January 7, 2018

You Are My Son

Passage: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
Service Type:

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. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Charles Joseph Chaput is the current Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia. Last October he published an article in the journal First Things about the Protestant Reformation; last October was the 500th Anniversary of when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church—the event that is considered to have sparked what Protestants call the Reformation. In his article he reflected on Luther’s essay, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and wrote this as he reflected on where we are some 500 years later.

“And yet, here we sit by the rivers of New Babylon, believing Catholics and Protestants alike, paradoxically linked in a love for Jesus Christ, but wrapped in a hundred new forms of entangling captivity—sex, food, money, drugs, ambition, technology, noise, more sex, anxiety, distrust, loneliness, the politics of victimhood and resentment, feelings posing as truth, emotion posing as reason, moral indifference and cowardice posing as compassion, imaginations strip-mined of the sacramental and supernatural, and then colonized with the relentless teasing of material appetites. A place where the horizons of the eternal disappear into a fog of the urgent now.”

I wish I could write lines like that! That last sentence is such a brilliant and cogent description of the spirit of our culture. “A place where the horizons of the eternal disappear into a fog of the urgent now.” One of the results of that is what some are calling “presentism” or “chronological snobbery.” We are so wrapped up in the now of our connected world that we look with indifference or distain on those who went before us. I experience “chronological snobbery” when I tell people I still use a Blackberry smartphone. The consequence for many is that life feels harried always chasing after the now coupled with a kind of rootlessness, nothing to hang on to.

1. Today we are reflecting on a very old story by an author long gone from the world; it is story of the day Jesus came to be baptised recounted by the gospel writer Mark. As Mark writes this he wants to assure his listeners that Jesus is the eternal One inserting himself into the fog of the urgent now. Mark comes to Rome shortly after the Emperor Nero launched his campaign of persecuting Christians; he blamed Christians for the fires in Rome that burned slum areas; fires that Nero most likely set himself to make way for his ambitious building campaign. The Apostles Peter and Paul have both been executed and Christians have gone into hiding.

Into that difficult and chaotic situation comes Mark and he writes his gospel to encourage the beleaguer believers to hang on to Jesus Christ. These Christians are certainly harried and you could imagine how persecution could keep you focussed on the “now.” Keeping out of sight, trying not to be noticed, not seeing much of a future—these things could easily have you thinking of not much else but “now." Mark wants to assure them that in the story of Jesus God has entered our reality to be with us now.

Mark’s baptism story is part of his prologue to the book. Mark sets out in his prologue what he wants readers to know as you read the story that will follow. He wants readers to know up front that Jesus from Nazareth—Jesus who was crucified at Jerusalem—this Jesus is the Messiah God promised and the Son of God.

Mark states this in the opening line of his gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Messiah), the Son of God.” And he repeats this same point here in the baptism story; it is as though he would put an exclamation point on the opening line (in case we missed it). In Mark’s account of the baptism the voice from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The words “You are my Son” finds a parallel in Psalm 2:7 which is considered a prophetic word about the coming messiah when God would set his king in Zion and say to him, “You are my Son.” In this voice from heaven Jesus is declared to be both messiah (Christ) and Son of God.

The gospels assert that God who is eternal in God’s own being has inserted himself into our now. I realize that we are talking about a story that occurred at a point in time on the banks of the Jordon river long ago. The point the gospels make is that the one who is outside of time has entered time and has done so for all times. Mark wants to assure the believers in Rome that Jesus who entered time is now present with them. To cling to him in faith is to hold on to the one who holds time in his hands. To grip Jesus is to grip what is solid and will hold in whatever winds may blow in any now. Mark asserts this for beleaguered Christians in Rome and the gospels assert the same for us.

2. Today we are thinking about Baptism. We are reflecting on Jesus’ own baptism. The baptism of children brought by their parents brings front and centre the significance of baptism. It reminds us of our own baptism or if we haven’t been baptized invites us to consider baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of initiation into Christian faith. To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to identify ourselves with Jesus Christ—that we own him in faith. Parents who own Jesus Christ in faith present their children for baptism promising to raise them to believe so they too will come to the place of owning Jesus as their own.

