I hope that by now you’ve begun to notice a theme present in today’s worship elements. (Story/Storytelling.) If I may be transparent so soon after we’ve met, I believe the importance of storytelling is impossible to over-emphasize for people of faith today. Perhaps I owe it to several good history and literature and religion teachers, or maybe it stems from my appreciation for country music that briefly caused Jennifer to question her decision to date me (she stuck it out, praise God!), or maybe there were too many Sundays as a child where I read the book of Judges during sermons I didn’t understand. Whatever the reason, if I could only give two pieces of advice to Christians who would seek to grow in their faith, they would be 1) God is gracious and has already called you into a holy and powerful love, and 2) Do all you can to grow in your knowledge and understanding of the story of God’s work in the world.
And what is that story that we must learn to tell? It is that God, before time began, spoke into existence all that we know in this world, and God chose humanity to play important roles in that holy creation. Some time after that, humans sinned; we chose to follow a different script than what God hoped for us, and we continue to struggle against that hope. God, of course, was not OK with human sin, and has repeatedly remained faithful and open toward us despite our faithlessness. Through Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and all the people we named earlier [in a responsive call to worship] and many others, God has been calling the world back to righteousness. And Praise the Lord! – God will get what God wants. The end has been written. Details at 11.
So that’s the banner-sized version of God’s story told by the Bible and believers throughout history. But in that larger story are smaller episodes, stories that stand alone. It can be a challenge to keep both kinds of stories in view at the same time. Sometimes, like with mosaic tiles, our smaller stories leave cracks between them. Or like dot-matrix printers they round off edges that could be sharper with a better layout. Hopefully we will be able to take a look at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel on a grand level AND a mosaic level, and still be able to leave without blurry double vision.
If you would, open your Bibles to Mark 1 again and notice a few things with me. First, this is the beginning of Mark’s story about Jesus, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). This is, of course, a common way to begin stories – at the beginning. The books of Genesis and John start very similarly. You start a story “in the beginning.” But Mark seems to know that the story actually starts BEFORE it begins. He mentions Isaiah and references Exodus and Malachi in vv. 2-3, and the way he writes about John the Baptist is very similar to stories about the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. The wilderness reminds good scripture readers of the Exodus story and several Psalms and many episodes of God’s deliverance. There is an intentional effort from Mark to connect this story to the past. We might even point out that Mark wrote about Jesus at least thirty years after the events happened. For Mark, even the Jesus part is in some way past.
The present of the story is obvious enough. John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” responded (1:4-5). John doesn’t let this go to his head, but points to a coming figure who will be even greater. By verse 9, that figure shows up. (Mark doesn’t dally around with Baby Jesus stories.) Jesus gets baptized by John, then the Hollywood special effects kick in. The heavens RIP OPEN, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven approves of Jesus as God’s Son.
What you may not know yet is that Mark is setting us up. Like all good Baptist preachers, Mark knows that it’s not just about who Jesus is or what he did; what WE do with this knowledge matters, too. Throughout Mark we find that usually demons and bad people call Jesus “Son of God” – the title we’ve already read twice in these first eleven verses, once from God’s own mouth. If we keep reading, we see that Jesus IS better than John, that Jesus IS the Son of God. At the end of Mark’s gospel, the heavens are torn open again in the form of the Temple veil. God can no longer be contained, but is unleashed on the whole world with the death of Jesus; we have never been the same. Already in the first eleven verses Mark is preparing us for what is to come, the “future” part of the story.
There are a lot of different questions we could ask about Jesus’ baptism. Was he immersed? Did other people see the dove or hear God’s voice? And if Jesus is the only one to see or hear, why the secrecy, since Matthew and John make it public domain? When the dove came down, was it a “sweet Holy Spirit, sweet Heav’nly dove,” or a fierce dive-bomber more befitting the apocalyptic scene of the heavens torn apart? (Elton Brown) What did Jesus do when he heard the voice; was he satisfied? stoic? surprised? smug? Why don’t we hear anything about Jesus and John’s family relationship? Why did Jesus receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”? If baptism is connected to forgiveness, does the church take it seriously enough? Did Jesus have to hold his nose under water? (Okay, maybe not this last one.)
