FIRST READING Genesis 1:1-5
1In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
PSALM Psalm 29
1Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. 3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. 4The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor. 5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon; 6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox. 7The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 8The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare. 9And in the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!” 10The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King forevermore. 11The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
SECOND READING Romans 6:1-11
1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
GOSPEL Mark 1:4-11
4John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 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 when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
HEMLOCK AND HYSSOP
Of all the things that Christians do, baptism, from an outside perspective, could be considered one the weirdest. For those born into the Christian tradition, baptism is God’s work; it’s a means of grace in which we receive forgiveness of sin. It’s a joyful celebration that welcomes us into the body of Christ, bestows on us the gift of the Holy Spirit and makes us baptized members of the church. However, for those outside the Christian faith, all they see is a ritual that involves water, therefore, Baptism can seem completely strange, even macabre.
Luther in the Small Catechism wrote, “It is not the water indeed that does [all these things], but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus chapter three: ‘By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’” And what does such baptizing with water signify?
“It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Where is this written? St. Paul says in Romans, chapter 6: ‘We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.’” Furthermore, in John chapter 3 we read Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus; “Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
For the believer, Baptism is a command, given by Jesus Himself; it’s a requirement for eternal salvation. To paraphrase St. Paul, it is the “ritual drowning,” a symbolic death that ushers the baptized into a spiritually reborn, renewed life. However, this rite is accomplished, by sprinkling, pouring or full immersion — whether the baptismal candidate is attired in a lacy baptismal gown or with a white shirt or dress for older persons, it still can be misunderstood as a truly strange ceremony.
One eight-year-old, upon being told that baptism meant she was being “buried with Jesus” responded, quite reasonably, “Well! That’s not very nice.” That eight-year old child was right. That doesn’t sound very nice. It sounds nuts. It sounds “weird.” Maybe that’s part of our problem, Christians aren’t “weird” enough. What we need to understand is, Baptism isn’t just a momentary ritual. It’s a seemingly strange, and yet absolutely life-changing, event. One that Luther encourages us to remember daily.
In our epistle text for this week, Paul proclaims this weirdness as a proud Christian conviction: “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” But that’s only half of the baptismal equation. The rest of this peculiar journey is revealed by Paul’s conclusion: “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” For Christians, what appears to be a “death” ritual is actually a life affirming action. Baptism is the event that starts our transition from frailty to fullness, from cease and desist to live and let live, from burial to birth. But is that the end of it?
Does this mean that we’re good to go, that we can do as we please without any concern for the consequences of our choices and actions? Paul asked this same question in Romans 6 when he asked, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul gives us the answer to this question in the very next verse., “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” From the spiritual perspective, we refrain from sin because of God’s judgement. The Bible make this clear when Jesus tells us that at the judgement, the sheep and goats will be separated.
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus said, ““When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Then down in verse 41 Jesus tells us, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” But this kind of preaching brings issues of moderating behavior through guilt. There is another side to consider. There is a practical reason that we do our best to abstain from sinful behavior.
The everyday or secular reason to refrain from sinful behavior is that sin has consequences. Everything from idolatry to adultery, murder to covetousness, disrespect of parents to failing to honor the sabbath, taking God’s name in vain to theft, sexual immorality to lying and everything in between has costs. Some sins may seem harmless and inconsequential, but the results are undeniable. Take a hard look at all the ills of society and at the root you find sin. And at the very foundation of all of this is the sin of self-centeredness. When we were baptized, God made us His own forgave us of the sin of the original Adam and grafted us into the body of His Son to give us a new identity. This means we no longer live for ourselves, slaves to the passions of this world; it isn’t about us and our desires anymore. It’s about us being part of something bigger than ourselves.
There are hundreds of online companies that are ready and willing to step up and step in to protect your “private life.” Keeping you safe from “identity theft,” from online fraud schemes, from credit card cruisers. It’s a full time and lucrative business. Baptism is the opposite of identity protection. In baptism we give up a self-focused identity for participation in a “group” identity, an ecclesial identity, for participation in a new reality known as the “body of Christ,” the church.
Timothy Radcliffe, a British Dominican priest, has written a book on the transforming power of baptism. His book Take the Plunge, redefines the moment of baptism for Christians, putting it in 21st century terms. The moment of baptism, of a ritualized death, is the end of our purely privatized life. As individual beings we have individual lives. In that individual existence, we are born, we live, and we die.
In baptism, we make a commitment to participate in something that reaches beyond that biological cycle, extends our individual lives, our personal stories, into something beyond our knowing and knowledge. It morphs our personal story into God’s universal story. The end of our privatized life is the beginning of our Christian life — a life lived as a member of Christ’s body, here on earth and after our earthly existence.
In the rite of baptism, we acknowledge that our individual, earthly existence must inevitably come to an end. But it also embraces the beginning of an existence lived wholly in God’s love and in God’s presence. Our “death” in baptism is our first baby step into our life as a disciple, as a person who has a resume that goes beyond the grave. Our baptism is our real spiritual date of birth, our birthday into eternity.
