Identity and Acceptance

Jan 7, 2018 by

Gospel Reading:  Mark 1:7-13

Meditation:  Identity and Acceptance

By Bob Bond

Our Gospel Reading starts with verses we heard back on the second Sunday of Advent … the last time I preached here:  We find ourselves standing on the bank of the Jordan River, facing John the Baptizer.  I’ll remind you that the author of this work, Mark, is writing in Rome, to Gentile Christians facing sporadic arrests and violent martyrdom, having been blamed as a group (wrongly blamed!) for the fire that had destroyed much of the city.  He is writing out of the stockpile of stories and teaching handed him by Peter … Peter whom he attended in Rome before Peter’s death, Peter who was eye-witness to the ministry of Jesus.  Mark’s telling begins where Peter’s story of Jesus itself would reasonably open:  with Jesus’ baptism by John.  There is no legend of divine impregnation, imperial census, Bethlehem pilgrimage, stable-birth, angel choirs, shepherd-visitation, Temple presentation, Nazareth childhood, and annual Temple pilgrimages which Luke would later write.  There is no legend of Bethlehem as homeplace, star and visiting magi, an era spent as refugees in Egypt, which Matthew would later write.  Take all of that out of your mind for now, to hear what Mark has to say:  there’s a young man named “Salvation”/“Jeshua”/Jesus who comes like so many others came, though he from way up north in Nazareth, to be baptized by this Elijah-like character named John.  John previously and loudly had made it known he was “the preparer” … the messenger … and that the one-to-come would ramp everything way up, because what John did with water, this coming-one would do with Holy Spirit.

Jesus arrives to take his turn in the water.  Do not assume that John recognizes him.  Only Luke says that they were related (that they were cousins).  In fact, according to John the Gospel writer, John the Baptizer explicitly states after-the-fact that he did not-at-all know Jesus.  Mark basically says as much himself, since the Baptizer is clear he has no intention of even untying the Coming One’s sandals.

Then be even more careful and aware with other assumptions we ought not make.  I’ll shake things up for you by questioning:  What precisely was Jesus’ sense of who he was, as he comes to the Jordan?  Clearly he was curious and invested enough in matters of faith and national consciousness to make the long trip to the Jordan.  I think we can assume that he and everyone else going out there knew and deeply felt the significance of the place and both the appropriateness and the needfulness of John’s message.  In what happens next, for Jesus in his baptism, comes this epiphany (as John Spong frames it):   Moses walked down into the Red Sea and the waters parted, Joshua came to this river and the waters parted, Elijah struck-and-divided this same water too, and Elisha right after him; but when Jesus comes down to the Jordan the very heavens are parted! There is something new and much greater here!

From the rent heaven comes down a dove.  Remember the dove that comes to Noah, delivering a twig that makes clear they’ve arrived at land?; well, this dove bears the Spirit of God and so the prophesized-by-John baptism by the Holy Spirit begins.  This is “arrival” in a whole different order of “promised land”!

What also comes – and remember that in Mark’s telling all of this is experienced by Jesus alone, it is not for the crowd of people (they just see a man getting baptized like many before him and many after him) – [what comes] is the voice of God melding scriptures about the appointment of God’s king-on-earth and about God’s suffering servant.  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.  (If you want the references, look up Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42.)  Jesus — up to this point in time the first-born son of a manual labourer — is in this moment called out for what he truly is and what he truly is to be.

In my first decade of training and practice as a Pastoral Counsellor, it was the case (1) at the Hamilton Pastoral Counselling Centre, (2) in my hospital work, and (3) in my private practice in Fonthill, that 80% of the people who sat in the chair opposite me had – once we got down into the deep issues in their life – [they had] suffered abuse, of one kind or another, as children.  What happens when the big people are abusive, and are delivering their messages that are intended to both justify their actions and to keep everything secret, is that the child learns and believes they are somehow shameful and responsible.  In therapy, when the trauma has been seen and the truth comes out that the child was not responsible, is not shameful, but rather is unique and valuable, bearing recognizable aptitude and strength, the shift is breathtaking … it is the most wonderful of therapeutic moments.  That is when I ached – if only! – to do the early Church’s full Rite of Baptism: to wait for daybreak, and in the company of a community of the baptized, to take my client to a pool, strip off the clothes that have been their trapments, put them down into the water, hold them there long enough to make clear the death of what has been, pull them up gasping and facing the rising sun, then take them out and dress them in white, and celebrate a eucharist that establishes their communion within a host of folk who know their true identity and meaning and purpose and task; including the archetypal communion with Jesus who in baptism received his clarity about identity and meaning and purpose and task.

Next, and immediately, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness.  For forty days he is tempted by “the Adversary”.  I know this movement too as a Pastoral Counsellor, but even more intimately I know it from within my own life.  For clients who get release from the ‘prison of abuse’ that had defined them, and indeed for every human being {because we all get – in our adolescence or in later years – [we all get] the opportunity to ‘find ourselves’ and so step away from (far beyond!) the scripts that were put on us within the dramas of our families-of-origin} it is not the case that the new life opening up ahead has much clarity about it … not at all.  The escape from what-has-been is marvellous and wonderful, but it is also immensely and properly undefined and ‘scary’!   The working out of identity and purpose and task is indeed done in wilderness … all the old familiar stage and props and characters are swept away, and in this unfamiliarity the possible role, the new energy, the discovery and living out of actual potentialities, is to be done.  It is done, developmentally, by facing our temptations.

