"Initiation Rite"
Scripture - Mark 1:4-11
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, January 11, 2015

The early weeks of a new liturgical year feel as if they are designed to create whiplash. Two weeks ago we were celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus. Today's gospel lectionary reading says Jesus is a fully grown adult. What happened in the intervening years?

Was Jesus the perfect little boy or did he ever get mad and throw temper tantrums? And what about the volatile teenage years? Did he ever skip school, talk back to his parents or stay out past curfew?

When we peruse the gospels for tantalizing details about Jesus between infancy and manhood, we end up almost empty-handed. There is one solitary story. Most of you know it. The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was 12 years old, he dazzled the teachers in the temple with his questions and insights. It is the only smidgen of data we have between the manger and adulthood. I suspect those who want to emphasize his divinity picture a perfect young man, while those who want a more human Jesus see him as a bit like themselves. You can imagine whatever you wish because we simply do not know.

However, one thing is certain. The four gospels agree on the fact that before Jesus launches his ministry he has a rendezvous with his cousin, John the Baptist.

The gospels say that John the Baptist is challenging people to pivot and begin a new arc for their lives. His message resonates with both city sophisticates from Jerusalem and rural folk from the countryside. They venture out to the Jordan River to hear John's fiery message and to be dunked in the river. A number of us from Westminster will always remember our time at the Jordan.

While John is calling for transformed lives, he also announces that a seismic shift is about to transpire. The one who will alter the world forever - our Lifesource - is about to surface. John says, "I baptize you with water, but he will infuse you with the Holy Spirit."

Then, as people are stepping into the Jordan to be baptized, we suddenly hear that John is face-to-face with Jesus. John baptizes him and the Gospel of Mark says that as Jesus "was coming up out of the water, he saw the sky torn apart and God's Spirit descending like a dove. Then Jesus heard a voice declare, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Shortly after Jesus is baptized, he gathers a dozen disciples. Interestingly, there is no mention of Jesus ever baptizing them. In fact, there is no record of Jesus ever baptizing anyone with water. However, from very early times, perhaps during the life of Jesus or shortly thereafter, his followers have had a special ceremony with water that signifies they are members of the religious community that calls itself the Body of Christ.

The sacrament of baptism is generally the first step in one's faith journey. For many, it is an unconscious step - like our two little ones we baptized this morning. They have no idea why these two men in black robes snatched them out of mom or dad's arms and poured water over their heads. But one day they will know the story about their parents wanting them to have the rich life that comes from following Jesus. They will learn that their family and close friends of the family were present for the special occasion. Although they will not remember this day, it is a critical one that will help to determine the course of their lives.

Water is always a part of baptism because it serves as an important symbol. Since before the time of Jesus, water rituals were established to signify cleansing from sin. I do not believe little Tucker and Benjamin are sinners. Bring them back when they are 16 years old and we may have some material to discuss! But we did not pour water on them this morning to suggest they need to be scrubbed clean. They are sparkling children of God created in God's image. The water is a reminder of who God is. God is a forgiving God who does not seek to punish us, but rather picks us up when we fall and shows us how to get it right next time.

When they are a few years older, Benjamin and Tucker will learn that their family grew by leaps and bounds this day as they became a part of this church family. And not only this congregation, but the Body of Christ throughout the world. Baptism marks our entrance into the universal Christian Church as well as a specific community of faith.

This special community has a mandate. Jesus says to love God with everything you have within you and love your neighbor as yourself. The Apostle Paul wrote letters to the earliest churches instructing them - and us - on the kind of ties we are to create in the community of faith. He did not simply say, "Greet one another with kindness and a smile." He wrote, "Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep." That beautiful phrase covers the gamut of human experience. We are expected to develop intimate relationships with others. Our ties with each other are to be built on trust and empathy and a concern for each other's well being.

