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January 8, 2012—Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:1-11

The word “gospel” means good news of the ultimate variety, and the gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Mark, begins with a decisive, intentional one hundred and eighty degree turn away from death, and toward life. The agent of that turn is John, known as the Baptizer, who has located himself in the wilderness, and who, like an old-time prophet, is calling people to repent, which literally means to make that turn, to turn their lives around, to re-orient themselves, to turn back to their Creator, placing God and God’s purposes in the centre of their universe once more. He’s offering a baptism of repentance, a ritual in which the person being baptized symbolically turns away from death to face life, full on, and then endeavours to keep on travelling in that direction. And, according to Mark, but not according only to Mark, a movement has formed around John, and people are flooding from the cities and towns to the Jordan River in order to repent. They’re opting out of the things in their lives and in their world that make for death, and flocking to the Jordan to commit themselves to life. Now such repentance—such reorienting—such turning around—passes judgment on that to which one’s back is now turned, and so, we can be sure, there will be consequences attached to seeking out John’s baptism. The decision to seek it out, then, requires great discernment, and even greater courage.

In those days, says Mark—those dangerous days in the brutal empire of Rome—Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee and is baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus comes out of Nazareth, and, intentionally and publicly and symbolically, turns his back on the power of death that’s vying to rule his world, and his face toward the power of life—toward his Creator, his God. And all heaven breaks loose.

So begins the gospel, the good news, according to Mark. With repentance. With a turning, away from death, and toward life. With Jesus’ decision about the purposes his life will serve, and the purposes it will refuse to serve. From here on in, what will unfold will be the living out of that decision, with gentleness, grace, humility, compassion, and great courage. And others will be called to join him along the way in his healing, mending, life-giving work—to turn their backs on the power of death, and their faces toward life. There, at the Jordan River, the gospel begins with a turning.

And now here we are, in another New Year, in the midst of complicated lives in a complex and often threatening world, finding ourselves confronted and challenged by this ancient call to repent—this ancient call to reorient our lives in relation to our Creator—to turn our backs on death and our faces toward life once again. Here we are, longing for the strength, the courage, the initiative, to do just that—to make the turn, once and for all—to walk out of the city and down to the Jordan and plunge into its waters, and free ourselves of all that keeps us from living lives of faithfulness, and compassion, and integrity. And then to rise up new people, our faces permanently turned toward life, toward our God, clear about the purposes our lives will now serve, and the purposes they will refuse to serve, ready to live as we were created to live, afraid of nothing, ready to join Jesus on his journey through Galilee, healing, and feeding, and proclaiming and serving the power of life.

We could almost go. We could almost make the turn, if there weren’t so much to lose, so many who depend on our staying the way we are, and where we are, so many who wouldn’t understand, who don’t think there’s anything at all deathly about the lives we live, or the purposes we serve, so many who would feel judged by our turning. We could almost go. But then we think of the consequences, and grow frightened, and sink back into our lives of comfortable despair.

And yet . . . the gospel begins with a turning from death to life, with a reorienting of lives in relation to the Creator, with a realignment of human purposes according to the purposes of God. And we, and our world, are in desperate need of gospel—of good news. Perhaps if, in one small thing, we made that turn, it would be a beginning. Perhaps, if in one small thing, we chose to ignore the consequences, and intentionally chose life, in one of its many manifestations, over death, in one of its many disguises, and offered that choice up as repentance—as an act of turning back toward the God who made us—it would be a beginning. Perhaps, if we weren’t in it alone, but did it together, if we supported one another, we could make it to the river, and make the turn. Would the skies open, and all heaven break loose? I think it’s quite likely. And then . . . then, even in a tentative, beginning-sort-of-way, we could rise up new people. That would be gospel, wouldn’t it?

That table over there looks like a table. It doesn’t much look like the Jordan River. It can, however, be a place of turning away from death and toward life—a place of re-orientation, re-alignment with the purposes of God. It can be a place of decision, a place where we commit ourselves anew to the power of life. It can be a place where gospel begins. So think about it, between now and communion. Think about turning your back on the things in your life and your world that make for death, and your face toward God, toward life. But be warned, my friends: if you do it, the skies might open. And all heaven just might break loose. And we might rise up new people.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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