As Paul wrote in today’s text, when we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we were baptized into Jesus’ death. Baptism, a symbolic “death,” is our faith-filled entrance into a new life, a new beginning. Being baptized is a “death defying” feat. While our individual lives, our separate stories, our physical lives, might end with our biological deaths, our spiritual selves, our souls, our connection to the overwhelming love of God for each and every human being, will never come to an end once we are connected to that love through Christ.
When Jesus willingly went to the cross and suffered death by crucifixion, He didn’t do so without worry and anguish. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Here’s how Maximus the Confessor, or sometimes known as Maximus the Theologian (580 662) put it: “Theology is taught us by the incarnate Logos of God, since He reveals in Himself the Father and the Holy Spirit. For the whole of the Father and the whole of the Holy Spirit were present essentially and perfectly in the whole of the incarnate Son.” Yet at the same time, Jesus’ favorite description of Himself is “The Human One,” which is the best translation of “Son of Man.”
In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus, the human being, begged to have “this cup taken from me.” It was a fully human plea. We all know what being “fully human” means. We suffer losses and hurts. We know we have a limited lifespan. We’ve got to pay mortgages and deal with family issues and endure the drooping of our jawlines and the disaster of terrible diseases and disabilities, not to mention things like arthritis and graying hair. We know there’s a biological end to our existence. It’s a fact, no one gets out of life alive. At some point in our lives, usually in our 50’s or 60’s we figure out that this life has a 100% mortality rate. But for those of us who have been “buried with Him by baptism into death” (vs. 4), the conclusion of our single story has a different ending.
For Christians there’s no such thing as a solitary death or a single story. There is something more. Baptism is a gift from God that raises us to the level of agape love, God’s love. Yet baptism is also the action that commits us to humanity. Jesus wept in the garden of Gethsemane, known in Jesus day as the “Olive Garden.” In that “Olive Garden” Jesus prayed to God that the Father might “take this cup from me.” Jesus was fully human, fully fragile. Fully not wanting to give up hold on life. Fully open to all that humanity had to offer. Jesus embraced this “humanity” willingly. Jesus emptied Himself of the power and divinity that was rightfully His, and instead chose to live a fallen, fragile, failing human life.
There’s a classic debate between the “good deaths” Socrates and Jesus both suffered. Both were wrongly accused. Both suffered political sham trials. Both were sentenced to death. However, both reacted very differently. Some say Socrates died a “better” death than Jesus.
Socrates, condemned to drink a big slug of poison hemlock, kept his cool and drained the cup. While dying, he had intellectual disputes with his captors. He kept the entire proceedings under his control. Ultimately, he drank the poison and died. To the very end Socrates was always in control. Calm, serene, poised. On some level, it could be considered a neat, antiseptic death. Jesus, on the other hand, was anything but calm and serene during His final journey to the cross.
Jesus prayed and even begged in the garden of Gethsemane to have “this cup” the chalice of death removed from Him. Jesus prayed to our heavenly Father. He looked outside of Himself for help and strength. He reached to a source of power that lay outside of His own physical life or death. Fr. Ronald Rolheiser writes about the comparison, “In contemporary language Socrates was simply better set together as a human being that Jesus was.” I disagree.
When you compare Socrates and his hemlock, Jesus and His hyssop, which He did take, and the difference between what it really means to be human, comes into sharp contrast. “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). Hyssop was the branch Moses instructed the elders of Israel to use to apply the blood of the lamb to the doorposts of their dwellings. Striking the doorposts would have released the scent of the Hyssop and the oil.
Even on the cross, Jesus refused the cup filled with a Roman cocktail of drugs that would dull His senses and lessen His suffering (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23). That’s one reason why suicide bombers can never be called “martyrs.” They are dictating an exit from earth on their own terms. It’s all about control, and hatred. When you take other people with you in your self-choreographed death, you can never be called a “martyr.” Jesus never revealed His true humanity more than at His death. Jesus mourned the end of His time on earth, of His truly human life.
Yet His death on the cross was not some stoic, serene act. It was a genuine sacrifice of love that came with blood, sweat and tears. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, not in our super-human stoicism. We don’t have a blueprint for “forever.” We do, however, have a Savior, Jesus the Christ, who showed us how to be fully human and yet embrace the possibility of the divine.
Ravensbruck Concentration Camp was a camp created by Himmler for women and children, 60 miles north of Berlin. A prayer found beside a dead boy on the day of liberation conveys the difference between taking the hemlock and taking the hyssop. It read: “O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but all those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility,
our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.
In baptism, God gives us a new identity. We’re no longer bound by the restraints imposed by original sin. God lovingly grafts us into His Son and we become members of His family. Yes, we give up self-identity, but what we get in return for our faithful service to God is eternal life. From the outside perspective baptism might seem strange; but from the perspective of the church, we not only get life, we get life abundant!