Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 21, 2021
Mark 1: 9-15
The story of the journey is one of the great themes of literature. Classic tales of search and discovery – Homer’s Odyssey, Don Quixote, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild.
The stories of humankind in the Bible are all about the journeys of life – Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden, Abraham and Sarah setting out to find the land of milk and honey, Moses leading the people through the wilderness.
And of course, Jesus. His life begins with a journey when his parents travel to Bethlehem. Then they must flee to Egypt for a safe haven. As a grown man he sets out from the town of Nazareth, going from one place to another, meeting people along the way, gathering followers, always with the sense that he is moving toward Jerusalem where he will meet his destiny.
Telling someone where you are from is a way to understand something about you –
You’re from the “City;”
You live in the town;
You’re from the farm;
You live on the lake.
Now we know more about you.
The team of folks I work with in hospice recently put together a video so that people could get to know our work. We were each asked to say where we grew up and where we live now.
I grew up in Portland, Oregon – but I was born in Walla Walla, Washington. Now I live in Duluth. People often ask, “What part of the Duluth do you live in?” It’s an important question for people who know Duluth.
The story of Jesus being baptised that we read in Mark’s Gospel today is a familiar one.
It’s a story told with some urgency. Nothing about his birth and very little about his resurrection. At the time the story was told they thought he was coming back any day. There wasn’t a lot of time for expanding on details.
If we look at the story of his baptism as told in the seven short verses of Mark 1:9-15 we see a journey that visits many places. We might say that this story is about a journey to places in the heart and soul of us.
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
Jesus was not from the town where he was born. It’s where he lived and grew up. Nazareth in the time of Jesus was an out of the way place with a population of maybe a couple hundred people. Someone once asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth.”
One writer said he was in the beginning with God and from there he came into the world. But he always carried the aura of Nazareth with him. Nazareth was like one of those towns you pass when you’re driving along a road and if you blink twice you miss it. A collection of houses, and maybe a gas station or café.
When I drive past these villages and hamlets, I’m struck by the idea that there are people there who have always lived there. This is their place, their home and they know everything about everybody who lives in and around there.
When I decided to become a Presbyterian minister, I needed to join a Presbyterian Church. At the time, I was serving as the “Temporary Student Supply” pastor of two Presbyterian Churches. One church was out in the countryside and one was in the town of Tamarack, Minnesota. Tamarack had then and now a population of around 90 people. It was a scattering of houses and businesses at the intersection of Highway 210 and county road 6.
One night we gathered the church Sessions with folks from Presbytery. We had to decide of which church I would become a member – which Session would take me under its care as a candidate for ministry. We flipped a coin to decide. The First Presbyterian Church of Tamarack won the toss. Hopefully they saw it as a win. So Tamarack became one of the places I will always be from. A Nazareth kind of place.
Jesus was baptized
Baptise isn’t a fancy word or a mysterious word. In Greek it means to go down under. It was as if he was immersing himself in the human condition. We look at those we love, and our urge is to protect them from the pain and suffering of life. But we know we can’t protect them from life, just like no one can protect us. We just have to live it and face it for what it is. Yet we know that Jesus has been there.
Jesus was coming up out of the water
He came up out of the water a little bit like being born and a little bit like rising again. Coming up from where he went down under was like a resurrection. It was like a sign of hope that if you go into the depths of your humanity and you will come back up. Sometimes the worse for wear and sometimes renewed for living.
Jesus saw the heavens open
Now he was looking up. He saw the heavens split apart. The word the writer used for split is “Schizoid” and it’s the same one we apply to different forms of mental illness. The alternate realities that present themselves to the mind and which the sufferer struggles to tell apart.
A voice came from heaven
We wonder where heaven is. Is it “up there” somewhere? People say a lot of things about what it will be like. Pearly gates and streets of gold; mansions for everyone! The best of everything along with everyone you’ve ever known and loved. It sounds like paradise. And Jesus told one repentant sinner with his dying breath, “You’ll be there with me.” But where is it?
Maybe it’s enough to say, “With God.” Wherever God is is heaven. If you were with God would you need a street of gold or a mansion? What more could you want? To be with your loved ones? Aren’t they God’s loved ones too?
In heaven you would never say, “What are we doing tomorrow?” because there would be no tomorrow. Only this day – this here and now – which is what eternity means. Not forever and ever, but always now. When Jesus promised paradise to the dying man it was, “Today.”
The Spirit descending like a dove on him
If someone were to tell you this happened to them today, you might think they have a vivid imagination. Like a dove, indeed. The Spirit of God should be like a bolt of lightning; like a flaming sword. If the Spirit of God were a bird, we would at least think it would be something majestic like an eagle. But a dove – a dove is just a pigeon in a dinner jacket.
Maybe it’s to say that it’s not up to us to say what form God takes. Like a dove implies light and fluttery, coming down not as swooping in for the kill but as find a place to land. Which would be our heart and soul.
When the heavens were split and the Spirit came down like a dove Jesus heard a voice, the voice of God saying, “You are my Son – with you I am well pleased.” There’s a lot in that statement. As Jesus made his journey through the rest of his life, he could always rely on the middle part of what God said: With You. That’s the core of the message, really: God with you. With us, you and me.
Out into the wilderness
The wilderness is a place where life seems to struggle. The wilderness is a place testing, a place of trial. It is a place where all the usual things we rely upon for support are not there to hold us up.
With the wild beasts
With the untamed and uncontrolled. The wild beasts are those threats that lurk in the wilderness. They threaten to harm or destroy us. They are the forces over which we have no control. Jesus was there with them. He faced them like we face them.
Jesus came to Galilee
He went back to his home region, but it was no longer the same home. We come through the wilderness and back home never seems the same again. It changes, but more often we have changed. We find that in facing our fears and vulnerabilities, we often are stronger for it. But like scars from an injury, the wilderness experience stays with us. Home is never the same again.
The kingdom of God has come near
Jesus came through the waters, he saw the heavens, he went through the wilderness and he wrapped all of that together to say that the kingdom of God is very near. It is at hand. The reality of God’s presence in the here and now. The kingdom of God is not a place we go to, it is a realm God brings to bear in us. It is in us, among us and through us.
Repent he said. Repent doesn’t mean you have to change from being bad to good before God loves you. Repent is a word that simply means, “turn around.” Turn around and simply believe. Turn around and realize that everywhere you turn, there is God’s realm. It’s where you are.
Because the realm of God is seen and reflected in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, then it is as we grasp God’s essential character that we take hold of life’s meaning. When we say that God is love, then it must hold true that as we give and receive love, we touch upon God’s purpose for our lives.
My father-in-law Perry Biddle wrote a thank you note one time; I think it was just to folks in general. It reflected his journey in life. I found it helpful for my journey and so I share it with you –
“Thanks for the gift, a bit of yourself.
Thanks for letting me know who you are a little better.
Thanks for telling me, ‘You’re okay,’ and meaning it.
Thanks for letting me tell you who I am, and not laughing.
Thanks for letting me tell you my story.
Thanks for listening, really listening, so that I could hear who I really am and want to become.
Thanks for being honest, when being phony would have been easier for both of us.
Thanks for letting me give a bit of myself to you and for receiving my gift with your love.
Thanks, most of all for just being you, and letting me be me.
Thank you, Lord, for your love that lets me love and be loved.”