Call to Worship/Psalm 29 (NRSV)
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
Eternal God, reigning over the universe and in our hearts, we worship and praise you. Through you comes the energy by which the world was made. Through you the darkness is overcome and the light shines. And yet, you chose to reveal your power and glory: in the stench of a stable and the vulnerability of a newborn baby; in a pilgrim-packed river— by an animal-skinned, locust-eating prophet; and on a cross of wood, through an agonizing death; all revealing the mystery and greatness of your love. We praise and adore you, O God, for revealing your love so fully for us in Jesus, and for renewing our lives with your Spirit. Amen.
Scripture Reading/Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I know that this may sound really odd, but, sometimes, I wish it were harder to join the church. I mean, honestly, sometimes I think it’s harder to get a membership at Sam’s Club than it is to become a Christian. And that’s not a good thing. It’s bad, specifically, because if the church is easy to join, then any notion of the responsibilities of membership can just fly right out the window.
Sometimes, talking about what it means to be part of the whole Christian enterprise can start to sound like that part in a car commercial where the announcer starts talking legalese at a thousand miles an hour. You know: Baptism is terrific but please plan on tithing, attending, and experiencing regular frustration and discomfort. Be advised that Christmas and Easter Sunday come only once a year respectively. Who can blame anyone for just tuning that part out? And so, I can’t help but wish that joining up—signing on the dotted line—were understood to be a much bigger commitment. That has me thinking about baptism. What if….
What if instead of a little chaste sprinkling of water on the forehead or even a full immersion on the banks of the New River or something in between…what if the only way to join the church was by skydiving? Now the very idea makes my stomach do backflips. But think about it. Free fall for a few seconds—hurtling towards the earth, then pull the rip cord, and gently floating down to the ground. I mean, what’s not theological about that? Because what are the reality of sin and redemption and the dangerous thrill of falling and the great vista of salvation and the recognition that our lives are not really in our own hands, if they aren’t like skydiving?
Stay with me a moment here. Because imagine what it would mean to go through that experience, with its terrors and its rushes and its ultimate relief—and then show up at church on Sunday to be greeted by a room full of people who had been through all of that, too? Think how you would see them all, as you walked in and found your pew: the older couple that sits up front and always shares a hymnal; the super-cheery soprano, and the person who always takes more than a fair share at the potluck; the guy who circles typos in the bulletin every Sunday and submits it back to the church office.
Think how we would see them all, the heavy, the creaky, the busy, the young and the old, the happy and the sad—the people you will find in every church on any Sunday—think how we would see them all, if being baptized meant that at some point, however many years before, they had each had thatday—that day when they had somehow summoned enough courage to leap out into thin air and into the hands of God.
From Genesis to Revelation, water arcs through the Bible, courses through the scriptures, shapes the landscape of the sacred text, surfaces again and again in the story of the people of God. Nearly always it is a sign of God’s provision, God’s providence, God’s care for those whom God has claimed. We remember God giving a stream to Eden, of Hagar receiving wellsprings in her desperate wilderness of barrenness, of Moses striking the rock that gave water to a thirsty and wandering people. We have heard the story of Jacob meeting Rachel by a well, the psalmist’s words about still waters that comfort and restore, and the prophet’s proclamation of the God who “will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground.” Again and again, God’s provision breaks through and springs forth in the form of water.
And here, the first time Jesus takes the stage as an adult, we see him come to the Jordan. This is the river in which, generations before, priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood, stopping the waters so that the entire, long-journeying children of Israel could pass through to the other side. This is the river that Elijah struck with his mantle so that he and Elisha could cross moments before Elijah’s dramatic ascension amid the whirlwind of blazing horses and chariot of fire. It is in the Jordan that Elisha tells the leprous Naaman to wash and be cleansed. It is the Jordan that traces a path through Israel’s history. It is a river of mythic proportions into which Jesus wades, and we watch him become drenched in its very real waters as he receives John’s baptism.
As Jesus rises from this ancient river, he is the recipient of all the graces that water signifies, imbued with the layers of symbolism and story and blessing that these waters convey. Yet he is not only recipient of this; as the waters of baptism roll off him, Jesus himself is also a sign: this drenched and dripping Messiah embodies and shows forth in fullness just how far God will go to provide for and restore God’s people.
Here at Jordan, I find my eye drawn to the yielding that takes place in this river. When Jesus first approaches him, John challenges this baptism-seeking savior: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he says to his cousin. “Let it be so now,” Jesus urges him, his words an echo of the “Let it be” that his mother offered to the angel long ago, on the day that the same Spirit descended upon her. And just like that, the locust-and-honey-eating Baptist of the wilderness who, only a few verses earlier, was railing at the Pharisees and Sadducees and speaking of vipers and axes, winnowing forks and fire, falls silent. Gives in. Yields to Jesus like a stone yielding to the river that washes over it.
