Hymn We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations
Bible Reading From Isaiah 60:1-6
Arise [God’s people] shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. Thick darkness covers the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…You will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy… and all… will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. (NIV)
Message “Rise Up, God is Upon Us!” Mark 1:4-11
Pastor Kathy Findley recalls while living near the equator in Africa, you do not watch the sun set, and you never say, “It’s getting dark”. One minute it is bright, the next it is dark. It gives new meaning to the phrase “night fell.” How dark is it? In Isaiah, justice is lost, evil schemes are pursued, violence is the norm, there is no peace. People look for light, but everything is dark; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. We grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were midnight… (See Isaiah 59:6-10)
Mornings in Africa are the same. The sky doesn’t gradually brighten as you watch the sun slowly rise into the sky. The sun leaps up right out of the darkness.
It might be what Malachi had in mind when he said: “Suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to His Temple” (Malachi 3:1b), and Isaiah tells the people to rise up and shine because God is shining on them, and they are to light up the world. Through Advent, we symbolically added light week by week until by the end we are “fully enlightened” -- the darkness turns to dawning to noonday bright and God’s kingdom of love and light is fully realized. If it were only so simple. Such declarations easily become flat words, dim candles, empty symbols without any power to change our lives.
But that doesn’t stop us from craving Christ’s hope, peace, joy and love to become a reality not only within every dark corner of our heart, but every dark corner of the world.
People were still seeking that kind of light when John the Baptist came on the scene. He reminds them that God’s light is about to suddenly appear along with the invitation to wake up, rise, and prepare for his coming.
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness
of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins,
they were baptized by him in the Jordan River… And this was his message: “After me comes the one more
powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with
water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:4-8 (NIV))
Jews have various ritual baths, but the baptism of repentance for forgiveness was reserved for people who were converting to Judaism. And yet John calls God’s people to a baptism meant for outsiders wanting to join. It speaks to how far off course God’s people had ventured – that they needed to convert to their own faith. It also speaks to the desperation of the people seeking for something beyond the empty forms and mere symbols of light – they needed something that would change their lives.
In their own view; their history of unfaithfulness had led to destruction, exile, and though they had returned, they remained under the domination of foreign powers even up to that current day. They understood that real freedom, that God’s favor and glory would only return to them if they could find forgiveness by true repentance. John told them God sent the one (Jesus) who would set things right once and for all. Sincere repentance would prepare them to become a part of this new thing God is doing. So, is there something in my past (or present) that I need to repent (turn away from) in order to allow God to do a new thing in me?
Often, we treat symptoms instead of underlying causes. We make resolutions to do, or not do things in which we failed in in the past. But we ignore the underlying attitudes and issues that led to the failures. Are we relying on the “one more powerful than I” to deal with the underlying causes of our temptations?
As a simple, common example – we resolve to eat less and exercise more --- because maybe we didn’t do so good at times. But we don’t deal with why we ate too much or didn’t exercise – the depression of exhaustion or stress or whatever it is that tempts us to eat more and exercise less. In theological/faith circles, it is the difference between dealing with sinful acts versus dealing with the sinful nature – whatever that is within us that inspires us to commit the sin of omission (failing to do right) or sin of commission (failing by doing wrong).
Kathleen Norris summarizes a story of a repentant little boy. He called it "The Monster Who Was Sorry." He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, then to wreck his room and finally the whole town. The poem concludes: “then I sit in my messy house and say to myself I shouldn't have done all that." Norris comments that his phrase, "my messy house' says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered. The boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and it also gave himself the beginnings of a solution. If that boy had been in a fourth century monastery, his elders may have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, and not a monster, but only human. And, if the house is messy why not invite Christ to come and clean it up, to make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?" ( paraphrased from Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith)
It is the power of that fallen nature that enslaves us and from which we need to be freed. And we can only be freed from that power but submitting to a superior power. That power is not within us. John points toward Christ as the “one more powerful than I, who will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. The one who can truly transform us into something new.
So, John stands in the muddy Jordan River, the same river Israel had crossed to enter the promised land generations before. In a sense, John was inviting them, and invites us, to a new sort of promised land, a new future promised by God’s coming in Jesus Christ. The emphasis is not to end with the baptism, but a launching point into a new future, a future which allows us to participate in God’s work in his world. In what new purpose in God’s mission might God be calling me to participate? Joining this heavenly kingdom movement implies a calling, a commitment, an initiation to devoted service to God. For those who like lists, baptism:
Baptism connects us with the family of God. It is a mark of God’s unearned favor – in which we receive the love of God who created us. It symbolizes our dying to sin and rising to new life. It is a pledge to God’s kingdom rather than our own, and sets us apart for ministry.
Jesus joins this grass roots movement who were seeking a new lease on life through John’s ministry. Hear the rest of the text:
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was
coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And
a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11 (NIV))
Jesus was not in need of repentance, but he wanted to identify with those who were seeking God. His baptism is also God’s affirmation of Jesus’ true identity as his beloved Son; the one the people were looking for to free them, the one we are looking for – and the one by whom we can become beloved precious children of God, safe in his everlasting embrace. It is our most basic true identity.
Jesus sets an example for us by wading into the muddy Jordan water. If he is willing to get dirty to begin changing the world, we who follow him need to be willing to do the same. When we walk with Jesus, we too roll up our sleeves and start in the muddy Jordan, and you end up dying on a cross that Jesus himself will invite you to embrace.
We started by talking about how easy it is for even sacred symbols to become flat words, empty of power to change our lives. We can go through the motions with boredom, or we can participate in the motions and memories in a way that our experience shapes our lives.
Lisa Beavers said, “My 3-year-old daughter stood on stage and cried during her first dance recital. After it was over, she told us that she was sad and that she didn’t like crying on stage. A few days later, however, she was thinking back fondly on her big night. Several months later, she plays ‘dance recital’ with her little sister as if it were the best thing that ever happened to her.
Our memory is shaped by the meaning we choose to assign something. Think about it this way – Monday blues versus TGIF (not the restaurant – but it is why they chose the name). In actuality, research shows that our moods do not really change very much over the course of the week. Yet we have attached certain meaning and emotions and beliefs to certain days. So, Monday is seen as a drag, and Friday an elation. It is the same with major events. Completely stressed out brides will later say it was the happiest day of their life. A man remembers the birth of his first child as pure joy – yet in the moment, it was agony to watch the wife suffer labor pains. I baptized one man in a lake and it was so cold it was all we could do to walk out far enough to put him under the water – but hopefully he will remember that as an important and special spiritual day. Our memories are shaped by the meaning we choose to attach to them.
Baptism and communion sacraments can mean everything or nothing depending on how we choose to respond to it. It is not based on what we feel at the moment, who the pastor is, or who are the people around you. It is based on the meaning we assign to it. Choose to make the Word of God, the water of baptism, the bread and cup of communion; mean something more than words on paper or a screen; or basic elements of nature. Allow the Spirit to move the words to create meaning for your life. Allow the water of baptism, the bread and cup of communion to mean more than the simple re-enactment of mini-dramas of God’s actions in Jesus on this earth – allow them to be the means of connecting with the living God who seeks to wrap you up in his arms of comfort and lead you into ways, sometimes muddy (difficult) ways, of bringing the light of hope to a world in which the night has fallen.
Closing Blessing God’s light has risen upon you. So, through you, let his light shine into a dark world by rising up to live kingdom values and daring to serve Jesus in new and adventurous ways. Amen.