Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he 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.’
The book of Mark doesn’t begin with the story of a birth. Mark begins with a prophet, a messenger crying out and preparing a way in the wilderness. The prophet, John, called the Baptizer, is clearing a path for the Messiah into the world. And, he is doing that by calling people to repent, to turn around and turn away from the path they’ve been on. John also offered the Jewish ritual of baptism for “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a ritual to function as a sign that people had confessed and were prepared to live in a different way. John also spoke of one who would come after him. He said “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John said that the baptism he offered was limited, but the baptism offered by the one who would follow him was more, a baptism of the Holy Spirit. According to the writer of Mark, countless people traveled to the wilderness to be baptized at his hands.
It is no small thing to baptize someone. It is quite the responsibility to be invited to hold another person and submerge them fully into the water and, then, also be trusted to lift them back out, up to their feet and into the breathable air. It is an honor to be entrusted with someone’s child, to guide them safely to the font, to wet their heads and, comfort them if they are frightened by being suddenly wetter and colder than a few moments before. In seminary, my worship professor got a local church to let us practice baptizing people in their baptismal font during class one day. She knew that the act of holding someone safely in the water, helping them mark the powerful change in their lives that comes with baptism, is significant. One should not assume this responsibility without great care and at least a little practice.
It is also no small thing to choose to be baptized or to have your child baptized. Baptism is a significant commitment, both to God and to other people. When you asked to be baptized in our church or make baptismal promises for your kids who are very young, I ask you some intense questions. I ask these of new members, too, when they affirm their baptisms. Here are some of them if you haven’t heard them in a while:
When you are baptized, you are showing something about what you know to be true of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And, you are saying that you are willing to living differently based on this knowledge, to turn away from how you have been living, towards the path Christ will create. That’s what John the Baptist was talking about when he said repent. Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston says in her commentary that repentance, the Greek word metanoia, means “a complete change of mind, a new direction of the will.” And, while we who follow Christ understand repentance a little differently than John, I think it’s safe to assume that the baptism he offered was no less profound. Perhaps that is why Jesus sought him out.
The first place we see Jesus in the book of Mark is in the hands of John, descending into the water. The description of his baptism is strikingly simple. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” It is interesting that, while all four Gospels indicate Jesus was baptized, only Mark actually says that John did it. All the rest avoid showing Jesus in the vulnerable position of being baptized by John. In Matthew, which was written after Mark, John initially doesn’t want to baptize Jesus. He says, “you should be baptizing me.” Jesus has to insist that he must. And, it still doesn’t say John baptized Jesus. It just says “Jesus had been baptized.” The book of Luke, also written after Mark, just says everybody who was there got baptized and so did Jesus. The Gospel of John leaves out the baptism completely! It just has John describing seeing a dove descending on Jesus. There was no water at all!
A scholar named Richard DeMaris explained why three of the four Gospels might hesitate to say clearly that Jesus was baptized by someone else. Some people read that baptism was intended to symbolize repentance from sins. If Jesus was baptized, that meant that Jesus had sin, an image of Jesus that many would find troubling. Also, to be baptized was to identify oneself as spiritually subordinate to the one doing the baptizing. And, as I have stated already, and some of you may remember feeling this yourselves, being baptized means putting oneself in a very physically vulnerable position, at the mercy of the one officiating the ritual act. Placing anyone, even John, in a more powerful role than Jesus would have simply been unacceptable to some people.
It is interesting that the Gospel of Mark does not seem to share these concerns. DeMaris, also has a theory about why. DeMaris says that it goes back to the power of ritual in community. Much of the time, joining a community involves a ritual of some kind. How someone participates in that ritual shows us how they will later behave in the community. This also shapes how members of the community interact with each other. While some people think that leaders can never show vulnerability, DeMaris argues that Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, is not one of them. He isn’t afraid of vulnerability, so he isn’t afraid to be baptized.
He also asks for his followers to be willing to make themselves vulnerable. In Mark chapter 9, when his disciples begin to argue over who was the greatest, Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In chapter 10, when James and John asked for seats of honor on either side of Jesus, he will say “whomever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whomever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” When his disciples want to know what it means to be a leader, Jesus says that you must be willing to give up a place of privilege, if you have one, in order to feel the presence of God. Jesus first set the example for this kind of servant leadership when he allowed himself to be baptized by John. His submission to John, and to God through John, was the place where Jesus began to show us how he would be the Messiah.
This week, a group which included white supremacists, neo-nazis, and fascists were allowed to overtake the US Capitol. Some carried equipment that made it clear they were planning for both a siege and to take hostages. Bombs were planted, but, thankfully, not triggered. They were incited to violence by politicians spouting disproven conspiracy theories. Someone lifted up a cross outside on the Capitol grounds, not to embarrass the fascists but as a sign to say that God approved of what they did. Someone else built gallows as for a lynching. Five people are dead as a result of the coup attempt. There were fewer arrests than you’d expect during a coup. That was a surprise, too.
I don’t remember my baptism. I was a baby. But, I do remember becoming a member of this church and I know that the promises that I made when I did so run counter to the violence incited and enacted on Wednesday. I saw no servants among those who rifled through desks and chanted for the execution of politicians with whom they disagreed. The question I have been asking myself this week is how I might respond out of the foundational promises I made in affirming my baptism. What does it mean, right now, to renounce the powers of evil, especially those on display in white supremacy and anti-Semitism? What does it mean, right now, to fight oppression when fascists area already using force against those who oppose them?
I think the first step is to say, very clearly, that the Kindom of God is not like fascists carrying a Confederate flag through the halls of the US Capitol. I am still working on the rest. I bet you are, too. I'm glad I don’t have to figure this out myself. We have God and each other and our neighbors of good faith. If you want to talk some more about how we respond to this moment, let’s stick around after church on zoom for bit to make some plans. Some will say that the most vital questions of baptisms are whether you got dunked in the water or sprinkled on your head. I think, in fact, the question is, how do we become servants more like Christ was? And, that’s a question best answered together.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
There is a lot of information going around about the failed coup attempted on January 6th. Here’s a helpful description of the events: https://www.npr.org/2021/01/06/954159148/pro-trump-extremists-storm-us-capitol-delay-election-certification
Here’s is the prayer vigil organized by the UCC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxmSPkuWu9o
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
The Pulpit Fiction Podcast: https://www.pulpitfiction.com/archive/2017/02/24/97-baptism-of-jesus-after-epiphany-1b
In reviewing my notes on this text, I found some great information from the scholar Richard DeMaris. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down where I found them and haven’t been able to figure it out easily by the time I preach on Sunday. It may be from the article “Possession, good and bad - ritual, effects and side-effects: the baptism of Jesus and Mark 1.9-11 from a cross-cultural perspective,” found in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Year: 2000, Volume: 23, Issue: 80, Pages: 3-30.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.