Wild Truth

+ A sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 10, 2021 +

Text: Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:1-12


Well, I’m going to say it.
If we had any illusions that turning the calendar to 2021 would magically fix everything, this past week has decisively proven otherwise.
It’s been a wild week, beloved, full of shocking news and a literal attack on our very democracy.
Watching the news, scrolling through social media, hearing from family and friends in the DC area, it’s all been rather chaotic to say the least.
And it’s completely understandable to come to worship this morning feeling drained, anxious, even angry and afraid.

So perhaps it’s fitting that we encounter texts this morning full of chaos and wildness.
Perhaps as we hear the start of that familiar creation story, we dwell a little more today on those primordial waters of creation.
I know I did.
Because, while we may be used to the translation we heard today that speaks of formless voids and dark waters—it’s not hard to picture a wild, chaotic waste steeped in impenetrable gloom.
And we can hear how the wind, the Spirit of God, brooded over these stormy seas—like a mother hen brooding over her nest—bringing comfort and assurance, working to coax life out of chaos and order out of wildness.

And then we rejoin John in the Judean wilderness.
Far from the order of the city, far from the centers of power and spirituality in Jerusalem.
And there, Mark tells us, is where we hear “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
There on the margins of society.
There, with wild John—camel’s hair, locusts, wild honey, and all—as he is baptizing people in the Jordan River.

Now, while we hear a lot about John in the lectionary—especially on the heals of the Advent season—and while we hear about Jesus’ baptism every year on this Sunday, I am struck this year how Mark makes clear that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance.
Because that’s John’s role here.
He is doing the work he has been commissioned to do—to prepare the way of the Lord by calling for repentance.
His ministry an intentional time of truth-telling and taking stock.
Of seeing where we have failed, where we have strayed off course, and make changes, literally turn around and find a new path.
And people from the whole countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were coming to John in the wilderness to hear this message—to confess their sins and be baptized.

Mark tells us that when Jesus also came to be baptized in the river.
And as he we came out of the water, the heavens are torn apart as the Spirit descends upon him.
And the voice of God from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And immediately the Spirit pushed him out of the water and into the start of a new mission—a ministry rooted in telling truth and calling for change, spreading love and revealing power, resisting tyranny and announcing the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, I’m going to admit that going into this past week, I had a pretty good idea of what this sermon would sound like.
I was going to talk a lot about the power and the responsibility of baptism—and I still will.
But, after the chaos of this week, I am reminded of the importance of repentance as an essential part of baptism.
Of the need for us to tell truth, even uncomfortable and difficult truths.

After the attack on the United States Capitol on Wednesday, I heard so many people—ranging from friends and family to the President-elect of the United States—declare, ‘This isn’t who we are. This isn’t our country. This mob doesn’t represent us.’
But the difficult and uncomfortable truth is, my friends, this is our country.
And these attacks revealed a lot about who we are as a people.
We remain a people divided—so divided that we can’t even agree on basic truths anymore.
We are surrounded and infected by the sins of racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy.
And we have a justice system that demonstrably treats people differently depending on who they are—that cracks down on peaceful marches and protests but allows a deadly mob to storm the very center of our government with the stated intention to overthrow it.
Who invaded the hallowed halls of democracy proudly bearing symbols of hatred, banners of racism and treasonous secession, and messages promoting genocide.
Who were joined by similar mobs that broke through the gates of our Governor’s mansion in Olympia and state capitals across the country.
And the truth is we clearly saw how these well-armed, well-organized, mostly white insurrectionists were treated as less of a threat than the Black and brown bodies of last summer’s protests who were pleading for their very lives.
This is what our Black, Indigenous, and Siblings of Color have been telling us for years, for decades, for centuries—voices that have been too easily drowned out in the name of forced unity, quick healing, and maintaining the status quo.
Voices that were telling the truth that under the surface of comfortability and stability, stews a sea of hatred and discord that boiled over this week and incited violence and death.

