Crows Nest Uniting Church
Epiphany 1 - Baptism of Jesus • 11 Jan 2015


Genesis 1:1-5
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11


Rev. Chris Udy


On the day Jesus was baptised
the area around the Jordan river
was much like it is today -
highly volatile, closely controlled,
prone to explosions of violence,
with so-called terrorists attacking the occupying powers
and the army responding with brutal reprisals
that often left civilians dead and wounded.
Houses and whole villages were razed
in an attempt to punish troublemakers
and undermine their public support;
travel was restricted,
supplies were strictly regulated,
puppet governors were installed in problem areas
and anyone who looked like a threat
was quickly and ruthlessly neutralised.
 
When Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptised
the occupying power was Rome,
their puppet king of the area around Galilee
was Herod Antipas,
and leaders who gathered crowds of any sort -
like John the Baptist -
were treated with suspicion.
John was one of many prophetic voices
who emerged in Galilee and Judea
during the time when Rome was in control.
They spoke to people
who were desperately poor
because a large proportion
of everything they produced
was taken for tributes, taxes and tithes.
Rome took the first cut,
then came King Herod,
and then the Temple also weighed in
asking for the tithes that the Bible said
should be given to the priests,
as well as the special offerings required
to give thanks, or to receive forgiveness,
or to celebrate the festivals of faith.
 
Some people just gave up, left their land,
and took up a kind of Robin Hood existence -
living out in the wilderness
and returning to raid the storage barns
of those who’d become rich
by working with the Romans.
Often, again like Robin Hood,
those bushrangers and brigands
were also supporting relatives -
so people in the countryside gave them shelter.
But John wasn’t one of them -
he was a prophet, like Elijah, and Isaiah,
and he used words as his weapons.
He encouraged the people
to do what they could to live peacefully
while they waited for messiah -
the one who would come
to speak and act with God’s authority,
to punish those who had abused their power,
and to restore both the palace
and the temple of Israel
to their former glory.
 
Thirty years later,
by the time Mark was writing his gospel,
the bushrangers and the prophets
had joined forces,
and in the year AD 66 -
just about when Mark’s community
first read what Mark had written -
an organised, co-ordinated resistance had been formed.
Soon they would break out in revolution:
riots would begin in Galilee near Caesarea
and in Judea around Jerusalem;
the zealots would take over the Temple;
the countryside would rise against the Romans,
and chaos and violence and bloodshed
would leave the land in ruin.
Four years later, in 70 AD,
Roman soldiers under the control of General Titus
had reduced Jerusalem to rubble,
the temple had been looted and burned,
and much of Jerusalem’s population
had been taken away to be sold as slaves
in the Roman Empire.
 
That final day was yet to come,
but it was on the horizon
and its threat and foreboding was in the air
when Mark began writing his gospel.
Mark did not believe
that the way of zealots and brigands
would lead to the future
God had promised his people.
He was a disciple of Jesus,
and in the life of Jesus, and in his story,
Mark had found a different way -
a way that promised justice,
just as John the Baptist and the other prophets
had always said was God’s plan -
but a way that could also be followed
without the kind of violent rebellion
that is simply ‘business as usual’
for the empires of the world -
replacing one tyrannical rule with another.
 
If God’s world ever is to be free
of that never-ending cycle
of empires and emperors
who inflict such damage and suffering
on the people they enslave - one way or another;
if the world is ever to be free
of violent rebellion and bloody response,
of one man’s lust for power and control,
or one family’s dreams of dominion,
or one party’s corruption and incompetence
endlessly being replaced with just one more,
the world will need a different vision,
an alternative plan,
a way that can be followed
to a different kind of kingdom.
 
For Mark,
that different kind of kingdom
and the way we’ll need to follow
to arrive at its justice and peace
is embodied in Jesus -
and in his life, and in his story,
there’s a template, a pattern, a design,
for every human life
and the life of any community
looking to live in God’s promise.
 
So the first words in Mark’s gospel
are an echo of the first book in the Bible - Genesis.
“The beginning”, he writes,
“of the Gospel”.
Technically, that word ‘gospel’
which we translate ‘good news’
means news of a victory,
news that an enemy had been overcome -
“the good news of Jesus, Christ” -
Jesus, who is messiah.
That’s the fanfare
at the beginning of Mark’s gospel -
and once the fanfare has sounded,
the curtains open
on the first scene of the story -
not with a baby in Bethlehem,
not with a long list of names in a genealogy,
but with John the baptiser,
fresh from the wilderness,
baptising crowds of people in the Jordan river.
 
