We all know how great gobs of people spent New Year’s Eve in New York City this year: packed shoulder-to-shoulder in Times Square, watching a crystal-studded ball drop amidst deafening cheers, thousands of lights, pounding music and celebrity appearances. It’s one way to ring in the new year—and in case you haven’t guessed, it’s not on my personal to-do list.
That’s one way. I also heard about another way New Yorkers spent December 31 this year. At one of the city’s many parks, a great bonfire was started. People were invited to bring whatever they wanted to toss into its flames as we left 2011 behind. There was no shortage of people drawn to the bonfire, and no shortage of things to burn.
People tossed in notices of foreclosure on homes that they’d lost in the past year. They tossed in love letters from relationships that were over and yet still holding them hostage. They tossed in memos from bosses announcing that their jobs had been eliminated. They tossed in photographs and cards and tickets, failed hopes and broken promises, and they watched it all go up in smoke, the flames licking toward the sky at the end of another year.
The gathering by the shores of the Jordan River that day wasn’t so different. Sure, the crowds were gathered around water instead of fire; but they, too, were people worn raw with disappointment, dissatisfied with the way things were, ready for a change. They were there for John’s baptism of repentance, after all—they were there to turn and walk in a new direction, which is what repentance is all about.
Today is the day the church remembers Jesus’ baptism—the first Sunday after Epiphany, every year. The calendar turns, and while we’re still cleaning up the house from the guests, just finishing off the last of the Christmas cookies, our New Year’s resolutions still ringing in our minds, we find this image of Jesus at the river. At this time of a new year’s beginning, we get this profound picture of Jesus’ beginning. Sometimes you can’t help but think there is something to this whole lectionary business.
Mark’s account is brief, and it’s familiar, and that’s often a recipe for a story we are likely to move over quickly. But if we slow down and pay attention to our surroundings in this passage, there’s much to notice and wonder about.
Amidst this motley gathering of soggy, repentant people, way out in the wilderness, Jesus appears. It’s the first time we see him in Mark’s gospel—Mark doesn’t start with a story of Jesus’ birth, just a brief introductory word that what is to follow is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is the first we see of him in Mark—showing up at the rally of repentant sinners in the desert, far from the center of things.
And if you think about it, it’s a strange way to begin a story about this person we’ve already been told is God’s Son. We’ve been told he’s the top dog—so you’d expect him to start at the capital; at the temple; on a high platform overlooking lots of eager listeners. But no, we first see him here—out in the wilderness with ordinary people, bruised and scarred by life. It’s a strange way to begin the story of God’s Son.
And it gets even stranger. Not only does this guy show up at the sinners’ party—he joins right in. He wades into the water and receives what John offered, a baptism of repentance. As you might imagine, this scenario has created conversation from time to time in the church. Jesus is supposed to be without sin, right? So what’s he doing in the water with all these sinners? What does he have to be repentant about?
Matthew handles this scene a little differently. In his version, Jesus and John have a conversation before the baptism, where John pleads with Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (3:14). He’s right, of course—what business does anyone have standing over God’s son to baptize him?
Who knows exactly how the conversation went; what we do know is, Mark doesn’t include any explanation. Jesus heads for the wilderness and wades into the water with the rest of the crowd. And when I look at it today, it looks to me like Jesus is identifying completely with this group of ordinary, imperfect people. From the very start, he doesn’t tower over them or speak down to them, but walks beside them—here, even sharing in their baptism. And I think there’s something very important about that.
Because something happens as Jesus is coming out of the water of his baptism. For a long time, translations here read “he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove” (1:10, RSV). A sort of lovely, pristine image, one for the greeting cards, with the clouds parting and a visible ray of sunlight shining through to the water below. But the translation we heard today says “he saw the heavens torn apart….” Not just opened, not just quietly parting for a moment, but ripped in two.
If you think this wordplay is the sort of stuff for Bible geeks alone to get excited about, you are perfectly entitled to that opinion. But scholars will tell us that there’s really something to this word. The Greek word Mark uses is “schizo” – like in “schizophrenic”, which literally means “split mind.” It’s a harsh word, not a pristine one, and it suggests that something very serious and decisive happened in the heavens that day. The clouds didn’t part for a gentle ray of sunshine; the sky split that day, and things would never quite be the same.
While God’s home has often been seen as way up in the heavens or within the walls of the temple, something new happens in Jesus. The heavens crack, once and for all; the barrier is down, and God has come very close. In this one rising up out of the water, God’s presence is near in a uniquely powerful way.
The barrier is down, and the words from God could be anything; they could be angry or vengeful or instructive or sorrowing. But the words spoken to Jesus are these: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11).
There were all kinds of people there that day. There was the man who spent so much time working that he barely knew his kids. There was the woman who finally realized that she needed out of the abusive relationship. There was the couple who’d never been happy with the life they’d chosen and had always felt trapped. There was the teenager who’d decided it was time to get some help with his depression. There was the grandmother, estranged from her son, who’d never forgiven herself for that argument. They’d all come to make a change, to walk in a different direction.
There were all kinds of people there that day. And what happened when the sky cracked mattered for them all. The heavens were open, once and for all; there was no putting them back together. God had determined to be among people, setting them free, addressing them as God addressed Jesus: “You are my daughter, the beloved; you are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Through Jesus, those are the words spoken to all. Those are the words spoken to you in baptism. Paul says it this way: “…for in Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27).
They’re good words for anytime, of course. But maybe they’re particularly good words at the start of a new year, when we leave behind the year that’s past and welcome what’s to come. Jesus is who God said he is, and you are who God says you are: God’s child, beloved.
It’s good news for people standing by the side of a bonfire on December 31, tossing in regrets, and it’s good news for all of us today. God has come near in Christ, calling us all children of God. May that good news wash over us all like water this year. Amen.