Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Baptism of our Lord (Mark 1:4-11)

“And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending of Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning, the Baptism of our Lord, comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, at one point in the wonderful series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, books that I strongly encourage all Christians to read, one of the children ask about Aslan, the mighty lion who we are to see as a picture of God. “Is He quite safe?” The answer is given with a nervous laugh. “’Course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” In the same way the citizens of Narnia declare over and over again in these books that Aslan is “not a tame lion.” C.S. Lewis was onto something when He portrayed God as a lion. Each of the four Gospel writers has been symbolized in Christian art throughout history with a different creature; Saint Mark is the lion. That is because he gives us the most ‘raw,’ unpredictable, and perhaps even ‘violent’ picture of Jesus. Our God isn’t tame, He isn’t safe or comfortable, He isn’t even ‘nice’ in the way that we often think of that word. We do not have a tame God, and no event demonstrates this better than the Baptism of our Lord.
As Jesus comes up out of water, our text declares, “Immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove.” This translation doesn’t fully express what Mark writes; the heavens didn’t ‘open’ like you would open a door or the curtains. No, Mark tells us that they were ‘torn open,’ they were ripped violently apart, as you would tear a shirt apart to make rags, or as a lion tears apart the carcass of an antelope. God violently broke into our world, fulfilling the cry of Isaiah, in chapter sixty-four of his prophecy: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence!” An opened door can be closed; you can pull back the curtains. But what is torn apart cannot easily be restored. God tore open the heavens so that they would not be shut again. With Christ’s baptism, the barrier between God and man came crashing down; God was acting to restore His beloved creation to Himself. He who has no sin is standing in that muddy river in the place of sinners as the heavens are ripped apart, declaring that He has come to bear all sin. He submitted Himself to the baptism of sinners in order to destroy sin itself. This man from Nazareth is God in the flesh, come to conquer sin, Satan, and death. God has broken into our world with salvation, and He will not leave until all of our enemies are placed in submission under His feet. At Jesus’ Baptism, God tore open the very heavens, pouring out His Spirit and sounding forth His voice. We do not have a tame God!
When you were brought to the blessed font, to be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, the lion roared. God ripped you out of the hands of Satan, tearing you away from the clutches of sin and death. The devil wanted you for his own, and he desperately wants you back, but in your baptism, and every day afterward, the lion roars and God declares, “This one is mine! Go back to hell where you belong!” For the heavens were torn at your baptism; there the barrier between you and God violently came crashing down. You are His own because nothing separates you from Him anymore; you are united with God the way it was intended from the beginning. God has broken into your heart with salvation; He has forced His way into your hardened, sinful soul and established faith, faith which clings to Him, faith which saves. You were in rebellion, separated from Him by the sin you inherited from your first parents, but we do not have a tame God; we have a God who rent the heavens and came down, into our world and into your heart, to seize you from Satan, to tear down the barrier between you and His love and grace. The heavens were torn for you, so that you would never be divided from God again.
As you can see, baptism is dangerous, even violent business. It is dangerous for the enemies of God, who are served notice that their time is coming, that their defeat is near. But baptism is just as dangerous for the one who is baptized. The Words of the Father to Jesus seem glorious, but they bring with them darker tidings. “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” The first part of this declaration, “You are my beloved Son,” is the words of Psalm two, part of which is our Introit for today. With these words God reveals His Messiah before the world, as He did at Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. This one, the one standing in Jordan’s stream, the one on whom the Holy Spirit descends, is God’s chosen King, indeed His only-begotten Son! Bow down and worship, as the wise men did so long ago! But the nations of the world do not respond kindly to God’s Messiah, as David predicted long ago: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’” God’s only Son, the chosen King, the Messiah promised of old, will be opposed by the rulers of this world. They will set themselves against both God and His Anointed, and will be determined to destroy them. The baptism of Jesus places a target on His back; the only question is, will they succeed in putting God’s Messiah to death?

The second part of God’s declaration, “with you I am well-pleased,” answers that question. It points us to another place in the Old Testament, our Antiphon for today from Isaiah forty-two. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” This Jesus isn’t only the Messiah David proclaimed, He is God’s beloved Servant prophesied by Isaiah. And Isaiah promised that God’s servant would suffer. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” All would reject Him, they would cry out for His death, and the rulers of this world would accommodate their blood-thirsty desires. The One proclaimed by God Himself at the waters of the Jordan river- “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased”- would be nailed to a cross, beaten and mocked by the soldiers and the crowds, put to death like a criminal. But this was all to fulfill His Baptism; He stood in the Jordan in the place of sinners, in the place of you and me to declare Himself as the sin-bearer. And so He bore our sin to the cross in order to destroy it there, to fulfill what He began on His baptism day. Isaiah prophesied it: “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.”
We do not have a tame God! Death found that it had swallowed poison when it tried to claim Jesus, and on Easter morning the lion roared once again, for Christ had destroyed sin, death, and the devil. God has ripped you from the hands of Satan because Christ died bearing your sin, the heavens are torn open for you because Jesus rose again for you, He breaks into your heart with salvation because Jesus fulfilled His baptism. You do not have a tame God, but one who freely accepted the consequences of His baptism in order to do battle with your enemies and defeat them for you!
Baptism was dangerous business for Jesus, and it is dangerous business for you and me. On your baptism day, God said to you, “You are my beloved child; in you I am well-pleased!” As Christ faced the consequences of these words, so must you and I. We too will sacrifice and suffer because of our Baptism. The world will hate us, and Satan will rage against us, desperately trying to bring us back into His fold. Baptism is dangerous because it gives us enemies. Our baptism is also dangerous because now we are claimed by a God who is anything but tame. He has made us His own, and He doesn’t do this lightly. When the baptized children of God live in open and unrepentant sin, when they refuse to feed the faith given them in that baptism by regularly coming to worship and the Lord’s Table, they are putting God to the test. They are daring God to condemn them, they are mocking the gifts He has given to them at the font. It is dangerous to play games with the living God; He is not tame! Saint Paul declares in our Epistle lesson: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” He who tore the heavens open to bring salvation takes Baptism seriously, and we should do the same. Baptism isn’t just a ceremony, it isn’t symbolic, it is the action of God Himself breaking into this world with salvation, ripping you from Satan’s clutches and making you His own. It is dangerous, indeed the highest and most tragic form of rebellion, to despise the gifts God gave you there.
We do not have a tame God. He is stronger than we are, He is dangerous to His enemies, He violently broke into our world to accomplish salvation. But while He is not tame, He is good. His roar is terrifying, but only to His enemies, those who have rejected His grace. Repent! Repent whenever you despise your baptism, whenever you put God to the test. Repent and cling to the very promises Christ gave through that blessed washing! As Jesus drew comfort in the midst of affliction from the declaration of the Father at His baptism, we rest in our own baptism each and every day, when we are afflicted by the hatred of the world, and when we through sin despise the gifts God gave us there. We cling to our Baptism because while our God is not tame, He is good, and He pours out forgiveness in abundance upon repentant sinners. On your Baptism day God tore down the barrier of sin that separated you from Him and declared you His own beloved child. He is faithful to His promises; He will forgive you for the sake of Christ. You are His beloved child; with you He is well-pleased! In the Name of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the beloved Son of the heavenly Father, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

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