Now, for those of you who know me — and even for those who’ve just heard the last few seconds — I’m sure it’s hard to believe that I could be any odder than I am now. But, believe you me, I was a very strange and awkward teenager. Asthmatic, nerdy, Mormon boys don’t really have a lot of places to fit in in Alabama. Looking back, it’s a sure sign of God’s providence and protection over my life that I made it out of school relatively unscathed. Outside of God, there really is no reason why I shouldn’t have been mercilessly bullied each and every day.
Thanks to God, I found a class in high school that gave me direction and purpose. It saved me from the dark paths I was headed towards. The class that saved my life was German. Specifically, it was the way German was taught by Frau Phillips. Frau Phillips didn’t just teach German, she taught of cultures and possibilities outside of my small world. She profoundly impacted my vision of what was possible in the world and completely altered the direction I was headed in life. Frau Phillips without a doubt saved my life.
All of this is to say, that in my mind Frau Phillips was THE teacher. The mentor. One of the people I was driven to succeed for. She held a very particular place in my mind as one of those formative adults that are such a part of a child’s life.
I still distinctly remember the moment when all of that changed. When my simple child-like understanding was ripped apart.
I was in college and, as it would happen, Frau Phillips was working on her Ph.D. — unknown to me — at the same university. Each week in Tuscaloosa the local Germans — of which there were many with the Mercedes factory in town — would meet at a local pub for Stammtisch; a German conversation hour. I’ll never forget that Thursday when Frau Phillips showed up. To everyone else, she was nobody. But, to me, a rockstar had arrived. I of course was extremely excited to see Frau Phillips. At this point I had lived in Austria and Germany and could speak fluently. I was overjoyed to show her how far I’d already gone and tell her of the job I had lined up after graduation.
We talked. Frau Phillips asked me to use Du — informal you — instead of Sie. We sat. We talked with each other and everyone else as equals. It turns out Frau Phillips was a normal person. She had stresses. I learned about the complexities and challenges of teaching high school students. I found out we drove her to a big glass of red wine each and every school night. There was an entire dimensionality to her that I didn’t even know existed as a child. In that evening the way I thought about Frau Phillips and every adult from my childhood completely changed. My world was ripped apart.
The adults of my childhood suddenly had depth, background, motives, troubles. A whole new world opened up to me. The distance that had previously separated me from the people of my childhood came crashing in. The world was more complex than I had imagined, but so much better for it. In that evening I left the last visages of the world of my childhood and stepped into the complex world I’d inhabit for the rest of my life.
In a much larger way, John the Baptizer and his disciples experienced a life-altering moment in today’s gospel reading. Like Frau Phillips, Jesus approaches the Jordan as a distant, important rabbi. John has known Jesus his entire life. He knows Jesus teaches with a clarity and depth of knowledge beyond His years and beyond His station. As He approaches John, Jesus is a prophet who God has sent to show God’s chosen people the way out of Roman oppression and back to the true faith and nation of their fathers.
But, as John pours the water over Jesus' head, that first splash changes everything. “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 [Jesus]. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” (Mk 1:10-11 NRSV)
Torn is the key word here. Older translations will say “opened”, but modern translations like the ESV are getting closer to the Greek here. The word here is “schizomenous” which is used in the more violent sense of being torn, split, or cleaved apart. This isn’t the heavens gently opening like the doors as you enter “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland. This is a violent, spectacular ripping apart of the very fabric of the heavens. As with Eve’s first bite of the apple and with Mary’s “let it be” the entire cosmos is forever changed in this moment. Heaven has broken through the dome of sin. It has violently cracked the heavens beyond repair. God is truly with us. The Spirit is once again free to dwell with his children. As Sherlock Holms would say, “the game is afoot.”
The game is indeed afoot, Mark’s gospel continues in verse 12 with “and immediately” as Jesus enters the wilderness to do battle with Satan and begin his three-year journey to the cross and his throne at the right hand of the Father.
