And no matter what anyone says, I will never be persuaded that climate change is not real. Even if words such as “science-based” and “evidence based” are forbidden by our current administration in order to erase people like myself from existence, I know what I experienced; and I trust in the reams of evidence compiled by scientists from all over the world, over the decades, describing the effects and the future of climate change.
One of our neighbors, a Hull resident for more than forty years, told me Friday this is the worst storm she ever experienced, including the infamous storm of 1978. So, I am very grateful to be here singing, “And Are We Yet Alive” in worship with you today, because that means the answer is yes, we are still alive!
Living so near the ocean I am humbly reminded of the awesome power of the universe, and the Power (with a capital “P”) behind everything. Genesis describes with great awe the creative power that created and remains intricately involved with the universe, especially those particles created to contain and reflect the divine image: human beings.
The cosmic creation story told in Genesis 1:1-5, pointing to the awesomeness of God as creator, and Mark’s accounting of the baptism of Jesus; a story and moment that confirms Jesus as the embodied expression of this God, reveal contrasting dimensions of the same Divine power; beginning with the universal, and moving to the very personal.
It is the same dynamic power displayed, or channeled in two very different ways. Following the events of the last several days I am especially grateful for the grace, love, and presence of God revealed through Jesus, who challenges me through the gospel, rather than trying to comprehend the divine meaning of the shaking and rolling of the ocean outside my window.
On the first Sunday of any new year, it is common for people to come to church with ideas about what they are going to do differently in the next 12 months. This is true on this first Sunday of 2018 as well.
Typical responses about New Year resolutions focus around resolves to exercise more, develop a more balanced life (involving spiritual practices for many) and eat less. But given the mess many of our houses are in after the recent storm, we may decide to clean house first.
It could be daunting. When I opened the basement door after the tidal waters receded, the sight was horrific: the workbench overturned, everything that was on the shelf (thought safely out of floodwater reach) lay half buried in the salty slush covering the basement floor. I wanted to close the door and forget what I had seen.
But that would not help; in fact, the problems would only grow worse.
This first Sunday of the new year, we are invited to do some even deeper cleaning -- the kind that gets all the way down to the soul.
For this we need expert advice and, fortunately, the lectionary for this week provides us with the expertise of John the Baptizer, whom we might call the "original" Mr. Clean.
Mark introduces us to John at the beginning of his gospel -- "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," Mark declares that this story of Jesus we are about to read is the good news that a world stained by sin and dulled by death has been waiting to hear (v. 1).
The first messenger of that good news is John. Mark does not give us the detail that Luke does about this strange figure appearing in the desert. There's no mention of a family relationship with Jesus, nor do we read all his back story. Mark is more concerned with what John has come to do: announce the arrival of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to prepare people for his coming.
That preparation would involve some deep soul cleansing and John went down to the Jordan River to instruct people how to get really clean in a way that would remove even the deepest and oldest dirt embedded in their lives.
Some suggest that John has three key tips that will be helpful to us if we want to do some soul cleansing of our own at the beginning of the year.
First, use all-natural ingredients. John's ministry is about as organic as it gets, drawing from the deep roots of Israel's prophets. It's no coincidence that Mark quotes Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) in describing John's mission as the "messenger" who will prepare the way and as "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness" (vv. 2-3).
John's mission is the linkage between the stories of the Old and New Testaments and his work is to announce that the promises God gave to people long ago were about to be realized. God is about to do a new thing, John is saying, but it is springing up from the soil of Israel's history of election, sin, exile and redemption.
John models that history in his own organic dress and diet. His "camel's hair" clothing and leather belt reminded the people of Elijah, whom many believed would return before the coming of the Messiah (2 Kings 1:8).
John’s diet of "locusts and wild honey" is the ultimate combination of natural protein and sugar (though some say that "locusts" actually refers to the pods of the carob tree -- still a natural food).
John’s dress and way of life had the scent of authenticity and his ministry was all about dealing with the real dirt that had clung to Israel since the exile and to humanity since the Creation.
John uses the most basic natural cleansing ingredient -- water -- to do this work.
This water doesn't come from just any source. John stands at the Jordan River, which was the same river that Israel had crossed to enter the Promised Land generations before.
Some believe John sees his ministry as the beginning of a new Exodus, inviting people to enter into a different sort of Promised Land. As Israel had passed through the waters of the Red Sea and then the Jordan, now God's people would again need to pass through water in order to realize the new future promised by God's coming Messiah.
That symbolism wouldn't have been without controversy, however. While Jews were used to ritual bathing in a mikvah before performing certain religious rites, the "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" was something generally reserved for proselytes who were converting to Judaism (v. 4).
Calling ethnic and religious Jews to such a baptism could have been seen as highly offensive, and yet Mark tells us that "people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem" came out to see John and be baptized by him (v. 5).
Why did they come out to see John and seek this sort of remedial cleansing? One suggestion has to do with the stain that still seemed to cling to Israel itself. The idolatry and apostasy embedded in Israel's history had led to destruction and exile by foreign powers. The exile of Judah in Babylon had lasted 70 years, but even though the people were eventually allowed to return, they were still under foreign domination. At the time John went out into the wilderness, Israel was still under occupation by the pagan Roman Empire. It was clear to many that a real return from exile was needed, and that would happen only when Israel's sins were truly forgiven and Israel's Messiah came to bring God's glory back to Zion and the Temple.
"Repentance" and "forgiveness of sins" were images of restoration and return. If John was right, then God was about to send one who would set things right once and for all. All of these natural ingredients of Israel's past come together in John's ministry. The time was right for something new.
As we begin a new year, Scripture invites us to ask ourselves, "Of what in my past do I need to repent in order to allow God to do a new thing in me? Of what do I need to be forgiven? Whom do I need to forgive to begin moving toward a different future?" John reminds us that it is the natural ingredients of Scripture and the water of baptism that do the best work of starting to strip away the grime.
Second, know what kind of problem you are facing. For example, we need to know where the pipes are frozen in order to know the remedy. If you don't, you'll only scratch the surface and run the risk of greater damage.
When it comes to dealing with sin, we often think of treating the "sins" we commit. We know we've done some bad stuff over the past year and we make resolutions not to do those things again. But when we think of "sin" as simply a laundry list of missteps and mistakes, we miss the real problem that needs to be handled and that's "Sin" with a capital "S." Biblically speaking, that capital "S" Sin is an enslaving power that needs defeating. The good news that Mark will reveal is that the Son of God has come to do just that.
Our baptism incorporates us into the saving work of Jesus, and at the beginning of the year, it's important that we remember again that dealing with capital "S" Sin requires a deep self-examination of the ways in which we still find ourselves enslaved.
Jesus undergoes baptism not because he is a sinner but because he will be the one who leads us on a new Exodus through the water and on to freedom (vv. 9-11). Committing ourselves to him enables us to live in that freedom and deal with the "sins" that plague us.
The first Sunday of a new year is a marvelous time for recommitting ourselves to Christ. John Wesley had the early Methodists do a covenant renewal service at the beginning of each year as a reminder that Christians need to periodically renew our commitment to the only one who can clean and repair us once and for all.
Baptism by the Holy Spirit has a lot of dimensions to it, but one of the most important is that it prepares us for ministry and mission following the way of Jesus.
The first Sunday of the year is a great opportunity to consider all of this together -- to reflect on the past year and beyond and remember where we've been in exile and slavery because of Sin; to remember our baptism and the freedom God has given us in Jesus Christ; and to consider where the Spirit might lead us in the coming year as we grow more and more into the people God created us to be -- people who look more and more like Jesus.