This sermon was preached on January 8.
For about eight years my children and I have been huge fans of the TV series, “Friends.” Which some of you will recognize means that we caught onto it just as the series was ending, and so we have watched the whole thing in reruns, or on DVD’s. And one of the things you will notice about “Friends,” if you’re watching the DVD’s, is this: the titles of the episodes are kind of odd. (Either that or brilliantly funny.) Every title begins with the words “The One with...,” or “The One where…,” as in, “The One with the Monkey,” or, “The One where the Monkey Gets Away.” I confess, when I started watching the show, I was puzzled by the titles. Was the title guy at NBC out sick that day? Or, was he out sick all those ten years the show was on the air?
I felt the same way, once upon a time, when I came upon the beginning of the gospel of Mark. Just to remind you, the first sentence of the gospel is “The beginning of the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ.” Wow. Compare this with the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, in which we launch immediately into a provocative and action packed genealogy that makes bold claims about Jesus’ identity and heritage: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1)! Or, the beginning of Luke, in which we are treated to a philosophical sort of sales pitch as to why thisis going to be a most excellent gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).
But for my money, no other gospel can hold a candle to the opening of John’s gospel—though, come to think of it, we all held candles to it on Christmas Eve. It’s shrouded in darkness, mystery, the eternal workings of the cosmos: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
But action-packed genealogies are not what Mark is up to. Nor is he pitching his gospel, as if to get advertisers. Nor is he claiming to delve into the mind of God. Nope. Mark simply says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And for Mark, the beginning is not the story of Jesus’ ancestors or the story of Jesus’ birth. It is not even the story of the pre-existence of Christ, the eternal Word, with God from before the beginning. The beginning of the story is Jesus’ baptism.
And what a baptism it is! For those of us whose baptisms tend to involve marble fonts and modest amounts of water poured on babies’ sweet-smelling heads, the baptism of Jesus is a real jolt to the system. It involves a baptizer dressed in camel-skin, fresh from a dinner of wild honey and bugs, dunking Jesus bodily in the muddy Jordan River. But even that is not what catches our attention. It’s the moment after Jesus comes out of the water, sputtering and drenched; the moment when the heavens are torn apart and the very voice of God rings out or booms or whispers (I hear it’s sometimes a whisper) to speak directly to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” And that’s the beginning, the kickoff, the great launch of Jesus’ work in the world. ‘The One where God Comes to Earth.”
Baptism is the beginning for us, too. Baptism is the beginning of our life in the community of faith we call “church.” Whether we were nestled safe in someone’s arms and baptized at this very font or were dunked in a pool or stream after we were “of age,” each one of us entered the stream of God’s story, Jesus’ story, the Spirit’s story, by virtue of our baptism. “The One where G. and A. Get to Meet Jesus.” And for several members of UPC, that stream has led them to this day, the day when they will be ordained and/ or installed deacons and ruling elders.
And lest we think being a part of God’s story is something ethereal or otherworldly, Mark disabuses us of that notion by including, in the space of a few short verses, the harsh wilderness and that muddy river water and those crunchy locusts and that sweet and wild honey and that aromatic and scratchy camel pelt; not to mention that tear (rip) in the heavens and the ringing/booming/whispering voice of God. God’s story is profoundly earthy, and those of us who step (or jump) into that stream are part of a story that takes place in real time with real people throughout God’s very real world.[i]
And now several of our fellow church members get to participate in “The One Where L., K., J., J., S. and P. Get to Show Jesus to a Hurting World.” Of course, we all get to participate in that. That’s the other title of our baptism story, our common calling as Jesus-followers. But on this day, in this moment, we come together as a community to confirm that God’s voice is still ringing/ booming/ whispering in the ears of those we have elected to be our deacons and elders. We pray and lay hands upon them to give our witness that the beginning of Jesus’ story continues in the beginning of our story. And then we gather around the table in our celebration meal, “The One Where God Promises to Stay With Us Through it All.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Elton W. Brown, Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word Year B (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 79, 80.