Raise your hand if you haven’t slept very well this week. Raise your hand if you’ve watched more hours of news than you know is healthy. Raise your hand if you eventually managed to turn off your devices and sleep but still felt – still feel – a constant hum of anxiety moving through your body.
I’m right there with you. I don’t have a magic pastor blanket that I can wrap around me to keep away those fears and worries. I’ve had more than one night this week when I woke up in the middle of the night and tossed and turned. I tried praying, though the prayers mostly came out like fragments of questions that we hear in the psalms: Why, God? Why? How long, O Lord, how long will this go on? I know God hears what I’m trying to say in those jumbled prayers, but it can still take a while to fall asleep again.
Sometimes I’ll get up in those restless hours for a drink of water. Something so basic and necessary – water. Water that cleanses, water that nourishes, water that keeps us alive. It’s why we use water for baptism – because it is at once so ordinary and so vital.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is the very first story we hear about him in the gospel of Mark. There’s nothing here about Mary and Joseph. No angels. No shepherds. No wise men. Not in these opening verses. Instead, right out of the gate we meet this strange character of John the Baptist, who has tons of people flocking out to the wilderness. And for what? To confess their sins. To be baptized. To hear John talk about this more powerful person who is coming soon. It doesn’t exactly sound like Disney World, but people are coming to the wilderness from throughout the Judean countryside, including from the city of Jerusalem. What would make people leave the relative safety of the city and head out to the desert?
We learn both in scripture and in our own lives that we can’t always predict what places are safe and what places are dangerous. You think the solid structures of Jerusalem will be safe, until you realize that by the time the gospel of Mark is written down, the Romans have destroyed the Jewish temple. You think the Capital building in Washington, D.C. will be safe, well-guarded. Until an armed mob finds its ways inside and wreaks havoc in places you thought were sacred. You assume the wilderness is wild and dangerous. And it can be. But it can also be a place where something new happens. The wilderness can offer a pathway to redemption, an encounter with the living God in the waters of the river.
As promised by John, Jesus shows up out there in the wilderness. He is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and what happens next is important. Just as Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus.
The word that the author of Mark’s gospel chooses here is important. Torn apart. The gospels of Matthew and Luke say simply that the heavens opened. But the gospel of Mark describes the heavens being torn apart. Mark uses the Greek word schizo – from which we get words like schizophrenic or schism. It suggests something more unsettling, more disruptive to the way things have been before that moment. It’s not like opening a door and then closing it, which doesn’t really change things all that much. This is a rending open that says things will not return to their usual state.
What’s happening in this moment is that God does not intend to maintain some kind of careful distance between God and us. God is about crossing boundaries and borders, saying, “I have come to love you up close. And I refuse to let you stay mired in a life of sin. I’m offering you a new way to be, a new way to live, a new way to love.”
I needed that reminder this week. I needed to remember that there is a profound difference between human disruptions and God’s holy disruptions. We saw this week that human disruptions often lead to destruction – not just of property, but of lives. People killed, people traumatized, people huddled behind locked doors and calling family members to say “I love you” because they are convinced that they’re about to die. The very fabric of our democratic process threatened. I will leave it to the historians and the political scientists to provide certain kinds of analysis of what happened on Wednesday. What I can speak to is what happened theologically.
This week we saw idolatry up close. Many of the people in that mob call themselves Christian, only they’ve decided to regard politicians as their savior instead of Jesus. Make no mistake: Putting Jesus’ name on a sign does not make a person a follower of Jesus, especially if that person demeans and endangers Jewish people, black and brown people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and anyone else who doesn’t fit their self-proclaimed ideal.
We don’t have time this morning to untangle all the ways that what happened Wednesday is rooted in those hatreds, but the name for it is Christian nationalism. In simplistic terms it merges a worship of God with a worship of country, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because God never tells us to worship a country. You might recall that the very first commandment is “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”
It’s easy to look at the participants in Wednesday’s mob and say, “I would never do something so terrible.” And you probably wouldn’t. It’s also easy to look at what happened and feel helpless. What can I do about it?
We have seen so clearly this week that human disruptions are destructive and dangerous. So where, then, do God’s holy disruptions lead us? What happens when the heavens are torn open and God meets us in this mess of our own making? Where does God lead us? Not to safety, necessarily.
After his own baptism, Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted and tormented by Satan for 40 days. Baptism leads to a direct confrontation with evil.
In baptism God gives us the gift of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. Which in turn gives us freedom…
The freedom to confront the sin that we find, both within ourselves and in the world around us.
The freedom to reject some cheap version of unity and to pursue instead the hard work of addressing what divides us and why.
The freedom to stand with and for all of the people that Wednesday’s mob would rather harm or kill.
The freedom to follow Jesus over those boundaries that he is always crossing, trusting that he alone is our source of life and hope.
