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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.”[9]

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.[10]

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?[11]

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.”[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]


[1] https://www.yourdictionary.com/power-word
[2] Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 308.
[3] Mark 1:11.
[4] R. T. France, NIGTC Commentary on Mark, 66.
[5] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302.
[6] R.T. France in his NIGTC commentary on Mark.
[7] I had a foam finger hidden in the pulpit which I placed on my hand for this portion of the sermon.
[8] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 306.
[9] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[10] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302-3.
[11] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304.
[12] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[13] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304-5.
[14] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 305-6, 310.

You will find both the transcript for my recent sermon and the link for the audio version in this post. I tend to mirror/follow my writing version with some degree of intentionality, but often it serves as the foundation from which I then branch out as the morning develops and the Spirit moves.

As always, a special thanks to the Rev. Cynthia Brust and the Rev. Canon Ellis Brust of Church of the Apostles and all the fabulous people at COTA for allowing me the space and opportunity to preach and work on my craft. I am truly blessed with such a fabulous, kind, and welcoming community!

LINK FOR AUDIO

Ought to. Want to. Have to. Need to. 

Would. Could. Should. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Shouldn’t.

It all gets extremely overwhelming, doesn’t it? I really want to eat this third serving of King Ranch Casserole but should I? I know I ought to call so-and-so on their birthday, but I don’t want to. It is highly advisable to exercise regularly and get your oil changed every 3,000 miles, but this book is too good and I’m too comfortable gearing up for some late night TV watching…

You’re laughing now, but let’s make this less fun:

I see that person stranded with a flat tire. I ought to stop, but…

I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, care for the poor, the orphans, and the widows, visit the sick, the dying and the shut in, and be an expression of Christ to Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents, black, white, brown, yellow, even the Presbyterians…but they are just so different from me; they just make it so hard; I really ought to but they just…

And we give our excuses time and time again.

We tend to associate with only those who look like us, talk like us, spend money like us, or vote like us. Is that not the heart of the matter in our Gospel passage this morning? We’ve become so desensitized to the radical nature of the Good Samaritan that we risk missing the point completely. Let’s enter into the story once again and see what’s going on.

So, we enter Luke’s Gospel this morning and the passage beings, “Just then.” Ok, we need to stop 😉 “Just then” tells us that we are in the middle of a specific scene in the story. Ellis preached on Luke 10 last week and the story concluded with verse 20. 

Jesus has just sent the 70 out on their mission with the knowledge that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” They are given instructions as to what to pack, how to go, and what to do when they encounter hostile/unrepentant cities. They go out and they return exuberant. They were able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name–I don’t know about you but I think the ability to cast out demons during your mission is something to rejoice about! Jesus rejoices with the disciples but then we enter into this interesting set of verses when Jesus blesses the disciples for being able to see what God has revealed, especially when there are kings and rulers who would love this type of information.

It is in the midst of this gathering–of the disciples’ return from mission and Jesus’ praise of their work and his comments about seeing and hearing–that a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

It is so easy for us to miss this and move straight to the second question: who is my neighbor? We cannot afford to move too quickly here.

Remember the scene with me one. Last. time: they are corporately rejoicing in the successful mission of being sent-out-ones in Jesus’ name and talking about casting out demons and the relationship between the Father and the Son and a lawyer asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Talk about non-sequitor. Talk about a buzz kill.

Jesus’ answer isn’t surprising: what do you read in the law? A lawyer asks the question and Jesus tells him to read the law…it might be like us having a conversation right now and me turing to you and asking, “what must I do to celebrate the Eucharist properly?” and someone replying, “What do you find in the Priest’s Handbook? Or what does it say in the Book of Common Prayer?” Are you with me here?

The lawyer responds with the shema–Israel’s ancient prayer which she was to recite multiple times throughout the day, the prayer that was supposed to be written on her heart, her forehead, the doorposts to the house, talked about as you she was walking with her children–that is, this is the very fabric of Israel’s life with YHWH. This is his response, with the addition of loving your neighbor, and Jesus says, “Yes, you are right. Do this and you shall live.”

Wait…what? That’s a weird response! We miss the verses preceeding the Shema in Deutoronomy 6…but they have been printed in your bulletin!

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Do you see it? The Great Commandment given in Deuteronomy, the very foundation and backbone of the Shema, is preceded by an important promise: do this and you will live. Follow YHWH and you will enter the land flowing with milk and honey. This YHWH, the one who redeemed and rescued his people out of Egypt that they might worship him in the desert, the one who gave the law to a people already redeemed, the one who promised Abram long ago of a people and a land…this YHWH already told them what it would look like to follow him and live in the promised land…

So of course Jesus would tell the lawyer to look at the law and then tell him that the foundational premise of the law found in Deuteronomy 6 would be the key to eternal life…of course he does. It makes complete sense now that we see it this way…right?!

BUT…

There is a but here and it is simple: the lawyer wants to justify himself and so he asks who his neighbor is.

