Sermon Seeds: Coming Through the Waters
The First Sunday after Epiphany
Baptism of Christ Sunday
Liturgical Color: White
Worship resources for the First Sunday after Epiphany, including Living Psalms, are at Worship Ways
Special resources for ministry during the coronavirus pandemic are here (Google docs): Worship and Coronavirus and Digital Pastoral Care & Grief.
Coming Through the Waters
by Cheryl Lindsay
A good story captures you with its first lines. The Gospel according to Mark begins with the introduction of a fully grown Jesus. A search for shepherds, wise persons, or nativity proves futile. Mark presents a drama, and that backstory does not advance his plot. Rather than angelic conversations with Mary or Joseph, we find John the Baptist and overt allusions to the prophecy of Isaiah. Mark omits the familiar relationship between John and Jesus as nonessential for the unfolding narrative. As Graham Stanton shares, “The Gospel should be treated as a whole writing….He has written a lively story with several major turning points and climaxes.” This week’s text is part of the prologue, the introduction to the real story, but in terms of story construction, the prologue can also function to tell the reader what’s to come. Spoiler alerts and hints to the larger story emerge in these opening verses.
Mark packs a great deal of content into his introductory sentences. We have a vivid description of John the Baptist in his appearance, ministry, and message, which quickly transitions to the first appearance of Jesus in this text, which, as the first of the gospel narratives to be composed, provides a significant basis for the writing of the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Those works had their intended audiences and particular messages to impart.
Some scholars have suggested that Mark was written so that the entire message of the gospel could be presented in one sitting. When I was in seminary, a profession showed a video of an actor present half of the gospel and followed it with a discussion of the performance all within 90 minutes. Mark tells the story, with drama, immediacy, and theological deft. But, these verses remind us that the story centers on Jesus the Christ. As Racquel S. Lettsome notes:
Although his tidings of “good news” announce a beginning, they do not stand as an isolated experience. Rather, he connects his story to the story of Israel. Moreover, the content of his story will not focus on a single event but on a singular person: Jesus, whom he labels as both “Christ” and “Son of God.”
John the Baptist stands as a bridge connecting the prophets of the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah, to the coming of Jesus who fulfills the promises of God for the purposes of God. It is this Jesus, at work in the world, that not only garners a justifiable top billing in Mark’s Gospel, but whose actions center the text. “The promised coming of God has taken place in the coming of Jesus. Where and when Jesus acts, God acts.” (Eckhard) The writing lacks the lyricism of John and can, at times, unfold rather choppily, yet no one can deny the attention paid to the acts of Jesus as paramount to the theological emphases contained within the book. Eckhard delineates those emphases as:
- Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God
- The secrecy motif
- The kin-dom of God in all its dimensions
- Identity, requirements, and mission of Christian discipleship
While there is not room to explore each of these points in this reflection, it is worth noting that the each one receives attention in this short introductory passage:
- The declaration of Sonship from the voice from heaven
- The suggestion that the vision was for Jesus’ viewing–a private moment in a public act
- The Triune God entering into the realm occupied by humanity (Kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven.)
- John the Baptist advocating for a form of discipleship to prepare for the appearing of the One who will come.
While Mark constructs the prologue to tie to the full story he presents, he also connects them to the Hebrew Scriptures. These opening sentences also point to the opening sentences of the biblical corpus found in the first creation narrative. Genesis 1:1-5 serves as the first line to the full story, with Mark’s text as one book in a series. Both foreshadow what is to come. Both prominently feature a defining action that is initiated by the Triune God and that involves water. All persons in the Trinity participate in creation, and while Creator God is at times used to name only one, the moniker aptly applies to all three. There is the One who speaks, the One who comes as a wind, and the One who comes through the water.
In Mark’s account, there is also the One who speaks, the One who comes appearing as a dove, and the One who comes through the water. Like the Gospel according to John, who points back to the creation narrative to emphasize the divine nature of the Christ, Mark echoes the creation narrative to emphasize God breaking into the world as a human being. Lettsome continues,
“The heavens, the barrier separating the human and divine realms, are torn. The Greek verb, schizein, suggests that the tear is irreparable. There will be no mending of this breach: God is now accessible to human beings and human beings are accessible to God.”
The God who utilized separation as a means of creation has an altered strategy for a world that has been ruptured, broken, and battered by the barrier between creation and Creator. Union–and reunion–will supply the antidote to human frailty and disconnection. “The promised coming of God has taken place in the coming of Jesus. Where and when Jesus acts, God acts.” (Schnabel) God continues to create and Mark’s framing “stresses that the action of the story is initiated by God; he has sent God as his messenger. God’s role is also underlined in the baptism of Jesus.” (Stanton) Creation and re-creation comes through the water.
