A new beginning of the world

File:F Mochi Bautismo de Cristo 1634 P Braschi.jpg

A reflection on Mark 1:1-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord.

King David is, for Israel, like George Washington is for us. He is the noble leader that represents the best of his country. We don’t really want any dirty laundry about George Washington. We like the story about the boy who could not tell a lie and the young man strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. We don’t really want to know that they didn’t have silver dollars in his day and that, even if they did, a dollar was worth a lot in those days and George wouldn’t have thrown that kind of money away – nor do we want to know that the original story is about chucking rocks across the Rappahannock.

We like the myth rather than the reality, because the myth has an important function. The word ‘myth’, in its best sense, doesn’t mean a false or made up story; it means a story that embodies and communicates some important truth. Our first president was indeed strong and honest, concerned about what was good for the republic rather that what might profit himself. And the ‘myth’ of the cherry tree lifts up these important qualities that embody core values of our national identity. The stories are meant to inspire us to our best selves.

The myth is important, but we do not deny reality. We know, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Though technically they belonged to his wife, he would have had the authority to free them had he chosen to do so. So we value the ‘myth’ for what it says to us, but we also acknowledge the truth.

David is the hero of Israel. And the story about Goliath sounds remarkably like one of those cherry tree stories. We respect the story about David’s courage and his trust in and fidelity to God. But the scripture is also willing to tell us that David conspired to order the death of his noble warrior, Uriah, in order to hide David’s crime of taking Uriah’s wife that would have been exposed when Bathsheba she got pregnant.

What makes David a hero, by the way, is that, when confronted with his crime, he confesses and repents. He doesn’t deny and obfuscate and lie and blame. He turns back to God.

But there were consequences to David’s crime. He had allowed power to corrupt him and lead him to betray God and the people by taking what belonged to another – and then to a cover-up that ended in violence. The result would be that his family would be troubled by corruption and violence.

So the scripture tells us that David’s eldest son, Amnon, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and after manipulating her into his bedchamber by pretending to be sick, he took her – by force – and then discarded her.

Tamar’s brother, Absalom, quietly plotted against his half-brother and two years later took his vengeance and murdered him. Absalom fled Jerusalem, but David refused to hold him accountable and eventually allowed him to return, though he would not allow Absalom to come to court.

Absalom got tired of that and sent for Joab who was the head of the army and one of David’s closest advisors. Joab, however, wouldn’t come so Absalom set Joab’s fields on fire to force him to come. Absalom then pressured Joab into making a way for him to return to the king’s presence. At which time, Absalom began to plot to seize the throne. He told the people that they wouldn’t get justice from David but that they could get justice from himself if he were king.

Eventually, Absalom arranged a coup and David and his advisors were forced to flee Jerusalem. (Absalom set up a tent on the roof of the palace for all to see and went in to sleep with his father’s concubines. What David had done in secret to Uriah, Absalom did to him in public.)

War ensued – and now I am getting close to my point. David gave instructions to his commanders that they were not to hurt his son, Absalom. But Joab, his leading commander, knowing the kind of threat Absalom posed, disobeyed the order and killed him. When the battle was over, a young man named Ahimaaz wanted to run back to the king to deliver the good news that his forces had been victorious. Joab tried to discourage him and sent someone else, knowing that the king would be dismayed by the news and would not reward the runner.

The Greek translation of the original Hebrew uses the word ‘euanggelion’ for the “good news” of victory. ‘Euanggelion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘gospel’. That Greek root gives us the family of words like ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’. And it is the Greek word in our Gospel reading today that is translated as ‘good news’.

This is a very long introduction to the fact that the Greek word we translate as ‘gospel’ is a very ordinary word. It is not a religious word. And it has two basic semantic fields. The one is the story I have just told: the news of victory from the battlefield. The other idea at work in this word is that of a royal proclamation. When a new king arises, he issues a proclamation to the citizens of his new lands declaring amnesty and announcing his benefactions to the people.

So this document that is before us from an unknown author who, by tradition, we call Mark – this document presents itself as a royal proclamation and news of victory from the battlefield.

The translation “good news” doesn’t seem like it has enough gravitas to be an effective translation of this word. But we don’t have a word in English that will accomplish all that this Greek word conveys. So we have to remember that the Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the announcement of peace at the end of World War II that has people cheering in the streets and a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet with a kiss.

The Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln to the three million enslaved people in the South. It is royal amnesty, a word that we are released from every debt.

This story of Jesus is ‘gospel’. It is ‘euanggelion’. It is incredible news. It is the end of war and emancipation. God has come to reclaim his world. God has come to drench us in the Spirit. God has come to wipe away the whole history of human sin that began with Adam and Eve. God has come to shatter the gates of hell and set all its prisoners free. God has come to break the grip of fear and guilt and sorrow and death.

This is the ‘gospel’. And when we call ourselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church we mean we are bearers of this proclamation.

Now if someone were hearing this ‘gospel’ for the first time, they would naturally ask, “Who is this Jesus that he should be making a royal proclamation?”

Mark tells us that this Jesus is “Son of God”, which means that he is the person God has authorized to act on God’s behalf. He is the one appointed to reign. This is a culture in which to speak to the son is to speak to the father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. This is a society in which the kings of Israel were referred to as “son of God”. They weren’t gods, but they reigned on God’s behalf.

This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.

This Jesus is the one to whom the prophets bear witness.

This Jesus is the one upon whom the Spirit of God has descended. The heavens have been torn open. A breach has been made in the vault of heaven and the mighty wind and holy breath of God has invaded the world and courses through this Jesus.

Through this Jesus the whole world will be flooded with this Spirit of God.

This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.

And God is delighted. “With you,” says the voice from heaven, “I am well pleased.” This is such a pale translation of powerful words. This is good in God’s eyes. It echoes the creation story when God looks upon what God has created and declares it good.

This is a new beginning of the world.

It doesn’t matter to Mark that armies are marching and it seems like the world is coming apart. It doesn’t matter to Mark that he has seen Rome’s brutal power impale this Jesus to a cross. He has seen the empty tomb. He has seen the sick healed and the lame walk and the blind see. He has seen sinners forgiven and outcasts restored and withered hands made whole. He has seen the unclean made clean and heard demons cry out and flee. This is a new beginning of the world.

This is a new beginning of the world.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Awash in the Spirit

File:Caban-coch dam overflowing - geograph.org.uk - 148870.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 14, 2018

Year B

The Baptism of Our Lord

(See the note below on why we are celebrating The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday)

The heavens were torn open.

As he was coming up out of the water “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” It is the word that will show up again in Mark when the curtain of the temple will be torn from top to bottom. Mark doesn’t use a subtle word to describe what happens at the banks of the Jordan. Mark is rarely subtle. His story is urgent, compelling. Something powerful has burst into the world, tossing demons aside and healing all who come near. Bursting the bonds that bind. Tearing open the heavens to bring all heaven’s gifts down. This Jesus is the coming one, the promised one, who will flood the world with God’s Spirit.

So Sunday’s texts will take us to the beginning, when God’s spirit/breath/wind blew over the face of the great deep and God called forth light for the world. And the psalm will proclaim the mighty voice of God that shakes the wilderness and shatters the cedars of Lebanon. And the book of Acts will tell us of the believers in Ephesus who had not yet heard of the Holy Spirit, but will receive it in abundance. And we will hear again of John the Baptist and the promise of the Spirit, and we will see Jesus come and the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending.

And in our liturgy we will remember what it means to be a people awash in the Spirit, to be witnesses of a world forever changed, to be agents of that Spirit, a people empowered, the body of this Christ in the world.

The Prayer for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children the abundance of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” – The opening words of that profound vision of God creating a good and ordered world, assembled by a people who have lived through the chaos of war, social disintegration, famine and the destruction of their nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and rising over Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 19:1-7
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” – Paul connects with disciples in Ephesus who knew only the baptism of John.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-11
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
– The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in his baptism and God declares him God’s ‘Son’.

As noted the last two weeks, our parish departs from the appointed texts for the Christmas season in order to present the birth narratives with some integrity: reading Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas Eve (and John 1 on Christmas morning), then the reception of the child by Simeon and Anna on the Sunday in Christmas. The second Sunday after Christmas (nearest January 6) is celebrated as the Sunday of the Epiphany and provides us with Matthew’s account of the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Messiah.

