Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Tuesday began the light-filled season of Epiphany. Wednesday began dark days for the City of Light, and we are all grieving the loss of life and recovering from the trauma of such senseless acts of violence. This is not how any of us planned to begin the New Year, but after the brutal terrorist attacks - the worst violence in France, according to President Hollande, in over 50 years - it is appropriate to consider how we as Christians may deal with the rather old news of hatred and violence in a new way. So I invite you to consider water and the Spirit.
It is not by accident that at the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark we find the image of water. There were two key events in the history of God's people that any good Jew would know by heart. The first is the story of creation, the beginning passage from which we read in Genesis (which literally means, beginning). Rabbinic commentaries explain that water in the Genesis account symbolizes disorder. In other words, "a formless void" is another way of saying chaos. Darkness covered the face of the deep... This is how it was in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth... But the Spirit of God swept over the waters and God spoke, and there was light! The first act of creation, then, is the Word and Spirit bringing forth light and life out of the dark waters of chaos.
The second event is the Exodus. There are two key moments that have to do with water in the Exodus: the first was the escape from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, and the second, the entrance into the Promised Land through the River Jordan. Both involve physical movement through perilous waters, but which on the other side promise freedom and new life!
So while Mark does not explicitly reference these two key events of Creation and Exodus, he is clearly alluding to them with the words "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ... for the good news of Jesus Christ is all about God's saving power to lead us through chaos and danger into freedom and new life...
It is significant that John the Baptist begins his ministry of preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan River. It is significant that John quotes Isaiah in proclaiming that we must prepare the way of the Lord. This may seem too obvious, but John made it clear that the way of the Lord doesn't just happen. We must change our way of thinking. We must repent! It's been said that baptism is death by drowning. In other words, when we go through baptism, we are leaving behind the old, and embracing the new. We are leaving behind the wilderness of our own darkness and chaos, and embracing the order of God's new freedom of light and life. But this is not a safe way! Preparing the way of the Lord doesn't guarantee freedom from violence. Remember that John was brutally executed by Herod Antipas as John was unabashed in speaking an uncomfortable truth.
The important thing for us to remember today is that the climax of this beginning scene of the gospel is the baptism of Jesus. Jesus enters into the waters to be baptized by John. In other words, we see what Karl Barth calls the "greatest possible contradiction to the being of God," (1) in that in Jesus, God enters into the chaotic and dark reality of our world; and moreover, in an astonishing act of humility, submits himself in obedience to the will of the Father. This foreshadows Jesus' ultimate act of self-giving love as he emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
As Jesus emerges from the waters of his baptism, the heavens part and the Spirit like a dove descends upon him. It's always fascinated me that the verb here for how the heavens opened up is literally torn apart. In order for the Spirit to descend on Jesus like a dove, in order for the voice to be heard, there is this rending, this tearing of the heavens. It's not "opened," as if you could put it back together again. The heavens are ripped open. You see? There is no longer such a clean and separate distinction between heaven and earth. The Holy Spirit is now on the loose! And that's good news!
It is the same liberating and life-giving Spirit that we need to help us remember our own baptism, and to help us again submit to Jesus' call to follow him in the way of the cross. For if we are to understand the gospel, we like Jesus need to hear God's affirmation that we are beloved daughters and sons. We are like Jesus loved by God not because of what we have done, but because of God's grace. But this affirmation that God gives us is not so that we simply feel better about ourselves, but so that we can be truly free to enter back into the chaotic waters of reality as the people of God. We are set free, we are redeemed and given new life in Jesus Christ, to help usher in the New Kingdom Order: the way of self-giving love, the way of forgiveness, the way of grace, the way of blessing and peace, even when it means taking the hit ourselves. In following the way of Jesus and in being true to our own baptism in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are called to live as people who follow not the way of revenge, but reconciliation, not retribution, but redemption, not massacre, but mercy... We are commanded by Jesus to love not only our neighbors, but our enemies...
Interestingly, this same verb for the tearing of the heavens, "schizomenous," is used again at the end of Mark's gospel. At his baptism, when the heavens are torn, the Spirit enters Jesus and a heavenly voice addresses him as 'Son.' At the moment of his death, he 'breathed out his spirit' (15:37); the temple curtain tears (15:38); and this time a centurion – not God – makes the declaration, "Truly this man was God's Son"(15:39).(2)
In other words, in Jesus the crucified Christ, the separation between us and the most holy space of encountering God is removed. By way of the cross, the heart of God is revealed...and outsiders like the Roman centurion, a pagan gentile, are welcomed in. By grace, the most unlikely people see and confess divine truth.
