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Theophany

Mark 1:4-11

· Epiphany

Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

*****

How many people do you think John baptized before Jesus came to him? He waited in the desert, wild-eyed, this holy fool, bellowing about the kingdom of God. The crowds came out to him to be washed, made clean, to get a fresh start. So many people, so sure they were guilty of something or other, having heard so all their lives. Droves of people from all over the countryside, and then they started coming out from the city, too, some earnest, some just to gawk at the curiosity of this man who dressed like Elijah and half drowned people to say that the Kingdom of God was coming. But it’s not here yet.

 

How many people did John baptize, knowing that his baptism wasn’t the real thing? One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism is about anticipating, longing, preparing the way for something, someone better, who isn’t here yet. Repentance, forgiveness, justice, mercy, the Kingdom of God, they’re not here yet and no matter how many people you baptize, John, they won’t come one moment sooner. So John waits in the river—a border, a transitional space, a break between one land and another, and invites the people to step off the solid ground they know and into the middle of that flowing, becoming, transitory space. John has to go into the middle and even the depths of the middle before he can cross to the other side.

 

So John’s ministry is not very effective. His ministry is about undoing, destabilizing, critiquing, calling for a world that doesn’t yet exist and that on this side of the river does not seem possible. For all his activity, all the attention he received, all the people he touched, the kingdom of God is no closer for his work. By his own admission, what he’s doing is not the real thing. And even though he’s preparing the way, it’s not like his preparation compels Jesus come. There’s no cause and effect relationship between John baptizing and Jesus coming. And yet John keeps showing up.

 

I wonder if John got tired of it, all the work without the results? If after days of standing in the water, the endless repetition—Repent! Repent! Into the water, back up again—made him weary? Did his back start to ache from pulling people out of the river? Did he ever despair that all the while, the world looks much the same as it did?

 

Maybe you know the feeling. Maybe you’ve been coming to church all your life, Sunday after Sunday. You’ve been baptized, you read the Bible, you pray, you eat Christ’s flesh and blood at communion, you know your way around a potluck. But you find yourself wondering, where are these blessings, this resurrection, everyone keeps talking about? Where are these fruits of the Spirit, when church people seem to be just as messed up as everyone else, only more so? Maybe you can’t help but wonder, is church working? What are we doing here? We show up and things stay the same.

 

Maybe you work for justice in our community. You show up for the poor and the oppressed. You give money, you give rides, you babysit, you wait in line at social services, you put your body on the line at protests and rallies. You know countless people who want things to be different, but you see the way our systems are set up to push the poor two steps back for every one step forward they take. You show up and things stay the same.

 

Maybe you are poor, and you show up here and you hear how the poor are blessed, how Christians are called to give away their second cloaks, how we are a community, and you wonder, what kind of community are we when I struggle so much and so many others in here are so comfortable? We show up and things stay the same.

 

This is life. We try and we toil. You call or you invite that child over for dinner over and over hoping to rekindle some old intimacy. You go to the gym week in, week out, hoping to regain or just retain some vitality, some strength in your flesh. We go to work, go to the store, go back home, rinse and repeat. The days string together, most of them looking like the one that came before, and this is life. We’re immersed in the water, in the flow of time that is never the same but always chops on the same rocks, eddies against the same shores. We make a way in the wilderness towards yet more wilderness. The cells in our bodies replace themselves but we are who we are. Every moment of progress sets the stage for injustice to arrange itself in some new way tomorrow. John stands in the water with seemingly endless lines of people walking away from him and toward him. Will he be here for all of time? How long, O Lord, will we show up, only to find that things stay the same?

 

But in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus comes without fanfare. In Mark, there’s no birth narrative or grand genealogy marking him out as a king. Mark doesn’t even say that John recognized Jesus before he baptized him. Christ arrives with the crowds and is no different from the people there. He stood in line, stepped into the flow of time. There were hundreds of people before him and hundreds after him, and John baptized them all. The Messiah could have been any one of them. Repent Forgive Down Up Repent Forgive Down Up Repent Forgive Down Up. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, 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, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Jesus shows up, and something new happens.

