Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines: “Delighted!”

Baptism of Our Lord, 2021, Mark 1:4-11

How often have you longed to hear it? “I am delighted with you.” Some of us crave that affirmation from parents and rarely receive it. Some of us search for that approval from a spouse and end up disappointed. Some of us hope for that applause at work or at school, on a team or in a friendship. And we walk away still wanting it. Some of us look for that adulation in the public praise of elections and editorials. And we’re left sadder and wiser.

Delight these days is in short supply.

Sometimes a person important to us bestows the blessing. When that happens, it’s like being wrapped in a favorite blanket. It’s like sitting in the warm sun on a cold winter afternoon. It’s like being held in the arms of another and seeing the smile. The gift of delight makes me feel bigger, better, more alive, more…well, more “me”!

Is it any wonder we are desperate for someone, anyone, to be delighted with us?

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Some would say this is a foolish wish. Others would say it is a childish need. Still others would say it is a sign of pathetic weakness. Get real. Grow up. Sprout a pair – as the crude and popular talk would have it. No one is paid to notice you, appreciate you, make you feel better about yourself. Delight is what happens in fairy tales, not in the real world. Delight in yourself if you must, but don’t expect it from anyone else.

In the face of that bleak barrier to blessing, we pull into ourselves. We get protective, defensive, and distant. We grow hard shells and thick skins. We armor up and hunker down. We stiffen our spines and our upper lips. We go it alone rather than risk rejection.

I’m not talking merely about personal and individual feelings, although that matters a lot. The number one mental health issue in our country is loneliness. The Pandemic has made a bad problem that much worse. But I’m also talking about life in the grocery store, on a Zoom meeting, in a political campaign and the halls of government. We live in a first-strike culture where the strategy is reject before you get rejected.

Delight these days is in short supply wherever you go.

I wonder if God’s baptismal words to Jesus catch your attention the way they do mine. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” The translation is too tame by half. God sees Jesus passing through the waters of the Jordan from the wilderness to the land of promise. And God says to Jesus, “I am delighted with you.”

God, I wonder, could you be delighted with me too? Even in the asking I feel bigger, better, more alive, more…me. But, no, it doesn’t last. I know me all too well. There’s far too much in me, in my past, in my heart, in my head – far too much that is anything but delightful.

I get the first part of the gospel reading much better than the second. People streamed out to the Jordan to confess their sins. They had to come clean before they got clean. They had to repent before they could repair. Maybe they felt better for a while, but they went home. And I imagine they found themselves in the same muck and mess as before.

Not much reason to delight in that.

A small girl had recently learned how to dress herself.  One day her mother found her crying on the edge of her bed. “What’s wrong, dear?” the mother asked.  “Do you feel sick?” The little girl shook her head.  “Do you know,” she wailed, “that I have to put my clothes on every day for the rest of my life?”  She fell back on the bed in tears.

That little girl had seen the lifetime of shirts and skirts, of dresses and pants, of socks and shoes.  The enormity of it all was more than she could bear. When I confess, and even when I repent, I find the enormity of it all more than I can bear. Someone may call me delightful, but I have a hard time hearing it.

I had a seminary professor who began every class the same way. “Beloved in Christ,” he would say, “God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway!” Most days I have trouble remembering that. Perhaps you do too. But that’s part of what I hope we can hear today.

God delights in you! All evidence and experience to the contrary, God delights in you! I can’t make you believe it or accept it, but there it is. God delights in you!

I know this because God delights in Jesus. Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan, and the sky is torn open. What seems like an impossible barrier between us and God is removed. The loving Spirit of God comes and rests on Jesus like a favorite blanket, like the warm sun on a cold winter afternoon, like the arms of a loving parent, like a peaceful dove.

Jesus’ baptism reminds us that God’s delight is not Plan B. It’s not some detour or deviation. In the beginning God created all things. And God called everything that God had made “very good.” The Hebrew of Genesis 1 and 2 is far more expressive. When God was done making it all, God clapped God’s metaphorical hands and said, “Very good!”

God delights in Creation. Jesus comes to restore that delightful relationship, no matter what it takes. That includes you. Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway!

God delights in you!

But there’s all that stuff we talked about in the beginning of this conversation. My life doesn’t feel very delightful most of the time. What about that?

God’s delight is not just talk. Love is much more than a feeling. God’s love is action, the action of taking on the pain and problems, the vanity and violence, the despair and death that are so much a part of our lives. God focuses all that killing power into one point in cosmic time and space. That one point is the cross.

With that cross God absorbs in Jesus the worst that sin, death, and evil can dish out. On the other side is delight without end. We Christians call that Resurrection. We Christians call that the New Creation. We Christians call that life in Christ for all.

God delights in you…and you…and you…and you! It would seem that God delights in difference.

