Sunday, January 7th – 24: A Sermon on Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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; with you I am well pleased.”

A few years ago, when our family lived in Owatonna, there was a child, about 5 or 6 years old, who lived across the street from us who….how shall I put this…she invaded our life.

With this incredible ability to sneak up on you, she was just around…all the time. You open your front door at 8am on a Saturday morning, and *bam*, there she is waiting on your front step. Staring at you. You go out to the mailbox, you turn around, and she’s there.

You go out into your garage, you put your shoes on, and suddenly, from behind the freezer in our garage… her little head pops out. Or you’re out mowing the lawn, and you can just feel these eyes on you. You glance down the street and there she is, behind a tree… staring at you. And you know it is only a matter of time before she comes over.

Now, it wasn’t so much her presence that was annoying, it was the intruding. Always coming around at the wrong time. Always in the way. Always lingering around with persistent questions: What are you doing? Can I do it? What is this? Can I have it? Do you have something to drink? I’m thirsty. I was wondering, do you have a popsicle?

Needless to say, she could feel like a pest, invading our space. But then, we learned something about her we didn’t know – she loved spending time with children younger than her. And not only that, she was really good at it.

It was a busy Saturday afternoon, early summer. I was in and out with errands. Lauren was desperately trying to plant her garden before the weekend was over. And you can image how it is trying to do anything productive with a 2-year old to constant monitor.

Well, just like every time we’re outside, our little intruder showed up. Only this time, she was not a pest. But more of a Godsend. She took Elliot off of Lauren’s hands and played with him. Soccer, tag, rolling around in the grass. And as they played, one thing became clear: Elliot. Loved. Her. Not in the boy meets girl, kind of way, but in that young kid looking up to the older kid who is willing to play with him.

Something happened to me that day that I can only describe as a heart transplant. Because ever since that day, the neighborhood girl has been an image of the Holy Spirit for me.

Don’t get me wrong – she was still annoyingly intrusive after that. But it felt more like a divine intrusion than anything else.

You see, sometimes God comes to us a compassionate and welcomed friend, offering words of comfort and grace. And other times? Other times, God comes to us as an intruder. Here to mess with our stuff. Here to disrupt our lives a bit. Our well-laid plans, our long-held beliefs, our self-righteous politics, our comfortable retirement. But God intrudes not to hurt us – but to heal us. To give us the heart transplants that we need.

We can see this in our gospel reading for today. Though we may have to squint a bit. Too often we, myself included, are blinded a bit by the niceties of baptism. I find myself thinking of wiggly babies, beautiful white gowns (worn by every child in the family for the past 6 generations), three handful of water, gently poured over the head. Candles and blessing and welcome and oil.

But because of that, we hear this story of Jesus’ baptism and our eyes are drawn to certain parts. The comfort of the heavens opening. The beauty of a white dove calmly floating down onto Jesus. And the sweetness of that divine Morgan Freeman like voice saying, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”

But all of these things obscure and domesticate what’s really going on – the divine intrusion that this moment really is.

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.

 Torn. The heavens were torn. Not opened. Not sliced cleanly with a scalpel. But torn. And to tear through something takes speed, passion, desire. Just look at children on Christmas morning – tearing through wrapping paper. Or consider a football team with paper wall bearing their team name and mascot , held up by cheerleaders, between them and the field.  Those players don’t calmly crawl under the paper wall to preserve it. They don’t take a sharp pair of scissors and cleanly cut the paper in two. No – they tear through it. To show their fans and their opponents that they are not entering the field, they are invading it.

The curtain, the veil between heaven and earth, between God and God’s people is torn. Meaning jagged edges and tatters. Meaning never to be closed again.

This is a divine break-in. Nothing will be the same.

And then there is the image of the dove.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

 Isn’t that beautiful? Perfect material for a Hallmark Card on Confirmation Day.

Only that’s not what it really says. For whatever reason, this translation makes a critical error. The Greek says, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove into him.

