In You I Find Happiness; Mark 1:9-15
Plymouth First United Methodist; February 21, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
I’m not a detail person. Never have been. I tend to be able to see the big picture and then have to spend more time detailing out the various steps to get there. Scott isn’t a detail person, either, and that has worked for us, somehow. But we gave birth to a child who—even as a little girl—would see little things and ask us about them, and we’d look at her, and go—what? What are you talking about? We never even considered some of the little but very real things she wondered about, and it would take an effort for us to slow down and think through the questions she asked. Never thought of that before.
There are still moments today when we look at her, puzzled, and ask—what? I don’t know! Hadn’t considered that! Whose kid are you?
But that’s been a good thing. She’s taught us a lot over the years.
The writer of Mark isn’t a detail person, either. He gives us the basic facts so that we know the bones of the story, but we need to read the other gospels to fill in the blanks. The good thing in Mark’s abbreviated writing is that we get the story—we get the bottom-line purpose and meaning: its essence. We don’t get “lost” in the details. The “bad” thing, if you want to call it that—is you miss some of the color and drama: the fleshing out of the various events that can help us to more fully understand what Jesus and his followers are dealing with, and perhaps what those dealings have to do with us.
Mark tells us—in 6 sentences—the story of Jesus being baptized by John in the River Jordan, of his being driven into the wilderness for 40 days, of the arrest of John the Baptist, and finally (take a deep breath because it all happens so fast), Jesus’ proclamation [at the beginning of his ministry] that the Kingdom of God has come near, and that people need to repent and believe in the good news.
The bottom line is what’s important to Mark. If you’d like to read or be reminded of the details of these stories, particularly of the temptations, go to Matthew and Luke (chapter 4), who provide those details. Both writers use Mark as their resource.
There are some things I miss reading in Mark’s account. For example, when Jesus is baptized, I think it’s interesting that in Matthew, John the Baptist is hesitant to baptize Jesus saying that instead, Jesus should be baptizing him. I like reading the three stories of how the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness, and how Jesus responds to those temptations. I like the way Jesus responds to the devil with scripture. It’s a good lesson, I think; an encouragement of how we can rely on scripture when we face temptation and other challenges. There are lessons to learn in reading these stories.
We pastors have written whole sermons on Jesus’ baptism and on his time of temptation in the wilderness. After the Epiphany, there’s a Sunday each year that we call Baptism of our Lord, and over most of my ministry I’ve taken the opportunity on that Sunday to lead congregations in renewing our baptismal covenant. Baptism is such an important experience, that it just makes sense to remember the baptism of Jesus and our own baptisms, as well, so we can be reminded of who we are. So we can be reminded that we, like Jesus, have been named and claimed…and that we’re dearly loved. But Mark seems to fly right through all that without giving us time to reflect…to linger.
But perhaps, in reading the “parred down” versions of these stories, it’s easier for us to see the big picture/the big story, without getting caught up in all the details. Maybe when we look at the bottom line, we can better see how God—through Jesus—is re-making, restoring, and re-creating that which has become sin-sick, and broken in the world.
At the beginning of today’s story, we’re reminded of John the Baptist; of his odd appearance and awkward behavior. I think of how offensive his call for repentance must have sounded, and yet people responded with enthusiasm; they came out to hear him and to be baptized. I think of how his message communicated a vote of no-confidence to all that was happening in Israel. He preached a word of judgement against the political and religious leaders of his day. His voice set the elite on edge, while at the same time, his voice expressed a word of hope and expectation for a new day and a new way. While John condemns present practice, he is confident of God’s plan for Israel’s future.
Through John, God is introducing something new…God is re-creating what was, bringing restoration.
John’s call to be baptized isn’t addressed to Jesus, and yet Jesus responds, which affirms the truth of John’s proclamation. Jesus’ response also confuses the religious authorities—at that time, and later in history—how can he be the long-awaited Messiah if he submits to a baptism of repentance? Does this admit sin? No, it doesn’t. And yet, Jesus, in going under the water, does imply a kind of death—as do all baptisms—but instead of being a death to sin, the baptism of Jesus signifies the end of his former life: the end of his obligations as a citizen of Galilee, to the temple and to the religious authorities, to Herod, to Caesar, and to the Roman occupation. Jesus emerges from the water as a citizen of God’s empire, completely free of obligation to anyone or anything except God, and God’s coming rule. He is now free to pursue God’s call and empowered to do all the things that will define his ministry.
Through the baptism of Jesus, God is doing a new thing, a thing that will re-create and restore God’s people as they follow the example of Jesus…
Mark notes that as Jesus comes out of the water, the sky opens—it tears open, Mark writes: the heaven itself is torn apart. It’s an image that seems both violent and hope-filled. The only other place where Mark uses this word of ripping and tearing is in the description of what happens when Jesus dies on the cross—the veil of the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom. It seems that in these powerful moments that the boundaries between heaven and earth are disrupted.
God tears apart, re-creates and makes new, blurring the boundaries between heaven and earth.
The skies tear open and the Spirit descends like a dove. This is the same Spirit that hovers over the deep waters in the creation of the world. In the baptism of Jesus, the remaking, the restoring, the re-creating continues. And we hear the voice of God: “This is my son, by beloved, with who I am well pleased. In him, I find happiness.”
Remaking, restoring, brings God pleasure.
But God’s pleasure in Jesus doesn’t bring Jesus the reward of a time of rest and relaxation. Instead, he heads into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was “led” there, an action which sounds good and peaceful. I like the idea of God leading me. But according to Mark, Jesus is “driven” into the wilderness. Just as the tear in the sky catches our attention, so, too, does the word “driven”—Jesus is driven into the wilderness. And then, rather than distracting us with the details of the particular temptations, what we come to know once again, is the bottom line: Jesus responds to the temptations faithfully. And in doing so, over the course of 40 days, Jesus re-writes Israel’s story. In the 40 years that God’s people wandered in the wilderness, they stumbled, they were overcome by sin, they rebelled, they didn’t trust Moses, they didn’t trust God. They even longed for slavery. And so Jesus enters the wilderness, rewrites the story, redeems God’s people, and reestablishes their destiny.
As we look at the big picture, we can see that God is renewing, restoring, re-creating. Mark doesn’t give us all the details, but what we’re given is the bottom line that reveals God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s love. We can see that God is ready, through Jesus, to restore and redeem the people of Israel. And God is ready, through Jesus, to restore and redeem us.
The kingdom of God has come near, Jesus preached.
It comes near when we don’t settle for what is, but work for what can be.
It comes near when we accept our God-given identity acquired in our baptism.
It comes near when we come to realize that we, too, are beloved sons and daughters, that we, too, can be restored, renewed and recreated, and we can be a part of God’s work in acknowledging and affirming that gift in others, and in our world.
Yes, our world is sin-sick and broken in so many ways. But God continues to recreate, to restore and to make new…
That’s the big picture, the bottom line, the good news.