Feb. 18, 2018: Lent 1B (English)

Lent 1B, 2018.
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Pastor Eric Deibler

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to take a trip to the Holy Land. It was a very interesting trip with a lot of very interesting people. There was the radical Methodist pastor who was about 4’11” and became righteously indignant at every opportunity. There was the Pentecostal minister from Minnesota, who was my roommate. (Which was very interesting to say the least, because he was even more conservative than I am liberal.) Then there was Larry Wick, a rather slight Methodist pastor, who was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. But perhaps the most interesting person on the trip was a guy named Boo, spelled B-o. He was Dutch and also a Methodist. Lots of Methodists on this trip.

Bo was one of those guys who had a natural charisma. Everyone liked him. He could make everyone laugh. But he never came across as being pushy or a show-off of any kind. So, it was no surprise when, at the sight reputed to be the place where John the Baptizer actually baptized Jesus (along with a conveniently located gift shop. Who knew that John and Jesus would have the foresight to build a rather modern looking gift shop at that spot.) Anyway, it was no surprise when we suddenly heard Bo’s voice rising above the gentle murmur of the crowd that was gathered there, as different tourist groups arrived and departed. And Bo, standing there with a somewhat apprehensive looking young man, said, “Brothers and sisters! This young man has made profession to me of his faith that Jesus Christ is his lord and savior. To the best of my ability I have examined him in his faith and have determined that he is, indeed, sincere. Is there any reason why this young man should not be baptized?”

Nobody objected, in fact there were several who applauded. So, standing there in the Jordan river, and this was in May, so it was cold! Bo explained how he would be doing the baptism. He then took the young penitent in practiced fashion, slowly lowered him under the water, and then held him there for a little bit. Bo raised him up and he sputtered some. He asked the young man if he was alright, and when the man said, “Yes”, Bo dunked him under again in similar fashion, holding him under. By the time he had been dunked under the water three times, the young man was sputtering and coughing a bit. Bo then shouted to everyone who was within earshot, “Brothers and Sisters, this man has died in the waters of baptism and been reborn again in Christ. Come and greet your new brother in Christ.” And a lot of us went down, gathered around him, and welcomed him into the fellowship of the Church, the body of Christ.

I’m not about to suggest that we install a baptistery here and start doing baptism by immersion, but I will say this: There was something powerful about that experience. And not just for the young man who made his profession of faith that day, but for me too. Because for the first time, I really got it. As the young man came up for air, sputtering and gasping, you really had the sense that “OK. This is what baptism is about. This is real dying in the waters of baptism and being reborn again in Christ.” Baptism is death. It’s a kind of death. But it’s also a resurrection.

The Gospel of Mark is a very different book from the other two synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke. There is no birth narrative. There is no story of Jesus being dedicated at the temple. There’s no story of a precocious young boy of 12, sitting in the temple, asking questions and discussing things with the teachers.

Instead what we start with is the baptism of Jesus. And the message of that baptism is clear. It is a radical redefinition of who Jesus is. It’s so radical, in fact, that the author of Mark effectively says, “It doesn’t matter who he was or where he has come from! This is what you must know about Jesus: He is God’s Son, the Beloved; with him God is well pleased.” It’s a radical redefinition of who Jesus is. So radical, in fact, that who he may or may not have been before all of this started is of no consequence. That is a true death and resurrection. A redefinition of who Jesus is that’s no less radical than the redefinition that occurs when Jesus dies and is raised again.

I love the fact that in every Lutheran Church I’ve ever served, there’s always been a cross above the altar, just as it is here. It makes a very clear statement that the cross defines everything we do, including and perhaps especially baptism. Baptism always happens under the shadow of the cross. The cross is a place of tremendous pain and suffering. The cross is a place of death. But please note that it’s an empty cross, and not a crucifix. So not only is it a symbol of death, but it’s also a symbol of resurrection.

Our dying and rising always happens at the foot of the cross. It can’t happen any place else. It constitutes a radical redefinition of who we are.

Bill Lane, a former editor for Sojourners magazine once wrote: “There are two basic motivations for being radical. There are those who are radical because they want to accomplish something. And there are those who are radical because they believe something has been accomplished. These differences in motivation are sometimes only theoretical, but they are also often crucial. They may mean the difference between frustration and faithfulness.”

Light coming into darkness is a radical description of Jesus coming into the world. It’s so radical because when light confronts darkness it demands a change of the status quo. The darkness is transformed. The bright light of Jesus coming into a world dominated by sin is a radical change. That being the case, is it any wonder that Jesus should be crucified. The light of Christ demands an either/or response.

I don’t have to tell you that the world has not become any more receptive to God’s truth in in the 20 centuries which have ensued since Jesus was present on earth. Yet we are called to be the light in a dark world. And we’re subject to both. The honest person of faith needs to recognize that he or she is not free from the darkness around us. While the radical change promised by baptism has begun within us, it’s not yet completed. Having such a persistent and strong connection to the world around us makes it all the more tempting to give in and to accept the status quo. We coexist with evil every single day. Every day we are called to struggle with that tension.

In his explanation of baptism in the Small Catechism, Luther writes:

“What then is the significance of such a baptism with water? It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Where is this written? St. Paul says in Romans 6, “We were buried with Christ through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

When it comes to the evil we encounter in our lives or in the world around us, it’s not enough to say, “live and let live” or, “let bygones be bygones”. Jesus never willingly compromised; Jesus never permitted the light to bend to the will or the mores of the world around him. If we permit the world to water down the light, we have lost sight of what it means to be children of God. When we maintain a business as usual attitude, towards the evil of this world, what we’re really saying is that the Kingdom of God is unreachable. What the resurrection teaches us is that with God, nothing is unreachable.

If the world looks at us and doesn’t call us radicals, there’s a problem. Christ’s promise to us is that the Kingdom is ours. Accepting that promise means accepting that a promise has the power to define our lives. The promise of mercy empowers us to be merciful today. The promise of justice empowers us to work for justice today. The promise of redemption empowers us to be the redeeming body of Christ in the world today. The promise of God’s love frees us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The promise of Christ’s compassion frees us to be compassionate.

As the book of James states so succinctly, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (2:26). We cannot excuse a life of complacency by virtue of our faith. Faith must be the basis for our lives in every respect. When we lay down our arms before our enemies, we are saying, “I trust God”. When we give away tomorrow’s security for the sake of meeting someone’s need today, we are saying, “God is my security.” That’s the kind of trust to which God calls us: Simple. Unshakeable.

The Kingdom of God, relative to the world, is infinitely radical. And the most radical aspect of that Kingdom is that we don’t pursue it for its own sake. We pursue justice, righteousness, mercy, and peace, because they are what reflects the light of kingdom back the world around us. We are accountable to God and God alone. And therein, we discover our freedom. Because it means that, when the world touches us deeply with its need, it has no judgment to impose upon us, no performance review. We are free to respond with the radical love of Christ. AMEN

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