A bit of a personal footnote here:  When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, as is part of my morning practice, there is a line I have re-written, because the existing line doesn’t make sense to me.  The prayer as handed down goes, near the end:  “Lead us not into temptation.”  But if not for temptation – if not for the Holy Spirit’s first movement in Jesus’ life being a vast forty-day wilderness of temptations – Jesus and we are left with neither brain nor brawn for the new life that has opened up in front of us.  Matthew and Luke sketch out in story some of what Mark leaves for our intuition and experience to fill in:  There is always temptation to get what others have and we therefore decide we need, and indeed there is temptation to benefit self first.  There is temptation to show off and get others on our side.  There is temptation to find and use power over others.  There is temptation to blame others and then punish them when I don’t get what I want, even more-so when we collectively don’t get what we want.  And then there’s a whole other order of temptation that comes from each person’s projecting of particular personal hang-ups and issues onto the world around, using (too often abusing) the world and its people in an acting out of irritatingly recurring internal drama.  People, most of the world falls victim to most of these temptations much of the time.  And doing so is grossly to pervert the constructive possibilities of new life.  So then, my prayer is, “God, lead me / lead us into temptations as you led Jesus, and deliver me / deliver us from evil.”

A final layer-of-assumption to avoid in reading the Marcan text:  Do not carry Luke’s build-up to or telling about Pentecost, or even Paul’s theology of the Holy Spirit, into your understanding of John the Baptizer’s proclamation, in Mark, that the Coming One will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The commentator Bill Loader writes,

Though the word, “Spirit”, occurs infrequently in Mark, it comes at key points which confirm that Mark sees John’s prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry. The Spirit takes Jesus away into the wilderness (1:12). In 3:28-30 Jesus describes his exorcisms, in particular, as works of the Spirit. Baptising with the Spirit, according to Mark, is being a bearer of the Spirit to people in a way that brings release and freedom.[1]

Which dynamic stands for Mark’s readers, for us, just as it was there for Jesus.  When you-and-I are at work to bring release and freedom, you-and-I are demonstrating baptism in the Holy Spirit.

I want to end this reflection by quoting another commentator, David Lose, who says so clearly what surely needs to be taken away from all this:

Jesus’ baptism isn’t preamble to all that comes later in his life, it’s the highpoint and climax of the story in a nutshell. Again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him, telling them via word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. And the darkest moment of the story when Jesus feels absolutely abandoned is followed immediately by the story of resurrection, where the messenger testifies that God has kept God’s baptismal promise and continues to accept and honor Jesus as God’s own beloved Son. So also, at our low moments, we might remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same one who promised in baptism to never abandon us and to love and accept us always and still as beloved children, even and especially when we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves.[2]

Oh, my God, “Thanks be” to God!  Amen.

 

Pastoral Prayer

Creator, Provider, Saviour God, this day the liturgical calendar puts forward that we are to contend with the epiphanies that meet (and would bless) us in our lives.  Throughout Advent and Christmastime, in this place, we have recognized how marginal people and places and events are your characteristic inroads to our experience.  Today we see afresh what your direct call to us is all about:  After the invitation to turn and face You (to ‘repent’) come your words that name us (daughter/son/beloved), accept us (MY daughter/son/beloved), and empower the truth of us (my DAUGHTER/SON/BELOVED).  In and through baptism, no more are we defined by scripts laid on by systems and circumstances that – whether they did their best, or less – could neither know nor intend what You know and intend … You who knit us in our mothers’ wombs, who knew us before we were born, who knows the truth of us now and always.

God, we pray to fully live our baptism, like Jesus’ baptism, in the Holy Spirit.  There is so much on earth that needs release and freedom.  Whatever the particulars of salvation – be it about sufficient good food for the person in front of us, or clean water and air, or shelter from the elements, or safety so as to sleep soundly, or family and community so as to be embraced, or education so as to grow and develop, or meaningful work so as to thrive, or systems of care to lean into when needed, or truth to stand on and believe in – let us play our part in baptizing all the people of the earth; indeed, God, let us play our part in saving the earth itself (for in our time we see clearly how the whole-of-it is held captive).

We see too, God, how on the margins You are at work in the whole of it.  Keep us mindful and engaged.  Right up close in our lives, let us recognize where you come to us in our marginal experiences (our disappointments, sicknesses, losses, upsets and anxieties as well as in all the serendipity and humour and beauty there are!), and keep at us God while we wake up and grow more fully into what you intend your kingdom to be.

We would pray for people and situations that are front-and-centre to us as individuals, some to us as an entire community: …  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever.  Amen.

Commission and Benediction

Go out from this place now with renewed courage; hold onto what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the suffering; honour the dignity of all people; love and serve your Lord, confident in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  Amen.

[1] Quoted by Andrew Prior in “Fake Tan”, https://www.onemansweb.org/theology/the-year-of-mark-2015/fake-tan-mark-1-4-11.html

[2] David Lose, “Baptism and Blessing”, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/

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