1/7/18: Water and Light, Mark 1:4-11
Water and Light
First Lesson: Genesis 1:1-5
Second Lesson: Mark 1:4-11
Rev. Scott Dickison
According to the wider church liturgical calendar which we do our best to follow, this Sunday holds a duel remembrance.
First of all, it’s Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany occurs on January 6th each year, yesterday, and marks the end of the 12-day-long Christmas Season. The word epiphany means “appearance” or “a revealing,” and here in the western church it’s usually when we tell the story of the wise men, which Julie did earlier, and remember how the story of Christ’s birth was revealed to these foreigner travelers, who ended up being the ones to recognize this new light which had come into the world.
But because of the way the calendar fell this year, this Sunday also holds another remembrance. The first Sunday after Epiphany each year is when we mark Jesus’ baptism—when he met John down at the River Jordan and the heavens opened up and the Spirit descended as a dove and a voice came down from the heavens saying, You are my beloved, and I’m so proud of you.
And it’s actually appropriate that we should remember both of these holidays together, Epiphany and Jesus’ Baptism, because in the eastern church, that whole side of the Christian family we unfortunately forget about most of the time, this is exactly what they do. They celebrate Jesus’ baptism at Epiphany, as the time when his identity as God’s beloved Son was “revealed.” And as far as Mark’s Gospel is concerned, this is how it happened.
There’s no birth story in Mark. No angels, no shepherds and all the rest of it. Mark begins straight away with John standing there at the Jordan River proclaiming the coming of one much greater than him and inviting all to prepare themselves in the waters of baptism. And then lo and behold we’re told that Jesus comes and joins John in the waters, just like all the rest of them.
John doesn’t protest as he does in Matthew and Luke, he simply take Jesus down into the waters just like all the rest of them, only when Jesus comes up out of the water, something happens. Now as Matthew and Luke tell it, the heavens were “opened,” but Mark envisions something stronger. Mark tells us, “As he was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart.” This verb, schizo, from which we get the word schism, is the same one used in Matthew about the curtain at the temple which is ripped in two when Jesus breathes his last breath.
Something powerful is happening here. As someone put it, “What is opened may be closed; but what is torn apart cannot easily return to its former state.” As Mark tells it, this was the moment when the relationship between heaven and earth would be forever changed: when God rips open the heavens and blesses Jesus there in the waters and reveals just who he is: An epiphany.
And its probably true that not every baptism is quite as dramatic as Jesus’ described here in Mark, although ask any preacher and he’s got a baptism story or two—especially those done outdoors! But even so, baptism is always a kind of epiphany.
No matter how many times you see a baptism there’s always something captivating about something that draws you in. Probably because of how utterly bizarre it it. Two people wading out into a pool of water—even wading out into a pool of water that happens to be in a building. Usually wearing some kind of robe. The preacher says a few words that most folks don’t even hear because their mesmerized by the sight of it all: the splashing of the water, the sound it makes as it hits against the walls of the glass or the river banks. And then one of them takes the other and dunks them under backwards and lifts them up again, saying something about dying and rising again—It’s strange. It’s captivating. It’s mysterious. It’s holy, I think, like few other things we do as the church. And we in the church also know it to be revealing. Just as with Jesus there in the Jordan, baptism reveals our true identity as God’s beloved children, of whom God is well pleased. And just as with Jesus, understand we’re not becoming something new in baptism. We’re simply revealing whom we’ve always been.
But unlike Jesus’ baptism, every baptism sense has also revealed something else. It reveals who we are in baptism, but it also reveals who the church is as the ones doing the baptizing. Baptizing is one of the things that makes the church the church. Along with the Lord’s Supper it’s what has defined the church through the generations. The church are the ones who’ve accepted the call to be bearers of God’s blessing in the world. That’s it! That’s who we are. All the rest of it is in service of that first calling: we’re the ones who have taken on the blessed task of telling people they’re God’s beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Inviting them to come down to the waters and accept what has been theirs all along: the blessing of Almighty God and a place and a people to call home. Baptism isn’t merely an act of the individual, it’s also an act of the church. You can’t baptize yourself—not that some haven’t tried! In one of the odder moments in Baptist history — which is saying something — John Smyth, one of the great founders of our faith, upon leaving the Church of England is said to have baptized himself and then his followers. It wasn’t until years later that he began to wonder if this made any sense.