Just look at Creation. How many different kinds of bugs are really necessary on this planet? In fact, we don’t know precisely how many bug species there are, because scientists keep discovering more of them.

Whether all these bugs are necessary or not is beside the point. God the Creator finds them delightful in their buzzing and clicking, hopping and crawling, flying and swimming diversity.

God delights in you…and you…and you… and you! God delights in difference! Do we?

If we are telling the truth about ourselves as Christian churches, the answer must be no. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described 11 a.m. on Sundays as the most segregated hour of the week in American society. King was talking about the time Christians spent in worship. That time was rarely spent worshipping with people of another race.

King offered his critique nearly sixty years ago. It’s still the case today. Before we get too far along, we must acknowledge that our congregations simply reflect how we live our lives. It’s not that if we could just make Christian churches more diverse, then our lives would be more diverse as well. That’s backwards. If we are unwilling to take delight in diversity Monday through Saturday, we won’t find it delightful on Sundays either.

You are made in God’s image. God delights in you. All human beings are made in God’s image. God delights in all of us. “God’s fingerprints rest upon every single person without restriction,” Jemar Tisby writes in How to Fight Racism. “The image of God extends to Black and white people, men and women, rich and poor, incarcerated and free, queer and straight, documented and undocumented, nondisabled and disabled, powerful and oppressed. All people equally bear the likeness of God,” Tisby concludes, “and thus possess incalculable and inviolable value” (pages 28-29).

God is delighted to death with you…and you…and you…and you! “God does not mistake unity for uniformity,” Tisby writes. “God celebrates diversity” (page 29). If we are going to live out the image of God renewed in us through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will celebrate diversity too.

That’s what love looks like, and love is an action – not just a feeling. Delighting in diversity is hard work for white Christians. It costs us to make it real. Our white privilege, position and power will have to die. Our white supremacy and white centrism and white fragility will have to die. Like the people who came to the Jordan, we have come clean before we can get clean. We have to repent before we can repair and reconcile. But we have to start somewhere.

God delights in us, and longs for us to be bigger, better, more alive, more…well, more “us”! So, we’re not in this on our own, thank God! Next week, we’ll talk some more about how we can grow out of our despair and into God’s delight. Amen.

Text Study — Mark 1:4-11, Baptism of Jesus B

Continued from the previous post…

Malina and Rohrbaugh flesh out a few more details in today’s gospel reading. “The wilderness was viewed as outside the control of structured society. By going there,” they note, “John (and those following him) has symbolically withdrawn from the established social system” (page 175). This was not only a withdrawal from the seat of power in Jerusalem but also a symbolic critique of that system of power. They note that Mark’s terminology forgiveness can also be used to describe cancellation of a financial debt. Again, John points to someone other than the established authorities as the source of such remission.

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Why was Jesus baptized for repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins? This question troubles the other gospel writers enough that they find ways to address the question directly. Mark is not troubled in this way. He understands that in the baptism, Jesus is recapitulating and fulfilling the role of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. He enters the Land of Promise through the waters of the Jordan and makes a new start in being a blessing to the world. Jesus leaves home and family to embrace this alternative setting.

Alastair Roberts notes that this is also a place where one prophet succeeds another. “It was at the Jordan that Moses passed the baton of leadership to Joshua, Moses’ preparatory desert ministry being succeeded by the mission of Joshua within the Promised Land,” he writes. “It was at the Jordan in 2 Kings 2 that the desert prophet Elijah passed the baton of his prophetic mission to Elisha, a prophet who worked many wonders in the land.” With a simple reference to geography and a brief description of the Baptizer’s prophetic couture, Mark gives us layers of meaning for the event.

The words of affirmation, acceptance – are directed to Jesus personally in Mark’s account. These are words of vocation as well, apparently, since Jesus is driven immediately by the Spirit into the wilderness to test his vocation as God’s Son. But we’ll save that reflection for the first Sunday in Lent. For Jesus, baptism ultimately means dying (see Mark 10:39). That dying is the prelude to new life (see Romans 6, Colossians 2:12, Titus 3:5).

Nonetheless, the words are for us as well in our baptisms. “This is where we are being led by the Incarnate Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit,” writes Brian Volck, “to a place where we, too, are named beloved sons and daughters of God.” Why was Jesus baptized? Gregory Nazianzus wrote in his great treatise on the Incarnation that what Jesus does not take on cannot be healed. Therefore, Jesus takes on everything there is about being human in order to heal all of humanity.

At the baptism, the sky is “torn open…” Hurtado notes that this may be an allusion to the words of Isaiah 64:1 – “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” The appointed psalm captures the power of such a theophany (an appearance of the Divine) in wind and storm. “The point of the allusion,” Hurtado suggests, “would be that Jesus’ calling by God is to be seen as the fulfillment of the prayer and hope for God’s new deliverance and revelation that Isaiah 64 reflects” (page 19).

