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The gospel reading this week is close to my heart. This is the text that my dear friend Rev. Andy Odom preached for my ordination five years ago. It was a memorable message. Andy is an animated preacher, he doesn’t stay in the pulpit and that day, to the astonishment of my Midwestern buttoned up Presbyterian congregation, he yelled and gestured wildly. I remember that day well; the day the Spirit of God threw me into the wild river of ministry. So, here we are this morning at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Each gospel has its own unique opening. Matthew begins with genealogy, John begins with poetry and Luke begins with the nativity. Each writer, I’m sure, has his reasons for beginning the story of the good news of Jesus Christ in the way he does. Mark doesn’t begin with genealogy or poetry and skips the nativity altogether. He doesn’t have time to tell that story. Everything in Mark’s gospel happens quickly. Everything is immediate. Mark is always in a hurry. So, Mark begins with Jesus and John in the Jordan River. And he doesn’t waste time overloading us with details. When he tells the story of the baptism of Jesus, it’s just the facts. For Mark, this is the start of the gospel…this moment in the river with Jesus and John, the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. This is the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry and mission. The heavens are torn open. The voice of God is booming and a declaration about who Jesus is is made. There is nothing gentle about it and this story gives us the clue that what happens in baptism for all of us is anything but calm and gentle and passive. Hear now the gospel according to Mark,
Holy wisdom, holy word.
Now, I want us to look at our font. It is beautiful. I am certain it was made with love and care. It is covered and orderly. It doesn’t hold much water and it is the farthest thing in the world from a river in the wilderness. And yet, this is the way we baptize. We use a little water and sprinkle or pour it on. We have the option to immerse in our tradition but we’re not pre-equipped for that here. We do safe baptisms here. And, yet, baptism is not safe. It’s not orderly. I’m not sure we fully understand what we are doing when we baptize. In fact, I know we don’t fully understand what we are doing when we baptize and that’s ok. My friend Andy said that we baptize not because we understand but because we don’t. We baptize because we are crazy enough to believe that something happens here. We are crazy enough to believe that God does something here. I want to be specific about that. It is God who baptizes. It is God who calls us beloved and claims us as God’s own and marks us with grace.
God does something here. We baptize as we are commanded to do but it is God who works out exactly what happens. It is no mere ritual. It is not something nice we do for parents of young children or individuals who want to be a part of the church. God does something here. There is power and mystery. God at work. When we say that we are called and claimed by God (as we do in baptism), we are saying that God has reached down from the heavens and pulled us out of the muck and mire of this world and called us beloved. When we say that we are marked as Christ’s own forever (as we do in baptism), it means that the heavens have been torn asunder, the Holy Spirit has grabbed a hold of us and who knows what will happen next.
Do you know what happened to Jesus after he was baptized? According to Mark, he was immediately driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit. That’s another story for another day but after Jesus was baptized by John in the river, after the heavens were torn asunder and God’s voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God wasted no time at all and sent him straight out into the wild places. And what happened there? He was tempted. He was tried. That declaration, that call and claim on his life was put to work straightaway. Jesus was tossed out into the wilderness. Why do we not think the same will apply to us? We can make our baptisms clean and safe and sanitized but why should we think that once we are marked as Christ’s own forever we will be able to go on living our lives as usual? What makes us think that we will not be thrown into the wilderness or swept down the river?
Do you remember your baptism? Some of you might. Perhaps you were older when you were baptized and can remember the feel of the water, the voice of the minister, the questions you answered, the smiles of family and friends. Me? I don’t remember. I was baptized as an infant. I’ve seen photos and heard stories. Apparently, I screamed the minute my mother handed me to the pastor. And my mother, in her infinite wisdom, had a bottle ready. It shut me up quickly. I know that my grandparents where there. I know that Reverend Green had the happy task of actually putting water over my head. Though I don’t remember it, I was baptized. This I know for sure. God tore open the sky that day, reached down, and said “This is my child, with whom I am well pleased.” That’s what happens in baptism, you see. God does the baptizing. God makes the claim. God tears open the sky, reaches down, and claims each one of us as God’s own. When you were baptized, God tore open the sky, reached down, and declared “This is my child with whom I am well pleased.” You, beloved of God, are called and claimed and marked as Christ’s own forever. Andy preached this text at my ordination as a reminder that God’s call on our lives begins before we are ever aware of it. The still small voice reminding us of who we are and whose we are is ever-present.
If God does something in baptism, and we profess to believe that God does, then once baptized we should be ready to go wherever the Spirit of God leads. We should be willing to go wherever the Spirit of God leads whether it be the wilderness or down the river or out onto the street or into our neighbor’s house or across the world. Because I’ll tell you, the Spirit of God may not give us a choice. We may be thrown into the wilderness. And Scripture gives us plenty of stories of people trying to ignore the call of God and turn their back on the Spirit. It doesn’t work. It never works. The Spirit of God will eventually get her way.
So, if we believe that God does something in baptism, 1) we should take our own baptisms very seriously and 2) we should not fear. Belonging to God is a comfort. Belonging to God also requires something of us. As baptized children of God, we are called to live as children of God. We are called to be bold about our faith. It is a grateful response to the steadfast love of God. And in this world of fear and uncertainty, it’s time to be bold. It’s time to go out into the wild places of fear and greed and violence and want to proclaim God’s love and God’s peace, to be bearer of hope to all people. Beloved of God, this world needs hope. This world needs love. This world needs peace. So, we must live into our baptisms. We must show the world that there is another way. I know it’s hard to be hopeful when things seem hopeless. It’s hard to love when it feels like the world is determined to hate. It’s hard to bear peace when it seems as though the darkness is winning. In the moments when it feels too hard, I am reminded of Martin Luther. When Luther was fearful and discouraged and despairing which he believed to be the devil’s work, when he felt like the darkness was winning and he could not trust the promises of God, he had a habit of shouting out, “I am baptized!” It is both a comfort and a call. A reminder to himself and, perhaps, to the darkness itself that God is faithful to God’s promises, that in baptism we are marked as God’s own forever, that we are God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased. So, we have work to do, my friends. God’s work. God’s work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, giving a drink of water to those who thirst, advocating for justice, loving the unlovable, considering the needs of others before our own, shining light in the darkness, and baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Beloved of God, are you ready? Let’s go.
Rev. Alex Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 7, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
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Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
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