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January 11, 2015 - Mark 1.4-11

“Come On In, The Water’s Fine”

Mark 1:4-11

January 11, 2015

 

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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

This is a season of new beginnings. January is the New Year’s genesis. It is marked by people resolving to live new lives according to new habits. There is a kind of confession that begins the New Year because resolutions are a way of admitting that we have not been the kind of people we want to be. We confess that we are not as slender, cheerful, thankful, or productive as we would like to be. We admit to our humanness and commit to doing better. These are ordinary mortal confessions; usually not spiritually motivated, nor spiritually empowered. They are signs of people wanting to do their best to turn their lives around. But when the weeks speed by and ordinary life is resumed, old habits tend to reassert themselves. Come next January, the same resolutions are often made anew with plenty of hope, but no greater chance for success.

There is certain and definite futility and failure connected with human resolve.  On a grand scale, we can point to the failure of enlightened governments and organizations like the League of Nations and the U.N. to bring world peace.  The war to end all wars has been fought several times. And peacekeeping forces today are in Afghanistan and will be in other places fighting to establish the basic rights that were first laid down in the Magna Charta in the 13th century.  Yep, human resolve; what an undependable thing.

On an individual scale, we can point to our own failures to be who we are supposed to be.  As Christians, we are to live lives not of resolution, but of repentance. 

The baptism of John was similar to people making resolutions, though it was certainly a more spiritual exercise. John preached repentance and had remarkable success. People were drawn to his watery chancel from the city and the countryside. At the river, he dunked them as a sign of people's resolution to turn from their sins and back to the worship and service of God. But, John knew that there was a temporary quality to his work. He proclaimed that the one who came after him would baptize with something greater than water. He would baptize people with the Spirit of God.

The baptism of John was different than the baptism we observe. He was not baptizing converts to the Jewish faith, but members of the Jewish community to a new way of life. Specifically, he was bathing those who were persuaded by his powerful preaching about repentance. His baptism was not a conversion, but a reversion; it was a sign of turning around, of redirecting one's life toward God.

The Spirit of God is something far more powerful than human resolve. It is this Spirit that first moved over the waters at creation and brought form to the chaos of the birthing universe. Remember Genesis 1?  When Jesus rose from the river, this Spirit descended "upon him like a dove." In this Spirit, Jesus did the powerful deeds that marked his remarkable ministry.

We often forget that the power of the Holy Spirit is to be flowing through our lives as well.  We are not supposed to be these shrinking violets tossed about in any direction the winds of life may blow us.  We are to be people of repentance and power.  We cannot ever become who we are meant to be by our own efforts.  Never.  We are not capable of it.  Only God can work us into more than what we already are.

Chrissy, a frustrated character in the play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, says to a friend: "All my life I wanted to be somebody. But I see now I should have been more specific. It's not that I lack ambition. I am ambitious in the sense that I want to be more than I am now. But if I were truly ambitious, I think I'd already be more than I am now."[1]  Chrissy is bothered by the fact that she wants to be more than she is.  But she is not able to be more by her own efforts; though she knows deep within her she ought to be.  We want to be more than we are now.  But if we were capable of being more than we are, we would already BE there.  The human race is still fighting over the same stuff it always has.  I am still fighting the same sins I always have.  I bet you are, too.  We don’t need greater resolve, or better New Year’s resolutions, what we need is a better, more profound repentance.

 

The main problem for us is that we seem to be quite comfortable with our sin.  Oh, we know it’s wrong, but we love it just a little bit too much to let it all go.  There is a hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” There is a good line I like the most in that hymn by Charles Wesley. He knows that we should truly repent but that there is something in us that keeps us from sticking to our conviction. He writes: "Take away our bent to sinning."[2] Or, take away our love of sinning. We’re bent.  We love it – sin. That’s our problem.  We need to admit it.  We need to understand it.  We need to be honest about it and get right with God. We need to quit with our halfhearted attempts at humility and crocodile tear confessions.  We need to play for keeps.  We need to realize that the consequences of sin are real, and so our repentance must be just as real.