Here there’s another echo
of the first book in the Bible.
Genesis, as we heard this morning,
also begins with water -
and the water there is unformed,
dark, disordered and chaotic.
Water symbolises chaos;
it’s changeable, unpredictable;
it’s what exists before creation begins,
and it’s what happens
when the order and peace of creation break down -
but even in that chaos, Genesis says,
God is present,
and the wind of God
sweeps over the formless deep.
 
Beside the water of the Jordan River
wait the crowds;
desperate and angry
after 80 years of occupation and oppression.
These were the people
who, as Mark was writing 30 years later,
were being urged to violent rebellion.
They’d gathered at the water,
right at the edge of the land,
far away from the palace and the temple.
They were waiting at the place where chaos rules,
where order and peace and harmony break down.
And there, in amongst the members of the crowd,
fully aware of their anger and their fear,
entirely identified with everyone
who’d suffered at the hands of the Romans
and who struggled with the demands of the priests -
was Jesus.
He was there, beside the water,
willing to go with the crowd,
ready, with them, to face whatever might come next.
As he walked into that water,
Jesus identified himself with the crowd –
#iamhumanity;
he was baptised by John
and confronted the chaos that might lead him into -
and right at that moment, Mark writes,
as he rises from the Jordan river’s water,
like God’s new creation - God’s new beginning -
he sees the heavens torn apart;
he sees the Holy Spirit -God’s agent in creation -
descending on him like a dove,
and he hears the voice of God -
God’s instrument of creation - saying
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.”
 
There’s one other place in the Bible
where a human being is called God’s son,
and that’s in the book of Psalms -
Psalm 2, a Psalm written by David,
to be sung at his coronation.
“I will tell of the decree of the Lord”, David writes,
“He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.”
So, for Mark, when Jesus was baptised,
he was claimed as God’s beloved,
the much-loved child of God -
but in God’s words from heaven
he also brings Jesus
into the relationship God had with David -
he blessed and authorised him
to establish a new kingdom, a new reign -
not, as David had done,
through the chaos of violence and warfare,
as a bushranger and a brigand,
but through the Holy Spirit.
That dove that descended on Jesus
reminds us of the dove
that carried a sign of peace back to the ark,
the olive leaf that showed
that the waters of the flood had drained away
and that the earth itself would be renewed.
 
We also face a world in chaos:
the land beside the Jordan river
is as unstable today as it ever was -
and just before Christmas
the Israeli government decided
to freeze millions of dollars of Palestinian taxes
as a punishment
for the Palestinian Authority’s application
to join the international criminal court;
“lone-wolf” terrorists are being trained and armed
for increasingly sophisticated attacks
that then saturate the world’s news media
for days on end;
whether it’s made by humans or not,
climate change is threatening our neighbours
with a flood as destructive as anything Noah saw,
and today, in South Australia,
people are fighting both fires and floods together;
young people round the world
seem to be drinking less,
but getting stoned more,
trying to escape
from something missing within them -
while their grandparents discover
that their superannuation
cannot guarantee their independence.
The trains and busses can’t cope
with holiday traffic -
so who knows what will happen
when the city goes back to work;
the hospital’s overcrowded,
we still don’t have a budget,
and every day each one of us
is just that little bit older.
 
We face a world in chaos,
and the choice we have to make
is how we’ll find our way
through this great flood
into the new creation
that’s been promised us by God.
What will be our compass;
what will give us light -
what can guide our decisions
and keep us in hope?
 
For Jesus, the way through chaos
was to hear the voice of God
say “You are my child;
you a precious to me -
you are my beloved”.
Jesus could have chosen the way
of terrorists and brigands -
he could have looked for control
through violence and force;
or he could have chosen the way
of the palace and the temple -
he could have looked for profit
through corruption and oppression -
but he didn’t.
Instead he chose a different way -
the way of God’s new kingdom -
the way of hopeful trust and inspiring love.
 
Like Mark, we are disciples of Jesus,
and it’s Jesus who gives us
our template for life -
our example of humanity
and our pattern for community.
As we follow Jesus
he calls us to face the chaos -
to get involved and to take the risks
of being identified
with the hopes and needs
of the people who live around us.
He also shows us how to live:
his life is our compass for a world in chaos -
and that is by taking
the way of hopeful trust and inspiring love.
And finally, Jesus reveals to us
the universal source of trust and love:
the power that brings order out of chaos,
light out of darkness,
and life out of death.
That essential resource
is the love and blessing of God.
In every baptism service
we read what Mark and Paul
and all the early disciples of Jesus believed,
that when we were baptised –
in that sacramental moment -
we were there with Jesus,
and there, in the Jordan river,
rising from the water,
with the heavens open,
and the Spirit coming down
we also heard the voice of God
affirm for each of us:
“You are my child, my beloved,
and I am pleased with you”.