They say that preaching is something you do in context. So a sermon written during a pandemic ought not to be the same as a sermon written in other times (even on the same text). And so, I feel that I can’t just preach the sermon I had envisioned before this Wednesday—when our capital was overrun, our elected officials had to hide in secure locations, and in the melee and its aftermath people lost their lives. The theme of the sermon—waters—is the same. But this sermon has been changed, as our country has, by the events of this week.
Now to our Biblical context. We have just spent a few weeks delving into the Christmas story, in Luke with shepherds and angels and a manger, in Matthew with a star in the heavens and wise ones from afar. Last week we opened up the lens to talk in John on a cosmic scale—light and darkness, beginnings, creation (and how we might have to respond to the way that story has been shaped in our own culture). Finally, this week, we come to the gospel of Mark—which will be our anchor in this lectionary year B. Mark, who doesn’t have a birth narrative—this gospel jumps right into the story of (as it writes in the very first sentence) “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
At least, that’s how it has always lived in my mind—that Mark doesn’t have a “birth” narrative. But then, John doesn’t really have a “birth” narrative either. John has “in the beginning” with light and darkness like the Genesis creation “in the beginning.” Mark has John the Baptist stepping out of the wilderness preaching repentance, and “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
But maybe that is a birth narrative too, a type of “born again” birth narrative. Maybe where we were born, and who attended our birth, and whether there was a star in the sky or and angel announcement in the heavens, does not count for this story. Maybe the start of it all, is hearing the truth about who it is we were created to be, and in hearing that truth, recognizing our failures and our shortcomings. But there is good news from John, because after you realize that you have not lived up to expectations, there was a ritual, there was a way of symbolizing that God would wipe it all away, that you could get a fresh start, that the stain of “before” need not keep you from an “ever after.”
Water. You went to the water. You climbed down into the river Jordan, you and your sins, and as the waters covered you, your sins were washed away, and you came up, wet but clean, ready to start anew.
Someday I hope I get to preach the sermon I thought I was going to preach—a sermon about water, about how water is a calming influence (there’s even a book by Wallace J Nichols called “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do”), about how we begin our existence in water (in the womb)—and so Mark’s “birth” narrative is one that we all participate in before we are even conscious—about the wisdom of the peoples that lived on this continent before we did, like the Puyallup Tribe of the Northwest, who now hold a Tribal Canoe Journey, calling all people to restore close ties to the “oceans, rivers, lakes, and thunderstorms.” As they say, “Our medicine comes from the water.” (Seasons, 1/10/21)
But that is a sermon for another time and place. Today, we must hear John calling us to a new day, a new dawn, a new life. Some would say, “It has been a long four years.” Some would add, “It’s been a lot longer than that.” Many of us are so tired of being tired, so ready to just turn the page and move on, so impatient to close the door on this chapter of our communal life.
And here comes John the Baptist—weirdo that he is, with his weird clothes (and I’ll bet weird hair) and his weird food, and his obnoxious talk about all the things that are wrong with our society, wrong with our lives, wrong with us. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know. Now just wave your magic wand—tell us the special words of the special prayer to say—and make it all better.
And John shakes his head, and tries again. Yes, there is good news. Yes, there is a special way of making it right. Yes, there is the water, right here and right now. But WAIT. Just because there is good news doesn’t mean there is an easy fix. Just because there is good news doesn’t mean it isn’t costly. Just because there is good news doesn’t mean you get to go straight to new life without passing through the waters, without confessing your sins, without trying to make it right.
In some ways, we have unlinked the two parts of John’s message. Baptism and Repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Maybe it is because we, especially we as Presbyterians, think of baptism as something that happens to babies, who couldn’t possibly have done very much wrong. Maybe it is because even when we do adult baptism, we don’t stress the repentance part, we don’t have people writing confessional statements, or even going into an actual confessional to unburden themselves of all that they might have done. We do the baptism, we even ask questions about turning away (repenting) from our sins. But the confessing part, the repentance part—that we leave to silent personal prayer (which we often rush through), or corporate unison prayer that talks vaguely about what is wrong with our world.
