First, a disclaimer: So I’m going to attempt to talk about suffering. But to do this, I need you to join me out on the high wire. I need you to come with me to do a little bit of tightrope walking. It’s a fine balance that we must strike between seeking suffering and ignoring it altogether. If you go too far on one side, you’ll end up thinking that God wills suffering and that you can’t be a good Christian without it. If you swing too far on the other side, you’ll start to think that suffering is always evil to the core, and that there is no chance of redemption or healing or resurrection. Like trying to hold the divinity and humanity of Christ, or trying to balance the spiritual with the physical, it’s a tightrope walk - if we go too far on one side or the other we’ll fall. So, for the record: I am not advocating that we seek out death or suffering. Nor am I saying that we should ignore that it exists. And, well, if we do end up falling on one side or the other, God’s grace will be there to catch us.
So. Here we go...
I’m a terrible swimmer. My mom put me in swimming lessons as a kid, and when other kids were passing out of levels every two weeks, moving on from freestyle to backstroke to the butterfly, I spent two whole summers in the fourth level, trying to figure out how to coordinate my breathing with my arms swinging and my legs kicking. Kids years younger than I were literally leaving me in their wake.
When we’d play that game - you know the one where you line up at one end of the pool and you all take a deep breath at the same time and then push off from the wall, swimming under the water to see who could hold their breath the longest, I was always the first one up, only a few feet away from where I had started.
I hated the feeling of being overwhelmed, completely surrounded by water. I hated not feeling in control, and instead of surrendering to the currents and the weight of the water all around me, I fought it. And my head would bob right back up to the surface again. It was my own fear that limited my swimming experiences. When kids would be diving in the deep end, or swimming far out on a sand bar on Lake Michigan, I was wading in the shallow end, waiting for them to come back in for lunch.
I was terrified of drowning. Terrified of being out of control. Terrified of the oppressive weight of all that water. I couldn’t figure out how to let it hold me, how to be in it. How to not freak out when the water came up over my head.
These last few weeks it feels as though my family and I have been pummeled. Or maybe, to stick with the water metaphor, we have been drowning under the weight of water all around us. The powers of the universe, or evil, or fate, or just life, have been throwing us into the deep end seemingly every time we turn around. We’re finding it hard to breathe, to keep our heads above water, to find the side of the pool to hang on to and rest. Lots of deaths. Lots of disappointments. Lots of heartbreak, all condensed into a few short weeks. We are bruised deep. We’re limping a little. Our breathing is a bit labored. We are hunched over, flinching at every turn, waiting for the next round of bad news: another has passed away, or another is in the hospital, or yet another is abusing or being abused. These are all little and big deaths. They’re weighing us down and tripping us up.
And we’re carrying them with us, inside of us, even now, like a millstone or one of those scuba diving weights that send you straight to the bottom of the ocean.
We have death that we carry with us. It’s inside of us, deep in our bones. It’s loss and fear and disappointments. But I want to be clear: I’m not really talking about sin here, though. It may be a result of sin, but it’s not our sin. It’s not something we had a choice about. It’s our suffering. And if you can let it go, and heal, and move on. Great. Please. Do it. Let it go. Move on. Heal. Go back up to the surface and take a big deep breath.
But for those of you who can’t. For those of you, who, like me, will be hobbling along for some time now, hanging out at the bottom of the ocean for a little while longer, I want us to sit close, to lean in, to hear the words in our Gospel reading today.
‘Cause you know what, some of us - no, I’m willing to bet, all of us, if we’re honest - we all have pain that we will carry with us, carry inside of us, forever.
My brother-in-law and good friend just lost his brother - who was only 37 - a little over a month ago. When he has expressed his grief, many people have encouraged him, saying things like “time does heal all wounds” and “it’ll get better.” These are all good sentiments. They come from deep love and care and concern for my brother-in-law. And they may very well be true. But what if they’re not? What if the grief doesn’t lift? What if he carries this loss inside of him forever? Or for what feels like forever. Where’s the hope in that? There HAS to be hope within, inside of, the pain, even as it’s happening here, and now, not just beyond the pain. Otherwise, we could rush through our sorrow or our fear or our humiliation to get to the other side and be happy again. But that’s not how it works. Or at least, not how it’s worked for me.
Sure, we cover over the pain with time, or numbness, or distractions. But it’s always there, always ready to surprise you with tears or anger or frustration at the least convenient times. The death is always there. Scar tissue always stays scarred.
So isn’t it crazy that we use the death imagery of being overcome by water in our baptisms? When we are baptized, we are not just “washed” clean, but ritually sent into the depths; we are dead with Christ. Funny how something as necessary and life-giving as water can also mean distress, pain, and even death.
In the Hebrew Bible, feelings of distress and fear of death are often depicted by images of being overcome by water.
And in the New Testament, Romans 6:3-4 says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We have been buried with Christ in baptism, into Christ’s death...”
- Colossians 2:12, says “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
- Galatians 3:27 says that we who are baptized are “clothed ourselves with Christ” - clothed with both the glory and the suffering of Christ.
And When James and John come to Jesus later on in Mark 10, and ask to sit at Jesus’ right hand, wanting to live in his glory, Jesus refers to his death. He says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Essentially, Jesus asks, if you want to sit on my right hand, you will need to suffer what I suffer. You will need to enter into a baptism of sacrifice, service, and death.
So, isn’t it crazy that we baptize babies - these beautiful, helpless, hope-filled and fleshy new lives? Even infants are ritually “sent into the depths” in their baptisms. And I don’t think that this is because of any morbid fascinations of our church fathers. We baptize babies because we know that life and death are so very closely entwined. No matter how careful and protective the infant’s parents are, this child will suffer. This child will experience little deaths, moments of pain, and maybe even long stretches of sorrow. But what an act of faith it is to come up to that baptismal font, to bring your child forward, and say, “God’s grace is sufficient. God’s power is made perfect in weakness” - maybe even in death, maybe even through a death on a cross.
