Where It Begins

Mark 1: 4-11

Rev. Barrett Ingram

January 10, 2021

A party of clergymen from the States was attending a conference in Scotland. Several of them set off to explore the district. Presently they came to a river spanned by a temporary bridge. Not seeing the notice that said it was unsafe, they began to cross. The bridge keeper ran after them in protest. “It’s all right,” declared the spokesman, not understanding the reason for the old man’s haste. “We’re Presbyterian ministers from the conference.” “I’m no’ caring aboot that,” was the reply in the thick Scottish brogue. “But if ye dinna get off that bridge, you’ll all be Baptists!”

Thinking about full immersion reminds me of growing up. Kids often mimic what adults do. I don’t know how many of you did this when you were kids – and perhaps it was a sign of my future vocation – but I remember on several occasions baptizing the little terrier we had. At the time, of course, I didn’t know the Nicene Creed – that there is one baptism for the remission of sins. So she was subjected to a few baptisms; she probably needed them anyway. And as much as she hated the water, she was awfully lucky, I have since thought, that we aren’t Baptists – so she was just sprinkled and not dunked under the water.

Today is the day in the church year when we remember the baptism of the Lord. We’re finished with Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Things are finally getting back to normal – whatever that means for us during this time of COVID. So, we begin again to consider the events that shape Jesus’ life. We do this through Easter, and then the balance of the year is spent considering His teachings. In a real sense, it all begins with the baptism. The nativity stories are only found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and they serve as something of a prelude. But all four Gospels make mention of Jesus’ baptism, because it is from that point on that Jesus begins his ministry. Baptism is where it begins for Jesus – and where it begins for us too.

A minister recalled leading a Bible study that included some Vietnamese refugees who had been sponsored for resettlement by Presbyterian churches in central Pennsylvania. One of the young and recently arrived women raised her hand and said: “I know God. I know Jesus. But who is the holy bird?”

The holy bird, or course, is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life…” as we say in the Creed. In Christian iconography, the Holy Spirit is almost always depicted as a dove because of the story of Jesus’ baptism. In many churches, you will find the image of a dove on the lectern or pulpit or baptismal font, symbolizing the Holy Spirit descending upon those gathered for worship. It is the Spirit of God who illumines our hearts and minds so that the words of scripture become for us the living Word of God. There is no magic in the ink on the page; we don’t worship a physical object. It’s only the power of the Spirit who makes the written words on the page become the living word of God in our hearts. In Romans 10:17 the Apostle Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” We have to hear the word of God, but what Paul is referring to here is not a mere auditory hearing; it is a spiritual hearing of God’s word. Anyone can hear the Bible read without being moved. You can memorize all manner of facts and figures about the Bible, and you can master the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek without actually having faith in what the Bible says. Faith is not something we manufacture on our own; it is a gift. The Holy Spirit is the One who makes faith possible.

The bridge between our first lesson from Genesis and the Gospel lesson is the work of the Spirit. The Hebrew word is ru-ach, which can be translated “breath” or “wind” or “spirit,” as in “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” – which is how the NIV puts it. However you wish to translate it – wind, breath, Spirit – it’s clear that God is at work, hovering over those primal waters at creation’s beginning. And then God speaks, and that Word calls reality into being. “Let there be light,” and there was light. “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind.” And then at the climactic moment, God creates human beings, “in our image, after our likeness” the text says. The Church has always affirmed that the Spirit was present with the Father and the Son at creation. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

This same reality of naming and blessing is present at Jesus’ baptism. Verse 10: “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

Scholar Donald Juel writes that it is at this moment that the barrier between heaven and earth is removed. No longer is God understood as a distant, impervious God sitting on a throne in the distant heavens. God now comes to dwell among us. God is with us, and as Juel says, God “is on the loose in our realm” swooping into our world like a dove. Jesus, anticipated by John the Baptist as “the one who is coming,” comes down from the hills of Nazareth to the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized, and the dove descends toward Jesus, signifying that this is the one who fulfills God’s prophesy. And so humanity’s relationship with God is forever transformed. The same creative force that moved across the formless void at creation now tears open the heavens and descends like a dove, making incarnate this new covenant.[1]