Jesus’ baptism is a shocking and life-changing event for everyone standing in awe around the Jordan. In this moment it becomes clear that God is more than stories. God is more than a distant voice recorded by their ancestors. In this moment they realize that God lives, He speaks, and He’s up to something amazing and unexpected in Jesus. From that moment, the faithful believers are a part of something that is a lot more than a deep study of the Law and the Prophets. They are taking on something that bigger than following the Law of Moses in deed and heart. This is now bigger than a simple repentance ritual. Here in the wilderness alongside the Jordan, God is changing the rules of the universe. Caesar doesn’t know it yet. The Devil hasn’t realized it. But, the King has arrived, Heaven is breaking in, and Eve is rejoicing with the angels. The curse has met its end.
It’s easy to forget, but in our own baptisms there no less a violent change than that experienced by the earth when Jesus entered the waters. In a mystical way that we don’t even come close to understanding, that part of us that is deformed by sin and destined for eternal death is actually changed by a powerful act of God. Born an heir of Satan and his fires, the Devil’s claim on us is violently torn in two by the powerful waters of God’s Spirit. Exiting the waters, we are anointed not just as forgiven people. Not just freed from death. No. We are issued a new birth certificate and anointed as heirs of the eternal king of all that is seen and unseen.
We sometimes miss it in the familiar and thus often unheard words of the baptism liturgy and in the distracting beauty of a small baby lovingly dressed in white; but baptism is a big deal. A real thing is happening. The body dripping before our eyes from water and oil is truly changed. God has acted in a real way in the life and physical body of the little person so lovingly held.
The Bible doesn’t really have a concept of baptism as a personal act of devotion to God. No. Baptism is an entering into. It’s joining in the baptism Jesus created in our gospel reading today. It’s joining His life and death and, thus, His powerful resurrection and victory. We are baptized into new life. We are baptized into the very life of Christ. Baptism has very little to do with me, me, me and everything to do with Him who always has been.
It is no surprise, then, that in the collect appointed for today we pray that God might “mercifully grant that we, being regenerate by water and the Spirit, may live faithfully as thine adopted children.” We are baptized not for ourselves, but baptized into God’s kingdom as rightful heirs: princes of the New Creation. Like Adam and Eve before, this world is ours to steward. Like Christ, this world is our kingdom and like good monarchs we are here to serve, protect, and care for our people.
John’s disciples came to the river Jordan to escape the milk toast faith of the “mainline” synagogues who only sought to please the governing authorities and maintain some power and influence. They came to the river to study scripture and be encouraged by others also seeking to truly live the Law as an act of worship. When God’s Word troubled the waters, when God’s Spirit ripped the dome of heaven apart, when God’s voice shook the earth all of that changed. Jesus sprang from the water “immediately” and went to work as the loving king. The secret wilderness Bible club was over.
Jesus told those who came to him to leave father and mother. He said the dead should bury their dead. He said to sell all you have and give it to the poor. He said that the meek were blessed. He said to turn the other cheek. He said to give the beggar your coats. When forgiveness is met by further transgression, Jesus said to forgive some more. Jesus said to touch the lepper. He said to love and serve the Samaritan. He said to eat with sinners. He torn it all up. The heavens truly were coming down to earth and a whole new way of living and thinking had arrived. To be baptized. To be with Jesus. That is to live into the Kingdom of God now.
And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest. (Matt 9:35-38 KJV)
So, brothers and sisters, I call you today to look at the world with baptized eyes. The time for wading in the Jordan has passed. We’re heirs of the Kingdom and we’ve got work to do. The world is different. We can see the cracks in the heavens. The demons fight it. Evil tries to ignore it. But, the war has been lost. Heaven pours into our realm even now.
The world cries in hunger pains, but our reborn eyes can see the plentiful harvest around us. So, have compassion. Step into your calling as a child of God. Stand firm in your baptism and take a step into the still arriving kingdom. Labour in the fields of God’s harvest. Look out from yourself and instead look out with new eyes at those God calls us to love and serve. Let God violently rip your life apart. Let Him change your priorities. Let him discard business and replace it with fulfilling service fit for a prince. We stand weekly and are fed the Bread of Life and drink from the Cup of Salvation. We who no longer thirst, should not forget the hungry.
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house. I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images. Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them. (Isaiah 42:6-9 KJV)
We’ve been saved for a purpose. Remember your baptism and glorify Him who washes us clean in His blood freely given for sinners. In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.