 

In the second book of his novel My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard gives an anecdote from when he was attending a birthday party for his daughter’s classmate. Another parent was talking to him and asking how his writing works, if he just sits around waiting for inspiration. It’s a common picture that people have of artists, that there is some kind of spirit or genius that strikes them and then their work pours out of them as if by magic. Knausgaard answers, “No I have to work every day just like you. I go to my office and I write. If I can’t think of anything to write, I just describe something in the room, but I have to keep writing.” Most of it is garbage that no one else will ever read, but every so often, after hours and hours of toil, it’s like the heavens open up and you stumble upon something brilliant. But you never would have gotten to that moment without showing up every day to welcome it. Musicians don’t get the brilliant concert without hours practicing till their fingers bleed; workers don’t get an increase in wages without months of organizing together; churches don’t get new members church without dozens of coffees and breakfasts getting to know new friends. Inspiration, calling, insight usually come to the people who show up. Not the people who sit comfortably in Jerusalem or the sanctuary or the comfort of their own home, but those who go out into the wilderness, who are willing to go looking, who will step into the river. The moment of inspiration, of genius, of spiritual insight only comes within the flow of time. It interrupts that flow, it’s not what comes just around the river bend, but its in the flow that we are interrupted.

 

Jesus is a part of the crowd. There is no separating Jesus’ baptism from all the ones that came before his and after. But John was there to receive him because he baptized all of them. The heavens do tear open, and John witnesses the event because he showed up, because he stepped into the river when there was no guarantee that would happen. John sees the Spirit as a dove and hear’s God’s voice because he pulls Jesus up from the water just as he’d pulled up hundreds of others. If John hadn’t been baptizing all along, he never would’ve seen the heavens open up. He only knows the world has ripped open because he’s in so deep in that world to begin with.

 

So John’s ministry might not be “effective,” but it’s not supposed to be. John’s not called to be effective. He’s called to show up and be ready.

 

And that’s what we’re called to do also, to step with intention into the currents of our neighborhoods and our city, not to skirt along the surface so that we drift through life but to plant our feet on the river bed and feel it rush around our legs. 9 days out of 10, 99 out of 100, 999 out of 1000, we’ll just be standing in the water. We come to church, we go to IFC, we give that person a ride to the grocery store, we let someone without a roof stay in our guest room, we hold the BBQ at Kings Arms, and more times than not, it is what it is. No greater reality opens up, we just do the boring, mundane, often inconvenient works of worship and mercy and hospitality because they are the right things to do, and that’s OK. Because that’s what showing up looks like in our world, that is the art of discipleship.

 

But every so often, in ways we cannot predict, the heavens will tear open, time and space will rip and the bottom will drop out, and we will see once again that the flow of time is just a pale reflection of the flow that is God’s life, the Lover sending out the Beloved and the Love between them drawing them back together again: This is my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Sometimes worship opens up beyond itself so that the very depths of love make you weep as they become tangible; sometimes God makes it so so clear to us how we are called to serve our neighbors, sometimes hospitality opens up onto friendship, sometimes works of mercy become works of justice (the hotel room for a night becomes an apartment for years). These moments are possible because they reflect the deepest reality of all, that of God’s own life. This time when the heavens tear open and God calls Jesus Beloved is a called a “theophany,” which means that in it, God is revealed to us.

 

So friends, may we show up like John. May we step into the river, day in, day out. In water, in bread and a cup, in giving a dollar or a jacket or a car, may we show up, no matter how “effective” such things might seem to be. May we show up so that when God tears open the heavens we’re ready to receive and join in New Creation, a different kind of world. May we prepare the way, so that when inspiration tears us open, we are there to receive it. May we put ourselves in places where we might hear God’s constant and eternal benediction: Here is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Amen.  

Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

*****

How many people do you think John baptized before Jesus came to him? He waited in the desert, wild-eyed, this holy fool, bellowing about the kingdom of God. The crowds came out to him to be washed, made clean, to get a fresh start. So many people, so sure they were guilty of something or other, having heard so all their lives. Droves of people from all over the countryside, and then they started coming out from the city, too, some earnest, some just to gawk at the curiosity of this man who dressed like Elijah and half drowned people to say that the Kingdom of God was coming. But it’s not here yet.

How many people did John baptize, knowing that his baptism wasn’t the real thing? One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism is about anticipating, longing, preparing the way for something, someone better, who isn’t here yet. Repentance, forgiveness, justice, mercy, the Kingdom of God, they’re not here yet and no matter how many people you baptize, John, they won’t come one moment sooner. So John waits in the river—a border, a transitional space, a break between one land and another, and invites the people to step off the solid ground they know and into the middle of that flowing, becoming, transitory space. John has to go into the middle and even the depths of the middle before he can cross to the other side.

So John’s ministry is not very effective. His ministry is about undoing, destabilizing, critiquing, calling for a world that doesn’t yet exist and that on this side of the river does not seem possible. For all his activity, all the attention he received, all the people he touched, the kingdom of God is no closer for his work. By his own admission, what he’s doing is not the real thing. And even though he’s preparing the way, it’s not like his preparation compels Jesus come. There’s no cause and effect relationship between John baptizing and Jesus coming. And yet John keeps showing up.

I wonder if John got tired of it, all the work without the results? If after days of standing in the water, the endless repetition—Repent! Repent! Into the water, back up again—made him weary? Did his back start to ache from pulling people out of the river? Did he ever despair that all the while, the world looks much the same as it did?

Maybe you know the feeling. Maybe you’ve been coming to church all your life, Sunday after Sunday. You’ve been baptized, you read the Bible, you pray, you eat Christ’s flesh and blood at communion, you know your way around a potluck. But you find yourself wondering, where are these blessings, this resurrection, everyone keeps talking about? Where are these fruits of the Spirit, when church people seem to be just as messed up as everyone else, only more so? Maybe you can’t help but wonder, is church working? What are we doing here? We show up and things stay the same.

Maybe you work for justice in our community. You show up for the poor and the oppressed. You give money, you give rides, you babysit, you wait in line at social services, you put your body on the line at protests and rallies. You know countless people who want things to be different, but you see the way our systems are set up to push the poor two steps back for every one step forward they take. You show up and things stay the same.

Maybe you are poor, and you show up here and you hear how the poor are blessed, how Christians are called to give away their second cloaks, how we are a community, and you wonder, what kind of community are we when I struggle so much and so many others in here are so comfortable? We show up and things stay the same.

This is life. We try and we toil. You call or you invite that child over for dinner over and over hoping to rekindle some old intimacy. You go to the gym week in, week out, hoping to regain or just retain some vitality, some strength in your flesh. We go to work, go to the store, go back home, rinse and repeat. The days string together, most of them looking like the one that came before, and this is life. We’re immersed in the water, in the flow of time that is never the same but always chops on the same rocks, eddies against the same shores. We make a way in the wilderness towards yet more wilderness. The cells in our bodies replace themselves but we are who we are. Every moment of progress sets the stage for injustice to arrange itself in some new way tomorrow. John stands in the water with seemingly endless lines of people walking away from him and toward him. Will he be here for all of time? How long, O Lord, will we show up, only to find that things stay the same?

But in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus comes without fanfare. In Mark, there’s no birth narrative or grand genealogy marking him out as a king. Mark doesn’t even say that John recognized Jesus before he baptized him. Christ arrives with the crowds and is no different from the people there. He stood in line, stepped into the flow of time. There were hundreds of people before him and hundreds after him, and John baptized them all. The Messiah could have been any one of them. Repent Forgive Down Up Repent Forgive Down Up Repent Forgive Down Up. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, 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, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Jesus shows up, and something new happens.