It’s worth noting that the images of the Holy Spirit are always of a dove descending. God came to dwell among us. That’s why we consider baptism a sacrament. Based upon biblical stories, we observe two sacraments in the Presbyterian Church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are not mere ordinances to recreate something that happened long ago – to remember a past tense God who acted once upon a time in history but is no longer available to us. No, when we celebrate the sacraments, we know that Christ is really present. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus said (Matthew 18:20). That’s why in our tradition we celebrate sacraments in community. In the Reformed tradition baptism is a public moment enacted in a community of faith, in response to the Word being proclaimed. We don’t have private baptisms or private communion services. And we don’t separate the sacraments from the Word of God. When we gather at the font for a baptism, we are reminded of the word God spoke over the waters of creation and we are reminded of the word God spoke over the baptismal waters of the Jordan River. We respond to that word and are washed in the name of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). We are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection and are promised the anointing power of the Holy Spirit. In our baptism liturgy we say, “Child of the covenant, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in your baptism, and you are marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism says something about who we are: we are children of God.

In her book, Don’t Put a Period Where God Put a Comma, Nell Mohney tells a story about a lady named Kathy. She was one of those people who is full of life, full of joy. But that wasn’t always the case. Kathy had grown up in a very dysfunctional family. Her mother was verbally abusive; her alcoholic father was physically abusive. Because of this rough start in life, she said that she “felt like a big zero.”

One day, her life changed. Kathy was in the sixth grade, and the girl seated behind her invited her to attend Sunday School. The girl explained that her Sunday School teacher had challenged them to invite a friend. “Do you go to Sunday School and church?” the girl asked Kathy. “No, I don’t,” was the reply. “Do you want to meet me at the front door of the church at 9:30 this Sunday?” the asked the girl. Kathy agreed and attended her first Sunday School class.

Mrs. Parsons, the Sunday School teacher, became an important person in Kathy’s life. She would invite Kathy to her home, and the two of them had long talks. Mrs. Parsons told Kathy that God loved her, that Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates how much God cares. Mrs. Parsons made a tremendous difference in Kathy’s life.

There’s more to the story. A friendship also developed between Mrs. Parsons and Kathy’s mother. Her mother was as troubled as her daughter. Mrs. Parsons was able to lead both mother and daughter to become committed followers of Jesus Christ. The real emotional breakthrough came when Kathy was able to forgive her father. “The Zero has changed to a number Ten with an exclamation point,” says Kathy of her new life in Christ. “I see myself as a person of great worth,” she says, “not because of what I have done, but because of what God as done for me through Christ.”[2] Baptism makes a statement about who we are. We are those for whom Jesus gave his life. We are those so loved by God that He gave His only Son.

And we need to remember that. We need reminders. Because inevitably, life has a way of “wringing us out,” says Barbara Sholis, and we forget that God dwells in and among us. We forget our “beloved” identity. Laurence Hull Stookey labels our forgetfulness “spiritual amnesia” but adds that baptism is what counters our amnesia. The touch of water upon our lives helps us recall our place in the biblical story, and reminds us that God’s creative force is still birthing us, claiming us, renewing us.[3] Whenever the Protestant reformer Martin Luther found himself frustrated and ready to give up, whenever worry for his own life and the life of the Church he loved overwhelmed him, it is said that he would touch his forehead and say to himself: “Remember Martin, you have been baptized.”

My maternal grandmother passed away at the end of October in 2008, having succumbed to cancer. When I was home for Thanksgiving that year, my mother and I were going through some of her belongings. She was a very fastidious woman; there was no clutter in her house. We always joked that it was like a museum, because everything was so decent and orderly. So I was intrigued by some of the things that she saved. As we were going through the drawers of the secretary in the living room, I came across an old church bulletin. It was from the occasion of my baptism, November 1, 1981 – Reformation Sunday. It was a precious reminder to me that I am baptized, a truth I honestly don’t often remember enough.

Today we remember our Lord’s baptism, and it’s a fitting occasion for each of us to remember our own. When the going gets tough, when we’re ready to give up because the weight of life weighing upon us is too much, we can remember our baptism. We can remember that we are God’s beloved children; we can remember that we are marked as Christ’s own forever.

[1] Barbara Sholis, “A Watery Solution” in The Christian Century (Vol. 119 No. 26, 2002)

[2] Nell W. Mohney, Don’t Put A Period Where God Put a Comma, (Nashville: Dimensions for Living, 1993), pp. 17-19.

[3] Ibid.