A sermon for 1st Sunday in Epiphany; Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
As I was driving home from a meeting in Osceola Friday afternoon, I heard a story on NPR about a granddaughter tracing her grandmother’s experience as a Jewish refugee in Norway and then Sweden in WWII. Her grandmother was smuggled from the threat of Nazi prison camp, where she would have most likely met the same fate as her parents and younger brother, to safety with strangers who welcomed her into their family, twice.
Though more dramatic, it touches the same moral chords as David Brook’s Thursday column How would Jesus Drive? Brooks begins with Pope Francis’ New Year’s Eve homily in which he states that the most influential people, the true artisans of the common good are everyday folks. Brook’s notes
- how speeding up so I can’t merge into your lane, reveals a society that is basically competitive, not cooperative
- a friendly wave after I let you in reveals a place where a kindness is recognized, and gratitude is expressed.
- getting over to the right lane and waiting your turn in a crowded highway exit lane, rather than cutting in at the last moment, reveals a sense of fairness and equality.
He is wise and accurate in the observation that driving requires us to make thousands of small moral decisions. He ponders “How would Jesus drive?” (Brooks).
The granddaughter’s story is centered around large, perhaps dramatic, moral decisions. Brooks’ column is centered around moral decision so small most of us don’t recognize their moral importance. Both connected with Mark’s 59-word story of Jesus’ baptism; and its themes of water, torn apart, and a dove. Let’s Explore.
The dove, as a symbol of the Spirit appearing as Jesus emerges from Jordan’s waters, reminds us of the chaotic waters of creation. Their time in Egypt would have exposed Israel to the idea of water as a place without role or function (Genesis 1:2) The ‘deep’ is a watery abyss God pushes to edge of the cosmos and holds there, as a part of God’s creating order out of chaos, has similarities with Babylon’s creation epic Enuma Elish (Keener and Walton; Harrelson). Genesis’ imagery of darkness contributes to the sense of the water’s threat. From Genesis we imagine the water as the useless formless void of chaos, in which nothing can exist, from which the Word, the light and life of creation, the incarnate Jesus, the Son of God, emerges (Pankey). It looks a very different than the safe, still surface of the water in baptismal fonts.
Jesus sees the heaven being torn apart. The is not a careful tearing easily restored. The image reminds us of the gigantic power of creation separating day from night, and form, and use from void (Pankey). It is an apocalyptic vision suggesting that a divine revelation is at hand (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen) It is not like God is tearing it all down to begin again; it suggests that God is acting to set the cosmos back on its intended track (Hoezee). Its purpose, form, and order is as powerfully disturbing as the water’s useless formless void of chaos. We are not at all sure that the shredding of the barrier between heaven and earth is a good thing, because we know it is going to disrupt how our thousands of daily moral decisions are made and seen.
It is clear that Jesus’ baptism is not a purification ceremony. Ancient biographical writings expect the hero to prepared for his mission (Perkins). Barrie Bates writes It’s as if the waters of his baptism have washed away what was hiding the true Jesus (Bates). The revelation of the divine mission, the preparation for the mission, the clearing away of anything hiding the divine appointee’s identity directs our attention to the phrase “like a dove” which is sounding more and more like Jesus coming to know who he is, and what his calling is (Perkins).
All of this helps us to understand who Mark understands Jesus to be. But, we do not get off untouched. God calls Jesus “Son of God.” In Psalm 2 (vs 7) and Isaiah 44(2) the title refers to the whole people of Israel (Perkins). So, we find ourselves challenged; what do we need to do to wash away the buildup of life’s troubles and discover who we really are, and what God’s call for us is. We are baptized in Jesus and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” So, each and every one of us is the beloved, with whom God is well pleased; each and every one of us was forever transformed in our baptism each; and every one of us continues to be transformed, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small changes (Bates).
We all know that there is still darkness, chaos, disfunction, and purposelessness in the world (Pankey). When I left the story of the granddaughter’s pursuit of her grandmother’s story I was wondering “Why do some people fade away in the face of chaos or evil? Why do some people take a courageous stand, and / or take courageous action?” The answer is clear. God’s love brings all things into purpose, light, and life. It is as Brooks shares, Pope Francis saying, the most influential people, the true artisans of the common good are everyday folks (Brooks). That influence, our influence is the strength that comes from the presence of God/Jesus/Spirit given us at Baptism. It is the same strength with which God chased off and holds back the chaos of darkness and water creating the space in which the cosmos, including us, can be, and prosper. It is the same strength that tore open the heavens revealing divine love for Jesus, enabling Jesus to thrive in the chaos of the wilderness – which is the very next story in Mark’s Gospel. It is the same strength that it is available to all who know and accept God/Jesus/Spirit. It is the influence of everyday folks making thousands of moral decisions every day guided by their divine calling to bring purpose, light, and life into every situation.
In this story the dove personifies the Spirit. In the flood story (Genesis 8:6-12) the dove is a symbol for a new creation and a new hope (Harrelson). Jesus drives to fulfill that hope by bringing purpose, light, and life to all people. We can too, as we drive around to all the everyday purposes of a full life.
Bates, Barrie. “Christ’s Own for Ever, Epiphany 1 (B).” 7 1 2018. Sermons that Work.
Brooks, David. How Would Jesus Drive? 4 1 2018. <http://nyti.ms/28KGh5f>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 7 1 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 1B Mark 1:4-11. 7 1 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs. Commentary on Mark 1:4-11. 7 1 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Pankey, Steve. “The chaos of baptism.” 3 1 2017. Draughting Theology.
Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
The Living Curch. 1/7: Risk and Trust. 7 1 2018. <livingchurch.org/2018/1/7/1/7 Risk and Trust>.