In the second book of his novel My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard gives an anecdote from when he was attending a birthday party for his daughter’s classmate. Another parent was talking to him and asking how his writing works, if he just sits around waiting for inspiration. It’s a common picture that people have of artists, that there is some kind of spirit or genius that strikes them and then their work pours out of them as if by magic. Knausgaard answers, “No I have to work every day just like you. I go to my office and I write. If I can’t think of anything to write, I just describe something in the room, but I have to keep writing.” Most of it is garbage that no one else will ever read, but every so often, after hours and hours of toil, it’s like the heavens open up and you stumble upon something brilliant. But you never would have gotten to that moment without showing up every day to welcome it. Musicians don’t get the brilliant concert without hours practicing till their fingers bleed; workers don’t get an increase in wages without months of organizing together; churches don’t get new members church without dozens of coffees and breakfasts getting to know new friends. Inspiration, calling, insight usually come to the people who show up. Not the people who sit comfortably in Jerusalem or the sanctuary or the comfort of their own home, but those who go out into the wilderness, who are willing to go looking, who will step into the river. The moment of inspiration, of genius, of spiritual insight only comes within the flow of time. It interrupts that flow, it’s not what comes just around the river bend, but its in the flow that we are interrupted.

Jesus is a part of the crowd. There is no separating Jesus’ baptism from all the ones that came before his and after. But John was there to receive him because he baptized all of them. The heavens do tear open, and John witnesses the event because he showed up, because he stepped into the river when there was no guarantee that would happen. John sees the Spirit as a dove and hear’s God’s voice because he pulls Jesus up from the water just as he’d pulled up hundreds of others. If John hadn’t been baptizing all along, he never would’ve seen the heavens open up. He only knows the world has ripped open because he’s in so deep in that world to begin with.

So John’s ministry might not be “effective,” but it’s not supposed to be. John’s not called to be effective. He’s called to show up and be ready.

And that’s what we’re called to do also, to step with intention into the currents of our neighborhoods and our city, not to skirt along the surface so that we drift through life but to plant our feet on the river bed and feel it rush around our legs. 9 days out of 10, 99 out of 100, 999 out of 1000, we’ll just be standing in the water. We come to church, we go to IFC, we give that person a ride to the grocery store, we let someone without a roof stay in our guest room, we hold the BBQ at Kings Arms, and more times than not, it is what it is. No greater reality opens up, we just do the boring, mundane, often inconvenient works of worship and mercy and hospitality because they are the right things to do, and that’s OK. Because that’s what showing up looks like in our world, that is the art of discipleship.

But every so often, in ways we cannot predict, the heavens will tear open, time and space will rip and the bottom will drop out, and we will see once again that the flow of time is just a pale reflection of the flow that is God’s life, the Lover sending out the Beloved and the Love between them drawing them back together again: This is my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Sometimes worship opens up beyond itself so that the very depths of love make you weep as they become tangible; sometimes God makes it so so clear to us how we are called to serve our neighbors, sometimes hospitality opens up onto friendship, sometimes works of mercy become works of justice (the hotel room for a night becomes an apartment for years). These moments are possible because they reflect the deepest reality of all, that of God’s own life. This time when the heavens tear open and God calls Jesus Beloved is a called a “theophany,” which means that in it, God is revealed to us.

So friends, may we show up like John. May we step into the river, day in, day out. In water, in bread and a cup, in giving a dollar or a jacket or a car, may we show up, no matter how “effective” such things might seem to be. May we show up so that when God tears open the heavens we’re ready to receive and join in New Creation, a different kind of world. May we prepare the way, so that when inspiration tears us open, we are there to receive it. May we put ourselves in places where we might hear God’s constant and eternal benediction: Here is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Amen.  

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