it swings on a blessing

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We had our first winter storm of the year over the weekend, which meant we did not gather for in-person worship at my church this week. Instead, I recorded a “service” and uploaded it to our YouTube page—almost all of that an unseen consequence of the pandemic.

The scripture for the week was the account of Jesus’ baptism, which set me to thinking about why Jesus would participate in a “baptism of repentance,” as Mark described it. Here is where that train of thought took me.

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Several years ago, Ginger and I had the chance to go to South Africa with a group of friends. One of the things we got to do while we were there was visit a wildlife refuge where they took care of orphaned animals to try and help reintroduce them to their natural environment. One of the experiences they offered was the chance to play with lion cubs, and so we did.

The baby lions had been taken in after their mother had been killed by poachers. We saw them when they were about eight weeks old; they were growing fast. In another eight weeks they would have been too big for us to be with them and still be safe. We sat down on the ground and the cubs walked around us while the keepers kept watch. One of the cubs was fascinated with my hat. We had a great time and we stayed on edge through most of it remembering that we were playing with wild animals, not Schnauzers.

The scene came to mind as I read Mark’s description of John the Baptist—dressed in camel hide and eating locusts and honey from wild bees—because I felt some of the same tension as I read about this unique and intriguing man in the middle of nowhere attracting huge crowds because of both his wild attractiveness and his invitation to repentance. People kept coming, though I wonder if they had questions about what was happening exactly. It wasn’t like their regular synagogues.

We can see quickly that the baptism John offered was markedly different from what we do. First, it had nothing to do with connecting to a church or a congregation. Second, he wasn’t baptizing infants. (Both rituals of baptism are wonderful; this was just different.) Third, everyone was being immersed, a full-on dunking. (Also not the norm in the UCC, but not unknown; it’s just that most UCC churches are in colder climates.)

The baptism was to signify their repentance—and that is a word we need to pay attention to because what it meant to John and those who came out and how we hear it now are not the same. Our English definition is “sincere regret or remorse;” we repent because we have done something wrong. To those coming out to the Jordan, it meant “a complete change of heart” (as our translation put it), a profound life change. John was talking about creating a moment that had a before and an after.

People were willing to wander miles from town to find this wild man out by the river who helped them trust that God could change their lives, that they were not trapped in their ways, that they could change and grow.

And then Jesus walked into the scene and asked to be baptized.

It helps us to understand the scene if we remember that Jesus and John knew each other. They were cousins. Mary had visited Elizabeth when they were both pregnant. It is fair to assume the boys knew each other growing up. When John talks about the one who was coming, he knew he was talking about Jesus. They may have even talked about Jesus showing up that day. Whether it was planned or not, John was not surprised to see Jesus.

But why did Jesus need to be baptized?

Best we can tell, Jesus was about thirty years old when he went to meet John. In Mark’s gospel, this was where the story started. The others tell the birth stories, but even they drop off when Jesus turns twelve. We don’t know what he did during those years, other than live in Nazareth. Since Joseph was a carpenter, we can picture Jesus being his helper, but that’s about it.

It struck me this week that Jesus wanted to be baptized for the same reason as the other people: to repent. To make a life change. Again, lay aside our definition of repentance that carries notes of remorse and regret and hang on to the idea of creating a moment that has a before and after. Jesus walked into the river and John baptized him.

And Jesus was not the same after that.

His baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry as an adult, and it was not any tamer than John was with his wild honey and camel skin. I say his adult ministry because he ministered in the Temple when he was twelve, astonishing the priests who heard him. His parents responded by admonishing him for making them worry because they thought he was lost.

This time, as Jesus came up out of the water, the skies opened, a dove appeared, and a voice said, “This is my beloved child in whom I delight.”

The next thing that happened to Jesus was the same Spirit who delighted in him led him out into the desert to fast and come to terms with himself by facing his temptations. He came back to town to find out that John had been arrested. He began to call his followers, and then he began teaching in the synagogues. He cast evil spirits out of a man, healed Peter’s mother (among others), and then healed a person with leprosy—all before we get to the end of Chapter One.

And it all swung on Jesus hearing the Spirit say, “You are my beloved child in whom I delight”—words of not just affirmation but acceptance: you belong to me.

It all swung on that blessing.

And, at the same time, maybe it didn’t. One blessing doesn’t last a lifetime. (Does it?) We all need reminders.

The temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were things he had to stare down his whole ministry: to use his miracles to create a following, to take advantage of his privilege, to choose power over love. Perhaps the same is true about the blessing of his baptism; he needed reminders that he delighted God.

Perhaps I’m projecting.

When we first moved to Boston, there was a billboard at the Museum of Science that we saw every time we crossed the bridge from Cambridge back to Charlestown. It caught so much of my attention that I wrote a poem about it.

daily work

The crush of afternoon traffic finds me
in an unending stream of souls staring
at the stoplight. From my seat I can see
the billboard: “Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”
When the signal changes, I follow the flow
over river and railroad yard, coming
to rest in front of our row house, to be
welcomed by our schnauzers, the only
ones who appear to notice my return.
I have been hard at work in my stream
of consciousness, but the ripples of my life
have stopped no wars, have saved no lives––
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
I am a speck who has been found wanting.
I walk the dogs down to the river and wonder
how many times I have stood at the edge
hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
Instead, I skip across life’s surface to find
I am not The One You Were Looking For.
I am standing in the river of humanity
between the banks of Blessing and Despair,
with the sinking feeling that messiahs
matter most: I am supposed to change
the world and I have not done my job.
Yet. . . if I stack up the stones of my life
like an altar, I can find myself in the legacy
of Love somewhere between star and sea:
I am a Speck of Some Significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.

John created a moment that allowed Jesus to hear the blessing that changed his life. How do we do that for one another? How do we remind each other that we are specks of some significance? How do we call each other to trust that we are a delight to God and are capable of great love? How do we express God’s blessing so that those around us know they are accepted, that they belong? That we all belong because we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved?

May we begin this new year by repenting—by making a life change, a before and after moment—to be people committed to blessing, to accepting everyone in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

2 COMMENTS

  1. Milton, I’m finding your sermons especially comforting, not only because of their quality & depth, but also because we have not found a church home since we’ve been in Texas. I miss that involvement a lot, but I try to find different ways to touch the spirit without going to a building. Your sermons help me do that. Thank you so very much. –Martha

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