Paul Berge writes, “The “tearing asunder” that takes place now, in the inaugural event of Jesus’ life, will be echoed in the final event of Jesus life. Jesus’ last cry and breath from the cross will signal the “tearing asunder” of the temple curtain, an event which inaugurates God’s presence among us in Jesus Christ, a presence no longer confined to the temple (Mark 15:37-39). (The verb, “to tear asunder” [sxizein in Mark 1:10; 15:38], appears only twice in the Gospel of Mark, thus serving to frame an epiphany theology that continues throughout the gospel.)”

David Ulansey amplifies the connection between the “tearing asunder” of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the “tearing asunder” of the Temple curtain when Jesus dies. He points to a brief note in Josephus’ Jewish War which describes the outer curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Temple as being decorated with a beautiful representation of the sky. “Portrayed on this tapestry,” Josephus writes, “was a panorama of the entire heavens.” The baptism is the beginning, and the crucifixion is the culmination of God’s return to reclaim the cosmos for salvation and life.

The voice from heaven reminds us of several passages from the Hebrew scriptures, especially Psalm 2:7, Genesis 22:2, and Isaiah 42:1. Hurtado notes that these texts “were understood by some in Mark’s time as foreshadowing the Messiah…and so the allusion to these passages explicitly designates Jesus as the one foreshadowed” (page 20). So, Jesus’ baptism is a call story resonating with the stories of prophetic calls in the Hebrew scriptures.

The first Sunday after Epiphany is always the Festival of the Baptism of our Lord. It is an appropriate time for all of us to remember our own baptisms into Christ’s death and resurrection.

In our baptisms, we too are called chosen and beloved. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, as we hear in our liturgy. David Lose writes, “Baptism reminds us that wherever we may go and whatever we may do or have done to us, yet God continues to love us, accept us, and hold onto us. And for a generation that has been sold cheap affirmation as a substitute for genuine acceptance, there is no more powerful word.” But that same liturgy pivots to a call at the lighting of the baptismal candle and the words, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Jesus’ baptism, of course, means far more than, “God likes me! God really likes me!” The baptism declares that the old regime is soon to pass away. God is returning to rule just as God promised. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for those who are oppressed by the old regime. It is, at least in the short run, bad news for those who depend on the old regime for power and privilege, for status and security, for wealth and wellbeing. Good news for some is quite often bad news for others.

Alastair Roberts puts it this way. “In the face of corrupt leaders and institutions, these common people bore the identity of Israel in themselves, returning to the banks of the Jordan River so that they might be restored and re-established as a people in God’s favor. Most importantly,” he concludes, “it was as the great individual bearer of Israel’s identity and destiny that Jesus himself was baptized.” When it comes to the Gospel, there is no purely personal dimension. The personal is always political, and vice versa. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying that someone else (such as Caesar) is not.

“The world is a different place because of Jesus, we learn,” Juel and Kiefer write in their Word and World article. “A barrier separating God from his creation has been torn away. But people still live as if nothing had happened. The epiphany makes no obvious impact. Hiddenness is the dominant motif. So is surprise. The Jesus who comes to accomplish God’s promised deliverance is not the sort expected.”

References and Resources

Berge, Paul — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/17-1_Communion/17-1_Berge.pdf

Crouch, Frank L. — https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-acts-191-7

Hermann, Erik H. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Hultgren, Arland — https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-acts-191-7-2.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series).

Juel, Don, and Kiefer, Patrick — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_Juel-Keifert.pdf.

Lose, David — http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/

Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels  Kindle Edition.

Roberts, Alastair — https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-individual-mark-14-11/

Stjerne, Kirsi. No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.

Tappert, Theodore, ed. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver, BC.: Regent College Publishing, 1960.

Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective can Transform Your Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2017.

Ulansey, David — http://www.mysterium.com/veil.html

Volck, Brian — http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2015/01/assumed-and-healed/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=assumed-and-healed

Text Study for Mark 1:4-11; Baptism of Jesus B, 2020

Ripping Clouds and Hovering Birds

Epiphany is the season of God’s “appearing” among us. We heard this at Christmas in Titus 2:11 – “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…” This verse has the Greek verb from which we get “Epiphany.” Every Sunday in Epiphany we get an additional insight into God’s appearing among us in Jesus, our Lord, Savior, and Messiah. “This text from Mark 1:4-11 and the text from Mark 9:2-9 frame the gospel texts of the season of Epiphany,” writes Paul Berge. “In this season we move from the baptism of Jesus to his transfiguration; it is a season of epiphany in the revelation of the one whose life and ministry foreshadow his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.”

