This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11.
Words have power.
For better or for worse, our words have the ability to build up tear down, make whole or divide, give life or destroy, celebrate or denigrate. With just a few words we can let someone know that we love and value them, or we can communicate our hatred and animosity.
In communications theory, there exists the concept of power-words. A power-word is “a word that often evokes an emotional response, positive or negative, in the target audience, leading to a desired outcome.” That is, leaders or communicators will use certain words in their speeches to incite hope or hatred, excitement or aversion, repentance or riot.
We must agree that after the last four years in this country, and the last four days specifically that words have power. Political slogans and campaigns, rhetoric on Twitter, Facebook, and social media, uncivil discourse and dialogue. As a nation, our words have become too loaded, too volatile, too charged. On Wednesday, we witnessed the unprecedented and evil actions which were the natural and obvious manifestation of words from the last 4 years.
Friends, we need to examine our own words and actions to see if they are in alignment with the God and his kingdom.
You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.
The Episcopal Church devotes the first Sunday after the Epiphany to the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Years A, B, and C all include a variation of Jesus’ baptism, borrowing from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The church has decided together that God’s words spoken to, about, and over Jesus are significant.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
These words are full of power. They were not just important for Jesus nor for the first century Christians: they carry significant weight and power for us.
We begin our Gospel lesson four verses into Mark’s opening chapter. If you think that this looks familiar…it does! This is our 4th time looking at this passage in the last 6 weeks!
The lesson opens with John the baptizer. John has come proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A better translation of this verse would be “proclaiming a baptism of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.”
Why baptism? Prior to New Testament, Israel had no functional equivalent for our Christian understanding of baptism. John’s baptism was an altogether new phenomenon; many believe that the closest Jewish precedent for this was “the ritual cleansing by immersion of a Gentile on becoming a proselyte.” That is, if someone who wasn’t Jewish wanted to convert to Judaism, they would have to undergo a ritual cleansing. “But John’s baptism was for Jews; to ask them to undergo the same initiatory ritual as was required of a Gentile convert was a powerful statement of John’s theology of the people of God…to be born a Jew was not enough.”
John’s baptism is all about repentance. The Greek word here is metanoia, and it means to turn around, an about face. It would be as though you were walking south down A1A and then you had a moment of metanoia in which you turned 180* and went north. It is more than a feeling or an expression, it is always accompanied by action.
Repentance is always turning away from something and turning toward something else. This is why repentance is a verb and not a theory. Saying sorry is one thing, but an amendment of life is the fullness of an apology. Here is what repentance actually looks like…
As part of the turning away it is…
Renouncing Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.
Renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
Renouncing all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.
This means decrying the acts of hatred and violence this past Wednesday as evil and wicked.
This means confessing all acts of violence as evil.
We must also announce corruption, systemic injustice, racism, agism, sexism, classism, and poverty as evil.
This means putting to death all forms of idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, prejudice, judgmentalism, hatred, lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, slandering, and other forms of sinful behavior.
This is both corporate and individual.
If we renounce these things, if we actively turn away from them, then toward what or whom do we turn instead?
We need to read further before we answer that question.
People from the whole Judean countryside and from Jerusalem come and join John in the wilderness. They are baptized by him in the Jordan as they confess their sins. One commentator suggests that John’s voice crying out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” is the most significant event in Israel’s history for 300 years. The people come to him from all over because he was preaching something different than the rest of the religious leaders of the day. Whether it was categorically different or simply on account of his zeal, the people recognize in him the prophetic tradition.
This is why we are told that John “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” These depictions should bring to mind images of Israel’s great prophet, Elijah who came preaching repentance to all of Israel. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as “the hairy man with the leather belt.” There is even thought that John was baptizing at the precise location where Elijah was taken up into heaven…
John isn’t here to simply immerse people in water…he’s here as a herald of the eschaton; he baptizes in the Jordan as a proclamation that YHWH is on the move once more.
In verse 7, John makes his pronouncement about the superiority of the one who is coming after him. For week, I have used the analogy of the sports fan who would wear a large “foam finger” to games when talking about John. John was wearing a figurative foam finger at all times, constantly pointing up to the Father and then directly to Jesus. We have already discussed this verse at length, but I’d like to recall two main points. First, John differentiates his baptism with Jesus on account of the Holy Spirit. Second, John places himself below the role of a servant in relationship to Jesus. It was a servant’s job to untie the thongs of a sandal and John says he isn’t even fit for that role…the suspense is building toward the emergence of this “Greater One.”
