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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Full Immersion.


Mark 1:4-11

I.
            John the Baptizer appears, we are told, in the wilderness.  Wilderness was a loaded term for Jews.  The wilderness of Sinai was where most of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, takes place.  It was the place where the people met God, and where God slowly and painfully shaped them into a nation.  The wilderness is where God gave them the Laws by which to live.  The wilderness is where God sustained them with miraculous food and water.  They spent a whole generation out there until they were ready to assume possession of the Promised Land.
            The wilderness is the place where people were closest to God.  The prophet Elijah went into the wilderness to meet God.  Other prophets like Jeremiah lifted up the wilderness as well.  Jesus himself will go farther out into the wilderness and meet the devil right after his baptism.
            Wilderness was also away from civilization.  It was wild and undomesticated.  It was dangerous.  It was largely outside of the jurisdiction of the Roman/Jewish political and economic regime.
            And the wilderness was a hideout for revolutionaries and dissidents, beyond the easy reach of the Roman army.  If you’re part of an urban, imperial society, good things do not happen or come out of the wilderness.
            John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Christians have always wondered why, if Jesus is sinless, he had to go through baptism.  He had no sins to forgive.  He had nothing to repent of.  At least according to orthodox Christianity.
            But repentance means both a turning around and a change of mind.  When Jesus is baptized it also represents for him what it meant for everyone else who came out from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside.  It means a turning away from their regular lives, controlled and dominated by the rules and values of the Roman Empire.  And it means a changing of your mind so that they no longer think according to the way the Empire wanted them to think.
            And if forgiveness means “release,” it means they are to consider themselves set free from the matrix of sinfulness which characterized existence under the heel of the Empire.    
            We don’t have to enter the rather pointless and theoretical theological debate about whether Jesus personally committed any acts that would be considered sins.  The fact is that living under the Empire made sinning unavoidable.  The normal acts of daily life, no matter how innocently undertaken, involved a person in the system of oppression, exploitation, and injustice that the Romans and their allies imposed upon the Jewish people.  Buying and selling, paying taxes, working at a job, even worshiping at the Temple, was all a tacit participation in this system.  You couldn’t separate yourself from it unless you literally went to a place where you had no contact with the economy: the wilderness.
II.
            This is why people needed to be cleansed and purified, and why it had to be out in the desert that this happened.  Just participating in the imperial system was defiling.  It involved slavery and economic inequality and supporting a brutal military regime and subtle forms of idolatry.  Just existing in this system left you symbolically soaked in the blood of oppressed people.  You went out to John to get this washed off of you.  You went out for forgiveness, that is, to be released from this bondage.   
            The little description of John tells us of his radical non-participation in the Roman economy.  He didn’t wear their clothes; he didn’t eat their food.  He lived on what God, not the emperor, provided, even out in the desert.  It was all about bugs, leather, camel-hair, and so forth.
            This would have reminded people of the prophet Elijah again, and the fact that Elijah’s career was one of steadfast resistance to the corrupting regime of King Ahab.  Ahab also worked to assimilate and accommodate the Israelite faith to the religion of the economic elite, which was based on the agricultural fertility god, Baal.
            The content of John’s actual proclamation is: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
            He says that someone stronger than he is coming.  John is only strong enough to resist the system by separation.  He can’t confront the rulers directly; when he does he gets arrested and it costs him his head.  John is able to wash people symbolically clean of their complicity in the system; but that is only temporary.  The people will eventually have to go back home and immerse themselves in the sinfulness of life under the Empire again.  What John does for them does not really last; but it does provide a preparation for what is to come.  When they go home they have this memory of this experience.  And even if they are back in the system, they are increasingly ready for something else, something new, to emerge.
            This new person, the One who is coming, will take the battle out of the wilderness and into the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea, and eventually to Jerusalem itself.  He will organize these people who participated in John’s movement and establish new communities based on God’s values, and this movement will blow through the nation and through the whole Empire, spreading like wildfire.  He will be the agent of God’s Holy Spirit.
III.
            So, Jesus comes down from his home in Nazareth, which was a place nobody expected anybody important to come from.  He comes from the region of Galilee, which was not only looked down upon by sophisticated, urban Jerusalemites because it was so full of Gentiles and dominated by Greek culture, but was an infamous source of political rebels and revolutionaries.  This is where Jesus comes from.
            And he comes to John in the wilderness, at the Jordan River.  Now the Jordan River was not insignificant either.  It was the river that the Israelites had to miraculously cross when they entered the Promised Land after the exodus.  It was the boundary of the Promised Land.  That’s where John goes, to the place representing the liberation and independence of the people.                         
            It is as if he is saying, just as our ancestors made the final crossing from slavery in Egypt to liberation in Canaan here at this river, so now those who come to me here will re-experience that liberation by being immersed in the same river.  God’s redemption, God’s forgiveness and salvation, is figured in being baptized in these waters.  It is about repentance: turning away from the injustice and oppression of Egypt; it is about forgiveness, release from bondage, escape from the murderous, exploitive sins of Pharaoh, escape even from the faithlessness of the people in the wilderness.  The water of the Jordan meant all that.
            That’s why John went there; that’s why Jesus goes there.  And he chooses to participate with these people, and with us, in this water ritual of immersion.  When he goes down into the water, it reminds us of the way he has come down from heaven, to the earth, becoming flesh to dwell among us; and when he emerges from the water it is a foreshadowing of his resurrection, when he will be lifted up from death and from the earth.
            This motion of baptism, the simple movement of going down and coming up, now becomes the enduring pattern of the Christian life.  To follow Jesus means to follow him in conforming our lives to this pattern.  Just as he comes down into the world, so we follow him when we embrace humility, identifying with the needy of the world, realizing our own profound need for his healing and the release from our own habits and actions and their consequences.  This is what he means when he tells us to take up our cross; it means nothing less than following him to death.  Baptism is a symbolic dying and rising again to new life.  In baptism we die with him and we are raised with him in a resurrection like his, says Paul.
IV.
            When Jesus goes down into the water, and reemerges into the sunlight, we are told that: “He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus has come down from heaven, the Word of the Father, by whom all things were created at the beginning.  But he doesn’t start his ministry until he first performs this visible ritual.  It kind of ratifies and makes public the truth of who he is and what he has come to do.  In him and in this act of being baptized, Jesus summarizes the whole of the Scriptures and the entire story of salvation.
            If we are going to be his disciples, we are going to have to follow him.  Following him means we realize that we are in the world for a purpose.  And that purpose is to witness to the new community that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.  This new community is a rejection of the powers and systems that rule the world under sin, in its separation from God.  Jesus restores the relationship between Creator and creation, and he invites us to live together in the power of this new relationship.
            In his ministry he will plant seeds of new hope and trust in the soil cultivated and turned over by John.  He will heal, and liberate, and teach, and feed, and welcome, and bless, and proclaim God’s Kingdom.  His communities are places where those practices and values reign and flow and shine. 
            May we also remember how in our baptism we follow him into the world, choosing to live with and cherish the broken and the lost, the rejected and the outsider.  And in following him down, we also follow him up, in the new life of liberation, peace, redemption, and release.
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