At Los Alamos in 1945, the night before the first atomic bomb was to be detonated, the physicists had a problem.  Robert Oppenheimer and the other physicists who had worked on the bomb worried that, in nuclear fission, perhaps the atmosphere would be ignited by such an explosion, thereby destroying the world.  The physicists debated the problem late into the night.  In exasperation, the general in charge of Los Alamos, General Gross, said to the debating physicists, “Gentlemen, we will go ahead.  I take full responsibility for whatever happens.”[3]

Now I am not addressing the creation of the A-bomb.  I want us to examine the good General’s statement, made in exasperation though it was.  If the physicists’ fears had been realized, then what would it have mattered who was responsible, or who was willing to be held accountable?  It would not have mattered at all. 

Do we ever do the same sort of thing?  Do we ever proceed with our plans, our habits, our lives without stopping to weigh what it is we are really doing?  Do we really think we can be responsible for whatever evil we might do?  Sin has consequences, and many times, those consequences are a lot bigger than the false nobility of our confessions that we are the parties responsible.  Of course we are.  Who else?   We need to live as baptized people.

 

When you join a civic club they hand you a lapel pin, give you a handshake, and have you fill out a membership card.  When you join the church we strip you down, hold you under the water, half drown you, and pull you up wet and dripping like a newborn baby.  What does that tell you?  Christian discipleship begins in an odd, submissive, obedient act. You can’t do baptism to yourself; you must be baptized. Baptism is a ritual that is done to you and for you, not by you. You must submit to the offer of grace from God through the church. Who is a Christian? A Christian is someone who has been baptized. 

Eventually, we must all grow up, find God on our own, and follow God on our own.  I think perhaps this is where many of us fail.  We have been in church so long, that we tend to forget that we have a personal responsibility to GROW as disciples, to go beyond where we were in the baptism pool, to go beyond where we were when we got saved.  Responding to God’s grace, we must engage in a consistent self-evaluation and genuine repentance.  Then and only then, can we really be relieved of our burdens and set free in Christ.  We need to remember our baptism.  We need to live as baptized people.

 

The only means to achieve the kind of obedience that God expects and that Christians seek comes from the renewing work of God alone. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:  "God has made it a rule for Himself that He won't alter people's character by force. He can and will alter them - but only if people will let Him." [4]

Will you let God work on you?  Are you willing to let God make you into more than you are?  I have often times in my ministry found myself beating my head against the wall when I have encountered the “fire insurance” people.  By this, I mean people that have their spiritual fire insurance (they got saved) but haven’t done much of anything for God or in the church since then.  It drives me crazy.  What happened was that one day some preacher got them scared of Hell and they ran away from it and figured if I do this church thing and get baptized, then I won’t go to hell.  But running away from Hell is NOT the same thing as running to Jesus.  Any direction away from a burning building gets you away.  But if you are running away from Hell, unless you actually run into the arms of Jesus, you will find out – eventually – that you have run in a deadly circle.

That’s why Hell never gets much of my time as a preacher.  I don’t have enough time to preach about Jesus as it is; why would I waste my time on the devil and Hell?  Just run to Jesus folks.  Run to Jesus’ loving arms and you will find what you are looking for.

Perhaps the best baptism scene in any movie is in the film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”   These three escaped prisoners are making their way through the depression era backwoods of Mississippi and stumble upon a revival meeting and baptism down at the river.  One of the prisoners, played by Timothy Blake Nelson, hears the music and message and finds himself rushing down to the water, breaks in line all the way up to the front, and is baptized.  He then comes up for air, soggy and dripping wet, and calls out to his fellow escapees, “Come on in, boys, the water’s fine.”  It’s such an earnest and honest invitation.  Sometimes we hold ourselves back from getting into the baptismal waters.  We would rather make New Year’s resolutions I think than get God involved, it seems.  Resolutions are frankly, disposable.  Baptism is not.

What’s keeping you from making the changes that you need to make in your life?  Is it perhaps the fear of actually changing?  Frankly, the chances you have of making the changes you need to make in you are slim.  Why not give it to God and see if God can do a better job?  Repent and remember that you are baptized.  Let God have God’s way with you.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.  “Come on in folks, the water’s fine.”

 

 

 

[1] Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986, p. 35.

[2] Charles Wesley, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling."

[3] Willimon, William, Pulpit Resource, p. 43-44.

[4] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, p. 152