United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“A New Start”

January 7th, 2024

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        Seven days ago was the beginning of a new calendar year.  Is it funny that when we turn the page to January, or when we have to remember to write a new year on documents, or when the earth (in the northern hemisphere) begins to add light to each day instead of diminishing it, we humans feel that we get a new start.  We make New Year’s resolutions.  We feel we have a clean slate.  We are willing to let go of the old and begin again.  It’s not quite as dramatic as God’s “Let there be light!” (in the darkness).  But for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, it feels that we can change our habits and our lives, that impossible things might be possible, that our world might be a different place.

        Let’s not spoil that optimism with the cold hard truth of what has come before.  Let’s instead look at our gospel lesson with those rosy eyes.  We have read the first part of our lesson from Mark before.  John (the Baptist) has appeared from the wilderness with a message for all people—Repent and Be Baptized.  He is a stand-out character: with his wild clothing (camel’s hair and leather belt) and his unusual diet (locusts and wild honey—yum) and the fact that here in the midst of his fame, he points to another, who will be greater than himself.

        People flock to hear him from miles around.  And not just to hear, but to wade into the Jordan River (Was it clean?  Was it cold?  Was it running swift?). To be submerged, held under the ripples, only to be yanked up and told your sins were forgiven, you had been made clean.  We Presbyterians are often baptized as infants, so we don’t have a physical memory of water coursing over our bodies.  The closest we can get is the call to “remember our own baptisms” and to touch water, or have water sprinkled over us.

        I wonder if John the Baptist also had a “one and done” rule for his baptism.  Or if you could come back again and again to feel that sensation of, “Oh, yes, I’m clean.”  Most Christian denominations agree that you only receive baptism once (as opposed to the Lord’s Supper where God feeds you today, and tomorrow, and forever).  It’s as if once is enough.  Why is that?  Maybe because it’s not like confession and assurance of pardon, where we know we messed up, and ask for forgiveness, something that happens day after day.  I don’t believe we were born dirty (although I know that the Bible plays with this “original sin” idea).  I can’t look at a newborn infant and believe that God sees foulness.

        I focus more on what is happening in baptism.  For John it was a way to show that you had turned your life to God.  That you had made a new start.  And all that is true.  But it seems rather focused on us.  If we turn the camera around, and focus on God, Baptism is God’s declaration of love, God’s claim of connection, God’s signal of who we are in the world that is God’s.

        Look at what we are told about Jesus’ own baptism.  Here in Mark we don’t hear the talk about the lamb of God found in the gospel of John.  We just know that John the Baptist (different John by the way) has said there is one coming who is so great he is not worthy to even stoop and tie his sandals.  He will baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit.

        Notice that in Mark’s gospel John doesn’t seem to recognize Jesus when he appears.  Is this part of the Messianic Secret that runs through Mark—where Jesus seems reluctant for everyone to know who he is.  The disciples are sworn to secrecy.  But we, the readers are in the know.  We have started Mark’s gospel with: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [the son of God].”

        And here he is.  Jesus.  Appearing out of the crowd.  Looking like everyone else.  Doing what everyone else does.  He shows up at the edge of the river Jordan, and John does what he has done hundreds, maybe thousands, of times.

      He takes this man standing before him, and baptizes him.  Down into the water, up to hear the call, “Your sins are forgiven.”

        And in this Markan version of the story, that might be all that the bystanders saw and heard.  For Mark reports that Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, Jesus sees a dove descending on him, Jesus hears a voice, Jesus hears the words “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Others of the gospels have the crowds also hearing this.  But let’s stick to our text.

        Is it just that Mark is anxious to get to the meat of his story (skipping any birth stories, not wanting to stop too long on this Jordan river experience)?  Is he wanting to move off the controversial figure of John the Baptist, someone who will make enough noise against the hoi polio (the rich people in charge) that one of them will ask for his head on a platter?  Does the writer of Mark see this as a personal experience of Jesus?  Or does he not yet want the crowds to know who Jesus is (that pesky Messianic secret)?  We don’t know.

        But we do get to hear and imagine what Jesus saw and heard.  We can think about what it means to have the heavens torn apart and the dove descending (God coming down from heaven to earth—we’ve heard of that before).  There is something extraordinary happening.  That dove (or some winged being) has been with us from the beginning of the Bible, when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation.  And here it is again, swooping in through the tear in the heavens onto an unsuspecting world.  I love the quote from some theologian (who I could not identify on google) that at Jesus’ baptism, “God is loosed on our world.”

        What I would like to focus on this morning is God’s words to Jesus.  Now we are at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel.  We don’t know much about this man called Jesus.  We don’t know if he was a good kid.  We don’t know if he studied his Torah.  We don’t know if he spent time alone with God in prayer.  We don’t know if he did the required mitzvahs (good works).



     He is an unknown to us.  And maybe that is Mark’s point.  He wants us to meet this Jesus fresh.

        But presenting the baptism this way also makes a point.  The focus is on God and God’s words to Jesus.  Now I know that what God says to Jesus is private in Mark.  But it is echoed by parents everywhere, it is what children long to hear—you are my son, my daughter, my beloved, in whom I’m well pleased or in our words, and I’m so proud of you, you make my heart soar.

        Now does Mark let us hear this just because it is another hint of who this person is?  I don’t think so.  If we look at Paul’s letters, another look at what very early Christians were thinking—there is this theme of adoption, of us becoming not just God’s children through Christ, but heirs of the kingdom—beloved children.  And as children, we too can hear God talking to us.  Saying to us, not because we have done something, but because this is who God is:  Here is my son, my daughter, my beloved—and I’m so proud.

        I think the church had it right—baptism is only done once.  Because we don’t have to be perfect, or clean, to gain God’s grace.  It’s not about us.  Grace, Mercy, Love, are God’s free gifts—not based on merit, but based on who God is.  We don’t have to be baptized again, because God’s love, and our connection to God, doesn’t disappear, no matter what we do.

        So here is the good news for today—every day is New Year’s Day for Christians.  Every day is a clean slate.  Every day is a new start.  Every day dawns bright.  Because the heavens have been torn open.  The Spirit dwells with us right here and now.  The question is what will we do with our new day?  How will we live into the love that has been bestowed upon us?  How will we love in return?

        Beloveds, may it be so.  Alleluia, Amen.