I almost didn’t know where to start this week. Coming back from vacation into the midst of unfolding national crisis - not the pandemic, which is the crisis we’re now all used to, but the unsettling upheaval at the Capitol building - made me feel like I was diving back into the deep end with no time to catch my breath.
There were tears, there was prayer, there was my own fair share of doomscrolling as I tried to reorient myself in the midst of all the disorientation.
Scripture has a remarkable way of speaking into our griefs, our fears, our despairing. The text appointed for this Sunday - the Baptism of the Lord in this Epiphanytide - is the passage from Mark we will hear. I chose to pair it with these words from the Gospel of John - a passage I read this week in my own prayertime with Ben - because as we look at baptism, one of the sacraments in the Christian life, I believe how we understand baptism and how we live out those vows we made or were made on our behalf and we claimed for our own later in life is important to how we respond in a moment like this one.
I invite us to listen to Mark, 1:4-11 and John, 3:16-21; Mark will be from the New Revised Standard Version, John from The Message.
Scripture - Mark 1:4 - 11; John 3:16 - 21
Mark 1:4-11, NRSV - Eldon Mayer
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John 3:16-21 The Message - Deb Bowman
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
19-21 “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
The word that caught me in my reading of the Mark passage is the word “wilderness.” Perhaps that is because I’m reading Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness right now, perhaps it’s because it’s an adequate metaphor for how I’m feeling these days. In any case, this is where John the Baptizer first appears on the scene - ministering in the wilderness, people coming from all over to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. Among the people we also have Jesus - and at his baptism, we see the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and the voice of God saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” If we read further on in Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus from here is thrust out again into the wilderness to be tested and tried for 40 days and 40 nights.
I’ve often considered baptism as the rite of belonging. Everyone, of course, is God’s beloved child, but the act of baptism is one where you claim it for yourself (or, in the case of young children, where that promise is made on your behalf). It’s a public act, one of staking out your identity as someone who yearns to steep themselves in God’s love and live their life out of that center, one that says “yes” to God’s action in your life and in the world. It’s the reason that baptisms in the United Methodist tradition are always done in the midst of public worship - because it’s a sacrament that not only honors the commitment of one individual or family, but also because the community promises their nurture, care, and support as well.
Because in addition to belonging, in addition to baptism being about saying “yes, I’m going to live like I’m in God’s family”, baptism is also about boundary making. In our increasingly secularized world, the very act of baptism, the commitment to actively living as a baptized Christian in this society, is one that places us squarely in the wilderness, and you need a community of support around you in this journey. It means that how we define ourselves, how we understand the world around us, is by nature going to be different from the systems of the world - and that’s because of the vows we make and claim as part of the baptized.
In the United Methodist tradition, there are three questions that are asked of those being baptized (or are asked to the parents/sponsors when the individual being baptized is unable to answer for themself):
(1) Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
(2) Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
(3) Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
3 vows: Repentance of sin and rejection of the spiritual forces of wickedness. Resting evil, injustice and oppression out of an acceptance of God’s power. Relying fully on Jesus Christ and his grace and living a life in service to him as Lord.
Repent. Resist. Rely.
This means that as we look out on our world - as we look at what happened in our Capitol building on Wednesday, as we look at the continuing dehumanization and polarization of our country, as we look at our systems of health care or equality for our LGBTQ siblings or anti-racism or how we care for the most vulnerable members of our population - we do so through the lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus sets the agenda, the witness of God’s action in the world is our compass, the Holy Spirit becomes our guide. That puts us out in the wilderness because of the calling to live our lives steeped in this awareness of who we are as beloved children of God and how God is active in our world. We see this most clearly in our reading from the gospel of John: “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
Father Richard Rohr, a Fransican priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, wrote this week in his daily devotional email:
“I’m convinced we are living in [a time of unveiling] —when reality is being revealed as it is. Systems of evil have become both more brazen and banal, our sense of “normal” has been upended, and yet in the midst of it, God continues to invite us to deeper transformation.
No matter what is going on around us, it’s important to remember that God keeps transforming creation into something both good and new. Instead of hurtling us towards catastrophe, God always wants to bring us somewhere even better. A helpful word here is “evolution.” God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. That might be hard to see sometimes in the moment, but it’s nevertheless true.”
Given where we are right now, our world...our community...our church...I want us for a moment to take a step back and consider these events through the lens of our baptismal vows. Where do we as a local church need to repent? What injustices do you personally need to be more aware of and resist? In what ways does our congregation need to rely more fully on Jesus?
Where do we as a local church need to repent?
What injustices do you personally need to be more aware of and resist?
In what ways does our congregation need to rely more fully on Jesus?
I’m going to give us a few minutes to think about and jot down responses to these questions before we move into discussion together. You’ll also need your bowl or cup of water handy.
We’ve heard these yearnings - both for us as individuals in our own personal journeys, and for us as a congregation together. We hold these intentions as we reaffirm our baptismal vows together - and if you aren’t baptized and you are feeling moved in this moment, let’s have a conversation and talk together.
We remember in this moment that we are a baptized people - called to live as God’s children in this world. We come today to the waters to renew our commitments in each other’s presence to Christ who has raised us, the Spirit who has birthed us, and the Creator who is making all things new.
And so I ask you, will you turn away from the powers of sin and death?
We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of our sin!
Will you let the Spirit use you as prophets to the powers that be?
We accept the freedom and power God gives us
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves!
Will you proclaim the good news and live as disciples of Jesus Christ, his body on earth?
We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior,
put our whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as our Lord,
in union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races!
I invite you to hold your hand over your water as I pray,
(written by Scott A. Ressman in Immerse Yourself: Elements for a Liturgy on Baptism of Christ Sunday. https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/12/litany-god-of-waters.html)
God of the waters. Water of birth,
moving us from safety into the world.
God of the waters. Water of connection,
engaging the playful Spirit,
the passionate Christ,
the challenging God.
God of the waters. Water of life,
God of the waters. Water of trouble,
journeying us from here to there,
from the known to the unknown.
God of the waters.
Live in us.
The waters are here - an opportunity to refresh and renew our souls - to remember your baptism and to be thankful. Come to the water and dip your hands to commit again to living out these vows that we claim for ourselves. You can make the sign of the cross on your forehead or simply let the water run through your hands.
[moment for people to do that]
Song - Rain Down
Rain down, rain down
Rain down your love on your people
Rain down, rain down
Rain down your love God of life
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.