A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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.Through our eating and drinking of the elements we’ve each prepared we open ourselves to God’s Presence in a tangible, visceral way. I really hope you feel that spiritual connection when we celebrate our church sacraments. That’s the purpose of them – to encounter, experience, and engage with Divine Love on an intimate and deep level.
It’s really important to my theological way of thinking that we dare not limit in any way how God might be revealed and experienced. To imagine that ONLY through baptism or communion can God be experienced as a sacrament is, for me, a ridiculous idea. As if the church has any control over God’s revelation of Godself.
And it’s also really important to my theological way of thinking that we focus in on how sacraments feel and are experienced.
I mean, look at Jesus.
There he was on the bank of the Jordan – waiting for his turn to be baptized by John.
I bet he was excited.
And he wades out into the water, gives himself over to the moment – opening himself and allowing himself to be immersed.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart…
The symbolism here is huge. In the ancient cosmological understanding they thought the universe had 3 tiers – the heavens above where God lived, here around us, and there below us which represented death. So the heavens tearing apart is suggesting that any perceived separation between God and humanity was (and is) forever gone. Ripped apart. Heaven and earth are one – God and humanity are one.
It’s a radically revolutionary theological and spiritual insight – and it came to Jesus in the midst of this sacrament.
…and (he saw) the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
Whatever it meant that God was ‘up there’ was being replaced by this image of sacredness, and peace, and Spirit ‘coming down’ to rest on Jesus. God wasn’t far away and separate – God was right here, right now, with and in Jesus.
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
As far as we know Jesus had done absolutely nothing up to that point in his life that was so remarkable that it would have earned him God’s pleasure. Well, what if it doesn’t work that way at all?
What if God’s pleasure is expressed just because someone opened themselves to that Presence, let down their guard, gave themselves over to the holy moment, and immersed themselves in that Presence?
And another thing – please don’t get hung up on God calling Jesus God’s son. One of our primary theological identities is that we are all called sons and daughters and children of God. That means God could – and does, constantly – hold you as God’s beloved child too!
And when you (and I) allow that love in – well, don’t you think that pleases God to no end?
My big point today is that it wasn’t the particulars of what we now call the sacrament of baptism that made this experience so transformational for Jesus.
And it was transformational because immediately following this Jesus leaves behind whatever it was he was doing and embarks on his public ministry. I’m saying it wasn’t that it was a baptism per se – it was that it was sacramental.
Surely God is in this place. Help me notice.
We say this all the time.
Think it through.
If God is in every place, then every place is sacred.
If every place is sacred then every place has the ability to reveal God’s Presence to us.
Wherever you go, God’s Presence is already there.
We just don’t notice all the time.
But what if we did notice?
What if in some particular moment – wherever you may be – you let your guard down, gave yourself over to the moment, and opened yourself to the possibility that you could experience God’s Holy Mysterious Presence in that moment?
Do you think it could happen?
I hope you do!
If so, such a moment would be a sacrament! A visible sign of an invisible grace.
It’s the ordinary stuff of this world – which is already fully and completely infused with God’s Sacred Presence – becoming the sacramental elements.
Noticing is key – but it’s just the start. What next?
You see, it’s not just that God is present or made known – revealed, unveiled.
It’s that that beautiful, overwhelmingly holy, wondrous, mysterious, inspiring, renewing, transformational power of God’s Presence is experienced, accepted, immersed in, internalized, and revelled in.
You don’t need a church for that, or a clergy person, or water, or bread, or wine.
You are everything you need, and now is as good a time as any.
Every moment can be – IS – a sacred moment.
That’s what Jean Pierre de Caussade thought! He wrote a book called The Sacrament of the Present Moment. Just let that phrase and idea sink in for a minute. The sacrament of the present moment.
Any moment that you allow yourself to be fully present to God can be a moment where God’s Holy Presence is fully made known to you.
It becomes a sacrament when God’s Presence is experienced, accepted, immersed in, internalized, and revelled in.
And how do you know it’s God’s Presence you’re experiencing and not just heartburn?
It’ll feel like Love. Peace. Blessing. Joy. Hope.
It’ll feel like clarity, and understanding, and depth, and resolve.
It’ll inspire you to act – to show compassion, to do justice, to love others.
That’s how you know.
Thank God such things aren’t limited to church rituals!
Every present moment can be a sacrament.
We need to acknowledge this. Just because God is always present doesn’t mean we always notice – and when we do notice it doesn’t mean we pause long enough to do anything about it.
Every present moment is pregnant with Presence and sacramentality – but that’s not how we experience them.
Most moments for us are neutral. Veiled. Hidden. Distracted. Missed.
And then there’s something else we need to say.
Yes, God is present in every moment waiting to be revealed – but God’s Presence can also be acted against, and covered over, and pushed away.
The opposite of a sacrament is an experience of the profane – when God is actively shunned, when hate prevails, when injustice is perpetrated, when self-interest at the expense of the other is allowed to reign, when lying replaces truth, when evil happens.
That is the profaning of God’s sacred presence.
One only need glance at the news to know this is tragically true. You know exactly what I mean.
Our hope is that we know it doesn’t have to be that way – that profanity in word and action is not the Way of Love – and that the Way of Love is much stronger.
Yes, every present moment can be a sacrament, but we have to be willing to enter into it – to say an emphatic and resounding ‘no’ to the profanity of injustice, and hatred, and othering – and to give ourselves over to the sacrament of the present moment.
Such living is risky, and counter-cultural, and leaves one vulnerable. Yup. That’s Jesus for ya.
And so we turn to our church sacraments to help us remember, and notice, and experience God’s sacramental presence when we’re together.
Because the more we practice God’s Presence together the more likely we are to be able to enter into some of those other billion sacraments out there.
In a few moments we’ll eat and drink together sacramentally.
May every bite and sip be a blessing in you, so that you can be a blessing to others.
May every moment of every day be filled with experiencing, accepting, immersing in, internalizing, and revelling in the awesome, wondrous, mysterious, sacred Presence of Love.
Praise be to God for such an overflowing gift of grace – in communion, in baptism, and everywhere.