Sermon January 8, 2012 - Baptism of Our Lord

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord
January 8, 2012
Michael Coffey

 Mark 1:4-11

The beginning.
That’s what Mark said.
           This is the beginning.
           The verse that begins Mark’s Gospel,
just before what we heard in the Gospel reading, says:
           The beginning of the good news of Jesus.
           And what is that beginning?
                     Jesus’ baptism.
           It is all about that beginning, and it is a good beginning.

Everyone’s story needs a good beginning,
           your story and mine.
           Our stories need a good beginning
                     because we want to live life fully and fearlessly and faithfully.
           And the beginning sets the tone and direction
                     for the rest of the story.
The only problem is,
           we don’t control much of our beginnings,
           and they are not always good.
           And we are often living with the impact and power and pain
                     of a flawed or diminishing beginning.

It’s a curious thing that Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ life
           before his baptism.
Nothing about his birth, or his childhood,
           or his religious formation,
           or his daily work.
It’s as if nothing that comes before Jesus’ baptism matters,
           nothing that comes before this beginning,
           which isn’t the beginning of Jesus’ life story,
                      but it seems to be the beginning that really matters.

Baptism is a rich and sacred ritual
           that has been a part of the church since the beginning.
It is a sacrament of initiation,
           a sacrament of beginning.
Initiation is a practice that occurs throughout cultures,
           ancient and contemporary.
And initiation is always about getting the beginning right.
           Since initiation usually happens around adolescence,
           it is about getting the beginning of the mature, adult life right.
And you want to get it right at the beginning
           so that the rest of life flows from that good start.
But too often, too many of us are living life apart from that blessed start.
           Somehow along the way
           it faded into a distant memory and we stopped trusting
                     whatever good beginning we had.

Sadly, too many people make it all the way to the end
           without ever getting the beginning right.
Too many of us die with too many regrets,
           die with the sense that we missed something,
           we didn’t do it right,
           we lost track of what matters.
A woman who worked for years in palliate care for the dying
           wrote a blog and then a book about the experience.
Bonnie Ware is the author of the book “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.”
           It is a reminder of what really matters to us in life,
                     what we come to realize often too late,
                     what we wish we knew or trusted from the beginning,
                     what appears with utter clarity at one’s death bed.

After listening for years to patients who died with deep regret,
           she came up with this list of the top regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the top regret.  Too many people living the life they think others want them to live, instead of their own, God-given life.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
She said this was particularly true of men.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends

5. I wish I had let myself be happier

What if there were a start to this journey
           that made the decisions and choices and confusing options
           coming into more clarity and light?
What if there were a beginning
           that helped us get the rest of life right?

In Jesus’ story as Mark tells it,
Jesus’ baptism is that beginning.
           It is a powerful, necessary word from God spoken to his wet ears:
           You are mine.  I love you.  You are pleasing to me.
The text says that the heavens were torn open
           and the Spirit descended upon him.
This is beginning language,
           creation language, renewal language.
The heavens are not torn open very often in Scripture,
           and when they are, God comes in to make a new start.
Jesus’ baptism, then,
           is a central and clarifying event in Jesus’ own life
           as he begins a life of risky love for the sake of God’s kingdom on earth.
It is also a sign of our own lives lived in God
           and how we get our true start.

It is startling and perhaps embarrassing language.
           It might seem to play into our egos too much
           and sound narcissistic, and it could be.
But everything we do in baptism in the church
           tells us that when we are baptized
           the heavens are torn open once again,
           and the Spirit descends to bless and renew and empower,
           and the voice from heaven speaks:
                     You are mine.  I love you.  You are pleasing to me.
           That is the beginning that gives our lives direction and purpose.
I suppose it would be nice to stay there
           and keep hearing that voice
           and feel warm and wrapped up in a blanket of love life an infant.
But just like Jesus,
           this is not the end, but the beginning.
And if we get this beginning right,
           the rest of life flows out from it,
           the life of mature adulthood lived in God
                     as beloved sons and daughters.
And the right beginning is this voice, this epiphany, this theophany:
           You are mine. I love you. You are pleasing to me.

In the early church
           the baptism of Jesus was one of the most important festivals celebrated.
Even before Christmas became part of the liturgical calendar,
the baptism of Jesus was as a part of the church calendar of holy days.
In the Orthodox churches,
           it is the chief meaning and understanding of the celebration of Epiphany,
           which they also call Theophany:  God made manifest.
                      The divine voice speaking to Jesus.
                      The loving Father embracing the son.
                      The authorization and empowerment
to live the life God gave Jesus to live.
The reason the Orthodox make such a big deal out of this day,
           besides its revealing power to us about who Jesus is,
           is its revealing power to us
about who we are as those baptized into Christ.
It is the day that reminds us about our true beginning,
           our powerful start in this life:
                     Baptized into God’s belovedness
                     with, and by the grace of, Jesus’ own baptism.
           The divine voice speaking to us.
           The loving embrace.
           The authorization and empowerment
                     to live the life God gave us to live,
                     not the life we live because of what others tell us,
                     not the life of fearfully hiding our true selves,
                     but the life, the one true life we have to live.

Now, in case you think I’m some kind of romantic idealist
           about church or sacraments or life:
                     we all know that just because we got the beginning,
                     doesn’t mean we live without mistakes and regret.
           It doesn’t mean everything flows easily and rightly afterwards.
We know that this life gets messier than we can handle,
           and we believe our fears and doubts
                      more than we believe our belovedness in God.

But here’s the thing about God, and baptism, and Jesus:
           The beginning doesn’t come at the beginning.
           The beginning comes whenever we reach an end.
           The beginning is given to us every day in Christ
                     as the new creation, the re-creation, of our lives
                                reformed and remade in God’s love.
Baptism marks the true beginning of a life lived in God by grace, yes.
           But it isn’t a clear-cut path from there
                     through a sunlight dappled forest with birds chirping sweetly.
It is too often a dark, difficult, despairing journey
           where we keep living out of our old fears and failures
           instead of our new beginning.

This is why we keep getting wet in church.
           This is why we keep sprinkling and remembering
           and giving thanks and telling the story.
The beginning that God provides
           is grace to start each day anew,
           to wake up and make this the day we get the beginning right,
           to walk out into the world wearing our belovedness
                     because we have drowned our fear and failure in the river.
This daily beginning is God’s gift to us
           as much as the rising of the sun is God’s gift to us
           to enlighten our way.

There’s a song by the rock group U2 that captures this wonderfully,
           although I can’t replicate the power cords, and shimmering guitar
                     and gutsy vocals.
But here’s what they sing in the chorus of the song Breathe:

Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street with arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat
Neither down or out
There’s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
Breathe now

And then in the rapturous ending:

We are people borne of sound
The songs are in our eyes
Gonna wear them like a crown
Walk out, into the sunburst street
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found
And I can breathe
Breathe now

The voice from heaven speaks to us anew:
           You are mine.  I love you.  You are pleasing to me.
           The Spirit, the breath of God, descends upon us again
                     because of the life of Jesus.
           This Spirit-breath is in you so you can breathe in and out every day
                     the endless grace of God
                     and walk out into the street with arms wide open
                     embracing and living the life God gave you alone to live.


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