Sunday’s sermon: The Reveal

baptism of Jesus Bonnell
The Baptism of the Christ by Daniel Bonnell (oil on canvas)

Texts used – Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7

  • It all started with a simple book in 1953 – a book that became so wildly popular that the release of another book following every year through 1966. The storyline was later taken up by three other authors who produced 27 more novels. The first movie debuted in 1962, and the franchise exploded, eventually producing 23 other movies, the most recent of which was released in 2015, making it one of the longest-running film series of all time. Something tells me Ian Fleming had no idea what he was starting when he first introduced the world to none other than 007: James Bond.
    • Bond = popular for a lot of reasons, but MYSTERY plays a huge part in the popularity
      • What’s he going to do?
      • Where’s he going to go?
      • Who’s he going to be with?
      • How’s he going to get out of this tight spot when it looks like death is the only option?
      • One of the most popular, longest-running, most well-recognized storylines in the whole world has been built on perpetuating these questions. Every plot line, every movie script, every element of who James Bond is is built on keeping the answers to these questions a mystery for as long as possible – to keep us turning page after page, to keep us on the edge of our seats, to keep us coming back for more … to keep us following.
  • And when you think about it that way, James Bond shares a little bit in common with Jesus. Bear with me here. Advent is over. Christmas is over. Lent is around the corner but still about 6 weeks away. And so we find ourselves in this in-between time in the church calendar. So as we wander through the gospel lessons – as we start out on our journey from the rough wood of the manger to the rough wood of the cross – we’re going to take a more in-depth look at this Jesus guy. → original Man of Mystery, especially since our lectionary readings come mostly from the gospel of Mark
    • In Mark, Jesus is mysterious.
      • Gospel of Mark = probably the oddest of the gospels
        • Shortest by far (Mt = 28, Lk = 24, Jn = 21, Mk = 16)
        • Also the earliest gospel – probably written around 70 C.E., less than 30 yrs. after the death of Christ → important because a lot of the theology that appears in the other gospels (especially Jn) hasn’t been developed yet, so Mark’s gospel is more of a moment-by-moment account without much of the theological explanation that came later as people began to process who Jesus really was.
          • Reads a less like a developed storyline and more like a news briefing
          • In fact, the authors of both Matthew and Luke probably used the gospel of Mark as a reference for their own writings.
        • Mk = gospel of immediacy
          • Written for Gentiles – likely heard about Jesus but may not have understood his significance
          • Probably written in Rome during a time of great persecution and upheaval for Christians under emperor Nero
          • Mark is always telling us things happen “immediately.”
            • Used 11 times in the 1st alone, 27 times throughout the whole gospel
            • And let me tell you, this is not one of those Greek words thick with all sorts of different meanings. “Immediately” means immediately. Period. Mark is not mincing words.
        • Mk = gospel of secrecy → Time and time again throughout Mark, Jesus insists that those who discover and declare him to be the Messiah must not tell anyone about what they’ve seen or heard.
          • E.g. from later in Mk: A man with a skin disease approached Jesus, fell to his knees, and begged, “If you want, you can make me clean.” Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do want to. Be clean.” Instantly, the skin disease left him, and he was clean. Sternly, Jesus sent him away, saying, “Don’t say anything to anyone. Instead, go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifice for your cleansing that Moses commanded. This will be a testimony to them.”[1]
      • So you see, throughout Mark, Jesus’ identity is built on similar questions to those we asked of James Bond:
        • What’s he going to do?
        • Where’s he going to go?
        • Who’s he going to be with?
        • How’s he going to get out of this tight spot when it looks like death is the only option?
        • And like Bond, these questions about Jesus keep us coming back for more. Jesus reveals just enough in Mark to keep people wondering, to keep us guessing, to keep us following.
  • Today’s gospel reading = perfect e.g.
    • The passage begins with a description of a crowd, but at this point, the crowd isn’t there for Jesus. Frankly, at least according to Mark, no one knows who Jesus is yet. Instead, the crowd has gathered for Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. – text: John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins.[2]
    • And in the midst of all this baptizing, John makes a powerful prediction: He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[3]  → In the literary world, this would be called foreshadowing. John realizes that the people are devoted to him and his teachings – that they look to him as a spiritual leader. But he wants to be sure that they are prepared for something different, something new, something extraordinary.
      • Trying to get them to ask questions
      • Trying to keep them on the edge of their seats
      • Trying to point them in a wholly unexpected direction
