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Psalm 2.7-12

Mark 1.9-15

Complimentary Complement

Second Sunday after Epiphany

          We are so blessed.  We are so blessed to have such gifted folks like Toni Smith, Lol Fearon, Claudia Epright, Barbara Jan Wilson, and last week, Eileen Sypher, who are able to step in and lead worship here at the United Church.  I’m grateful to Eileen for last Sunday’s  thoughtful and compelling sermon about Jesus’ baptism.  I thought it was terrific, and left me thinking, “I wished I had preached that!”  I appreciated her mention of Luther, how he reminded himself of his own baptism daily; her explanation of epiphany as the manifestation, or revealing of Jesus to a waiting and watching world; and her probing distinction between the questions “Who are you,” and “Whose are you?”

          The baptism of Jesus is such a rich narrative that I want to return to it this morning and look at it from a slightly different, and I hope complementary, point of view.  The differences between Luke’s baptism story that we heard last week, and Mark’s, which we’re about to hear, are minimal but I do think that together they provide a fuller picture of this seminal event in Jesus’ life, and, as we will see, Matthew makes an appearance as well and adds what I think is the decisive twist to the tale.

Mark 1.9-15:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

          In last week’s New Yorker magazine, writer Peter Hessler recounts the lives of some of his former students at Fuling Teachers College in China’s Chongquing Municipality.  Hessler taught English literature at Fuling when he was in the Peace Corps, and the article is a kind of where-are-they-now retrospective.  As part of the class, some of his students decided to choose English pennames that reflected their aspirations, that encapsulated what they hoped would become their own personal stories.  One student chose to be called North, both because one of his goals was to work in Beijing, far to the north, and it was also to reflect his admiration of 18th century British Chancellor Frederick North.  Another student chose the name Anry, which is the word “angry” without the g, because he wanted to become a poet, and believed a good poet should be both angry and romantic at the same time.  Another chose the name Youngsea, which was a transliteration of the name of her favorite Chinese poet.  I was taken by this, because each of Hessler’s students chose a penname that gave them a way of presenting the selves they hoped to grow into.

And I wonder, how do we choose to present ourselves to others?  How do our own personal stories begin?  For me, sometimes I lead with my profession, especially when I’m in Chester:  “Hi, I’m Alan Froggatt, I’m the minister of the United Church up on top of West Main.”  Other times I’ll lead with my hometown, especially when I meet another Meridenite.  When I first met Montessori Principal Martha Crane, whom I knew to be a sister alum of my high school, I introduced myself by telling her I was a fellow Maloney grad.  Sometimes my family can be an identifier:  “Hey Rick and Pat, hey, Lynette, I’ve got two daughters too!”  Many times both audience and circumstance will help us decide how we want to be introduced, or what we’d like the first impression to be.

          This is one of the driving themes of the gospel stories.  Because even though they all tell the story of Jesus, each writer tells the story in a different way.  And to be candid, sometimes those stories are complementary and sometimes they are contradictory, but each wants to be heard on its own.  And the way that the writer begins the story, the manner of Jesus’ introduction,  tells us a lot about how his story is going to unfold.

          Last week you heard Eileen read the story of Jesus’ baptism from Luke, and as I said, many of Luke’s details are common to Mark’s.  But by the time Jesus is baptized in Luke’s telling, a lot has already happened.  We’ve already met his parents, Mary and Joseph, his Uncle and Aunt, Zechariah and Elizabeth, we have heard the story of his birth, the shepherds and the angels, we’ve already met Simeon and Anna in the temple and Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist.  Jesus’ baptism doesn’t occur until the third chapter of Luke’s story.  Mark, by contrast, skips over all that stuff and leads with his baptism.  What does this say about how Mark understands Jesus?