Perhaps this helps us understand the problem that one might ask about why Jesus comes to John at all for the baptism of repentance. There are various views on this, but perhaps Jesus came to John not so much because he needed baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but because he wanted to show solidarity with the likes of us, who most definitely need a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins!? I find myself needing forgiveness for the fact that like many people right now, I find it hard to love my enemies. It is hard to love those who do violence against innocent people and who viciously attack that which we hold to be most dear, our freedom and right to express different perspectives. But Jesus calls us to let go of retribution, and reflect on what it means to follow him in the way of the cross...
I also know that there are many areas in my life where I can grow and improve. One definition of sin is simply falling short. So in that sense we all know that we can work on personal growth and development. This year as a community we will be exploring together what it means for us to "do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God." What does that mean now? I think we can all safely say that we can grow in how we learn to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God!
But perhaps there is another shocking possibility of why Jesus' submitted to the baptism of repentance by John. Could it be, that in Jesus Christ, God repented? In Jesus Christ I believe we see a dramatic new revelation of God's grace... In Christ, God most clearly in the history of God showed what love is all about. God is no longer the strong arm warrior God. God is no longer the God requiring blood sacrifice from us. In Christ God gave himself up as a blood sacrifice for us!
So how are we to respond to this amazing grace? What are the fruits worthy of repentance? John says he offered a baptism of water, but the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit. What are signs that we are baptized and filled with the Spirit of Jesus? Perhaps in our texts we are called to reflect more deeply on Water and the Spirit in our own lives. As we live on in the days and weeks to come, how do we remember our own baptism and look for ways in which we can follow Jesus and enter into the chaotic waters of this life, yet filled with the Spirit of Jesus so that we give witness to his way of self-giving love that brings freedom and new life?
I was reminded of a business term at our Men's Bible Study on Thursday. KPI – Key Performance Indicator... How appropriate! The KPI for Christians, of course, is love. In other words, the filling of the Holy Spirit is measurable. Our metric is how well we are loving our wives, our husbands, our children, our parents, our neighbors, and for Jesus, the most mature divine love is manifest in loving our enemies... It's important to remember that for Christians love is a verb. It's not a feeling. This is some small comfort, in that I don't know that I'll ever feel love for my enemies. No, love is active. It may mean getting out there and marching today. It may mean feeding the hungry. It may mean being willing to listen to those who are shattered by the horror of this week and pointing to the way of forgiveness. Whatever love means at this time, another good KPI is I Timothy 1:7: "for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline." And I John 4:18, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear..."
Another active expression of Christian love is the ministry of reconciliation. We need to help people make the distinction between Terrorists and Muslims. Yes, these terrorists happened to take the name of Allah in vain, but they do not represent all Muslims. It is poignant that the two police officers who were killed this week were minorities. Officer Ahmed Merabet was Muslim and Officer Clarissa Jean-Philippe was black. I unfortunately saw the video of Ahmed, the local police officer just doing his rounds, executed as he lay on the sidewalk... Did you see the tweet that was going around? It was a spin on the "I am Charlie" slogan... "I am Ahmed" was the tweet... "Though Charlie ridiculed and insulted my religion and culture, I died to protect Charlie's right to do so."
Christ identifies, ironically, with Ahmed, in that Christ identifies with all innocents, all outsiders who are brutally executed. Christ identifies with the victims of violence this week in Paris. Christ identifies with the 2,000 innocents slaughtered by Boko Haram this week in Nigeria. Christ identifies with anyone, anywhere, who suffers injustice, violence or abuse of any kind. This is so humbling when we remember that Christ took the hit for us even while we were yet sinners... even while we were enemies of God! And God continues to pour out grace upon grace to us so that we can know that as we turn again to God, as we repent and yield to the Father, we will experience new freedom to live a new life that is life-giving to others.
So friends, brothers and sisters in Christ: On this Sunday when the nation of France is mourning and we are all grieving the violence that has shaken our great city, I pray that just as Jesus showed solidarity with us in going down into the waters of baptism, so we may show solidarity with Jesus by going back into the chaos of this world remembering the waters of our own baptism, allowing the Spirit of God to fill us and give us the strength, the intelligence and creativity that is required to humbly pursue what it means to follow in the way of Jesus, to be light in the darkness by doing justice, loving kindness, and loving our neighbors, even our enemies. And as we do, I pray we will hear the good news again that we are beloved children of God, and that even with us God is well-pleased...
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(1) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1985), 164.
(2) Don Juel, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 34.