Yr B ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Mark 1:4-11
We know the story of Jesus’ baptism very well. It’s recorded pretty much the same way in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and it comes up in the lectionary for us every year – and right at this time every year. It’s a pretty obvious tie in. I mean you don’t have to work very hard as a preacher to make a connection between the beginning of a new calendar year and how that represents a fresh, clean slate for us all, and the idea of Jesus rising up from under the water, fresh and ready to enter a whole new phase of his life.
Jesus’ baptism takes place somewhere around the time he’s 30 years old. It has perplexed Christians for centuries what Jesus may have been up to in those first 3 decades of his life. We have some stories of his birth, his dedication as an infant, and one story of him as a young lad who was drawn to the Temple and got separated from his parents. And that’s it. Oh, there’s been rampant speculation about what Jesus’ youth was like – there’s even some gospels written about it that didn’t make the bible. But it’s all pure speculation. We just don’t know.
All we know is that at about age 30 Jesus felt drawn to the river Jordan where his cousin John was flourishing with a very counter-cultural baptism and life-renewal ministry. The bible says that people from all over the place were coming to John – that the whole of Jerusalem was coming to him. Hyperbole, obviously – but it clearly establishes that John’s baptism thing was a big deal.
Mark 1:9-11 – In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In true gospel of Mark fashion the story is both short and abrupt and profoundly spiritual at the same time. It’s the spiritual experience part I’d like to focus on. No surprise there! I want us to think about what it felt like for Jesus.
Imagine, being immersed in that water – a bunch of strangers watching – your cousin trying to decide if he should pay you back for that time at the family picnic a few years ago (just kidding) – and as you emerge from under the water you have such a profound spiritual experience that you witness the sky being torn wide open, and you visualize the Holy Spirit, and you hear the voice of God calling you beloved!
Now THAT’s a sacred moment.
A sacrament, to be sure.
In our United Church of Canada tradition we celebrate 2 sacraments: baptism and communion.
If you were a Roman Catholic you’d have 7.
There are also Christian denominations that mark no sacraments at all.
I note that only to say that what someone names as a sacrament is a choice. It isn’t directly prescribed by the bible.
So what is a sacrament anyway?
One definition describes them as specific religious rites or ceremonies that are presided over by an official ‘ordered’ church leader – like me.
But I believe sacraments are so much more than that.
I’m not the arbiter of what’s sacred. My sharing baptism or communion with you isn’t made holy because I’ve got a collar. Yes, it’s appropriate that in public worship within a denomination that there’s some gatekeeping around our religious rituals – but for me that’s as far as I like to take it.
I’m actually much more interested in the idea of sacraments that go far beyond the 2, or 7, or none that churches mark.
For me, I believe there about a billion sacraments available to us!
Ok, that’s not realistic. Maybe several billion!
The most basic definition of sacrament is a moment or event or activity in which God’s usually hidden or veiled presence is made known, and in that making known what was invisible becomes visible, or knowable, and God’s blessing, and favour, and grace are conveyed and experienced.
A short definition would be: a visible sign of an invisible grace.
We have that in the water of baptism, and in the bread and wine of communion.
Somehow, in the midst of our interacting with those basic things of life – water, wine, bread – God’s Presence is revealed and internalized in an experiential way.
After my sermon we’re going to have communion. read on