If these are the questions that interest you the most, there are books, sermons, papers, and people who have offered different answers; ask me and I can try to point you to some of them. What I want us to think about this morning, and for the next several days, is the big question that was on Mark’s mind as he put the gospel together – What does this story mean, and how will you respond? To answer that, we need to go Back … to the Future!
You might remember the story of Marty McFly and his friend, Dr. Brown. The Doc invented a time machine out of a DeLorean in 1985, and he and Marty traveled back and forth through time, first to the 1950s, then to the future (which is only three years from now), then back to the Old West in 1885. Every time they made a trip, one or both of them would manage to do something that upset the space-time continuum, that drastically changed the course of history until they could find some way to put things back together. The major organizing principle of the trilogy was “What you do at one time can have major effects on what happens at other times. The future, the past, and the present are all connected to one another.”
This is not exactly how we think of time’s flow. For us, time flows in one direction – from the past, into the present, to the future. Time flies like an arrow, they say. What Back to the Future and other time travel stories, both fictional and scientific, suggest to us is that maybe time is more circular, like the surface of a ball that wraps around itself and bends in different directions and converges on a point from different angles and slides and spins. In other words, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd figured out what God had known all along; everything is connected.
To take this back to our biblical text, John the Baptist is connected to Elijah. He’s connected to the texts quoted at the beginning of Mark. He’s connected to Jesus, “the one who … is coming after me.” The people being baptized by John are connected to the ancient Israelites and to the church today. Jesus is connected to all of them, of course. The Baptism is connected to the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion and the Roman centurion and the man with a Legion of demons. And WE – your story, my story, the story of First Baptist of Belleville, IL, your future new pastor’s story – all our stories are connected, and they all help to make up the larger story of what God is doing/has done/will do in the world. How have you seen your life fit into God’s plan for the world? How have you seen your story and someone else’s come together, even for a short moment, in a way that makes the stories seem like twins separated at birth? How can you live your life with a greater awareness of the grand story of God’s redemptive activity, in such a way that your life as one of God’s dearly loved children finds its meaning in understanding Jesus’ true identity as the Beloved Son of God?
There’s a big fancy church word for this idea of the future and the past and the present all being connected, and it’s one of my favorite big fancy church words. It’s called “eschatology,” and it focuses especially on how the future affects the present. Again, that goes against the normal way of understanding time, but it’s beautiful and wonderful and amazing and biblical, so I hope you’ll give it some thought. It describes what happened in our biblical passage for today, when the heavens were torn apart. That’s an eschatological event, where something sacred – like the heavens – can’t be contained any longer, and so it explodes into something ordinary – like the sky.
Eschatology also describes an aspect of what happens when we gather together in worship, what happens in our baptism. Baptism is something most, if not all, of us share. It vividly reminds us of Christ’s death and resurrection. Through that, it also anticipates the coming resurrection of all people when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Don Saliers describes it like this:
“The central images of baptism show that Christians participate in Christ’s death and resurrection already…. The witness of baptism is a present way of life, the new creature is appearing. The church as the baptismal and baptizing community is itself to be a sign, a living witness to [the] hope. Hence liturgy [what we do here together] and its consequence in how Christians are to live out the baptized life anticipates the world transformed.” (56, emphasis and bracketed text mine)
Friends, this is one message of Christ’s baptism. How we live is supposed to show people what life ought to be like when God makes everything right again. When God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The same thing happens when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, and happens in an extreme way at Christian funerals. We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, and we proclaim the deaths of those we love, people like [the congregation member who died January 1], who are held tight by the grave until God finally says, “No More!”
And if that future doesn’t get you excited, friends, I’ve got a story you need to hear again.
Pray with me –
Passionate, creative, story-writing God,
We are the characters in your masterpiece, designed by you to play certain parts and to love our Author. Stir in us, now and always, the desire to know the stories you have given us to tell, and to share them with others in compassion and boldness and wisdom and love. Receive our prayer, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.