In the aftermath of what we all watched with horror happen on Wednesday, added to the dawning realization of the last several years of how deeply ingrained racism is in our country, in our institutions, even in our own thoughts, in that context we have to stop ourselves from running into the water on Jan. 20th, and proclaiming that we have washed our hands and our bodies and our country of our past and “Good news,” we are America “built back better.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for having a President, and a government who is working for the people, all the people. It’s about time in this time of thousands of people a day dying of Covid, and major hospitals having to talk about rationing care, and lines around the block at our food pantries, and people out of work because we are socially distancing from each other (if we are fortunate enough to be able to do so). I am counting the hours until we can start work on getting our country vaccinated, so that we can get back to school, and back to work, and back to church, and back to being able to gather with our loved ones. I am chaffing at the bit for us to get moving on a green economy, to roll up our sleeves to work on civil rights and justice that is fair to all and the ills of poverty and incarceration.
But John, the one who has been in the wilderness (hear that as the one who has been to the place where all is laid bare, where there are no distractions to keep you from having conversation with God, with hearing what God might have to say to you), John stands there offering good news—offering the waters—but not for free. No, John stands there offering baptism, but baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And that means: there are sins, there are things that need to be forgiven, there needs to be repentance—a moving from where you have been towards where you rightly ought to be. That is the cost. The truth of the situation. Your part in it. And the willingness to take steps towards the way of God.
That’s what I’m hearing this Sunday after the latest culmination of hate speech, and lies, and stoking the really unseemly, nasty underbelly of our country—where fear and want and anxiety and misplaced anger have been added together and boiled up into a noxious stew. I’m hearing loud and clear the call of John that there are healing waters—Thank God. There is the possibility of a new start, a new day, a new way. But it comes through reflection. It comes through admitting the truth. It comes through making changes, (and changes not like our normal New Year’s resolutions that peter out by the end of the month), but changes that we commit to making, as a part of our life, new every morning, every day of this new year, and every year after that.
I hope we can hear the call of John. I hope we can band together with others who hear the call of John. There is so much to do that it is alluring to just shove all that into the closet and shut the door (thinking that we will get back to cleaning up the mess later). But John continues the prophetic message heard in Isaiah “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s paths straight.” This is not the first time in history when a people has had to face, unhappily, who they are—nor will it be the last.
But we, as Americans, can no longer pretend (if we ever could) that we have all the answers, that we are so exceptional that we need no adjustments, that all is right with our world. And we, as Christians, as Presbyterians, as members of UPC, cannot think that there is nothing to be reformed, no changes to be made, that we can ever go back to the “way things were.” And we, as individuals, need to look at our lives, and take some time to honestly assess how we have participated, knowingly or unknowingly, in the sins of our world.
There is good news. There is hope. There are the waters of baptism—we have been claimed by God, we have been signed and sealed with God’s love, we have been adopted and named children of God. We do not have to be forever chained to the mistakes and evil deeds of the past. We can choose a different path. We can start to remake a true image of who we are, not forgetting that we are fallible people, who need each other, and need our God.
This is a message that pulls at our core. Why else would “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” flock out to the Jordan—to hear John, to hear his good news, to confess their sins, to promise repentance, to walk into the waters and to have an experience like we hear Jesus having,
Coming up out of the waters,
Seeing the heavens torn apart, the symbol of a new time, a better day
The promise of God being with us, hovering on us, like the Spirit hovered over the dark waters of creation, like the Spirit hovered over those gathered at Pentecost,
And hearing the echoes of what Jesus heard—God proclaiming the greatest news of all, “You are my child, You are my beloved, There is nothing in all of creation, no power, no principality, not death, nor life, not things present, or things to come, nothing from above or below, or anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate you, EVER, from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38 alt)
Wow. What a “birth” narrative. What a great beginning to Jesus’ story, and to our own—each of us, our church, our country, our world.
Let us give thanks for the life-giving waters.
But those waters (and our God who created them) require much of us. They call for examination. They call for truth. They call for us to promise once again to take up the work of preparing the way—of making a better world, a better community, a better life, for all of God’s children.
In this new year, in this new time, with a renewed spirit, let us pray that God would grant us the wisdom and the courage for the facing of these days. May we truly live into our baptism, so help us God.