First Sunday after the Epiphany (Baptism of Christ)

Trinity, LincolnMark 1:4-11

I was in the fourth grade in January 1961 when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States. I remember my teacher holding us over into our lunch hour to watch it on television. All these 57 years later, I also remember President Kennedy concluding his inaugural address with an invitation to all Americans to “make God’s work truly our own.” Make God’s work truly our own. God’s work, of course, is the work of redemption, of righting wrongs, pursuing justice, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, proclaiming liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind. This is what God does; this is what God is about. And we—we see a world that needs redemption by the boatload. We see mass shootings, pretty much on a regular basis now. We see sexual predators—a new celebrity sexual predator or two nearly every day, and an unknowable number of non-celebrity sexual predators. We see a political landscape, both nationally and at a state level, that is polarized and paralyzed seemingly beyond hope. We see ongoing acts of terrorism on the world stage—no more 911s, thank God, but a steady stream of smaller-scale events that just keep chipping away at our sense of security.

And as we look at all these things from which the world needs redemption, the sum total of which can easily leave us shell-shocked, it may seem—it may appear, we could be forgiven for inferring—it may seem like God is above it all, impervious, willfully choosing to do nothing about it. It’s easy to not really take very seriously either God’s intent to redeem the brokenness of the universe, or God’s ability to redeem the brokenness of the universe. In the words of Archibald MacLeish in his play JB, “If God is God, he is not good; if God is good, he is not God.” So if God himself will not make God’s work truly his own, then it’s up to us, right? There’s an enticing temptation right there in front of us—the temptation to assume that, yes, God’s work is the work of redemption, but that we need to confect that redemption ourselves. We come up with platitudes like, “God has no hands but ours …” Or, if you’re looking for something with a little more literary merit, there’s the poem by William Blake, writing at the height of all the social evils of the Industrial Revolution in the first half of the nineteenth century, “I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, til we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” Jerusalem, the City of God, the sign and symbol and sacrament of redemption brought to fruition. And it is ours for the building, making God’s work truly our own.

Except … there’s a major problem. The idea that human beings, through their own dedicated effort, can confect redemption, can make the Kingdom of God happen, can order up the New Jerusalem to descend from the heavens—this all flatly contradicts actual lived human experience. Exhibit A: two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, one of which decimated an entire generation of young men in Europe, and the other of which nearly wiped out all European Jews. Exhibit B: several attempted genocides—Armenia, Cambodia, Burundi, Serbia. Exhibit C: persistent systemic racism in our society, even a half-century since the civil rights movement. And then there’s the sorry record of the Church’s own public witness. As we sing in one of our favorite hymns: “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distrest,” and it’s just as true now as it was when those words were written 150 years ago. If, as Christians, we can’t even maintain unity among ourselves, even among those who wear the same brand-name label, our lofty talk of the reconciling power and love of Christ is utterly empty, devoid of authenticity.

So here we are, in Lincoln, Illinois, on this First Sunday after the Epiphany in the Year of Our Lord 2018, and we meet our old friend from just two or three weeks ago in Advent, that crazy man John the Baptist. He’s at the Jordan River, doing his thing, baptizing. But he’s also talking about the end of that ministry approaching—“end” both in terms of “conclusion” and of “fulfillment”—the One coming after him, whose significance beside which John’s own would utterly melt away. And then that very One appears—Jesus, coming to be baptized. As Mark narrates the event, “When [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

This is a familiar story. The First Sunday after the Epiphany is always a celebration of the baptism of Jesus. We rotate through the three gospel accounts of this event on this Sunday in each of the three years of our lectionary cycle. I’m not going to try and break open the whole thing this morning. I want to focus on one detail that really arrested my attention when I gave this text from a drive-by as I began to prepare for preaching here today. When he came up out of the water, Mark tells us, Jesus saw “the heavens being torn open.” The heavens being torn open. That’s a really dramatic image, isn’t it? I even checked out the original Greek, and it’s just as strong, if not stronger, there. Not just clouds parting. Not just a small opening in the sky, big enough for a dove to get through—as impressive as even that would be. No, the heavens were torn—ripped, open, cloven. It’s an unambiguous, even violently decisive, act of God. There’s nothing demure or modest about it. In this moment, God means business!

It’s a sign, of course, as this sort of thing invariably is. And signs have to be read, they have to be properly interpreted, if they are to be of any value. Over the past year or so, we’ve become accustomed to trying to read signs emanating from North Korea, right? What does it mean when Kim Jong-Un sends up another missile over the Pacific Ocean? What does it mean when he calls the U.S. President a “dotard”? And I suspect that, in North Korea, they’re trying to read the signs that are represented by every tweet that emanates from the White House. In both cases, a tremendous amount hangs on not misinterpreting signs.

So, how do we properly understand the sign of the rending of the heavens on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism? I want to suggest to you that it tells us that God is not retired. God is not AWOL. God is not inattentive or uncaring about the world that so desperately needs redemption. God’s resolve is real. There’s a line from one of our Advent hymns that could plausibly have been sung here only a couple of weeks ago—I don’t know whether it was or not. “In sorrow than the ancient curse should doom to death a universe, you came, O Savior, to set free your own in glorious liberty.” God is not indifferent to suffering and evil. His very heart is moved in sorrow by it. And not only is God resolved; God is able. God’s power is real. God’s power is manifested to Jesus on this occasion, at his baptism, when he comes up out of the water and sees the heavens ripped apart, torn open. And God’s power is manifested through Jesus from that point forward—in his ministry of healing and teaching, as he reigns from the cross as Redeemer and King, and as he rises gloriously from the dead, trampling down death by death.

When we properly read the sign of Jesus’ baptism, then, Jesus draws us to follow our vocation, our calling, to point to him—habitually and repeatedly, as John did, and announce to the world what God is doing—not what we are going to do about X, Y, or Z, but what God is already doing and will continue to do. This allows us to be open about our own brokenness. No, we are not able to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land or anywhere else. We are not capable of doing God’s work; we have failed miserably at it. Only God can do God’s work. So, when we are open about our own brokenness, our own failure to build the perfect just and loving society, then the world no longer perceives us as a bunch of stupid and judgmental hypocrites. Our credibility as heralds of the gospel is restored, and the world is open to the message of redemption through faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ. Amen.

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