These first century Christians in Rome who are being persecuted because they are Christians; their identification with Jesus Christ is the problem. We speak of identification with Jesus in our worship service with warmth and excitement. But in our world where many regard being religious as putting you in the category of kook or extremist, our identification with Jesus is not welcomed. We are pushed to remain silent about it. Many things compete for our attention on a Sunday morning subtly inviting us to push our identification with Jesus and his church to the side. These Roman Christians Mark writes to are facing life-threatening opposition; we face silencing and distraction galore. To both groups of Christians—in the first century and the twenty-first century—Mark’s gospel encourages us to not give up on our identification with Jesus Christ.

In his prologue we have noted that Mark highlights the story of Jesus’ baptism. The question this story invites us into is why does Jesus come to be baptized by John? John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin; a message of turning to God in preparation for the coming Messiah. ‘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,” thundered John. And now this one whose sandals he is unworthy to touch is before him asking for baptism—a baptism of repentance.

If Jesus is the sinless Son of God as the gospels declare then why does Jesus come to John and subject himself to a baptism of repentance. Surely if anyone had a ticket to skip this line it was Jesus. Yet here he is lined up with others responding to John’s call to repentance. The significance of Jesus’ baptism is this; his baptism is one step along the road of his complete identification with us sinners—an identification that will end on the cross. Mark is holding before us that God has come among us in the Son completely identifying with a sinful and rebellious humanity in order to bring us home.

The baptism as Jesus’ identification with us sinners points forward to his crucifixion—Mark’s gospel will get there in due course. The coming of God the Son among us reveals that humankind cannot produce its own saviour. History cannot produce history’s redeemer. We sinners all need a fresh start, what scripture calls, in various places, “new birth” or “new creature” or “renewed mind”. The point is, human history cannot generate its rescuer. Its rescuer has to be given to it.

I remind you of ground we have covered before that is foundational to the gospel message. It is important to distinguish between the human situation and the human condition. The human situation can always be improved humanly. We can always assist the needy neighbour, share our abundance with those who lack, address glaring inequities.

The human condition, our condition before God, is different: only the direct intervention of God himself can affect it. Because Christians are the result of such intervention we know, have long known, that the innermost twist to the human heart; the human perverseness beyond anyone’s understanding; the profoundest self-contradiction we know ourselves unable to remedy: we know the remedy has to be given to us, since we cannot generate it ourselves.

This is not easy for us humans to admit. The world staggers from one ‘sure fix’ to another ‘sure fix’, the first ‘sure fix’ having failed miserably. In the preceding century there were two attempts at remaking humankind, one from the political left (communism), and one from the right (fascism). Not only did they fail to inaugurate a ‘new day’ for humankind; they brought with them unparalleled savagery and suffering.

So what does Mark believe will encourage believers to hold on to their identification of owning Jesus Christ by faith? He holds before us the story of Jesus’ complete identification with us helpless sinners in order to rescue us from destruction. He holds before us the story of God’s Son who will pour himself out completely for our sakes at the cross. He reminds us that Jesus’ identification with us sinners, in order to bring us home with him, cost him everything. He will go to any length for our sake. The wonder of salvation is not our identification with Jesus—as important as that is—but that Jesus would identify with me. He is not afraid to call us his own. We persist in our identification with him because Jesus will never give up on his identification with us.

Some years before Mark comes to Rome with this gospel the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans had been delivered and read and digested. In that letter Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” We hear in Paul the identification with Jesus Christ that Mark highlights in his gospel. Note that it is the assumption of the Apostle Paul that all the believers have been baptized. Mark uses that as a starting point, in essence, calling believers to live out the meaning of your baptism—to cling to this identification with Jesus Christ because it is for us sinners that Jesus identifies with us.

Mark would say the same to us. Perhaps you have come to that place where you identify yourself as believing. Like those we read of in the book of Acts at Ephesus—they we invited by Paul to take that step of baptism in Christ Jesus. I encourage you to be baptized. To take the step of signifying publically your identification with Jesus.

3. 2108 is only seven days old and largely lays before us. What are you hoping will unfold for you in this year? The gospel declares that in Jesus the one who is outside of time has entered time and has done so for all times. As you navigate this year put your hand into his it will be for you better than light, and safer than a known way.

To parents presenting children today for baptism, I can think of no better way to start a year as you do; to commence the year renewing your baptism commitment and purposing to live out your identification with Jesus for the sake of your children.

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. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’