Now don’t go giving the lawyer a hard time, friends. Sadly, if we are going to identify as anyone in this passage it ought to be the lawyer who asks the question. Why? Because how often do you ask God questions like this one? How often do you say, “But surely you can’t mean that folk in Wyandotte County are my neighbors? Surely, you don’t mean that Republicans or Democrats or immigrants are my neighbors, Lord?” The answer is simple, “Yes, and don’t call me surely.” 😉

The question instantly creates an us versus them, and we love that, don’t we? If everyone isn’t your neighbor then it means that some people aren’t your neighbors and if some people aren’t your neighbors then it means that you are off the hook for helping them, caring for them, loving them, treating them with dignity and respect…you see? 

The lawyer is hoping for an out, a get-out-of-jail-free card, and he doesn’t get one. Instead, he gets a parable. Jesus tells the story of a man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is no easy walk. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was about 18 miles long and you would have started at the high elevation of Jerusalem where the warm air and moisture coming from the Mediterranean was still present and then you would have descended into the Dead Sea Valley to reach Jericho, the oasis city in the desert. The road would have been arid and dry barren wasteland. This is NOT an easy journey and people hearing the story would have known that. The journey would have been lonely because while it was a primary thoroughfare between these two cities, it was so dry and arid hot with so many twists and turns that it was easy for travelers to be robbed and mugged. Bandits would hide out along the road, mug their victims and then travel into the desert and know they were safe, because who wants to chase someone in the desert?! 

So the man traveling this treacherous road, both because of climate and because of the potential for criminal activity, encounters a group of robbers who strip him, beat him, and leave him half dead…really, they leave him to die.

We read that a priest was traveling down that road. Whether the down here means down from Jerusalem toward or Jericho or along the road and on his way up to Jerusalem is irrelevant. This priest was either on his way to Jerusalem to worship or he was on his way back from worship in Jerusalem and he sees a man half dead. Given the way that Jesus tells the story it is safe to assume that this man who was beaten is an Israelite and therefore there is no reason for the priest to ignore him. However, the priest ignores him, likely because he did not want to put his purity at risk by touching blood, and he passes him by. 

A Levite is the next person to encounter the man and he too passes by him without stopping to help him. Levites were from the tribe of Levi which was the priestly tribe of Israel during the Exodus. While their rules and regulations were not as strict as the high(er) priests in Second Temple Judaism, they were still a priestly people which means that this Levite was yet another religious authority who passed by/over the dying man and did nothing…quite the commentary Jesus is providing!

Side note: the passage along which they were traveling is so narrow at some points that you would have needed to literally walk/step over the man in order to keep moving. Jesus’ point is clear here: the priest and the levite didn’t just turn a blind eye to the man…they stepped over him and kept moving without giving him a second thought.

And if you thought that was bad then hear the rest of the story: it was a Samaritan who stopped and took care of the man. It was actually rumored and forewarned to travelers from Jericho to Jerusalem to watch out for the Samaritans who might stop and rob you as you went on your way…do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is turning the entire structure on its head and making some pretty outrageous claims here, claims that would have gotten the attention of his listeners.

The Samaritan doesn’t just take the man into his care. He places him on his animal, pays for his expenses with the equivalent of 2 days wages and then says give me the bill if more is needed, and makes sure that he receives the medical attention he needs to make a full recovery.

“Who was the neighbor?” Jesus asks. The Samaritan, of course. “Go and do likewise.”

Instead of letting you sit with that story, I want to meddle again. Think about it like this. There once was a man traveling along the road between two countries. He encountered a group of robbers who beat and left him for dead. A politician walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he isn’t part of my political party” and he walked on. Then a pastor walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he doesn’t belong to my faith community” and he walked by. But then an immigrant, a foreigner, someone who did not belong to the country, someone about whom vicious lies had been spread, someone who had received the brutal end of diplomacy and democracy, and she was moved to pity. She took care of that man. She used her money, took him to a shelter…

Go. And do. Likewise.

There is no escaping the call of Jesus this morning. The lawyer asked two questions: what must I do to inherit eternal life? and who is my neighbor? The answers left no wiggle room: love the Lord your God and your neighbor and if a Samaritan taking care of a Jewish man after he was beaten by robbers is applauded for acting as a neighbor then that means everyone. And I don’t mean the neighbor next to you with the well manicured lawn who never leaves trash at the curb or throws raucous parties or who never comes asking for anything but when she borrows your allen wrench she returns it within 24 hours and the man who borrows some sugar comes back with cookies for you…not just them…I’m talking the immigrant, the migrant, the poor, the destitute, the DIFFERENT FROM YOU AND ME. We will be overwhelmed, I suspect, by the vast diversity of the Kingdom of God supping together at the eschatological banquet table. 

The lessons and the collect are rather clear this morning: you know what you ought to do and you need to pray that God would change your oughta’s into wanta’s so you can go about doing it…and we will be able to see the results based on the fruit of your labors…the proof is in the pudding my friends. When you live a life based on principles, 99% of your decisions are already made…when you live in the Kingdom of God, 100% of your decisions are already made…but will you follow through? Will you accept the call of God today, here, now, and begin reordering and reorganizing your live so that it aligns most fully with God and his kingdom? Will you commit to not only knowing what you ought to or should do in a moment but to actually doing it? 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your body, and your mind, and your strength, and your soul, and your wallets, and you resources…and love your neighbor as yourself…Go and do likewise, friends.