4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 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 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.”
Yup, you’ve got it folks! You’ve just tuned in to another episode of “What doesn’t make sense to Jenn this week?”
Right along with when did it become acceptable to wear leggings as pants, and why are the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo still on TV, Jenn has yet more things she doesn’t understand about the Bible. And this week is a doozy. It’s a veritable whirlpool of swirling, swarming, frothing questions.
If this is baptism for the forgiveness of sins, why does Jesus get baptized?
Does he think he needs to be cleansed of some sin? Like a gossiping old woman at her weekly hair appointment, I want to ask, “What did Jesus DO?”
Who hears God’s pronouncement?
Who sees the heavens rip open and the Spirit come down?
Does this voice announce what has always been true about Jesus? Or does it suddenly become true now that it has been spoken?
What does Jesus think of all this?
What does it mean that Jesus is God’s Son?
What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?
Such a confluence of questions upon questions mixing with questions and frothing with doubts.
This is where Mark chooses to start his gospel - his good news - with the confluence of a dirty vagabond from the wilderness who eats honey and locusts and wears a nit-infested camelhair tunic, he’s wandering around, straight from the wilderness, shouting that the end is near. With the confluence of a muddy river and a crowd of sinful people who don’t want to be caught dead at the end still bearing all those sins, and a man who gets baptized whom we didn’t think needed to be baptized, and a buttload of questions.
Mark presses the fast forward button through references to God’s first creation, through prophets and psalms, through the Exodus and Elijah, to the end. The beginning of Mark’s gospel starts with a crowd of folks who are preparing for the end.
And they prepare by entering in to a moving river to be washed clean.
The end is here, Mark says, John says, his followers say, Jesus says, so let’s go to the river, the place where nothing stops moving, where nothing ever really ends, where things get churned up and mixed up and roll above and beyond and under each other.
Rivers are a force.
They can plow through mountains. They change landscapes. They overflow their banks and create new ecosystems. They gather up silt from one side of a bend and deposit it on the other. They change course and leave lakes behind. They twist and they turn and they keep moving. Sometimes at a slow meander. Sometimes as threatening rapids.
And from the very beginning, from the very start of these rivers, before there were rivers, before there was rain and rapids and outlets that dump into the sea, before there were clouds that gathered and refilled the oceans, God hovered over the waters. The Spirit of God has been since the very beginning. And there has been an ancient pull of these rivers that continues the cycle of water, gas, rain, and river, ocean, pond, lake, sea. The Spirit and the sea. Always together. Always flowing and colliding and hovering.
There is something very spiritual about rivers. All of the major religious traditions acknowledge this. In the Hindu Tradition, there is this thing called the Triveni Sangam. It’s the sacred confluence of three rivers - the Ganges, the Yamuna and an invisible river called the Saraswati. It is believed that all the gods come in human form to take a dip at the Triveni Sangam and expiate their sins. And so, anytime there is a confluence of rivers, the Hindus believe that it is an auspicious thing - that it is especially sacred. And yes, even Pittsburgh has a special significance because of its confluence of the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers.
It’s the end of rivers colliding with the beginning of rivers in a forever dance of humanity, creation, Spirit. Endings and Beginnings. Things colliding. Getting churned up and mixing and rolling above and below and around each other. It’s a mess. And it’s sacred.
And John is shouting, “come! come to the river. because it’s the end. this is it. it’s all going to be over soon. come to the river, the thing that never ends, the place that flows and flows and has been here since the beginning of time, come at the end, to the beginning.”
And Jesus comes. Jesus enters in. Jesus starts his earthly ministry at the end. Around a bunch of people getting ready for plug to be pulled, the air to be let out, the coins to be placed upon the eyes of humanity.
Why does Jesus get baptized? Why does Jesus step in to that muddy river? Why does Jesus enter in?
Mark starts his good news by telling us that the end is at the beginning, and the beginning is at the end. And the answers are in the confluence of questions.
Buechner says, “God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.”
So here is Jesus, letting the waves of the river wash over him, and in this confluence of water and humanity and Jesus, something sacred happens. The Spirit that has hovered over the waters from the beginning of time enters in, and the division between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm is torn apart, and the Spirit lands upon Jesus like a dove.
A clunky, klutzy, dove. Basically a white pigeon.
This is a sacred confluence of river, humanity, and Spirit, coming to Jesus to begin something new, but also something that has been flowing since the beginning of time.
Mud and humanity and Jesus mixing and churning and the Spirit entering in. A beginning. And an end.
I’ve been feeling so much pressure lately to figure out a way to get this place to survive. What’s the secret formula, the magic ingredient that we just need to add or mix or configure so that Greenfield Presbyterian Church survives? What do we need to do or change or make so that we stay open one more year? How do we get folks in to this building, in these pews, their checks in the collection plate? If they only knew how cool we are, they’d come in droves, right??!!
God, what do we need to do, to know, to be, in order to stay open?
I don’t think I’m the only one who obsesses about this, am I?
So many questions.
And Buechner says, “God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.”
God enters in to the river. Into the muck and the mud and all the humanity.
God gives God’s self at the moment when we think it’s all over.
God enters in to a rhythm that has been flowing since the beginning of time. Into the confluence of real stuff - of humanity and sin and water and cheap wine and everyday bread.
I don’t think we need to change the core of who we are. I don’t think we need to be or do something that we aren’t or can’t just to survive. I think we need to enter in. I think we are already entering in. We are being who we are. And that will change us. And when it ends, just like all things end, it’ll be a new beginning. And I have no idea what that will look like.
But when we enter in the skies will tear open, and we will hear God’s voice, and what we think is the end will become a new beginning.
Let’s enter in and let the waves support our weight. Let’s open our hands and let the water rush between our fingers. Let’s enter in and see where the current takes us
Let’s enter in to the muck and mud of humanity.
Who knows what it will look like.
Who knows whether it will be sustainable or practical or in a building with stained glass and a beautiful organ.
God doesn’t give us the answers. God enters in and gives us God’s self.
Maybe we are at the end. Maybe this is the end and there is nothing to do but go to the river and enter in. Maybe.
Maybe that will lead us to a new beginning. Maybe something new will start.
One thing I do believe, though. I think that when we enter in, we’ll hear the voice of God. We’ll enter something sacred. Something will open up and the Spirit will land.
Let’s give ourselves. Let’s enter in, and let’s see what happens. Let’s hear God’s voice.
Thanks be to God.