In her video message to the Church on Friday, our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said that the events of Wednesday “made it abundantly clear for all of us that justice is not equal and that there isn’t freedom for all.”
Then she urged us to look “squarely and truthfully at ourselves, at our church, at our communities, at our country, acknowledging that we are broken. And then determining that we are going to be part of the solution. So that there is equity and justice and equality for all…[In Christ] we are given the power and also the mission to be healers of the breech.”

And that’s exactly where baptism comes into the mix.
Because we believe that it is in the waters of baptism that we are given that power and united with Christ in his ministry.
And while our baptisms likely bore little resemblance to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, there are common elements that unite us all.
Like how we were washed in the waters of creation, the source of life and new possibility.
And how the Spirit descended upon us, ripping through the chaos and wildness of our lives, brooding over us with the compassion and assurance of a mother hen, endowing us with God’s own power, and firmly pushing us into common mission.
And how a voice from heaven proclaimed that you are—that I am—God’s beloved child—an identity that clings to us long after the water dries from our brows and is intended to transform not only our lives, but our very world view.
To remind us that no matter what happens, no matter what we do, no matter the chaos that surrounds us, we are God’s beloved child.
But that identity is not just ours to possess, because the truth is that every single person we meet is a beloved child of God too.
And we are called in our baptism to partner with Jesus is remaking this world until every child of God is equally valued, treasured, and seen as beloved.
That’s why our baptism includes vows—promises we make that commit us to the calling we find in those waters; promises we will renew in a few minutes.
Promises that will call us to renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God—forces like racism, hatred, and violence.
Promises that will call us to renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God—powers that foment division, fear, and injustice.
Promises that will call us to renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God—our own failings, our own privilege, our own complicity in these evil forces.
And promises by which we pledge to commit our lives to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

And while most of us were baptized as infants many years ago, we remember that baptism is not a one-time thing, but a lifelong commitment.
It’s a daily cycle of repentance and renewal, of truth telling and changing our ways, of dying to the ways of sin and rising into the new life God is tearing open the heavens to instill on earth.

Now, I know it can be easy to hear these words of repentance and sin as a message of condemnation and shame, but I hope that you can hear the grace and good news they contain as well.
Yes, there is judgement and acknowledgement of our failings, but without true repentance, I’m not sure how we can expect to find true healing.
If we only admit to our surface-level failings, we can only expect to find surface-level healings.
It would be as if, during a rainstorm, the street flooded and we simply mopped up the water.
It would solve the immediate problem, but as soon as the rain comes again, we’ll find the same muck and debris rising up and flooding the streets again.
But if we allow ourselves to acknowledge the true depth of our failings, the truth we try to hide from ourselves, from our neighbors, from our God; if we dig down and clear out the storm gutters buried deep within ourselves, we can allow the waters of baptism to fill us just as deeply, to flood us with their promise and hope, to transform our very selves to be fountains of baptismal life, gushing up until it covers the whole earth.

Yes, I am convinced that the inclusion of repentance is essential to our daily cycle of baptism in no small part because it reminds us how those waters hold so much capacity for abundant life.
The waters that call us to tell the truth, to take stock of our failings so we can be filled with the possibilities of a new path.
The waters that liberate us from the ways of sin and death and cleanse us with the freedom of forgiveness.
The waters that cover us with healing and wholeness and empower us to be agents of that same healing and wholeness that is meant for our community, our country, and the whole creation.
The waters that hold a promise, a daily assurance, an eternal truth, that we are God’s beloved child and allows us to see the family we have been joined into—the link of water that is far stronger than blood and unites us with all people.
The waters that demand that we treat every person as a fellow child of God and work with our siblings to partner with Christ in creating a world instilled with that reality.

There is no denying that our world, our country, our communities, our selves, are yearning for healing and wholeness.
But I have no doubt that a new world is possible, that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
A world rooted in justice, abounding in love, brimming with hope, and ruled by peace.
That’s what our baptismal waters give us eyes to see—the world God is working to form out of the wild, chaotic muck of this earth.
That’s the power of those waters—they give us the bold trust that something new is coming, and the audacious belief that we can be a part of it.
Our Lord set the example for us as he was baptized and set out on his mission to make this world happen.
May our baptismal waters be for us a daily reminder of our identity and our commitment to make that world a reality.

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