On these winter mornings it’s often hard to get up and out of bed because it’s cold, and dark. Especially if you have the curtains closed, it may be hard to tell what time it is without looking at the clock; the curtains block out what little morning light there is. But then when you do get up and pull open the curtains, sometimes you are greeted by a crystal clear and beautiful day. A stark difference between a dark inside and a bright and glorious outside has been revealed with one swift movement.
The baptism of Jesus, here at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, is like that sudden revelation. Mark begins his Good News with a brief reference to Isaiah’s words of the messenger who will prepare the way of the Lord, and then we are off and running with John the Baptist preaching and baptizing all who will throw their lot in with the Lord, as a sign of their readiness for whatever it is God is bringing. And it is in that context that Jesus comes to be baptized, along with all those who were drawn by John’s message.
As with the rest of Mark’s Gospel, we don’t get a lot of detail here – his words are spare and economical; so when he does give us detail, we need to pay attention. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Mark is using detail that connects this scene, this experience both backward and forward in time. The water and the dove are reminders of the First Day of Creation, the opening lines of Genesis in which the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters. The heavens being torn open [schizo] is the same word that Mark uses later at the Crucifixion: Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. A new beginning, a new Creation, that takes the path, the highway that runs right through crucifixion and death to open a new way to the holy of holies, the heart of God’s reality.
Not only has Mark opened the curtain for us as readers and hearers of the Gospel, but Jesus has had the curtain opened for him as well. In his baptism the day-to-day reality of rocks, trees, wilderness, people, river, have all been dissolved in the far greater reality of God’s presence: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. No matter what else happens, no matter what other distractions, difficulties, trials come Jesus’ way, this reality of being loved and delighted in by God is his deepest truth. Baptism is the sign of that.
Baptism is the sign of that same reality for us. God loves us and delights in us – deeply, and without end. No matter what else we do or fail to do God love and delight in us will remain constant; it will not change. And on these days when we renew our baptismal vows, when we hear God’s words to Jesus, perhaps the curtain between our day-to-day experience and God’s of reality is pulled back and we get a glimpse of God’s truth.
But then the moment fades, the curtain falls closed, and it is all too easy for us to go on about our business and the world’s and forget what our reality is. We know that when we are loved we live differently than when we are not loved. When we encounter someone who is hostile or bitter or indifferent to us we shrink back inside ourselves, we put up a wall against them, we take up a defensive posture, we become brittle. Sometimes that is just what we have to do. But when we know that we are loved and valued and cherished, then we allow ourselves to be open, to be flexible, free to take risks – because we know that we will not be condemned if we make a mistake.
Baptism is the sign and the reality of God’s love and delight for us. It is the place from which we should begin each day. That’s why the Creed in the Daily Office – Morning and Evening Prayer – is the Apostles’ Creed, the baptismal statement of faith, the Creed we will affirm in the Baptismal Covenant this morning. We have joined Jesus in his baptism; we have become part of God’s family in which God’s love is abundant and new every morning.
As Jesus’ followers, as part of his Body, this is the way we are called to be and to live in the world: knowing ourselves as God’s beloved, and carrying that love into all our encounters, being the ones to draw the curtain back – even just a little – so that the world may see and know God’s love and delight through us.
And now, Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20,21
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
January 7, 2018