    • And into that scene comes Jesus, followed closely by the unexplainable: About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[4]  → This is Jesus’ very first appearance in Mark – no birth narrative here. In Mark’s storyline, this is his big reveal, and it does not disappoint.
      • DRAMATIC MOMENT – sort of like that moment everyone waits for in James Bond … that first time that 007 introduces himself (say it with me): “Bond, James Bond.” → This is Jesus’ BIG REVEAL! Or is it?
      • Encounter of mystery → When we read the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, I think we often assume that the Spirit coming down like a dove and the voice from heaven were witnessed by all present – heard and seen by John, by the crowd, and, of course, by Jesus himself. In fact, John’s gospel explicitly says that at least John the Baptist witnessed these things. But Mark’s account is a little different.
        • Explicit = “Jesus saw heaven split open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him.” → Jesus … not necessarily anyone else in the crowd.
        • Mystery = Who heard the pronouncement? → Are we supposed to infer that because only Jesus saw that Spirit that Jesus was also the only one to hear the voice from heaven? Or did others hear it, too?
          • Hard to glean any answers from the text – just following today’s reading: [Immediately] the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.[5]
  • But it’s clear, both from our 2nd Scripture reading this morning and from the fact that we’re all sitting here 2000 years later, that there is something miraculous, something powerful, something active and compelling about baptism. Something happened that day that Jesus was baptized that has kept believers coming intrigued for centuries.
    • NT text: While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul took a route through the interior and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you came to believe?” They replied, “We’ve not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “What baptism did you receive, then?” They answered, “John’s baptism.” Paul explained, “John baptized with a baptism by which people showed they were changing their hearts and lives. It was a baptism that told people about the one who was coming after him. This is the one in whom they were to believe. This one is Jesus.” After they listened to Paul, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in other languages and prophesying. Altogether, there were about twelve people.[6]
    • Here’s the thing about baptism. It’s a mysterious event. It looks simple from the outside – just a little bit of water – but the act itself is shrouded in layers of meaning and questions. If it were truly as simple as it looks, it wouldn’t be one of the most prominent theological sticking points as far as differences between denominations and branches of Christianity are concerned, right? Infant or adult … baptize once or more than once … sprinkle, dip, or full-on immersion … in a public service of worship or in private … necessary for salvation or not … The debates have raged throughout the millennia, and they will continue to go on.
      • PC(USA): God’s faithfulness signified in Baptism is constant and sure, even when human faithfulness to God is not. Baptism is received only once. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to the moment when it is administered, for Baptism signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. God’s grace works steadily, calling to repentance and newness of life. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs repeated renewal. Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life’s way, both for those whose Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith.[7]
  • Friends, our baptism – modeled after Christ’s own actions in the Jordan River 2000 years ago – continually draws us into the mystery of faith. It is the continuous claim that God lays on us. It is the continuous call that beckons us to walk with God. When we ourselves were baptized, and whenever we baptize someone in our midst – no matter the age – we know nothing about the life that lies before the one being baptized: the decisions he or she will make, the trials and tribulations or joys and celebrations that lay in his or her path. But instead of fearing that mysterious future, we welcome it in faith, knowing that whatever is to come, through the waters of baptism, God is there.
    • Scholar: Baptism is not the final reveal, but simply a stop on this human-transformation trail we are on. For Jesus, it was one significant moment that revealed just enough of his identity to compel others to start the journey to know him more. Baptism is a reminder that where we are going is more important than where we have been.[8]
    • The one being baptized is welcomed into a family of faith that will hold him up and shelter him, teach her and walk with her. So let us continue onward in this mystery together. Amen.

[1] Mk 1:40-44.

[2] Mk 1:4-5 (emphasis added).

[3] Mk 1:7-8.

[4] Mk 1:8-11.

[5] Mk 1:12-13.

[6] Acts 19:1-7.

[7] “Sign and Seal of God’s Faithfulness,” Book of Order 2015-2017: The Constitution to the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2015), W-2.3007.

[8] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Baptism of the Lord: The Reveal” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 94.

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2 responses to “Sunday’s sermon: The Reveal

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Now You See It, Now You Don’t | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  2. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: An Urgent Mission | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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