We have not humbled ourselves in the least to accept baptism. It was a humbling for Jesus, but for us it was a step up. The ashes we placed on our heads marking us as sinners doomed to die, these are nothing more than the truth. We are to understand that we bear the marks of our doom, our dishonor, our destruction until by God’s grace they are taken from us by Jesus’ humiliation. We have no grounds to think ourselves great, for we are constantly trying to fill ourselves up with health and wealth and happiness while our Lord, the only begotten son of God, empties himself of the very glories of heaven and becomes sin so that we might become children of God an heirs with him of immortality and the riches of heaven.

Lent is about emptying ourselves, we who so usually have full bellies and all the riches this world can give. We empty ourselves, just a little, just a token, because Christ first emptied himself of that which was more real and good than anything we know. Lent is about understanding our humility, we who are so often arrogant, well educated and full of our own status, because our Lord left his glory aside to come to us in full humility. Lent is about setting aside the things we think we deserve because our Lord set aside all the things he really did deserve, that which he created and ruled, that which is truly perfect and glorious, to take on a humility and humanity that he didn’t deserve at all. Lent is about recalling that he will bear the brutal scars of his earthly walk and crucifixion into eternity so that we may be raised perfect and whole. Lent is about seeing ourselves for who we are, seeing Jesus for who he is, and giving glory to the one who deserves it.

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