          Before we get there, let’s look at all four gospels.  Mark, as we’ve seen begins the story of Jesus’ life and ministry with his baptism.  Matthew and Luke – and only Matthew and Luke - begin with the nativity.  For Matthew, the beginning of Jesus’ nativity story is found in his genealogy.  Those of you who were with us last month when I read that long list of Jesus’ 42 ancestors heard that genealogy, which traced Jesus’ heritage all the way back to Abraham.  This is important for Matthew’s story because Matthew was writing to Jews, who together trace their own genealogies back to Abraham as well.  Jesus, Matthew is saying to the Jewish community, is one of us.  Luke also uses Jesus’ genealogy to begin his story, but it is a markedly different story.  One of the keys to Luke’s gospel is the idea of inclusivity among Jesus’ followers; this is why women play such a prominent role in his gospel.  So Luke traces Jesus’ heritage, not simply back to Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews, but to Adam, the progenitor of every human being ever born.  For Matthew, Jesus was the messiah, for the salvation of Israel; for Luke, Jesus’ salvation is universal.  But John’s gospel has them all beat.  While Mark begins with the baptism, Matthew with Abraham and Luke with Adam, John traces Jesus’ heritage all the back to the moment of creation.  John’s opening words, “In the beginning was the Word,” is intentionally parallel to the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Jesus is the Word and has been since the very beginning.  In Greek, the Word, logos (logos), is the unifying principle of the universe, a claim John is about to make for Jesus.

          One person, one Jesus, four different stories, hence four different introductions.  For Mark, it is baptism that best signifies Jesus’ life and ministry.  “The time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe the good news.”

          Last Sunday Elaine told us about Luther’s daily reminder of his baptism.  Last Sunday as well, Mary Luti wrote about Luther in the UCC’s daily devotional.  She described how, whenever Luther was assailed by doubt or adversity, he remembered his baptism and found both solace and strength.  Mary wrote,

“Whenever the great reformer Martin Luther was in trouble, tormented, tempted, and afraid (as he often was), he’d tell himself that he was baptized: “Baptizatus sum”—“I am baptized.” Over and over he’d remind his beleaguered heart who he was: a beloved child of God whose life was forever entwined with Christ’s. He said it blew the demons away.”

          Baptizatus sum.  I don’t think I’ve told you this before:  I didn’t baptize either of my daughters.  I really wanted my role in that moment to be the role of father, to be making vows on my daughter’s behalf, rather than to take on the dual role of parent and officiant.  So Debbie’s dad, The Rev. Dr. Bickford Lang, a Presbyterian minister, baptized my older daughter Clare, and he did it in my home church in Meriden, which was especially special, because at the time my own father was the Senior Deacon at the church and got to hold the small font from which Bick took the water and sprinkled it on Clare’s forehead.  My younger daughter Blythe was baptized by a good friend, colleague and member of my church in Bridgewater; his name is Stuart Rapp, and he served churches in central and western Connecticut before retiring from ministry.  As a token of her baptism, Stuart gave Blythe a small pewter cup inscribed with Luther’s words, baptizata sum.  The phrase literally means, “I am baptized,” but it means more than this.  It is intended in the present perfect tense, signifying something that happened once in the past, but still has a bearing in the present.  Baptizata sum means that we were once baptized, we continue to live in our baptism and that baptism determines and shapes our lives today and in every day to come.  The comfort that Luther found in this knowledge is our comfort as well.

          This is one of the reasons Mark introduces us to Jesus via his baptism.  It is our baptism that welcomes us into the community of faith, it is our baptism that creates a road to repentance, it is our baptism that bathes us in redemption, and it is our baptism that immerses us in the grace and mercy and love of God in Jesus Christ. And at the end of the day it is baptism that brings us the knowledge that we belong not to ourselves, but to God, that carries us through times of doubt and challenge, that lifts our hearts in times of gladness and celebration.  In the baptism of Jesus, God also says to us, “You are my beloved children; in you I am well pleased.”

A postscript:  Mark and Luke both have the voice from heaven saying “You are my beloved son.”  Matthew gives us a twist that I think is perfect for Epiphany.  In Matthew the voice from heaven does not say “You are my beloved son,” but rather, “This is my beloved son.”  The words are not addressed to Jesus., but to everyone who is watching at the moment; that is to say, to you and to me.  As we said in this morning’s call to worship, when the shepherds encountered Jesus, He was made manifest to the commonest of folks; when the magi came to Jesus at the manger, He was made manifest to the courtesans and royalty; when Simeon beheld the infant Jesus in the temple, He was made manifest to the congregation of the faithful; and when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, He was made manifest to all the world.  Amen. 

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