Remember, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2) All of creation is connected to water, which has come to symbolize new life, restoration, cleansing, refreshing, redemption, and Christian identity. Even Jesus identifies as the Living Water. There is no life without water, and for followers of Jesus, the most prevalent public and private identifying act of belonging comes through the waters…through baptism.
While Christian communities differ in the sacraments and ordinances we claim, baptism is almost universally understood as a Christian rite affirming membership in the body of Christ. While baptism may take shape depending on the context, denomination, and theological view, it still comes through the water. Whether sprinkled on the head of a baby or surrounding the body of an adult immersed in a pool, baptism features water as the prominent physical element. But, that element serves as a conduit not as an end; hence, the baptismal life does not consider baptism an ending destination but journeys through the water.
“The enduring power of baptism is not limited to a moment in time. Instead, the baptismal waters trace across the arc of our lives to mark us as God’s own,” writes Paul Galbreath. This mark extends to placement in the whole of all creation, in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and in the unity in the body of Christ. Galbreath suggests that the waters of baptism unite baptized believers with creation. The water found in one part of the world connects with water on the opposite side of the water. In his reflection, Galbreath also challenges believers to confront the justice implications of the lack of clean, accessible water. Polluted water loses its ability to embody its sacramental nature and diminishes the meaning of living water as sustaining, cleansing and renewing. Dirty water fails to signify new life, and lack of water reflects a scarcity of resources at odds with the purposes of God for creation. “Our care for the water in creation, water we use in baptism, is directly related to Christian faith that embraces the world as a sign of God’s goodness and provision. The church’s work in this effort provides a baptismal testimony to our neighbors.” This example illuminates, in a contemporary manner, how the baptized life manifests not only for the individual but also for the witness and work of the church in the world. The baptized life reflects the “lifelong journey” of dying to sin and rising to new life, “the process of taking on the cruciform shape of Christ’s life,” and to move toward “our lives taking on the sign of Christ.”
The common theological question, why did Jesus need to be baptized, deserves some attention. It would seem to parallel with a larger question of why did Jesus need to be born or experience any of the events of his earthly life. Mark takes no time with such reflection. Indeed, he omits the dialogue where John resists the role of baptizing the One for which he paved the way. He just conveys what happened and let the actions speak for themselves.
I would suggest that we reframe the question from why did Jesus need to do what he did to why did he choose to do what he did. The creation story also neglects to inform readers of the motivations of God in shaping the heavens and the earth. But, they do provide a clue as God declares the creative results and outcomes of God’s actions as good. The new thing brought into being was good. God was pleased by what God had created. We can infer that creativity is such an essential part of the nature and character of God that it becomes an end unto itself. We have an idea from the creation narratives of God’s intention and ultimate purposes for the kin-dom of God.
I content that Jesus did not need to be baptized, but that he chose to be. “His baptism is understood as Jesus’ surrender to God’s will, his divine commissioning by God, his rejection of the dominant culture, and/or his identification with sinners.” (Lettsome) Underneath the actions related in the text, the message of Emmanuel–God with us–remains. God chooses us. Just as he chose to come into the world out of an abundance of love, Jesus chose to participate fully in the human experience. Just as those light and dark were separated over the waters in the beginning, as the Genesis story goes, heaven splits open over the waters of the Jordan River. The work of re-creation begins, according to Mark’s version of events, and a new earth, in communion with heaven, begins to appear. A new way of being ushers into public view.
And it comes through the waters.
For further reflection:
“But sometimes I think what the church needs most is to recover some of its weird. There’s no sense in sending her through the makeover montage of the chick flick when she’ll always be the strange, awkward girl who only gets invited to prom on a dare. In the ritual of baptism, our ancestors acted out the bizarre truth of the Christian identity: We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love. There’s nothing normal about that.” — Rachel Held Evans
“The gospel message does not call us to abandon the world. Rather it equips us to carry a word of hope on our baptismal journey—this water voyage.” — Paul Galbreath
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
This is an ideal week for a simple baptismal renewal. The congregation may be invited to remember their baptism by gathering a small container of water, dipping their fingers into the water, and touching the water to their foreheads while speaking the words, “I am baptized.”
Galbreath, Paul. Leading through the Water. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2011.
Lettsome, Raquel S. “Mark.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Schnabel, Eckhard J. Mark (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.
Stanton, Graham. The Gospels and Jesus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7 altogether there were about twelve of them.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”