Baptism of Our Lord — Rev. Karen Barfield

Mark 1:4-11

An epiphany
is a moment of Divine revelation
in which the nature of God is manifested.

Did you know that can occur at any time, in any place…
the manifestation of the nature of God?

This morning we hear that hordes of people from Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside were flocking to the Jordan River to see John the Baptizer.

The vision I have in my head is more that of a herd of animals running willy-nilly across the hills rather than the neat, orderly procession of a colony of ants.

There seems to be an urgency as Mark tells his story.

Why?

Why were all these people flocking to see and hear John?

John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Not many people seem to take much notice any more of the man preaching on the street corner, holding up a sign saying, “Repent. The end is coming.” In fact, most people cross the street to avoid walking by him.

“Repent. Confess your sins.”

Now, there’s a sure-fire way to get people to run the other direction.

If we confess our sins, that means we actually have to look at ourselves – and not at the best parts of ourselves, but at those places where we have caused harm to others and to ourselves and thus harm to God.

That is painful and not something we are generally chomping at the bit to do.

Perhaps the man on the street corner would attract more attention if his sign read: “Repent. New life awaits!”

That’s much more in line with John’s preaching.

“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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Not knowing exactly what that might mean, it seems to carry a promise of new life!
A promise of something beyond the fragility of my nature…
my tendency to do the thing that I know I ought not to do.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray saying, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Forgive us as we forgive others.

Tied up in our own confession and repentance and forgivenness is our forgiveness of others who have hurt us or wronged us in some way.

Our ability to be forgiven and our ability to forgive another is all tied together in one bundle.

Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of forgiveness as truly being able to let it all go, to stop keeping score, to “erase the debt that had become the substitute for the relationship.” (from “Once More from the Heart” in The Seeds of Heaven, p. 97)

When we do not erase the debt…
when we do not forgive from the heart…
we bind ourselves so that we are no longer free to love.

The Rev. Claiborne Jones offers this definition of forgiveness:

“At its root, to forgive is to give future to a relationship…to give a relationship a chance to change, to grow, to be alive….” (taken from Women of the Word, p. 57)

This, I believe, is why hordes of people were flocking to John to receive baptism in the Jordan River.

In confessing their sins and being washed clean, they were witnessing and participating in the manifestation of God’s nature of love and mercy.

A love and a mercy which we are also called to extend to others who have wronged us!

A love and mercy which we are called to extend to ourselves when we fail.

They were yearning for such freedom to love.

And when they listened to him preach, they learned of the promise of more to come…

There is a type of prayer called “imaginative prayer” which invites the pray-er to enter into the story. I now invite you enter into the rest of today’s Gospel story, living into the hope to which God calls us: into new life as disciples of Jesus, as God’s beloved.

“The olives on the trees were not yet ready for harvest. There were things I could do around the orchard but I was restless. I told my wife I was going out for a little while but I was reluctant, almost embarrassed to tell her why.

I had heard that John, son of Zechariah, would be preaching and baptizing along the river today.

The whole region was talking about “John the Baptizer” and crowds had been flocking to see him.

My wife is a good woman and I am not unhappy in my life, but lately I have had stirrings in my heart that I don’t understand.

Something has seemed empty, waiting.

It sounds odd to say it aloud – and who would understand such things? But it seems I even hear the scriptures with a deeper awareness these days.

I know that our people have been longing for a savior since the time of our ancestors. We know he will come. But when?

Somehow all of these feelings I can’t describe have brought me here to the banks of the Jordan.

At the river, scores of people sit along the bank, stand on the hill or line up in the waters, awaiting their baptism.

“Come clean! Be baptized in the waters,” John calls out to the crowd. “Be forgiven!”

John is a riveting sight with his quiet intensity, his camel skin garb and his wild hair flying in so many directions.

I let myself down onto an un-crowded section of the riverbank next to a man about my own age who gives me a welcoming nod as I join him.

We let the water flow over our feet as we watch the commotion.

Dozens of people have waded into the water in front of John.

As each person approaches, he speaks to them quietly, prays over them and helps them drop into the water and back up.

“Are you the Messiah?” someone calls out.

He stops and shakes his head, his response deliberate: “I am a messenger.” Then he adds, “One mightier is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”

“I baptize with water,” John says. “He will baptize with the Holy Spirit!”

The man next to me stands up in the waters and moves away from the bank a little.

I stay seated, wanting to be a part of all of this, yet hanging back.

John looks up to see my companion and walks over toward us, breaking into a smile.

The two men embrace as if they are family, and the affection between them is clear.

“Jesus,” John says warmly then gestures questioningly toward the water. “You?”

Jesus smiles and nods and I feel something move in my heart when I hear the soft words from John’s lips, “I am not worthy.”

John prays over Jesus as he had the others and plunges him into the river.

But as Jesus bursts back up through the water, an odd thing happens.

The sky, which had hung dark with heavy clouds all morning, suddenly split up the middle and an unusual piercing light brightened the area.

Did others see this light, too, I wondered?

The hair on my neck stood as I heard a voice, large, warm and loving.

I’m not sure where it came from but it was everywhere at once and right in front of me.

“You are my beloved son,” the voice said. “I am so pleased with you.”

I looked at Jesus.

Beloved son?
What does that mean?

Some of the light that now shimmered on the river glowed in my soul.

My heart seemed full where there had been emptiness moments earlier – yet I understood nothing more.

I looked around at the crowd.

I could see by their faces that some had seen and heard what happened.

But others looked as if their lives were untouched.

Jesus embraced John once again and turned to walk out of the water.

I turned toward the bank as Jesus walked past me, and then I followed him as I knew I had to.

He offered me a hand as I climbed out of the water.

He looked at me with eyes that seemed to match the voice I had heard… warm, big, intense.

Those eyes seemed to understand everything about me,
things that I had failed at,
where I had not been at my best.

Even the empty places in my life and the hunger for something I couldn’t name.

I knew in that moment that my life had changed dramatically.

I would never have that empty feeling again.

Yes, I would go home to my orchard, my wife and family, but somehow,
I would follow this man, Jesus.”

(Story adapted from “Contemplating the Baptism of Jesus.”)