It begins with the coming of the Magi to the manger on January 6. Jesus is treated as a king, and his birth is announced to these wandering Persian mystics – that is, to the whole earth. With this beginning, we understand that God’s appearing is, as Titus notes, “bringing salvation to all…”

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You may remember from a previous text study that the first three verses of Mark’s gospel serve as the “title” of the document and the prophetic superscription. The preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus really mark the beginning of Mark’s gospel account. “It is interesting that,” Larry Hurtado writes, “although Mark presents the human characters in his story, even the disciples, as largely unable to perceive properly who Jesus really is until his resurrection, the reader is given in the opening line the titles that prove to be Mark’s favorite terms for communicating Jesus’ true dignity – Christ (Messiah), and Son of God” (page 15).

Lois Tverberg offers some helpful thoughts about Jesus as God’s “Son” in her book Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus. To be a “son” in the ancient Near East, she notes, was to resemble the father in personality and potential. Immediately in his gospel account, Mark describes Jesus as carrying the character of God. This fatherly gift and vocation are confirmed at the baptism when God calls Jesus his “beloved Son.” Jesus carries the “family name” and goes into the “family business” – the reign of God present among us.

Tverberg points helpfully to the ways in which being a child of God work themselves out then in the New Testament. We can perhaps expand on that in our thinking and study. For example, last week we read in John’s prologue, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). If we are God’s children by grace through our faith in Jesus, then we carry the character of God as well. We have been brought into the family business and carry the family name.

In the Rite of Holy Baptism, we remind worshippers of this as we name and mark the one baptized. We utter the person’s name immediately followed by “Child of God.” This helps us, perhaps, to understand John’s words a bit more clearly. A better translation of the text above would be something like God “gave the authority to live as children of God.”

Just as Jesus’ status as God’s Beloved Son is both gift and vocation, so it is for us as well. We are gifted with a place in the family by God’s grace in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. And we are called to grow into that gift as we live faithfully as God’s children. This is affirmed, for example in the words from the third chapter of John’s first letter: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed” (verses 1 and 2).

We as readers of Mark’s Gospel know from the very beginning who this Jesus is and what he is about. “There is a certain secrecy surrounding Jesus in the book,” Hurtado continues, “but the reader is let in on the secret right at the beginning” (page 15). This is true even at the baptism, where we hear the words God speaks directly to Jesus. It seems in Mark’s account that this speech is not a public event (as opposed to reports in the other gospels) but rather somehow “internal” to Jesus’ experience. We, the readers, are the only ones let in on the secret at this point.

Malina and Rohrbaugh amplify this point. “Here the description of the heavens opening makes public what would otherwise be a private and meaningless event. But since no onlookers or witnesses are described as being present,” they suggest, “it is clear that Mark intends his readers to be the confirming public such a grant of honor requires” (page 175).

I am not so sure that Mark is so clear about the public or private nature of the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove. Even if it were public, however, the meaning of that event would have, in Mark’s telling, been lost on those present at the event. It is really only at the crucifixion, when the Temple in the curtain is torn asunder, that a public pronouncement of Jesus’ identity is made. And then, it is the ambiguous report of a Roman centurion.

There is, however, more to this descent of the dove. This is the good news of Jesus, the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God. Tverberg reminds us that in the Hebrew scriptures, “Whenever God appointed a leader over Israel, [God] filled him with his ruach, [God’s] Spirit” (Kindle Location 2601). The Spirit of the Lord was an “anointing” for kings and prophets, sometimes accompanied by actual oil and at other times not.

In particular, Tverberg notes, we can read the Messianic promise in Isaiah 11, that the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon the branch from the stump of Jesse. “The same Spirit of God that hovered over creation,” according to at least one rabbi, “would rest upon the Messiah.” And the Hebrew word used in these passages really is “hovered,” like a bird hovering over a nest. “When you’re aware of the avian imagery,” Tverberg writes, “it’s hard not to think of another scene of God’s ruach fluttering over water, when Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan” (Kindle Location 2678).

This is the link to the appointed reading from Genesis 1:1-5 that we will study in a few days. Keep in mind the Spirit hovering over the water as we go forward. In the meantime, we’ll finish up with more comments on this gospel text in the next post.

References and Resources

Berge, Paul — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/17-1_Communion/17-1_Berge.pdf

Crouch, Frank L. — https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-acts-191-7

Hermann, Erik H. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Hultgren, Arland — https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-acts-191-7-2.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series).

Juel, Don, and Kiefer, Patrick — http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/8-1_Spirituality/8-1_Juel-Keifert.pdf.

Lose, David — http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/

Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels  Kindle Edition.

Roberts, Alastair — https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-individual-mark-14-11/

Stjerne, Kirsi. No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.

Tappert, Theodore, ed. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver, BC.: Regent College Publishing, 1960.

Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective can Transform Your Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2017.

Ulansey, David — http://www.mysterium.com/veil.html

Volck, Brian — http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2015/01/assumed-and-healed/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=assumed-and-healed