The Spirit of God goes into Jesus. Which means this descending dove is probably less like a picturesque gliding down, and “more like a dive-bombing pigeon”[1] with quite an impact. This is divine intrusion. Jesus becomes invaded by the Spirit of God.

And then there are those words. Those precious, naming and claiming words, “You are my child – my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” Words I believe belong to each one of us.

While I have often heard this as blessing. As gift. But this week I heard it as divine burden. You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” In other words, I choose you. God isn’t just claiming Jesus as God’s beloved son. God is endorsing Jesus as God’s transformative agent in the world. And I believe that means us too. You are my child. My beloved. I am pleased with you. So, I choose you. I choose to partner with you in blessing this world.

And that kind of calling, that kind of endorsement, that kind of challenge can really mess with your plans. Because to do that – to bless the world, to bless your community, your neighbor, it will demand that we have the courage to pull back the curtain and expose that which is not blessing this world, but in fact diminishing it.

Throughout the gospel of Mark, we will see that this incarnation of God in Jesus isn’t so much that Jesus has come to be with us, to hang out like a friend on a Friday night, but more like an annoying neighbor who invades your space, who asks for your help, and who just won’t leave you alone. We will see as Jesus intrudes on previously held boundaries between the clean and unclean, the worthy and the unworthy.  We will see the presence of God presented as a divine intrusion. Of a God breaking into a world to reclaim it from the false and fabricated powers built on fear and control. And those false powers and promises will try to hide and disguise themselves from this God who has come to steal them away. It will be a struggle.

But the promise of this gospel, the promise of Jesus’ story in Mark, is that there is no going back. The curtain is torn. It will not close again. God will not let this world go.

God is committed to this place. To reclaiming this world for God’s good purposes. And in baptism we lift up the promise that God will do this. God will live this out in the bodies and communities of real people.

Which means we need to ask, How is God invading our world now and today? How is God invading us, this community rooted in that promise of baptism? How is God invading your life?

I offer one example, among many.

God has intruded on my life recently with a number. 24.

24. That number. It just keeps showing up in my thoughts. Peeking around corners. Knocking on my door. Asking for help. It lingers. It bothers. It annoys. It haunts.

24. That’s the number of homeless youth on any given night in Northfield. Many of whom we cannot see because they are sleeping on couches. Some even exchanging sexual favors in order to do so.

A couple of weeks ago, I met with Scott Wapota, the director of the Key, the substance-free Youth Center here in town, who shared this haunting statistic. Because he knows. Because he sees it every day, as he encounters students from Northfield who don’t know where they are sleeping that night.

I often hear Northfield referred to as a quaint, cute town that is great to visit, great to move to, great to retire in. And I have to be honest, I wince when I hear that. While that may be true, it is not the whole truth. At best it is a half-truth, dare I even say a false truth. Why? Because 24. A number which God has come to expose.

That intrudes my life. And I do not want it there. And yet I believe the Holy Spirit is intruding into and baptizing the hearers of such news to do something about it.

And the Key is trying to do something about it. The Key has received a grant to start a program where members from the Northfield will be invited to open their doors to these youth as host homes. To take them in.

I hope you’ll hear more about that. But I share it today because I want to get the word out. I believe God wants to get the word out. And I wonder if any of us might be called and equipped for such ministry. Because Northfield isn’t a quaint, cute town to live in or a great place to retire because people will leave you alone – but rather I see Northfield as a brave and passionate town, full of people who love service and generosity and who step up when there is a need.

Well. Beloved people with whom God is well pleased. There is a need. 24.

God won’t let us forget it. Because the heavens are torn open. God has invaded the neighborhood. And not just the neighborhood, but your life and mine. God won’t leave us alone. Keep your eyes for that pesky little kid to show up. Again and again again.

And for that I hesitantly say…

thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Matt Skinner, Working Preacher Sermon Brainwave, 2018.

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