If we read the story of Jesus’ baptism carefully, we’ll see that this is no fairy tale; there is no defeat of evil, no satisfying happily ever after, not even a clear hope that the Super-Hero Savior is now going to swoop in and fix everything. You may say, “Well, that is because this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.” But everything we need to know about how this ministry is going to turn out is given to us in these seven short verses. It’s a micro-narrative. The end is included here, in the beginning. The pain and the sorrow that will result for Jesus and his followers in his work here on earth is all mixed up with the glory and the peace and the joy.
- Jesus’ baptism is a symbol of both death and new life
- Jesus is put under the water, signifying death
- But Jesus comes out of the water and the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove upon Jesus. And Jesus hears “This is my son, The beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Initially this sounds like a lot of life. A real affirmation. A glorious moment. But any good Jew hearing this would think back to another very important time when they heard God refer to a “beloved son” - that of the story of Abraham and Isaac, when God tells Abraham to walk up Mount Moriah with wood and flint and a knife to sacrifice his only “beloved son.” They would hear sacrifice and death, as well as glorious life in this one short phrase directed towards Jesus.
- And then Jesus is immediately sent into the wilderness - a barren, dead, deserted place. A frightening place, a place where no one goes alone for surely bandits or animals, or just plain exposure will threaten to take one’s life.
- He is there for forty days, tempted by death itself.
- And yet there is also life here in this desert, for the angels wait upon him.
- But we are thrown back into a world of death when we learn that John has been arrested - because we know what that will lead to. But there is life, yet again, when Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God”
- Jesus says, “It’s time! The kingdom of God is near!” - life is here!
- Andin the same breath he also says, “repent” - realize the death in your life, the big and the little deaths that you have caused.
- And we are left in a liminal space, this place of in-between-ness. When Jesus says, “believe in the good news,” we are left holding both the life and the death in our hands. We are left with the hope of the future, the hope that is not yet here, but soon to come.
This passage is one that swings us from life to death and back again. Or perhaps, they aren’t two different places, or two different concepts, but tied up so intimately with each other that it’s artificial to try to sift them apart. Jesus’ baptism is a moment of both life and death, all mixed up together. The story of Jesus’ baptism is also the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. There isn’t a linear, straight path from struggle to life here. It’s a big life/death mess. The cross, the symbol of a horrid and humiliating death is also our symbol for hope and new life. And that’s what our baptisms are - recognition that this faith journey is a big life/death mess - but that the Grace of God is there to give us the hope of the future, the hope that is not yet here, but soon to come.
We don’t suffer “in order to” accomplish anything. We don’t go through heartache just so we can “learn from it” and move on. It’s not about “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Although strength or learning or growth may be an outcome of suffering, it’s not the reason WHY we go through it. So, you’re asking, why DO we go through it? I don’t know. I’m just an intern. Ask the real pastors. You get what you pay for. But what I do know is that there is life - not just after the pain, but in the midst of it. God doesn’t put us through trials to toy with us, or to make us grateful, or to teach us some important life lesson. God certainly doesn’t put us through trials to punish us. This is not a mathematical equation. Pain + God does not equal “good Christian” or “lesson learned” or “stronger faith.”
(Although, again, I want to emphasize that these things can and do come from pain. But that is not WHY we suffer. Remember, we need to balance on that tightrope a little while longer.)
Pain is just pain. And it sucks. God doesn’t will it. God doesn’t want it. But here it is.
When we hold death inside of us, when we carry the weight of it inside of us, what if we saw it as staying underwater just a little bit longer? Can we trust that God is holding us, even in the midst of stress, death, fear, whatever is holding us down? The surface of the water is right there; the seed, buried in the soil, will sprout. We don’t need to freak out. We just have to wait. And it’s often a painful wait. We have to trust that we won’t drown. We have to trust that the earth will not completely crush us. We have to give up things we thought defined us.
But while we’re waiting, we can hold on to the life that is still there; it’s just hidden among all that death. But even if the trust isn’t there, or we just can’t hold on anymore, even if taking the next breath is a strain, God is there. And God is holding on to us.
I’m a lazy gardener. I stick stuff in the ground and I see what it does. Or I put plants in pots, and forget about them until months later. This dead stuff here, came from my house. These used to be violets, and these are mums. They came from seeds that had to die in order for the plant to be grown. And now, they look pitiful. They are pitiful. This thing right here - that’s oregano. It’s looking pretty sad.
But I like to call it “resuregano” because sure enough, if you look close enough, you’ll see a little bit of green amidst all that shriveled, dried up death. That green, that life, has been in there all along, deep in its taproots, even in the dead of winter, even when the snow weighed down its leaves and the winds broke its stems. Even when the soil froze and hardened and the ice sealed it over. The life is just now starting to sprout. But it has been in there all along. Amidst the pain and harshness of winter. Amidst the rains and this dead grey Pittsburgh sky. It’s been there. Waiting. And also just being. Just existing.
When we are pummeled by all the deaths around us, may we be able to sit in it, to find the life within it, to find the hope even in our despair. That’s what the writer of Mark leaves us with in this passage. Just hope. That’s it. And yet, that’s it. The kingdom is coming. But it’s also right here - right here when the waters overwhelm us, right here when the soil has buried us, right here when the winter has frozen us to the core. This “hereness” of the kingdom is what enables us to say, with Paul, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” It’s what enables us to say, along with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” - for even as he breathed his last breath, he called out for his Father, for the one who gives life and hope and peace to us all. Just as the kingdom of God was in that moment of despair, so is it in all of ours.
Thanks be to God.