Have you ever walked into a room to realize, “I don’t belong here?” You hope others there would agree. As a hospice chaplain, I had to have certain vaccinations to work with patients. Our agency used a clinic that gave such vaccines, and did drug testing. One morning I walk into the waiting room for a shot. What am I doing here? I sit by a guy wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, arms like an art exhibit, and his bicep declaring his love for his mama. I felt out of place in my ironed polo shirt and khakis. Unlike others, I wore no jewelry in my lips, nose, or eyebrows. When I was called back, I wanted to yell out – “I am here for a vaccination, not the other.”
So today: “Jesus, what are you doing standing in line with those sinners?” Jesus stands waist deep in the river, waiting his turn, repenting of sins for baptism – really? Writer and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says we could understand why he’s here if he’d pat people on the back to say, “Well done!” – Or if he waits on the shore to hand a towel when someone comes up from the water. If Jesus has no sin, no need to repent, why is getting baptized with sinners? People will think he’s one of them.
Mark doesn’t answer. No one can, really. Mark does tell us what happened when Jesus pops up out of the water. He sees the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descends into him, doesn’t just land on him (the NRSV misses it). And Jesus hears a voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
What does Jesus’ baptism mean? Jesus never says. Mark gives some clues. First the heavens over Jesus don’t open gently like the roof at Miller Park. They tear – rip open violently. Old Testament prophets cry out for God to tear open the heavens, come down here, and start smiting their enemies and the wicked. So when the heavens are torn open, and the Spirit gets into Jesus, heaven finally comes to earth. God comes – not to smite, but to love and call forth what He’s made us to be. For some that will be good news, those who know they need rescue from sin, bad decisions, failures and meanness. God enters this world to bring home those who turn to him, sort of like the father who welcomes his prodigal child back – scot-free. But those standing on the riverbanks watching and grumbling, feeling self-righteous and wondering what this parade of clowns is about miss what God is doing. Jesus won’t be good news for them. They have all the news they want, and besides, they have no reason they think to get in water with sinners. So where are you in this story? Are we more often open, or closed to God? Do we even believe God is with us, and active among us?
And the Spirit – remember how God’s spirit brings order out of chaos in creation. God’s Spirit descends into us at our baptism to create order and purpose from our personal chaos. God’s Spirit gets into us, never to be removed. We are sealed. And as Jesus hears a new name so will we, marked as Christ’s own forever, renamed – “Beloved child of God.” Our purpose now changes from serving self to serving God by loving others.
What does baptism mean for how we live each day? We realize daily we are called to live in the world, but not of the world. We are a people who meet each week for teaching and fellowship, break bread, hold each other and the world in prayer so we can leave here to serve Christ in all persons, love our neighbor as ourselves; strive for justice – work for peace and reconciliation; respect everyone’s dignity whether we agree with them or not. We talk with God about our personal sins and the sins we do together. In just such talks we are forgiven just for asking and God brings us back home. We ask God to open our hearts and pour his love into us so we can pick each other up when we stumble and fall – when we mess up or fail, those who are part of us, and those who could be.
Over years of being invited into people’s lives – hearing stories from people who’ve strayed and ask if God will take them back, I wonder how the gospel gets lost. When the heavens tear open and the Spirit comes down – Jesus’ baptism is a sign he’s with us in the messes – just as he did by getting into the water with all our sins. We get lost or go astray. He always knows where we are. All that’s needed to come is to turn and see who’s alongside us. So don’t ever give up on yourself, or anyone else. And don’t worry if someone will mistake you for a sinner either. All of us are. We look different on the outside, but inside we are alike – all needing the same healing and forgiving love of God.
We renew our baptismal vows today to remember who we are, whose we are, and what God is making of us, lest we forget. God won’t do this alone. He needs our participation in this project to bring others home. I like the way D.T. Niles, a Methodist missionary stated who we are: “A Christian witness is not like a rich person with a lot of bread to hand out to poor beggars who have nothing. Rather we are like one beggar who tells another beggar where we find bread.” That bread is Jesus Christ – and those who feast on God’s love never go hungry and starve. And the real good news – this bread will never run out on us. That’s why I think Jesus doesn’t mind if people think he’s just one of us. He comes to be that, so he could make us more like one of him.