The Festival of the Baptism of our Lord, Cycle B
"God Come Near to Us!"
January 8, 2012
Saint Luke's Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs
Lessons: Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; St. Mark 1:4-11
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I realized last night yet one more reason why it's a blessing that we have Saturday evening services here at Saint Luke's. Being here kept me from feeling the need to watch yet another presidential debate. I don't know about you, but already I'm tired of the process. And tired, not of the freedom and responsibility to choose, but tired of the process. Tired of being reminded all too clearly how divided we are as a nation, especially when it comes to politics. We see that every time we enter into an election cycle, as we see candidates jockeying for position, pundits trotting out the latest polls that show we are not all behind one candidate or another, nor do we all agree on which issue is most important. Should we vote our major concern as the economy, or jobs, or marriage and family issues? And then, when we get to the election later this year, it will be all to obvious how divided we are, based on results from red states, or blue states, or swing states. And that's not to mention the ongoing polarization within Congress as a whole, where little seems to ever be accomplished. And while we Americans are always looking forward, and hoping for change and a brighter future, while most of us Americans do not see our country as the Occupy Wall-Streeters do, with the 99% as over against the 1%, still, little seems to change from one election cycle to another. And I have to say, as I've been reading presidential biographies these last ten years, it does seem we have always had divisions—as, for example, when we were divided between northerners and southerners, federalists and state's rights advocates. And it may well be that such divisions in our nation are necessary checks and balances. But other divisions in our world are surely not so necessary. The constant, violent clashes between Israel and her neighbors, for example. The tribal tensions, it seems, that keep erupting in bloody battles throughout the nations of Africa. The international tension between Iran, and the rest of the world. These are an indication of the great divides that exist, between nations and peoples—separations that don't seem to be lessening, nor will they in the near future. All of which make life difficult, today—as we live, each day, with the reality of tension, violence and yes, terrorism and war. Which is mentioned not to cast a pall of doom and gloom over our new year just begun; mentioned not to create, here, now, a great sense of dread and hopelessness—it's mentioned simply to point out to the reality of how divided our world is, and how division and separation continues to be so much a part of everyday life—now, just as it was in ages past. Even in the time of John the Baptizer and Jesus!
For though their time was full of many of the same national and international divisions and polarizations—between Jews and Gentiles, between Romans and the people of Israel, between Jerusalem, Judah and all of her powerful neighbors to the north and south and east—the greatest division and separation for God's people at that time, was that great distance between God, and His people! William Barkley, the great Scottish biblical commentator writes, "the people of Israel were well aware that for three hundred years, the voice of God had been silent. They were waiting for some authentic word from God. To them," writes Barkley, "God was so distant that it was only ever the far away echo of the voice of God that they heard."
And why this great distance? Why this great separation from God? The Jews had a saying, "if Israel would only keep the law of God perfectly for one day, the Kingdom of God would come." And that was the problem. Israel was far, far from keeping the Law of God—at all, let alone, perfectly for one day! This was considered a time of great disobedience in Israel—and a time when Israel had strayed, partly through their own lack of faithfulness, partly due to the temptations presented by the all too present Roman Empire and culture that, while considered civilized, was also pagan, allowing and encouraging the worship of many gods. And with Roman civilization came also Roman baths, and Roman sexual license, and Roman morals and ethics, many of which were in direct conflict with the Laws and Commandments of the one true God, given to His people, Israel. The Jewish nation, in the time leading up to the coming of John the Baptist, was in great trouble, spiritually, in that as they had distanced themselves from God, and separated themselves from Him by their sin and disobedience, they understood God to have withdrawn Himself from them—so that they no longer experienced God present, they no longer heard God's voice, they experienced God as distant and far off. And indeed, God had been far off from them. And yet, there were prophesies that foretold of a coming Messiah, who would once again speak for God. There were prophets of old who had predicted this time of sin and disobedience that would be overcome by an anointed one whom God would send to uplift the people and bring them back to God.
In chapter 42, the prophet Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying about this chosen one in a time yet to come, "Behold, this is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon Him." The strict, ascetic Qumran community of which many scholars believe John the Baptist was a part, taught that a priestly messiah would come to restore Israel to the Lord God, and their writing, the Testament of Levi states, "from the temple of Glory shall come upon the Messiah sanctification, with the Father's voice as from Abraham to Isaac. And the glory of the Most High shall be uttered over him, and the spirit of understanding and sanctification shall rest upon him."
