Year A, Baptism of Our Lord, Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11
Sermon to Pohick Church, Sunday, January 10, 2020 • The Reverend Dr. Lynn P. Ronaldi
The morning after the frightening events in the Capitol, like many of you, I found myself weeping at news images of the chaos. The tears surprised me; at first I couldn’t pinpoint the underlying source of deep sadness.
So I prayed, and as I did, I reflected on today’s readings. The passage from Mark’s Gospel and the story of Creation spoke to me about divine leadership and vision: particularly the necessity for humility, self-emptying love, and interconnectedness.
As I imagined sinless Jesus wading into muddy water alongside a mass of sinful people, something broke open inside me. More tears came, but tears of hope! I was convinced the answer to the God-directed leadership our nation so desperately needs lies in a call to renewal and God-centeredness. God is re-calling us, our nation, and particularly our leaders to our baptism in the Holy Spirit, and to a conversion of heart.
Starting with the baptismal scene at the River Jordan, Mark actually skips over the details of Jesus’ birth. Clearly, his focal point is not the birth of Jesus; it is his Baptism. For Mark, the Good News begins at the very instant Jesus lets go of his innocent individuality for solidarity with broken humanity.
Notice, the very moment Jesus breaks the surface of the roiling, muddy waters, baptized alongside sinful humans, coincides with the moment God announces his identity as Beloved Son. The instant Jesus embraces the truth of our interconnectedness in God, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove.
God’s voice affirms Jesus’ singular act, saying:
“You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
What has this to do with the failure of American leadership, mob violence, and the utter chaos this week? Democracy is based on interconnectedness. Our Constitution is grounded in God-given principles.
Today our nation is sick, many of our leaders have lost their way, and healing can only begin with the baptism of repentance and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This country not only must confess its self-centeredness; by the power of the Holy Spirit, we must surrender to a complete conversion of heart.
We must reject our rampant individualism, and deliberately and contemplatively return to interconnectedness. As baptized Christians, our task is to model this conversion by being intentionally centered in the Holy Spirit. Being re-rooted and re-grounded in Love. Respecting the dignity of every human being.
Only when we repent of our individualism and become others-centered, humbly admitting we actually need one another and learn from one another, will we be re-created and re-newed. Only then will we again be One Nation under God, indivisible. A light to other nations, instead of an object of derision and scorn.
How can we be confident the madness and chaos will subside? Resurrection and renewal have been the pattern of God’s relationship with humanity since the Dawn of Creation. God’s Spirit has been breathing new life into the world since Day One.
In Genesis, we witness the power of God’s Spirit to still the chaos. At the moment of creation, “…darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
The ancients understood “wind from God” to mean God’s own Spirit. The Hebrew word for breath, wind, and spirit is the same: Ruah. Furthermore, ancient cosmology equated water with chaos. As early as the First Day, God breathes His Spirit over the deep. He shines His Light into darkness.
This Genesis passage anticipates the climax of God’s creation: human beings who are made in His image. We are the Imago Dei. We arecreated with that much potential!
In recounting Jesus’ baptism, Mark alludes to familiar OT passages like this one from Genesis, as well as from the prophet Isaiah. He is helping his original Jewish audience see God’s consistency from Old to New Testament. Those early Christians were suffering from persecution and oppression, so Mark wants them to trust a God who faithfully breathes order into chaos and affirms human potential.
Mark includes a passage from Isaiah as a link to John the Baptistat Jesus’ baptism.Isaiah heralds the joyful news of God’s undying presence and redemptive love to a people in exile. To a nation lost in the chaotic wilderness of their own making he says:
“A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord[;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
Later, Isaiah also offers a reassuring promise of God’s faithfulness:
“…Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
The image of the eagle is instructive. You may have heard, unlike other birds who anxiously avoid a storm, eagles fly into a storm. They use the updrafts to rise above the chaos. They hover over the storm and then soar away in freedom and safety.
Today, in our current wilderness, I hope we will take these powerful images to heart – images of what God has been doing since the dawn of creation. He consistently sends his Spirit to hover over chaos and restore His beloved creatures to freedom and life.
The very moment we plunge into the chaotic waters of baptism, humbly repentant in solidarity with other broken humans, is the moment God blesses our interconnectedness. Just as God names Jesus his Beloved, we are so named.
Today, as sad, angry, and fearful as we feel, we can take comfort in God’s faithfulness. We can trust in God’s repetitive pattern of breathing order into chaos. And as we surrender individualism and embrace interconnectedness anew, we can influence our nation’s healing and renewal.
What steps can we take? The answer is simple, yet profound: We can re-center ourselves in God. Be more grounded in Christ’s Love. Receive anew the power of the Holy Spirit. How?
- It may not surprise you that I begin with prayer and praise. Turn to the Psalms, the heartfelt prayers of human beings. Today’s Psalm 29 is a perfect beginning. The Psalmist breaks into spontaneous praise as he recreates the experience of a thunderstorm. He praises God for appearing in glory and splendor in, through and above the storm – ironically, like the eagle.
- Focus on gratitude. A monk once said, “gratitude and anxiety cannot exist together.” On Sundays I bless you with: “Rejoice. Do not be anxious about anything, but in prayer and with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…”
- With humility and honest self-awareness, journal what is giving you energy and hope, and what is sapping your energy and causing despair, anger or unforgiveness. Name and repent of times you have dug into an extreme position and give thanks for the times you’ve moved to a more moderate, balanced place.
- Practice centering in God, in silence and contemplation. It is said silence is the language of God. Every morning set aside time to be with God. Read from the Bible or an inspiring devotion. Be still. Breathe. Listen with the ear of your heart.
- Reach out to others in service. Interconnectedness is clearly life-affirming.
Try routinely practicing these. During our Lenten Program, we will focus on healing and renewal. Soon we’ll find we are less fearful, less angry, less sad. Centered in God, we can be a fresh wind of the spirit and a light in the darkness.
I frequently allude to the centeredness of our colonial ancestors who were formed and worshiped here at Pohick. As you know, this includes President George Washington.
Perhaps we can model our nation’s renewal on Washington’s commitment to being centered in God. Out of his spiritual groundedness, some of the most sacred and enduring principles of our democracy flow – principles based not on individualism and extremism, but on interconnectedness and moderation.
I close with President Washington’s God-centered word of caution for our fledgling nation. He wrote to a governor during his first presidency, when political parties were already fracturing the democracy:
“My greatest fear has been that the nation would not be sufficiently cool and moderate in making arrangements for the security of liberty. If we mean to support the liberty and independence which it has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish, we must drive far away the demon of party spirit and local reproach.”
Today I hope we are convicted that healing our divided nation and renewing our fractured leadership begins with our plunge into the baptismal waters. As people and as a nation, we must, with humility, die to our individualism, and with love, rise up to our interconnectedness in Christ Jesus. Amen.