I love the idea of the new year–the whole year, stretched out in front of you, fresh and open, full of possibility. To be fair, it takes me about ten minutes to realize that: 1. I am still the same person I was minutes or hours ago, when it was still the previous year, and 2. the possibilities of the new year are not ripe for the taking so much as places to work towards, every day, which… is not nearly as shiny and appealing. And those realizations always leave me feeling a bit flat.
But here we are, at the beginning–the beginning of the new year, the beginning of the gospel of Mark, the beginning of the story of Christ’s ministry. John seems to be living in the wilderness, that place of demons and mystics, of wild animals and dusty, empty land and, for the few people who lived there, all the hard work of making a life for yourself alone in a hard land.
People are intrigued by this strange figure, intrigued enough to come to him in his wilderness, to come from all over Israel to hear his words of baptism and repentance and the one who is coming. They come, and are baptized, and confess. They come, and ask questions, and John proclaims.
And one day Jesus comes to John. Jesus, the one John has been waiting for and proclaiming about for all this time, comes, comes and is baptized.
It’s the start of the start of Jesus’ ministry–after this He is tempted in the wilderness, so Jesus is almost there. Just a bit further, and He enters into His public ministry, He begins preaching and He calls the first of His disciples. But this week we’re still at the start, still dwelling with this moment where John the baptizer baptizes Jesus.
And the result is remarkable, astounding: as Jesus comes out of the water (for this was probably a baptism by full immersion in the River Jordan), he sees a vision of the heavens being torn asunder, of the Spirit coming down “like a dove” and hears a voice from heaven calling him beloved Son.
That must have been something. *pause*
Jesus’ baptism was something serious. It recalls Isaiah 64, that I preached on during Advent, and the prophet’s prayer: “O that you [God] would tear open the heavens and come down,”. God has torn open the heavens, torn apart the separation between the heavenly and the earthly, for here is God walking across the earth, here is God in the river, being baptized by John the Baptizer. Indeed, as Isaiah said later, “you [God] did awesome deeds that we did not expect”. Because no one expected God to come down like this; no one expected God to come down as a baby, to live out a human life; they wanted and expected God to come down with fire and hail and destruction, to come down in power–against other people, of course–not to come down as some guy they could pass on the street without having any idea Who they just walked past.
In fact, “you did awesome deeds that we did not expect” pretty much sums up God. Even in the Old Testament God’s doing all sorts of odd, unexpected things, like choosing the tiny, nobody people of Israel as God’s people, like winning battles for them when the odds were impossible, like destroying their nation for their arrogance and then gathering them together again, like choosing seventh sons and widows and women and all these others who were overlooked by everyone to work through. God is full of the unexpected.
And, really–yes, John was the epitome of everything everyone thought a prophet should be, from being weird and abrasive to living in the wilderness and wearing weird clothes–but still, the fact that God chooses to work through John is astounding. Not because of John per se–as I said, he’s pretty much exactly what a prophet “should” be–but because God, the creator of the universe, the all-powerful and all-knowing, who can do anything and everything, for whom nothing is impossible, chooses to work through John. Even John says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals”; even John sees that he is tiny and weak next to God, next to God’s messiah who is coming; but still God comes to him and works through him, still God invites John into this new, wonderful thing God is doing and gives him a part, gives him a way to participate and not only have a part, a task to do, but to be a part of this new thing that God is doing. God, the creator of the universe, still chooses to go to John, to have John lay hands on him and dunk him in the river and then haul him out again.
And this strange, unexpected aspect of God doesn’t stop with John. It doesn’t stop with the disciples, who were invited to take part in Jesus’ ministry. And let’s be perfectly honest: if God was looking for understanding and efficiency, then the disciples were exactly the wrong people, for they spend the entire journey asking frustrating questions, keeping people from Jesus, misunderstanding, running away, lying, and failing. But I don’t think that efficiency is what Jesus was looking for at all. If God wanted efficiency, then Jesus could have done everything–or, better yet, God could have taken care of everything long before Jesus’ time.
Instead, God invites humans to take part. Not just some humans–not just John the Baptist and the disciples, not just the prophets and the apostles, but all humans, all of humanity. We are invited to take part, with all of our mess, with all of our misunderstandings and lies and repeated attempts at running away, with all of the ways we try to keep the “wrong” people from the church and ask the same questions over and over and over. God still invites us to take part.
Lest we be discouraged–by our failures, by all the ways we don’t see that happening in our lives, EVER, by the silences and falls and sins–remember that Jesus offers us forgiveness and grace, but remember, too, that moment when Jesus came out of the water after his baptism. If you read closely, Jesus was the only one who saw this vision, who saw this moment where God was ripping apart the heavens to get to us and to do this new, wonderful thing. John had no idea. John had no idea that this baptism he’d just been part of had begun this new, beautiful thing. I mean, he knew something was coming, he knew that God was doing something through this man who’d come–but he didn’t know exactly what, and God didn’t show him. That moment was just for Jesus.
And I wonder how many moments like that are happening around us and through us–how many moments are happening that aren’t for us, however much or little we may have touched it in some way. God works through us, invites us to take part in the new, unexpected kingdom that’s being built with our participation, each day. We don’t see all the ways that God is tearing open the heavens around us, coming into our world and entering into our pain and sorrow and joy and making it all new–we don’t even see all the ways God is doing that in our own lives–but it is happening. It is happening, and God invites us to take part.
Will you accept? Will you offer yourself to God, to take part in this new thing, to touch others and be touched by God?
Will you accept?