“Now is the time for turning” read Bill Clinton at a prayer breakfast in 1998. After his personal scandal a supporter of Clinton’s gave him the book The Gates of Repentance. The quote continues with these observations:
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us, turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means losing face. It means starting all over again. And this is always painful. It means saying I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.
My job today is to not to rehash another sinner’s public humiliation and shame, but to invite you to reconsider your baptismal vows as we pay attention in this new year to what God is calling each of us to do with the gift of salvation found in Jesus Christ. This gift begins this way according to Mark:
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;h with you I am well pleased.”
As I prayed over these words today I suggest that there are (at least) three things to pay attention to in Jesus’ baptism by John.
- Repentance – We are invited to turn away from our old patterns of living. Mark tells us that “John the baptizer appearede in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, NRSV, e Other ancient authorities read John was baptizing). This was the baptism that Jesus received, not because he needed it, but because we needed it.
- Revelation – Jesus is revealed to be the son of God. This is no small thing. When we come to the waters of baptism we become God’s daughters and sons. Mark tells us this adoption may be quite dramatic: “And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10, NRSV). The word torn is used twice in Mark’s gospel. Here it is used the first time to show that God is intervening in this moment to claim Jesus as his son. The second is the tearing of the Temple curtain at Jesus’ crucifixion to say that “religion” could not separate God and his people.
- Righteousness – We are invited to live in a new way. “Follow me,” Jesus would later tell his first disciples, “and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1: 17, NRSV). Following Jesus in the Way follows the Greek word hodos throughout Mark’s gospel. When we follow Jesus we sow seed along the way (Mark 4:1-9), we proclaim with Peter that Jesus as Messiah (Mark 8:27-30), we are not allowed to let other famish (Mark 8:1-10), we cannot argue about who is the greatest (Mark 9:33-37), and if we get it right, like Bartimeaus, we are healed and immediately follow Jesus on the Way (Mark 10:52).
My invitation to you as we touch the water and come to the table is consider what you need to leave behind as you come again to Jesus (repent), that you commit yourself to following Jesus personally (revelation), and that this is lived out in a community on the Way with Jesus (righteousness) … a Way whose destination is marked by Jesus as way, truth, and life.