GOSPEL: Mark 1:4-11
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.”
In the familiar rhythm and pattern of the liturgical calendar, as we conclude the 12 days of the seasons of Christmas, observe the day of Epiphany by telling the story of magi coming to visit the Christ child, while chalking and blessing our homes for the new year, we come to the Baptism of Our Lord. While it moves us from hearing about the stories about Mary and Joseph, mangers and magi, it does bring us back to where we began in Advent – with John the Baptist. And the baptism is a story that begins the story of Jesus as much as any Christmas narrative.
This story stands out for many reasons: the wild hermit preacher John wearing his camel hair clothes, the voice from heaven that speaks like thunder, and a vision of the spirit descending from above.
But of all the elements of the story that might be hard to imagine in this re-telling of the story, it might be the crowds.
It is especially hard to imagine standing in a crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder, gathered to share in an experience together.
We have had an especially complicated relationship with crowds in the past 10 or so months. From their near absence in our lives, to their new existence in the form of the crowded “Brady Bunch” view on our zoom calls, to the crowds we watched on TV gathering at the political rallies of a certain politician, to the masked crowds that couldn’t help but gather in cities around the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd, to the crowds of that other kind protesting pandemic restrictions whether at legislatures or too often churches (even in our own neighbourhood), to the crowds and gatherings of the rich and powerful as the flout public health orders.
And of course, there was the crowd that we all witnessed on TV this week, the one that stormed the US capitol building, the violent group of MAGA hatted, QAnon believing, white supremacy espousing insurrectionists who were trying to overturn the results of a fair and legal election. As the overmatched police essentially let the crowd in, the violence resulted the death of 5 people, yet still showed the overwhelming restraint that authorities displayed towards a crowd of white folks compared the overwhelmingly violent response shown to crowds of people of colour.
So yeah, after 2020 and now the first 10 days of 2021, imagining a crowd standing on the banks of river Jordan brings up mixed and complicated feelings.
So why are these crowds there? What have they gone out to hear from John the Baptist?
In some many ways they are not much different than the crowds we have been seeing on our device screens lately. They aren’t violent insurrectionists or peaceful protesters, but they are people looking for something more in their lives.
They are people looking for connection.
Connection to something bigger than they are. Something to give them hope, something that will address injustice, something of the divine that will meet their mundane struggles, something that will relieve their disconnection of their everyday, very human lives.
The crowds on banks of the river were mostly made of folks living under oppression. Oppression from Roman occupation and from their own religious authorities who sought to maintain the power imbalance of the status quo. People whose lived experience probably felt disconnected from the stories that they knew by heart. People who knew the promises of God, the promise of Messiah found in the prophets, the covenant promise found in the stories of their ancestors.
People who knew God’s promise, yet longed to know God’s presence. And so they went to hear John, to hear the voice of one speaking on God’s behalf, one who might connect those promises they knew by heart to the world they lived in. The hoped that this wilderness preacher, John, would be able to show them how the story of the divine, how God’s promises fit into their lives, into their suffering and oppression, into their longing for something different, into their longing for salvation.
It is a feeling we get these days. We look at the crowds we see on TV that show us our suffering world. We look around at the homes we are stuck in and that feel like prisons. We look at the phones and computers, the social media accounts that are now our only connection to so many of the people that we care about, but remind us constantly of our separation from those same people….
And we long for connection. For our lives-made-small to feel connected once again to something bigger and larger than we are. Connected to the divine story, connected to the promised Messiah. Connected to the God made flesh.
And then Jesus just walks into the water with John and gets baptized.
He just shows up.
Right in front of the crowds longing for the Messiah, longing for connection to the divine. Jesus, the Christ come in flesh that the Angels sang about, the one whom the Magi came to visit.
Then once he comes up and out of the water, the heavens open up to the spirit of God. And the the voice of God rings out and in their ears.
“You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
God in flesh, God in sight, God’s voice ringing through creation.
And if the crowds and if we didn’t make the connection to the sound of God’s voice thundering over creation, we heard from Genesis 1 when God spoke light into darkness to remind us.
And God speaks lights into darkness once again.
The connection that the crowds so desperately sought is revealed in the promised Messiah, the Christ in flesh, the spirit of God come near.
God re-connects God’s people to God’s story. God brings the lives of everyday, average people, people living under oppression, suffering under the powerful… God brings their living into the life and story of God. And God’s story in the waters becomes the story of all creation.
Because God and creation are now one in the flesh of the Christ. The declaration of belovedness doesn’t belong just to Jesus, but to all who bear the flesh of creation. As Jesus comes up and out of the water, up and out the same water that sustains us, that washes and nourishes us, that grows our food and rains our land… the meeting of water and flesh and the Word of God spoken from heaven becomes the intersection and connection of creation’s story and God’s story.
And so, as we too, with the all the crowds of this year, the crowds who bring their stories and lives and suffering and oppression seeking connection and reconciliation to the divine…
As we too come to this day of the Baptism of our Lord…
We are reminded that as the water washes and nourishes our bodies, as the waters meets our flesh and the Word of God is spoken and heard in our midst… that even apart, that even crowd -less…. God declares to us too what the voice said to Jesus.
You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.
You are who are longing for connection.
You who feel trapped in your homes
You who are disconnected from family and friend and loves ones
You who are grieved by the violence and division that overwhelms us.
You who cannot bear another zoom visit with family, rather than hugging a loved one.
You who are alone fearful of the other and risk that gathering brings.
You who care for the sick, teach the young, provide for the masses.
You who work and parent and recreate but rarely rest all at home.
You who are caught in deep darkness with seemingly so little light.
You are God’s beloved.
You are what pleases God.
You are God’s child.
And you and your mundane, earthy, messy life… are connected in the water, and in the flesh and in the word… to the life and story of God.
Connected to spirit of God that descended from the heavens.
Connected to the flesh that was reborn in the waters.
Connected to the voice that spoke light and life into being…
God has made that moment our story… first on the banks of the river Jordan and again today.