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Mark 1: 4-11
Just over two weeks ago we celebrated Christmas and sang sweet lullabies to Baby Jesus in the manger. But today's passage comes from Mark - who begins his gospel not with Matthew's genealogy, nor Luke's dreams and angels and visions, and definitely not with a theological hymn like we heard last week from the first chapter of John. No, Mark starts with John the Baptist, that controversial figure who emerged from the wilderness having existed on locusts and wild honey, with the smell of wilderness on his body and the fire of God in his eyes.1 He wore a tunic of camel's hair cinched with a strap of animal hide, and the crowds streamed from all over Judea and as far away as Jerusalem to see him and hear him preach.2 The gospels tell us that he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John understood that he was not the main show, just the warm-up act. He merely prepared the way for "the one whose sandals he was not worthy to stoop down and untie." While he baptized with water, the One coming would baptize with Holy Spirit!
With the scene quickly set, Mark tells of Jesus coming from Nazareth to be baptized by John. What drew Jesus to the river that day? Did Jesus feel a need for repentance? Could he have seen himself as a sinner? Scripture suggests that Jesus was about 30 years old, which back then was mid-career. Was Jesus having a mid-life crisis? Had he been sensing God's call in his life - God's urging him out of the woodshop and onto the preaching circuit? What stirrings had been at work in Jesus to impel him to the Jordan where John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?
Whether or not Jesus felt the need for forgiveness, he was unequivocally affirming his faith in God and seeking God's direction for his life. John preached a baptism of repentance, and the literal meaning of the word repent, is to turn. In his baptism Jesus publicly turns toward God. Whatever particular prompting he felt, Jesus sensed the time had come for him to turn to God, by submitting himself to baptism by John. And the experience launched his ministry, for as he came up out of the waters Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove. Then he heard a voice from above and beyond him saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Jesus' baptism was nothing short of a conversion experience - a powerful encounter with God's Spirit, affirming God's presence in his life. God says, "You are my Son, my Beloved, and I rejoice in you."
I suggest we ask ourselves this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, "what does Jesus' baptism have to teach us about our own lives of faith?" Perhaps it is the simple step of repentance, of turning our eyes or gaze toward God, or as one pastor put it, of shifting our priorities "from me to Thee."
Conversion is simply the dynamic process by which God works in our lives to shape us or mold us in the image of God. Life is all about conversion, this process by which God helps us understand who we are, why we are here, and who are all these other people. God says, "You are my beloved, you are here to love me by loving others, these others are my beloved children too."
I began thinking this week of favorite movies that might have a conversion scene or theme, and guess what? It was hard to think of any without elements of conversion.
One of the most fun occurs in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" when Everett, Pete, and Delmar, escapees from a Mississippi chain gang in the 30's, notice a group of people clad in white walking toward the river and singing. When Delmar realizes what's going on, he rushes in to the river, breaking in line to get baptized, truly dunked, by the preacher. He comes running back exclaiming "I've been saved! That preacher says my sins are all forgiven and washed away! Even when I stole that pig." Everett argues, "But you said you were innocent of that." Delmar replies, "I lied" and immediately shouts, "and that's been washed away too!!" Then suddenly Pete follows suit and dashes into the river too, while Everett looks on with disbelief and disgust. Later Delmar shows there's a new creation at work in him when he leaves money for the apple pie that his friends steal from a windowsill.
In "It's a Wonderful Life" George Bailey sinks to the brink of despair when with the help of his guardian angel Clarence, he has an awakening, and realizes that while his life is not what he had hoped and planned, that he is rich in the love of family and friends and has been blessed with a wonderful life.
Or how about "Remember the Titans?" When both the black football players and the white members of the team discover their opinions of one another being transformed as they really get to know each other on a pre-season retreat.
In "As Good as It Gets" Jack Nicholson's character Melvin who suffers from OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, has his narrow life circumference enlarged when he awakens to the needs of others such as his favorite waitress who has a seriously ill child, and his gay neighbor who suffers a violent hate crime.
In "The Secret Life of Bees," young Lily Owens learns to trust others and accept love, and even to understand that her father's meanness stemmed from excruciating brokenness and pain.
Try reviewing your favorite books and movies, through the lens of conversion, and consider how change and awakening are features of most every good story - perhaps because these themes infiltrate and resonate with our own lives. Conversion is about seeing ourselves and others in a new light. It is evidenced in transformation: from sin to forgiveness, from brokenness to wholeness, from bondage to liberation, from despair to hope.
You see conversion is about growing, about the enlargement of our heart's capacity for love. Truly it is about God working on our lives and in our lives from the inside out. Some theologians would call it sanctification - or God's loving, redemptive, rejuvenating Spirit dwelling more fully, indeed saturating and shaking up our lives.
Where has conversion taken place in your own life? I remember:
Like most people, I have experienced close encounters with God in the valleys of life too-
What about you? When has God torn the heavens open in your life? When have you known yourself beloved by God? When have you felt God's call and claim on your life? There is an ebb and flow to our awareness of God in our lives. But scripture reminds us that God abides with us, indeed persists and pursues us, seeking to flood our lives with love.
Our baptism initiates this journey of faith through which God seeks to dwell in us more fully. In our baptism God claims us, and bids us to follow Jesus, mirroring his compassion and embodying his love. As we remember our baptism, our identity as God's beloved sons and daughters this morning, let us ask ourselves whether we need to repent, that is to turn, or re-turn to God.
Perhaps you presently feel like you're wandering in the wilderness of life, feeling a bit lost and longing for the flowing steady undercurrent of God's presence. Or maybe you are experiencing a dry period, of staggering through the desert, desperately thirsting for the waters of renewal and replenishment. You may not even be aware of the inner workings of God's Spirit in your life.
God stirs us to turn from sin and selfishness to service
From apathy to commitment
From fear to faith
From resentment to reconciliation
From anxiety to trust
From despair to hope.
'Sounds like an awesome challenge, doesn't it?
But hear the good news: God's Spirit continues to pursue us,
blowing change into our lives,
renewing our commitments,
refreshing our faith,
transforming our hearts and minds,
empowering us to love,
and reminding us who and Whose we are.
A friend of mine named Donny from my D Min studies told me of an interesting practice in his church. Donny is a Baptist , or maybe it was Holiness pastor, who every year in early January - maybe just this time, at the baptism of the Lord Sunday - tells his parishioners that he is wiping the membership slate clean. He explains that their commitment has become lukewarm if not cool, and that it is time to re-commit, to re-up if you will. In just a few minutes we will have the opportunity to renew our baptism vows - to re-up as followers of Christ.
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