Baptism is of course an act of the individual, and a powerful one at that, but it’s also true that you never enter the water alone. Of course there’s the minister, but there’s also the congregation. Baptism is a blessing of the entire church, looking on and saying to themselves, “I remember her when she had pigtails in second grade Sunday school,” or “I remember teaching him in RA’s. He was hell on wheels back then, but I’m glad he turned out okay.” You may get baptized alone, but you’re never truly alone in baptism. Each of us has plenty of people that we take into the water with us.
But if you look deep enough into those waters you’ll also see that all the generations of believers throughout history who have entered into pools or rivers or lakes, or who have been sprinkled or dowsed or blessed in holy waters, claimed as God’s beloved even before the understood what it meant. They’re all in the waters with you. And when the preacher guides you under the water, it’s all these generations of the church who push you back up. And recently I’ve been remembering a time when this was literally true.
It was five years ago last Saturday, on December 30th of 2012. I’d been here among you for exactly 5 Sundays. Our baptismal candidate was Beau Cooke, who I believe was about 12 at the time. Beau and his parents, Rebecca and David, had come to my study to discuss his profession of faith and desire to be baptized just a couple of weeks before. This was a decision Beau had been considering for sometime, but there was some urgency because his grandfather, Edd Rowell, whom many of you remember, was not well. Edd had been living with a rare and incurable cancer, multiple myloma, for almost 17 years. He would finally succumb to the disease just 6 months later, and was already quite frail and relied on a walker or wheelchair to get around—something I don’t think he ever got used to.
You see, Papa Edd, a former pastor, had baptized all the other grandchildren and Beau, too, wanted to be baptized by his grandfather. But there was some concern over whether or not Papa Edd would be able or how this new pastor would feel about it. Of course, hearing this story, I assured them that if Edd was up for it we would do whatever we could to make it possible. So two plans were made, one with Edd involved, which was for he and I to both be in the waters, along with Beau and also David, who would act as a spotter for Edd. I would be ready to assist in the baptism or do it all together if necessary. And the other plan was simply for me to perform the baptism is Edd was not up for it at all that morning, which would be impossible to know.
Well, that morning came around, and as I remember it, there was some concern that Papa Edd would not be up for it. He’d had a long night and was feeling weak, but was determined to enter those waters one last time. So before the service we all congregated back there and donned our white baptismal ropes: Beau, David, Edd and myself. We talked through what would happen, how I would enter the waters first and say a few words of welcome and explanation to the congregation. I would then read Beau’s profession of faith and invite him into the waters, and finally David would carry Edd in and we would see what would happen from there. And so we did. I opened the doors and introduced what would happen. I read Beau’s confession and invited him in, and then came Edd and David.
As I remember it, Edd walked down the steps first with David behind him, holding him under his arms. They made there way down between Beau and I in this way, with David holding Edd up under his arms. There was a moment or two of silence as we all stood there and waited for Edd, who seemed to be gathering up all the strength he had. Finally he shook off David’s assistance and took a half step forward toward Beau. With one hand he took his grandson’s back, and with the other raised he offered the words of baptismal blessing, “Upon your profession of faith in Jesus Christ and in obedience to his command, I baptize you my brother in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
He took his grandson’s hands, dipped him down into the water by a strength that was both entirely his own and entirely form somewhere else, made sure Beau was completely submersed, and raised him back up again. When he saw Beau was standing, he stepped back and fell gently into David’s arms. I gave Beau the salt and the light, and said a prayer as David lifted his father-in-law up the steps and out of the waters.
I’ve remembered that scene many times over these last five years. I think of it at every baptism I’ve done since, and probably will for the rest of my life. And for the life of me, I’m not sure exactly what we witnessed that day. But I know it was an epiphany. It revealed who Beau was, which is a beloved Son and grandson. but it also revealed who the church is: a people bound sometimes by good but most often by the wild promises of a loving God. A people willing to take on the risky business of imparting such a blessing.
Now, I don’t mean to say the heavens were torn open and the Spirit of God descended upon us that morning…
But come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
 Donald H. Juel, Mark, Augsburg Commentary on the new Testament. Found in Mark, by William C. Platcher in the Belief commentary series, 22