Occasionally, as in this year, this puts us out of sync with the appointed lectionary. So this Sunday, the first after our celebration of the Epiphany, we will celebrate as the Baptism of our Lord and next Sunday we will skip to the texts for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

A post about the Second Sunday after Epiphany in year B and its readings from 2015 can be found here. For other comments on the readings for Epiphany 2 B follow this link.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACaban-coch_dam_overflowing_-_geograph.org.uk_-_148870.jpg Mark Evison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wild woods, condos, and the Holy Spirit

Sunday Evening

Mark 1

Wild Woods8 “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

I had a strange dream this morning. There are places that recur in my dreams, familiar landscapes that show up every now and then. As far as I can tell, the place of this dream is not a specific place I have been, but more like a composite of places I have known.

In this place of my dreams there is a path that leads away from the edge of town. It goes through some scrubland, then into trees. There is water off to the left – a small cove on a lake, or an inlet to a wide spot in a river. The path diverges. It feels like a secret land where children go to explore and play. One branch goes along the water and over a stream. Another goes through the woods into a large grassy area, perfect for a large game like Frisbee football or capture the flag. Another path takes you through the trees to a neighboring farm. And yet another path takes you up along a wooded ridgeline above the waters edge. In some ways this place of my dreams reminds me of church camps, where it’s easy to walk away from the crowded living areas into secluded woods and lakes. It is true about the woods, it carries you quickly away from the constraints and obligations of settled life. A short walk and you are in a different world.

I have liked these woods of my dreams, but this morning I dreamt of this place and for the first time there were other people there. The path was gone, the scrub was gone, the trees thinned out. There was grass up to the waters edge, and when I lifted my phone to take a picture of the lake, there were expensive condos all along the ridgeline. This beautiful, somewhat secret place had become a development. On the far end of the lake there were lights and buildings, perhaps a factory. What had been wild was now a domesticated park and upscale housing. I found myself telling a couple of people near me about what used to be there.

I was struggling to find the sermon for this morning. I went to bed late, and got up well before dawn, searching for that opening line, the key story, around which all my scattered thoughts could sort themselves out and coalesce into a coherent message. I wanted to talk about the Holy Spirit. I felt that the texts and the day – the Baptism of our Lord – had their center there, but I couldn’t find the thread for which I was looking. I had gone to bed in hopes that morning would prove more successful, though it makes me anxious to get that close to the deadline without at least a draft.

Sometimes I wake up with the opening line and basic outline of the sermon in my head. This morning I woke with this dream. As I puzzled over it, I came to the conclusion that the dream was less about my strange inner life, and more about the tension that was hiding beneath my struggle – the tension between church as congregation with programs and constitutions and competing desires of its members, and church as the body of Christ, imbued with the Spirit, bearing the reign of God into the world.

There is something untamed about the Spirit of God, something wild, something free and undomesticated. It is not governed by the demands of everyday life, but by a strange, unexpected, unmerited grace and compassion. It is like play. When we play we are lost in the game. The game, whatever it might be, becomes our reality for the moment. Whether playing house or baseball or Legos or pretending to be Helen Keller, we lose our usual self-consciousness and are carried away from ourselves into a new reality.

Technically, play is an altered state of consciousness – as is getting lost in prayer or music or peace or joy. Worship should be like this. We should get carried out of ourselves for a time, joined to something larger than ourselves, something ancient and beautiful and gracious. Something that is personal yet communal. Something that connects with the God and one another.

But congregations are also creatures of our stubborn, everyday reality. There are tasks to be done and bills to be paid and feelings to be assuaged. Toes get stepped on. People complain about one thing or another. Votes are taken on budgets and programs and staff. The free and wild wood becomes a planned park and condo development.

It seems to me that the thing I was struggling to find in the sermon was the invitation to come play in the woods, to live in the Spirit, to know its peace and joy, to know its freedom and spontaneity, to know its goodness and purity.

We need all that organizational stuff. The church exists in the world. But there is something more here. Indeed, that something more is the whole reason for congregations to exist: that they might help connect us to the divine, to open us to the Spirit of God, to fill us with the life and love and power of heaven, to enable us to live as part of the new creation in the midst of the old – to be the embodiment of Christ in our wounded and troubled world, to dance the dance of resurrection.