This is a vital reminder any time, but seems especially important if you have been glued to the awful news the past few days. With round the clock coverage of the terrorists in Paris, their malicious disregard for human life can make us fearful and distrustful of others. It can make us feel as if we need to withdraw from the world and limit our relationships. Such suspicion of others can lead to the fracturing of human community.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a writer who has won numerous writing awards and is probably best known for her poetry. Born in St. Louis to an American mother and a Palestinian father, she is not overly proficient in Arabic. But, one day when she was wandering around the Albuquerque Airport because her flight had been delayed four hours, he heard an announcement: "If anyone in the vicinity of Gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately."

She paused as her mind raced through possibilities of what that could mean in our post 9-11 world. But Gate 4-A was her gate so she went to investigate.

What she found was an older woman in a traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like her grandmother wore. The woman was on the floor wailing.

An airline person said to Naomi, "Help. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was delayed and this is how she reacted."

Naomi stooped down, put her arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. "Shu dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti?" As soon as the older woman heard Naomi's words she stopped crying. It took a little while, but Naomi discovered why the woman was so distraught. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely and she needed to be in El Paso the next day for a major medical treatment.

In the woman's native tongue, Naomi said, "You're fine, you'll get there. Who is picking you up in El Paso? Let's call him." They called her son and Naomi spoke with him in English. She reassured him that she would stay with his mother and sit next to her on the plane.

The older woman talked to her son and her spirits lifted. Then Naomi suggested they call her other sons just for fun. The woman was thrilled. Then they called Naomi's dad and he and the older woman spoke in Arabic and found out, of course, they had ten shared friends. Sound like a conversation between two people from Delaware!

Then, just to see what would happen, Naomi called some poet friends and let them chat with her. All of these calls took up two hours and by then, the older woman was laughing, telling Naomi about her life, and patting her knee.

The woman pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies out of her bag. They are covered with powdered sugar and stuffed with dates and nuts. She began offering them to all the women at the gate, and to Naomi's amazement, not a single woman declined one. Naomi said, "It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo - they were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And they were all smiling." The airline broke out free beverages and two little girls from their flight ran around serving everyone apple juice. They, too, were covered with powdered sugar.

Naomi looked around that gate at the weary travelers and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world where no one is apprehensive about anyone else.1

What a beautiful portrait of the Body of Christ. This is the kind of community of faith God expects us to create. A place where people respond to whoever is in crisis and seeks to heal whatever is broken. A place where we do not all see the world precisely the same or even speak the same language, but we do all we can to understand each other and care for each other. This special community of caring is also called to give itself away for the world by touching others with the love of Christ. This is especially urgent today in our broken and fearful world.


  1. Naomi Shihab Nye, "Gate 4-A."

Prayers of the People - Randall T. Clayton

All glorious God, maker of heaven and of earth, hear us as we pray. We pray for the world you have made, asking that you move again over the troubled waters of creation, waters steeped in chemicals and stained with blood. Where carelessness and violence bring chaos to your creation, restore order, goodness and life. We pray for the church you have redeemed: for the church universal, for our own denomination and for this particular congregation. Give us the courage to use what you have given us to spread your love. Let the welcome we proclaim with our words, be what is experienced always by all who enter these doors. Renew in us the gifts of your Spirit and the call to discipleship. Where history and heresy have divided us, make us one in the baptism we share.

We pray for the people you have created. Especially this day we pray for the people of France as they seek to come to terms with acts of terrorism that occurred this week, and we pray for all who mourn deaths of those who died in plane crashes. We also pray for those who struggle to make ends meet, those who have no place to call home, and those who feel displaced. Give to the leaders of all nations the wisdom to know what is good. Where people are poor and hungry provide justice and daily bread.

We pray for the loved ones you have given us, lifting up to your care especially those in our midst who are sick, those dealing with life limiting illnesses, and those who anxiously await some kind of news. Bless our families, friends and neighbors; keep them safe from trouble and danger. Where there is sorrow, sickness or suffering, send your Spirit of comfort and healing.

All this we pray in the name of the Lord Jesus, whose voice is our strength and salvation, whose breath is the Spirit of peace, who taught us to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."

(prayer adapted from Feasting on the Word, Worship Companion, Kimberly Bracken Long, editor)