Sunday, January 10, 2021

Baptism and Prayer

January 10, 2021

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Mark 1:4-11[1]

We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and now an unprecedented assault on democracy. All of this hurts. This is hard and exhausting. I feel it. Be kind to yourself. Ask for help if you need it. Extend a hand to others. Continue to seek a more just world. Know that God hears our prayers.

This is not a sermon about current events.

Did Jesus sin? Most people would shout “Of course not!” But why, then, did Jesus get baptized? John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1:4). The Nicene Creed, adopted by the Church in 325 CE, states that Jesus “became truly human.”[2] Jesus was born, lived, and died as a human, and we likely agree that all humans sin. Now, I’m not really trying to make a theological argument, or even really focus on whether or not Jesus sinned, whether or not he was perfect. My point is this: Jesus was born in to a world where no one is without sin, and he sought out the baptism of John.

Our world is not dualistic; there is no pure black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. There are only shades of gray. Every decision we make, every action we take exists in a complex web of interaction with every other person, every other being. Perhaps an illustration here would help.

Exodus 20:15 reads “You shall not steal.” It is one of the Ten Commandments. Roseanne (not her real name) was caught stealing from Jewel. At her trial, it became clear that, while she was guilty, she did it in order to feed her child. She is a single mother, the baby’s father long gone. Her parents died in a house fire a few years ago, and she doesn’t have any relatives that she knows. She can’t hold a job because she can’t leave her child alone, and can’t afford daycare. Was it absolutely wrong for her to steal? I’m not so sure. But let’s take a step back.

She lives in an apartment building a few blocks from my house. I have seen her before, but never spoken to her. I am her neighbor, yet I can’t honestly say that I love her as myself. I live as if completely detached from her existence, yet we both shop at Jewel. I vote and pay taxes, so I am an active participant in the legal system that will imprison her. Is it a sin to force a mother to abandon her child? If so, then isn’t the system itself implicated in sin?

Many of my clothes were made in a sweatshop in China or Vietnam. Is it a sin to oppress workers? The natural gas that cooks my food came from a fracking operation that has poisoned the well water of hundreds of people in North Dakota. Is it a sin to poison water? Sin surrounds us; that’s just the way it is. However much we wish to distance ourselves, we are linked with school shooters, drug dealers, and soldiers who tortured prisoners in Afghanistan. I don’t intend to harm others, to exploit the environment, or to sin against God. But sometimes it just can’t be helped. All I can do is to make the best choices that I can in an imperfect world.

This is the world that Jesus was born into. Did he sin? Probably not intentionally, but he was a real human being living in the real world where sin permeates the very air. He is one of us and all of us, every one of us, need forgiveness. So, let’s go down to the river to pray.

The people were filed with expectation, and they hoped John would have some answers for them. One after another they ask him, “What should we do?” The world is full of sin, and so am I, so what am I to do? The economy is struggling, jobs are scarce, people are sick and scared, and we are still at war. What are we to do? So, they came out to be baptized by John. It helped to be baptized, to be washed clean inside and out. But still, something was missing. Something more powerful was needed in order to really change things. The water was nice, but where was the fire? Where was the Holy Spirit?

Jesus was baptized, along with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). The baptism of Jesus wasn’t something unusual. There was no special ceremony just for him, or even a bit of dialogue between John and Jesus in Mark’s story. Instead, Jesus just gets in line and is baptized along with everyone else, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sinners. It is only after the baptism, when Jesus comes up out of the water, that the Holy Spirit descends from heaven. For Mark, this is where it all begins, down by the river, with baptism and prayer.

Jesus, in this moment, was more like us than we expect. He didn’t just appear and march right off to save the world. Before he started his ministry, he went with the sinners through the waters of baptism; he was washed clean, made ready for a new beginning. He prayed for strength and received power beyond himself. He faced the temptations in the wilderness, testing his commitment.

Messiah, son of God, member of the Trinity Jesus may be, yet the power of God’s Holy Spirit had to be received. And just as he did, we receive the Holy Spirit through baptism and prayer. We celebrate baptism only once, though we may remember it from time to time. It is through prayer that the disciples learn the power God from Jesus, and prayer will renew and strengthen the disciples and to enable them to endure suffering, face hardship, and find guidance for their ministry, through all the centuries, even to this day.

Baptism is where we find renewal. We acknowledge who we are, and what has come before, and we ask for forgiveness. We repent of sin, turn away from evil, and turn toward God. We ask for a new beginning, and we are given a fresh start. Every time we remember or celebrate a baptism, a confirmation, or welcome a new member, we renew our promise to be Christ’s disciples. And it is in prayer that we receive the power to fulfill that promise. Through prayer we open ourselves to the influence of God’s Holy Spirit.

Like a dove it came, as the heavens were torn apart, descending upon Jesus. It was the Spirit, filling Jesus, which powered his ministry. And the Holy Spirit is not limited to Jesus alone. The message of Pentecost is the promise that the Holy Spirit is available to all of us. In the second chapter of Acts, when they were all together in one place, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).

Just as the Holy Spirit gave Jesus the power to teach and to heal and to continue on in the face of opposition and threats, we are also able to tap into that power. The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the encouragement, the patience, and the strength to carry on the ministry of Jesus, and to love an angry, sinful world, and angry, sinful people, again and again. We too can depend upon the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual stamina to carry on through difficult times, to make a difference in people’s lives, and to bring love and peace to our sinful world.

But if we are to trust in that power, if we are to trust that prayer really does connect us to God, perhaps we need to remember what else happened in that moment by the Jordan River. “A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (4:11). Jesus, born as a human being, one of us, is identified as the child of God. It was in that moment that Jesus knew who he was, and whose he was. When Jesus heard those words from God, they changed his life forever. And they can change our lives as well.

The world is a hard place to live when you don’t know who you are. We wander as though we are lost, searching for ourselves. But we need not be lost. We need only remember our baptism. As the water dripped down from our hair, with family and friends gathered round, we heard these words: “The Holy Spirit be upon you, child of God, disciple of Christ, member of the church.”[3] You are a child of God. You are loved. God is pleased with you. The words that came from heaven that day were not for the ears of Jesus only, but for all of us. As we pray for the strength to live and to love, let us hear what God is saying to each of us: “You are my child. I love you. You make me very happy.”  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] First Council of Nicaea, 325 CE. Translation used by permission of the United Church of Canada.

[3] Reprinted from Book of Worship © 1986 by permission of the United Church of Christ Office for Church Life and Leadership, p. 143.

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