You may recall that in our Lutheran baptism service, right before we say the Creed together, we go through three questions one after the other that are often called the renunciations. This week seems like a good time to repeat them. We ask the person about to be baptized – or the parents, if it’s a baby:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
The person responds: I renounce them.
People of God, I’m going to ask you to make those renunciations again this morning. After each question I invite you to say “I renounce them” and, in doing so, to renew your commitment to living your baptismal promises in a world that wants you to worship many other things besides God.
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them.
Children of God, may you know God’s presence every day, our God who tears open the heavens to be with us. May you be emboldened by the courage that comes with trusting that Christ sets us free from sin and death. May you be sent out by the Spirit to speak and act in the name of all that is holy. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35
I remember my time in seminary fondly, and one of the best parts of being there – much like being here – is that we had so many kids of different ages. Each year we’d welcome a couple of babies into the community, delighting in all of their cuteness and passing them around during our weekly chapel service. On one of those Wednesdays when we were gathered for worship, a classmate was holding his infant son facing outward so the little one could see what was going on. Our friend Ben walked over, looked directly into the baby’s eyes, and said to him with mock seriousness: “Get a job.”
We all laughed, of course. (Seminarians are not the best-behaved people in worship.) It was funny because it was so ludicrous. Babies aren’t supposed to have jobs. They are just supposed to sleep and to eat and to fill up diapers and to be their adorable baby selves. We don’t expect them to be productive or to earn their keep.
But how long do we allow babies that freedom? It’s not long before the pressure is on. Pretty soon we’re measuring their height and weight against the national percentiles, and we’re looking carefully for signs that they’re ready to crawl…or pull themselves up…or take those first steps. Will they do it early? Right on time? What if it takes longer?
And it’s not long after that before they’re in school and taking standardized tests to see how they size up against other people in New Jersey and in the country. We blink, and they’re scrutinizing college rankings and filling out applications, worried about how they’ll stack up against all those other applicants. The best education is supposed to lead to the best job and the best life and the best of everything so they can provide the best for their own kids when the time comes and the process starts all over again.
This focus on achievement even fills our popular culture. Think of how many reality competition shows have emerged in the last decade. Whether these shows are trying to name the top chef or the final survivor or the woman who will receive a proposal from the bachelor, there can only be one winner.
The comparisons and the competition don’t ever seem to go away. They just take different forms over time. And the underlying message remains the same: We are only as worthy as our capacity to produce, to compete, to perform, to earn, to outdo, to outrank, to outlast. It’s exhausting.
That’s why I love the central contrast in today’s gospel. Over here we have the disciples arguing with each other. And what are they arguing about? How they can feed the most hungry people? What their ministry priorities should be? Are they debating the finer points of scripture? No. They are arguing with each other about who is the greatest.
And over here we have Jesus sitting them down. He’s caught wind of their argument, and he’s not having any of it. He tries to make them understand that if they were hoping for fame and glory and popularity and power when they became his followers, they have missed the point. Discipleship is not about the achievements and accomplishments that the world values. Jesus flips the script entirely: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To follow Jesus is to care more about serving others than celebrating ourselves. To follow Jesus is to seek humility, not glory.
Remember that this whole mess started because Jesus has told the disciples that he will be put to death. It’s not the first time he’s told them, but they continue to avoid the difficult truth that he is headed to the cross – maybe because deep down they know they may not have the strength to follow him there.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And what does Jesus do to bring this point home? He takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” It’s tempting to sentimentalize this moment, and plenty of artists have, depicting Jesus holding a cute kid, often surrounded by other cute kids. But remember that the ancient world of Jesus did not treat children very sentimentally. Unlike our more child-centric culture, the children of Jesus’ time were regarded as having little value or status.
So Jesus is basically saying this: When you follow me, you not only give up caring about status and power, but you make a commitment to caring the most about those who have nostatus and power. That child in his arms represents all of the most vulnerable members of society – from the prisoner in his cell to the person battling addiction to the homeless veteran on the street corner to the victims of violence in all its forms.
It’s not about what any of those people deserve or what they can accomplish. It’s not about what we deserve or accomplish. It’s about what God can do working in us and through us entirely apart from notions of deserving or achieving.
Think about Ella, whose baptism we celebrate today. She doesn’t have to do anything to earn or deserve the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness that she has received in baptism. God’s love does not depend on when she begins to crawl or when she learns to read or what her SAT scores are or what career she pursues. Ella doesn’t even have to be cute, although she really is. The water has been poured over her head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She is forever claimed as God’s own, and nothing – absolutely nothing – can change that.
It’s not how we’re used to thinking about things. Can we even function without comparing ourselves to everyone else? Are we prepared to experience God’s grace as something to be received rather than achieved?
I hope so – because that would mean we also understand that we are enough. Just as we are. God’s own children. Forever. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