Beginnings

December 1st, 2017

Mark 1:4-11

The most skeptical New Testament scholars, the ones who question the historicity of almost everything, agree on this story. The baptism of Jesus happened as certainly as any event in the Gospels. They come to this conclusion not only because three Synoptic Gospels record it, but because the early church wouldn’t have told this story if they didn’t have to. Jesus’ baptism is hard to explain and a little embarrassing. Why would the Christ, the child of God, submit to a baptism of repentance? If baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and Jesus is sinless, then what does Jesus’ baptism mean?

Matthew points out that John himself was uneasy and hesitant. Luke makes as little of the event as possible, casually mentioning that Jesus was baptized after mentioning that John is in prison. Mark only allows Jesus’ baptism three verses. The church has trouble explaining this story.

This story is difficult, in part, because John the Baptist is difficult. John storms out of the wilderness, eating locusts and washing them down with honey, proclaiming a new kingdom, coming in water and fire, and warning— especially the religious people—of the wrath to come. John’s baptism is revolutionary. He treats Jews like Jews treated pagan converts, requiring them to be baptized, calling them to repentance.

Surprisingly, crowds flock to John to be baptized; but he knows his work is preparatory and partial. After him one will come who will baptize not in water but in Spirit. The day soon comes when this one wades out into the muddy Jordan. When Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees heaven split wide open and the Spirit descending like a dove. He hears the voice of God saying, “This is my child.”

The people gathered on the shore have no idea what it all means. They probably assume that Jesus is now one of John’s disciples. Without the rest of Jesus’ life his baptism is incomprehensible.

The purpose of Jesus’ baptism is seen in the days and years that follow that afternoon in the Jordan. It’s when we see Jesus take his place with hurting people that his baptism starts to make sense. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan foreshadows his baptism on the cross. Baptism is Jesus’ commissioning for ministry.

During the week before Jesus’ death, the leaders of the temple challenged him, “By what authority do you do these things?”

Jesus answered with a reference to his baptism, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not? I was baptized. That’s how all this started.”

In the waters of baptism, Jesus heard the Spirit calling him to speak the truth and live with grace. Jesus was true to the voice. Jesus gave everything— his days and nights, his hopes and dreams, his work and his life itself. Jesus gave himself to God’s people—sharing, listening, and ministering. When Jesus cried on the cross, “It is finished,” it was his baptism that was complete.

Baptisms, like all beginnings, find their meaning after the event. Starting, by itself, is of little consequence. Beginning is easy. Finishing is hard. Bobby Knight, the former basketball coach at Texas Tech University— who isn’t quoted in many sermons—was asked about a player who was doing a great job coming off the bench, “When will he get to start?”

The coach responded, “You don’t understand the game. It doesn’t matter who starts. It matters who finishes.”

A month before the wedding, glassy-eyed couples try to convince the minister that they are the perfect couple. One of the joys of ministry is getting to tell them. “You get no points for getting this far. On your wedding day, almost every couple is capable of creating a life together filled with faith and joy, and almost every couple is capable of creating something worse than your worst nightmare.”

Marriages can’t be judged on the wedding day. After ten years, you start to see what they’ve done with it. What does it mean to get married? Sometimes the meaning may be found in pictures of strangely attired bridesmaids and ill-at-ease groomsmen. More often it’s discovered each evening as you sit around the dinner table.

The significance of any decision takes a while to be fully understood. The first draft doesn’t look like the final copy. The moments of initiation take on meaning when we’re true to the promise of that beginning.

We too often think that what we need is a new start. Our culture has an insatiable appetite for new things. People look for something new, but we can add a thousand meaningless new things. “What’s new?” isn’t a bad question, but if we constantly pursue only what’s new, the result is an endless parade of trivia. We ought to be consumed with the question, “What’s best?” Too many lives are spent looking for what’s new without exploring what’s true. We don’t need new beginnings nearly so much as we need to make sense of the old beginnings.

Baptism is a beginning, the introduction to a book waiting to be written. Beginnings by themselves lack meaning, so our baptisms wait for fulfillment. We are handed a map, but we have to take the trip. It takes our whole life to finish our baptisms. All of our days are commentary on our baptisms. Repentance, conversion, and growth are a lifelong process. Just as Jesus’ life gave meaning to his baptism, so our baptisms wait to be given meaning through each of our lives.

When Martin Luther was tempted to give up on following Christ, he would sit in his study and recite, almost as a mantra, “I am baptized. I am baptized. I am baptized.”

What did it mean when you were baptized? It might be helpful to look back to that day, but the meaning of your baptism is more likely to be seen this day. Are you grateful today for the grace of God? What have you done today that you wouldn’t have done if you had not been baptized? We are always answering the question, “Why was I baptized?”

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