I hope I will dream again of the wild wood, that the place of my dreams is not forever lost to development.

And I pray that our congregation will know the wild wood, too.

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit?”


Acts 19

File:Peristeria elata Orchi 11.jpg

Peristeria elata, “Flower of the Holy Spirit”

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

It is a question that divided congregations when the charismatic movement swept though mainline denominations some years ago. This narrative from Acts 19 seems to suggest that there is a difference between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. Several Christian traditions depend upon that distinction. Personally, I think the text shows the exact opposite. Baptism and the Spirit belong together, and whenever they seem separated, it is a situation immediately remedied.

But the right use of the text is not first of all as data for a theological conversation on the doctrine of Baptism and the Holy Spirit. The right use of the text is to let the text speak to us – in this case, to question us.

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

We are the Ephesians. We are those who, at least in name, are following Christ. So, as we come to stand before the text, the voice of God asks: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

Paul may be asking the believers in Ephesus a question of fact, but the question comes to us as a probing of the heart: Did you receive the Holy Spirit? What has become of it? Is it working in us and around us? Is it shaping our lives? Is it drawing us into a deeper faithfulness to God and to love of our neighbor? Do we see in ourselves the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Do we know how to recognize the promptings of the Spirit? Do we know how to discern its presence? Do we know how to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit?

If the Spirit is not alive and kicking within us, then it is time to seek the Spirit, then it is time to fan into flame the gift of God(NIV). And if the Spirit is alive and kicking, then it is time to trust it, to depend on it, to let it burn brightly. The only other choice, I suppose, is to renounce the faith and go home, for there is no in-between way, no adopting the name of Christ without engaging the Spirit of Christ.

So here we are, standing before the text, standing in the presence of God, who asks a simple but crucial question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?”

And whether we are spiritually alive or spiritually moribund, it is important to wrestle with the answer.


Photo: By TommyCrash (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tearing up the floorboards


Mark 1

Tear open the heavens10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

I like the translation ‘torn apart’. It’s a graphic and visceral picture of God not just opening the heavens to come down, but tearing up the floorboards to reach his precious creation. It evokes images of parents frantically trying to rescue trapped children.

The allusion is to the prophetic cry of Isaiah when he bids God rend the heavens and come down.

If You would but tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake before You —
As when fire kindles brushwood,
And fire makes water boil —
To make Your name known to your adversaries,
so that nations will tremble at Your Presence,
When You did wonders we dared not hope for,
You came down
And mountains quaked before You.
Such things had never been heard or noted.
No eye has seen [them], O God, but You,
Who act for those who trust in You.

This plea for God to once again show himself in might and power recognizes that God has already shown himself: he has struck down Israel because of its sins.

We have all become like an unclean thing,
And all our virtues like a filthy rag.

But the prophet prays for a new revelation. He reminds God that God is their Father:

You have hidden Your face from us,
And made us melt because of our iniquities.
But now, O LORD, You are our Father;
We are the clay, and You are the Potter,
We are all the work of your hands. (Isaiah 64, JPS Tanakh translation)

It is a confession, and an act of trusting themselves to God’s mercy. It is a prayer for deliverance and a submission that recognizes that if deliverance comes, it is only by God’s favor, because God remembers that we are the work of his hands.

When Mark’s listeners hear that the heavens were torn open at the baptism of Jesus, they are hearing God’s answer to this prayer. God is not just opening a door; God is ripping up the floorboards. God is cracking open the dome of heaven that he may come in power and might, grace and mercy, to deliver his people and his world.

And the tearing sound you hear occurs again at the end of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus dies and the inner curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sacred space of the temple is torn from top to bottom.

In that inner room hidden from view, where Isaiah saw God on his throne, where the Ark of the Covenant once dwelt, where God’s glory abided – that point of connection between heaven and earth where only the high priest could go once a year on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle the blood of the redeeming sacrifice – the curtain is rent asunder. God has ripped open the barrier between himself and the world.

God has come down. The barrier is overcome. The prison doors thrown open. The new creation begun. God has rescued his creation – and his grace, mercy and sacred, sacralizing Spirit is loose in the world.

From darkness into light


Genesis 1

Original painting by C. O'Neal

Original painting by C. O’Neal

1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

A storm at sea on a black night is perhaps the most terrifying thing a desert people could imagine. Perhaps one doesn’t need to be a desert people; storms are frightening even on land.