But let’s go back to our skydiving metaphor. When Mark’s Gospel describes the Baptism of Jesus, it’s that kind of radical act that he seems to have in mind. Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens tornapart and a dove descending.” His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.” It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion. The way we usually talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark had talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the water. But that is not how he talks about it.
Instead, Mark talks about the heavens being “torn apart.” He uses the Greek word schizo, from which we derive our English word “schism.” It’s also the word Matthew, Mark, and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. It’s the word the Gospel of John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead. It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, also, particularly when Isaiah says to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened. God has torn open the heavens and come down. This is why, in Mark’s judgment, the baptism of Jesus is so very clearly a radical act. In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and Mark wants the world to know.
And yet…how much of God’s active interest in us are we really prepared to admit? Because, if we took them seriously, our baptisms might just tear ourlives apart, too. I mean, if our final and deepest allegiance is to Jesus, to the life he has called us to lead, and to the manner in which the Gospels show he has called us to lead our lives, well, then, that is sure to bring not peace, but a sword. It will bring not peace but a sword to so much of what the world says our lives should be about. It will bring not peace but a sword to so many of our relationships, to our allegiances and affiliations, and to so much else. And that’s not what most of us are looking for.
But if God has broken through the barrier of heaven and earth and broken into our lives in the manifestation of Christ, then what ensues is not something simpler and easier for us, but rather something infinitely more complex and urgent. Baptism means that God has broken through; and so, we in turn, are called to tear into the challenges and problems of the world with everything we’ve been given. It’s a summons to participate in the remarkable, redemptive work of God. To give our lives to something more challenging than any other kind of work—and in the end, surely more beautiful, true, and enduring than any other kind of work.
Jesus came up out of the waters, and perhaps that is what he saw. A vision of God, and a vision of what it was to be alive that he could give his life to. Thanks be to God that’s also what your baptism and mine were pointing to…and that’s what they are still pointing to.
No matter where you were baptized…whether it’s in front of the same font where your grandmother and mother were baptized or by the banks of a river or standing in the sanctuary of a place where even you can hardly believe you’ve found a home…no matter where it is, the water and the promise and the prayer take just a few moments. But truly saying yes to our baptism is the daily work of the rest of our lives. It is saying yes to the world and yes to a life torn open by the love of God.
So… I suppose it’s unlikely that we’ll decide anytime soon to replace baptism by water and the Spirit with baptism by gravity and parachute. But the next time you walk into a church and encounter God’s people there in all our familiar shapes and sizes, remember that what unites us all is something God’s Word tells us is even more electrifying than jumping out of a plane. In baptism, the heavens themselves were torn apart. And when we experience that for ourselves, when we know that for ourselves, and feel it on our hearts at last, it is the thrill of a lifetime. It is when everything finally begins. Indeed, it’s time to dive in…
As the prophet Isaiah rang out, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” empower your Church, O God, to ring out the Good News of the Light of your son Jesus, which pierces even the deepest darkness.
As a star rose high into the nighttime sky to draw the nations to the Christ-child, send your blessing, O God, upon this nation, and upon every nation, and draw the whole world to your peace and truth.
As John the Baptist guided throngs of people to the edge of the wilderness and baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, we pray that you would guide our country and our leaders in the ways of justice and righteousness.
Like the Magi who traveled from afar to bring gifts and celebrate the Savior’s birth, we pray for the Newport community—
where there are any grudges, let them be touched by the healing balm of your grace,
where there is any unrest, let your peace prevail,
where there is need, let your mercy be embodied through the generous outpouring of the gifts that you have given us, that your name will be glorified by our thoughts, words, and actions.
As Jesus climbed the mountaintop, and proclaimed blessings upon the people of the world, we pray for the sick and the distressed, the poor and those who have no place to call home, for the addicted and the depressed, and for the grieving and the despairing, wherever they may be found. Let them hear and receive the life-giving blessing that they are your beloved.
As Jesus called his disciples to leave their nets and boats and follow him; we pray for those we love and who have answered your call to follow Jesus to your Heavenly Kingdom. Give them your peace.
Lord Jesus, Light of the World, hear our prayers, and make us reflections of your Light, that the places of darkness in our world would be pierced by your Light, and that all nations would be drawn to you and be overwhelmed with joy. In the name of the One who draws us to himself and who taught his disciples to pray these words:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Commission & Benediction
Go now, with the divine blessing in your ears assuring you that you are God’s beloved children.
Live out the deep truths of your baptism and tell others of the abundant life beyond the waters.
And may God, our beloved, give you strength;
may Christ Jesus breathe the breath of life upon you;
and may the Holy Spirit encourage you and bless you with peace.