Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
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.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that have you inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation and that you will empower our application. Amen
One of the things I was encouraged to think about in my Homiletics class - that was my Sermon preparation ad presentation class, in Seminary was to read the Scriptures and to look for common themes in the readings.
So as I read the Scriptures for a particular Sunday, in preparation for writing and then presenting my Sermon, I often find myself reading and looking for similar phrases or similar symbols or images in the readings.
Today one major, common connector is, I believe, the theme of God wanting to establish a Covenant relationship with people.
Then there is the secondary one of how the Lord uses symbolism to affirm or confirm that Covenant. Throughout today's readings, there is the imagery of people "passing through water" as a sign or as a symbol of a Covenant.
The Old Testament illustration of that, this morning, is the story of Noah and his family passing through the floodwaters. Noah and his family go into the ark and pass through the waters, as "the world they knew it" is wiped away. They come to a new world and a new opportunity for humanity to live in a renewed Covenant relationship with the Lord who has saved them.
Lots of people find the story of Noah a hard one. There are lots of people who are more than ready to see it purely as a myth or a tale of an ancient group of people. A bit of folk law to illustrate a point. Now that may well be true.
The point or the issue that most people struggle with is the idea that God would offhandedly or matter-of-factly wipe out humanity. It seems to be a harsh judgment without much recourse.
Can I just say that there are scholars who suggest that from the time God spoke to Noah about building the Ark, until the flood actually came, that there was a period of around 120 years.
So, these scholars would suggest that God outlined the plan and then gave the people of the world 120 years to respond. Eventually, when they didn't respond and repent he fulfilled what he said would happen.
Either way, it is a hard story to comprehend. But in the center of it all is still the essential point: "God seeks to establish a Covenant with people and the Lord uses the symbolism of people "passing through water" as a sign or as a symbol of that Covenant."
All of this understanding of Covenant, with its associated symbolism and imagery, is transferred into what we in the church have come to understand about Baptism. God wants to establish a covenant relationship with us and we need to pass through the waters to come into the new world, the new life that he is offering to us.
Now, when I meet with families to prepare for Baptism I often talk with them about a different story. The People of Israel, as they are leaving Egypt, finding themselves trapped between Pharoh's army and the Red Sea.
The people freshly released from captivity find themselves facing annihilation with nowhere to go. This bunch of newly released, formerly subjugated prisoners, find their moments of freedom about to be snuffed out. They cry out to Moses, the one that they are putting their hope in to be their savior, and he petitions God for a way out. God instructs him to put his staff in the water. Miraculously the sea or the waters part. The people pass through the waters to safety on the other side. This story encapsulates the imagery or symbolism of people recognizing the need for release from captivity, the need for a savior, the need for miraculous intervention, and the need to pass through the waters to safety and a new life.
In all three readings, we are encouraged to think about, to examine, what Baptism means for us. As we begin our journey towards Easter, we are encouraged to take some time, during this time of Lent, to reflect on, to examine, to ponder anew how we view and understand Baptism.
In the reading from 1st Peter this morning we hear the word prefigured. Now I don't know about you but prefigure is not a word I use much in my common conversation. In fact, if I am really honest, I don't think I even considered it much until I went to Seminary. Once I got there I heard it quite a bit. Just in case you are wondering what prefigure means, let me give a simple definition, it means to set up an example of something. To put something in place which prepares people for what is to come.
In this case, Noah and his family, and the people of Israel at the edge of the Red Sea, prefigure God's desire to be in Covenant with us. That we would realize that we are, or have been, living our lives under subjugation, that we have been prisoners. That we need someone to come and lead us out of that existence and into a new life. There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves. No matter how religious we are, no matter how morally correct we are, no matter how kind and generous we are, we can't get it right. Like Noah's family and like the people of Israel standing on the edge of the Red Sea we need something to happen to change the situation, we need someone to save us. We need a savior.
Just as Noah's family needed to pass through the floodwaters and the people of Israel needed to pass through the Red Sea, we need to pass through the waters of Baptism. We need to acknowledge that Jesus is our Savior. We need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. One of my professors at Seminary put it this way: "I am not the Savior, but I know who is, and he is ready, willing, and able to save!" As the writer of 1st Peter puts it so clearly: " baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"
Jesus, through His death, burial, and resurrection has provided the means and the opportunity for us to be set free. We in our Baptism, in passing through the waters, are acknowledging who he is for us.
Jesus, in our Gospel reading this morning, is Baptized and the Heavenly Father recognizes and acknowledges who he is, in dramatic fashion: 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."
Jesus then is driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit for 40 days. He is tempted by Satan. That is all Mark says about that, but we know from the other Gospels, how Jesus is challenged to renounce the Lordship of his Heavenly Father. He withstands those temptations.
Then Mark in rapid-fire progression takes us to the arrest of John the Baptist, and Jesus' proclamation "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
"This past year we have all been living through and experiencing, the wilderness, as we never have before. This past year each of us has been a dark and enduring period of questioning and uncertainty like we have never experienced before. I would suggest that each of us has been challenged to consider, in a way that we never have before, our convictions about who Jesus is and who he will be for us.
As we enter and travel through Lent this year, we have the opportunity to consider our need for a Savior, our need for a way out, a need for a renewed vision and purpose.
We may not have been through a flood, which has, wiped out the world as we knew it, but we are certainly facing a world like we have never experienced it before. What can we learn from Noah and his family, or from the people of Israel, about passing through the waters of darkness and uncertainty? Do we have the expectation that our Savior will be with us?
I am reminded of the words of Joshua, and the people of Israel, in Joshua 24: 14 - 17
“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed."
I believe that God is seeking to renew and enliven his Covenant with us, as his people. Are we willing to take some time this Lent and examine our hearts and our minds in the light of our Baptism?
Perhaps we have the opportunity to review the Baptismal Service that begins on page 299 in the Book of Common Prayer. I am sure that we are most familiar with the promises that we were made for us in our Baptism, perhaps we recall restating those at Confirmation.
Have we considered the Covenantal nature of Baptism? Covenants are two sided. We make promises and God makes promises. Perhaps we need to consider the promises that are stated on God's behalf in the Baptismal Service on pages 306, 308 and 309.
As I end this morning I hope I can encourage you to consider Joshua's question: "Choose this day whom you will serve." But that you will also look to the Lord to fulfill his promises to us:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.