I wasn’t used to the summer thunderstorms of the Midwest when I began seminary. I had endured the winters, but gone back to California in the summers of college. But seminary started with summer Greek, three hours a day in a room with many young men (at the time, still men – could it be? It hardly seems possible now) and no air conditioning. The hot humid summer air gave fuel for dramatic evening storms. Our apartment was on the third floor, on top of a hill that dropped down to a freeway beneath our west facing windows. We could see the storms coming, and they hit us full blast. Growing up in California we rarely had lightning – certainly not thunderheads or tornadoes. That first year we ate dinner several times hiding in the small hallway of our apartment with all the doors closed. Add water and total darkness and you have true terror.

Jerusalem had known true terror. The Babylonian armies encircling the city. The signal fires of all the surrounding towns extinguishing one by one. The growing famine in the city. The desperate fear. The siege works. The break in the walls. The raging troops. The blood. The tears. The fire. The desolation. The chains. The long march to Babylon.

But there in Babylon they composed this narrative of total chaos – and then God speaks. Light comes to the darkness. And the light is gathered to form a day and the darkness restricted to a night. Into chaos comes a gracious order: day and night.

Again, God speaks. And the waters are divided. Limits are set. The dome of the sky is established. More limits are set. The water yields to land. And then vegetation, fruit trees, seeds and grains, the lush countryside, the grass covered hills, the cedars of Lebanon, the mighty oaks, the transcendent redwoods, the brilliant flowers, cherry blossoms, dogwood, redbud, trout lilies, day lilies, trillium, lavender, onions, garlic, barley, wheat, raspberries, thimbleberries, pomegranates, an explosion of goodness where there had once been only chaos.

In the dome of the sky a vast array of twinkling lights – and a big light and a little light. No names are used because the names for sun and moon and stars are the names of gods. These are not mighty powers, just an umbrella of beauty over a good world.

It is a remarkable composition. A wondrous affirmation in the midst of war and chaos and evil: “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

And humans. Humans, the authors know, are capable of such horror. But they are not evil. They are fashioned in the image of God. And God blesses them. And God entrusts them to one another and entrusts to them his wondrous creation.

This is not a creation story. It is certainly not written as a textbook. This is a great and profound confession of faith by those who had known unimaginable chaos and sorrow: the journey of the world is not into the darkness – but from darkness into light.

We are right to say that it is inspired.

The Breath of God

Watching for the morning of January 11

The Baptism of Our Lord

Original painting by C. O'Neal

Original painting by C. O’Neal

Some thirty years have passed from the nativity stories of the angels, shepherds and magi that have occupied our attention these last two weeks. Now Jesus steps out onto the public stage. But in the Gospel of Mark, there have been no nativity stories. For Mark it all begins with the witness of scripture, the prophetic ministry of John, and the appearance of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus. The coming one, who would immerse the world in the Spirit, is come.

This mighty breath/wind/Spirit of God dominates our readings this Sunday. Although our translation of the first reading says that “a wind from God” swept over the chaotic primeval waters, the word in Hebrew and the ancient Greek is ‘spirit’. At the beginning of the creation, when the world was called into being, the Spirit of God was present.

John promises that the one to come will pour out the Spirit upon us – and in Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are rent and the Spirit descends.

And Paul comes upon a dozen believers in Ephesus who know the baptism of John but not the baptism into Christ that pours out the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit in creation, the Spirit upon Jesus, the Spirit upon us. The breath of God. The United States is not one of those cultures that believes you should stand close enough to one with whom you are speaking as to be able to smell their breath – we are very self-conscious about our breath – but there is something powerful in the image that we should stand close enough to God as to share his breath. Even better, that God stands close enough to us that we can share breath.

The Prayer for the Baptism of Our Lord, January 11, 2015

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children
the abundance of your Holy Spirit;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for January 11, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” – The opening words of that profound vision of God creating a good and ordered world, assembled by a people who have lived through the chaos of war, social disintegration, famine and the destruction of their nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and rising over Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 19:1-7
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” – Paul connects with disciples in Ephesus who knew only the baptism of John.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-11
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
– The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in his baptism and God declares him God’s ‘Son’.