A quick note on water. John is not denigrating the role of water in baptism but is rather elevating the presence and immersion of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry. You may have noticed that water was present in all of our lessons this morning. The Spirit hovered over the deep waters in creation, God’s voice was spoken over the waters in the Psalm, and the waters of baptism wash over those who receive this sacrament. Water has always been a symbol of life and birth. We are born in water, our bodies are made up of 60% water, the earth is 71% water, and we are re-born in the waters of baptism.
The baptismal liturgy includes this prayer over water:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Water was a core symbol and image for Israel. John is not doing away with the water, but is rather pointing to the Spirit who was hovering over the waters because it is the Spirit who will cause rebirth, not the water itself.
We finally arrive at the scene with Jesus. Verse 9 is nonchalant and casual, almost dull. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” This is significant because we were previously told that those from Judea and Jerusalem were coming to John for baptism, that is, the remnant of Israel, but now we have “a stranger from the North.” Remember, Jesus’ birth pedigree is royal but now he lives in backwater Nazareth…
John is expertly setting up this dynamic encounter, though. Verse 10 is teeming with activity compared to the limited mobility of the previous verse.
“And just as he was coming up out of the waters.” This is the first time in Greek that Mark uses his favorite phrase, “immediately.” He will use this 41 times in his Gospel…it is only used 51 in the whole of the New Testament. Mark is trying to grab our attention with this.
It says that the heavens were “torn apart.” The Greek word here is the counterpart to the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 63 when it says, “Lord rend the heavens and come down.” This is also the verb used to describe the veil of the temple being torn in two. This is no accident or coincidence; Mark is saying something significant! Jesus’ baptism is essential because
This is what it looks like when God rends open the heavens.
God rending the heavens and coming down looks like the Son of God receiving the baptism of repentance in the Jordan
Or, to borrow from Mary Healy, “The whole cosmos is impacted by Jesus’ act of humility. The heavens are not gently opened but torn asunder—a sign that the barrier between God and man is being removed.”
If we turn away from Satan, sin, and evil in our repentance, to whom do we turn toward?
You turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior.
You put your whole trust in his grace and love.
You promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.
Jesus did not need this baptism. Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. Jesus has nothing of which he needed to repent…and yet, he receives this baptism all the same. Why? It was an act of body language; it was God’s self-identifying with the suffering of his people under the weight of sin; it was Jesus standing in solidarity with humanity; the King of the Jews was in essence saying that it was not enough to be born a Jew.
Jesus turns toward the Father in his baptism and he invites us to turn toward the Father with him. We must follow Jesus as Lord as he follows the Father. In Jesus we are given the image of the invisible God; Jesus is the light to lighten our path. Jesus is the light of the world and his light shines forth in creation three days before the sun, moon, and stars are created. The light of Jesus reveals the glory of the Father!
The Spirit descends on Jesus. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation. Just as John promised that the Powerful One would baptize with the Spirit. The holy trinity is present in this baptism; the Father speaks his loving words to the Son, the Son of God and the Son of David, the one who is fully God and fully man, stands in the Jordan fully identifying with Israel and all of humanity, and the Spirit descends.
Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
The statement from the Father here is definitive. He does not call Jesus a son of God but rather the Son, the beloved.
Mark’s gospel doesn’t quite answer why the baptism of the Spirit is greater than John’s baptism of water, but our lesson from Acts does. Paul goes to Ephesus as asks if the believers have heard of the Spirit and sadly they have not. Mary Healy says it this way: baptism in the Holy Spirit is “a coming alive of the graces received in sacramental baptism.”
Friends, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You have been sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. What does it look like to live as a baptized disciple of Jesus? It means that you…
Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to God.
Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
To close this sermon, I will pray over each and every one of you. This prayer is a compilation of prayers and statements from the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the prayer book. The intention here is for you to reaffirm your baptismal covenant. (If you have not yet been baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, please write me an email so we can talk about baptism. If you have not yet been confirmed in the faith by an Episcopal bishop or received from another diocese or body, please write me so we can talk about fixing this.)
May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Deliver them, O Lord, from the way of sin and death. Open their hearts to your grace and truth. Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit. Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church. Teach them to love others in the power of the Spirit. Send them into the world in witness to your love. Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.
 Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 308.
 Mark 1:11.
 R. T. France, NIGTC Commentary on Mark, 66.
 Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302.
 R.T. France in his NIGTC commentary on Mark.
 I had a foam finger hidden in the pulpit which I placed on my hand for this portion of the sermon.
 Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 306.
 Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
 Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302-3.
 Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304.
 Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
 Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304-5.
 Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 305-6, 310.