First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

February 18, 2018

Standing at the Font

            Sometimes what we do in worship coincides nicely with the texts appointed for the day, and the preacher has nothing to do with it. Last December, when Meredith and David Strange asked if today might work for their daughter Darsey’s baptism, I said, “Sure! Can’t see why not.”


            It was only this week that I realized it wasn’t a matter of “Why not?” but rather a matter of “Why.” In the lectionary cycle, the story of Jesus’ baptism comes up only twice every year: once in January, on the Sunday called “Baptism of the Lord,” and again in early spring on the First Sunday in Lent.


            Well, this is the first Sunday in Lent, and it’s also the day we baptize Darsey Elisabeth Strange. Clearly, I wasn’t on the ball, but the Holy Spirit was. So, before we commit Darsey to these baptismal waters, let’s explore what the Spirit might be telling us about what we are about to do.


            Mark is the Sergeant Friday of the Gospel writers. His is the Get-Right-to-the-Point Gospel. His favorite word is “immediately,” and he doesn’t begin his Gospel with angels or wise men or shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. No, in Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist bursts onto the stage while the orchestra is still tuning up for the overture.


            John explodes straight from the Old Testament with a message for us all: “Repent. Hear the Good News. God’s kingdom is drawing near, and you’d better get ready. Someone whose sandals I am unfit to untie is on the way.”


            A lot of people from the Judean countryside heed John’s call. They line up on the bank of the Jordan River, anxious to take the plunge and be ready when the person for whom John is the opening act should appear.


            Next thing you know, here comes Jesus, straight down from Nazareth up in Galilee. Without so much as a “How do you do?” or “What in the world are you doing in line with all these sinners?” John baptizes Jesus.


            And, just as Jesus is coming up out of the water, Wham! He sees the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and he hears a voice saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”


            Immediately (I told you that was Mark’s favorite word) the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for lessons on how to be God’s beloved child.


            That’s a lot of action in the span of twelve verses. Now, let’s take a breath and think together about what we’re about to do this morning. Before we enact the baptism of Darsey, what might we learn from Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus?


            Our task would be easier if Mark had not opened his Gospel with such a bang. Surely, he could have given us a little of Jesus’ back story. If he had, we might have been able to see the Holy Spirit at work long before Jesus arrives at the Jordan.


            As it is, we’ll have to imagine Jesus growing up in Nazareth, in a home with Joseph and Mary and his brothers and sisters. We’ll just have to assume that somebody taught Jesus how to pray. Who did that, do you suppose? Was it Joseph, or Mary, or both? Who told him about Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise to make of that elderly couple a great nation? Who explained to him that, whenever he sees a rainbow, it can remind him of God’s promise to Noah and his family, and all the creatures of the earth?


            Jesus doesn’t arrive in the ninth verse of Mark’s Gospel a blank slate. No, he comes to Jordan a child of the covenant, thoroughly schooled in the law and the prophets, rooted in God’s covenant love. And it wasn’t just Joseph and Mary who taught Jesus where to stand. It was that elderly couple who lived next door in Nazareth, and the rabbi in the synagogue, and the men who hung around Joseph’s carpentry shop, and the women who knew his name before he could walk or talk.


            With all due respect to Mark’s unique style, the Good News of Jesus Christ doesn’t begin the moment John the Baptist appears. It begins in an intergenerational community rooted in God’s grace with a story to tell and a love to share.


            Long before Jesus received baptism at John’s hands, he had been a slave in Egypt. He had followed Moses, dry-footed, through the Red Sea. He had wandered in the wilderness. He had tasted mana from heaven.


            Jesus comes to the Jordan knowing where he stands amongst God’s covenant people. Perhaps the reason Mark doesn’t mention this is because he takes all this as a given.


            You and I can’t make that assumption this morning. We can’t count on the culture to bring up Darsey in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We can’t expect our neighbors to share with her the stories of the faith.


            We can’t even lay that responsibility solely on the shoulders of her parents David and Meredith.   It takes all of us -- the whole community of the baptized – to carry this sacrament forward. Meredith and David are not the only ones making promises this morning. These waters bind us to Darsey in a sacred covenant.


            It took a covenant community to raise Jesus, however stingy Mark is with the details. What Mark takes for granted, you and I must acknowledge as our baptismal vocation.


            Two other elements in Mark’s account are worth our attention. The first is that voice from heaven, heard by Jesus alone. “You are my Son, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”


            Scholars of the Bible hear these words as confirmation of Jesus’ unique calling to be the Christ, the Messiah. And so they are. Some scholars go further, claiming that it is not until this moment in his life that Jesus becomes the Son of God. They read Mark to say that it is at his baptism that Jesus is adopted as God’s own Son. I will let the scholars debate that matter.


            What I hear in this text is God speaking to Darsey, saying “You are my daughter, my beloved. You are chosen and set apart. To you I have given gifts you don’t even know about yet. Whatever happens to you in your life, whatever joys or dangers you encounter, you are my own and I will never let you go.”


            After all, baptism is not about what we do; it’s about what God does. Baptism is our response to God’s grace. In it, God’ claims us as God’s own.


            The third and last thing to note about this text is how the Holy Spirit is the agent in everything that happens. It’s the Spirit who gives John the Baptist his message of repentance, the Spirit who leads Jesus from Nazareth to the Jordan, the Spirit who descends like a dove, and the Spirit who drives Jesus into the wilderness to learn how to live out his baptismal vocation.


            We believe that the Holy Spirit is the agent of Darsey’s baptism, too.


            We will call upon the Spirit to brood over these waters and enliven our words and actions. We will ask the Spirit to bestow upon Darsey those seven-fold gifts mentioned in Scripture:


            the spirit of wisdom and understanding

            the spirit of counsel and might

            the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,

            the spirit of joy in God’s presence.


And we will do all this trusting that the Holy Spirit will accompany Darsey throughout her life, going ahead of her to show her the way.


            Even in the wilderness, the Spirit will be with her, helping her to live out her baptism.


            The other day, I received precious gift. It came in the form of a text message from Sarah Fixel, the mother of Arthur Fixel, who was baptized at this very font a mere two years ago. Attached to the text message was a recording of Arthur saying the Lord’s Prayer as part of his bedtime ritual. He had the cadences down pat, but some of the words were a bit . . . creative.


            It doesn’t matter. He’ll master the words in due time. The important thing is, his parents, as agents of the Holy Spirit, are teaching Arthur how to pray. It is the Spirit who teaches us all how to pray. The same Spirit makes baptism holy.


            As Darsey is brought to these waters, and we claim God’s covenant promises, let us remember our own baptism – remember who brought us here, and who goes with us from these waters of grace.


            Remember your baptism, sisters and brothers, and be thankful.


(c) Brant S. Copeland



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February 24, 2018


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