Without a doubt, people knew of these prophecies, and yearned for that time when this promised Messiah would come and through repentance and forgiveness, restore Israel to a right relationship with God and bring people close to God again. And, you see, I trust, where this is going. This restoration and reconciliation was seen to begin with the whole event of the Baptism of Jesus, which we commemorate today! After hundreds of years of waiting and watching, finally, in the Baptism of Jesus, this new era of oneness between God and man, was about to begin—and it happened in very much the way that it was prophesied—with one very BIG exception! Yes, the priestly messiah had come, and John, the last of the great prophets recognized Jesus as such, and baptized Jesus, signaling the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry. Yes, Jesus' baptism was an ordination to this ministry as before, Jesus had lived at home, with family, and after His baptism, Jesus began His public ministry of preaching and teaching and proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God. And yes, the Spirit descended upon Jesus, anointing Him for this ministry, and yes, a voice from heaven was heard once again, affirming and confirming Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah. But what is different, what was more than they had expected, was this opening, this tearing apart of the heavens—this rending asunder of the firmament—which meant that now, not only had God come close to His people again, but in this Jesus, there would be no distance at all!
Religious people at that time saw heaven as above, up there, where God dwells, and rightly so, far above and detached from the sin and disobedience and dirt and broken humanity on earth. But the opening of the heavens signaled something new, and different—that in Jesus, God Himself was coming down to earth. Jesus would be, not just a human chosen to lead God's people, but God in the flesh, God's own Son, the Beloved, here to live with God's people, to shepherd and guide them, not as an ambassador, but as Emmanuel, God-with-us! After generations of separation and distance from God, now, God was doing a new thing—He was, Himself, entering into human history, to be, as we have just been celebrating this Christmastide—to be the Word become flesh to dwell among us, full of grace and truth. This meant now, humanity was not to strive to reach up to heaven—humanity was not burdened with trying to climb the ladder to God; rather, God has come down to us—to be with us, to love and care for us, to break down the dividing walls of hostility between Him and us, between Jews and Gentiles, between Israel and Palestine, between nations and peoples, and homes and families. Now, God has incarnated Himself, in human flesh and blood, to bring about, by His own effort and will, restoration, and reconciliation, and unity and peace. And while that was begun in Jesus' Baptism in the River Jordan, as the heavens were torn and the Spirit came down, and Jesus began his three years of ministry—it wasn't yet completed. It wasn't completed, until there was another tearing asunder of a barrier between God and man.
It's no coincidence that in the Gospel of Mark, there are two times when barriers are torn apart, or rent asunder. The first is here, of course, at the baptism of Jesus. But the second? In Mark 15, we read, "Then, Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed His last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." And how telling then, that it was a Roman, a pagan centurion, who confesses at the cross, "Truly, this man is the Son of God."
Now, in this second rending, the separation between God and man, the distance between Creator and creature, would be gone forever, as in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we have been reconciled and restored, once for all, by the Lamb of God who gave His life for the sins of the world. As we read in Hebrews, "So also Christ did not exalt Himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by Him who said to him, "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee"; Although He was a Son, he learned obedience through what He suffered; and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Mechizedek." And Hebrews continues, "But when Christ appeared as a high priest.he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption..."
The curtain of the Temple was the veil that shut off the Holy of Holies, the place of God's presence in the Ark of the Covenant, from anyone but the high priest. But now, in the death of Jesus, the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the veil was torn in two, and the way to God is now wide open! Now, in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven, cleansed, purified, so that we can see God face to face. God is no longer hidden—now, we look to Jesus and can say, "this is what God is like." And what is God like? Loving. Forgiving. Merciful. Graceful. Reconciling. Restoring. God always desires peace. In spite of our troubled and troubling world, in spite of the need for us to stand firm on behalf of God's Word, sometimes creating division, God still, always desires peace. Peace between Himself, and us—and between us and our fellow humans. God desires peace between all nations and peoples—peace, unity and harmony. Not war, violence, polarization and prejudice. But how will that come about? How might that happen?
Certainly not, through the United Nations. Not, through our current president, or any president. Not through any human effort or action, whether political or personal. But only through the sacrifice of Jesus and His blood, poured out for the world. Our hope for the future can ultimately only be found in Jesus. Jesus—incarnated for us; baptized for us; crucified and risen, for us, and for our salvation, and for the salvation of the world. Jesus is the one and only Savior of the world, as He brings to us, close to us, God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And on this Festival of the Baptism of our Lord, we commit ourselves again, to this, the one, true, Triune God. We sing in the Hymn of the Day, "I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity", and the hymn closes with the words, "salvation is through Christ alone!" Let us always and everywhere lift up, and proclaim, and testify to, God, in Jesus Christ, the hope and the future of the world!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.