This is a sermon that I delivered at Redeemer Lutheran Church in San Antonio on January 8.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way–
a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’” [Isaiah 40:3]
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:1-11 NIV
So, how are those new year’s resolutions going? Did you make any this year? Are you keeping them so far? Ricki and I picked up an elliptical exerciser. It wasn’t the first piece of exercise equipment I’ve purchased; there was an exercise bike a number of years ago that had a variable resistance mechanism on it, a cloth belt that wore against a flywheel and hissed like a snake when I rode it. hssss-sss-sss-sss with each turn of the pedal, and the higher you turned resistance, the louder it got. I put it next to the bed, to remind me, first thing, to exercise. Instead, I hung my clothes on it. I probably burned more calories moving it around than I did using it. So join with me in hoping that this time turns out better than then. It’s already off to a better start, in part because Ricki and I are encouraging each other. More on that later.
But that’s the way New Year’s resolutions are, right? For most of us, they are a matter of jokes to hide the painful truth: that at every turn of the calendar we have things we regret doing, or regret not doing, and our efforts to change so often fall short. T.S. Elliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but for many people the cruelest month is January–not January eighth, maybe, when the fires of resolution are still burning bright, but January _twenty_-eighth, when the first chips of resolve begin to fall away. It’s always the small things, isn’t it? A husband resolves to stop looking at porn on the internet. He’s doing so well on January 8, but around the 28th he’s tired, and he’s done well, and it’s late, and, well, one time won’t hurt. And the first piece falls, and his personal struggle enters a darker and more depressing phase.
How do we overcome? You know, this place is here because God has powerful answers for us in this area. For many people driving by Redeemer this morning, out there on Fredericksburg Road, the cross tower, the high roof and the stained glass all serve not to encourage, but to scold, to condemn, and to dismiss. All of you who sit here weekly, as Ricki and I have done with you by and large for the last 18 months, know that Pastor Martin every week reminds us that there is not only condemnation, but forgiveness and joy here. But how many people out there know that? And how does forgiveness reconcile with our daily private struggles, the things we know and wish we could do better at, but so often seem to fail? Our reading this morning, as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, speaks to these questions powerfully.
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When I teach an overview of the New Testament, I often point out that each of the four Gospels begins differently, and that each of those beginnings gives us an important insight into the particular interests of the Gospel writer. Matthew begins with a genealogy, which, far from being boring, yells out at us Jesus’ rightful claim to the throne of David. Luke begins with a highly personal account of Jesus’ birth including many human elements, and much interaction with the Holy Spirit. John begins with creation and Jesus’ nature as True God. And Mark begins as we read this morning. No birth narrative, no divine claims, but just a simple introduction. Why? I’ll give you a hint. When you hire a lawn contractor, do you ask for a family history? For personal details? No. Those details are important in a political campaign or the search for a spouse, but a servant just needs to do a job. Mark presents Jesus as the servant of humanity, who came primarily to seek and save the lost. The simple opening matches this powerful emphasis, which, as you will hear gospel readings from Mark all year now, you ought to keep in mind.
Many New Testament Scholars in the 1800s argued about which Gospel was written first. In my mind, today these discussions seem foolish in light of what else we’ve learned, and what we’ve come to understand we will never know. Extended discussions about what they call “Markan priority” are in my mind like the genealogies of angels that Paul mentions in some of his letters. He calls them “stupid arguments” that distract from the Gospel. Amen, brother. It is obvious from the gospels themselves that John was written after the other three were complete, but other than that, we just don’t know which was written first, and it is not a “scientific exercise” to discuss it further. There is little insight to be gained in claiming that Matthew or Mark was written first. Tradition tells us that Mark was Peter’s assistant at Rome, and while that is not on the level of Biblical truth, it is a very strong and believable tradition. Think of it this way: the gospel of Mark is a set of notes for Peter’s sermons, which he told from memory and from personal knowledge. Mark is the shortest gospel, and lacks much detail of the others, but it does include small, powerful details that the others do not.
Our lesson about John the Baptist today is the shortest account that we find of John the Baptist in all the gospels. Matthew gives us more detail about John’s interaction with Jesus; Luke tells us some of the advice for holy living that John shares with the “sinners” who came to be baptized. Mark seems barebones and to the point in comparison. I guess I can understand why those 19th century German scholars figured that Mark was written first, since it is shorter, and they figured that later writers embellished and added. But shortness isn’t the entire story. There are other explanations for differences in length besides embellishing.
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I want you to notice two details in our reading today. They are only small details, just a two single words, a participle and a pronoun in the original language, but they are _only_ present in Mark. If Mark were a source for the other gospels, it would be surprising that these details would have been left out–because they are both significant and important. While all of the Gospels show us all three persons of the Trinity– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–present at Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s gospel includes these details not present in the others. Hear this: “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open.” Two words: “he” tells us that it was a personal experience of Jesus. “torn open” (one word in the original) tells us that the Heavens were not just “opened” but actually “torn.” How would Mark know what Jesus saw? We can’t be certain, but either Jesus shared this detail with Peter later, or Mark knew by inspiration of the Spirit. Either way, this isn’t just a detail in a novel or a movie, but an intensely personal detail about an experience that we do well to slow down and ponder this morning.
I’ve never seen the heavens opened. We could go through and count the places that they are opened in the Bible, and Elijah and Stephen come to mind, and if we did count them we’d find that though it does happen in the Bible, it’s not an everyday experience even in Scripture. As far as real life, I don’t personally know anyone who has seen them opened, though I have heard second hand stories of people who have. For instance, a friend tells me about an aunt of his, a woman who was spiritually discerned her entire life, who at one point heard the angels singing hymns and calling out to her, and saw a glimpse of the heavenly lights as she was here on earth. She spoke about it, and my friend relayed the story to me. And when did this happen? On her deathbed. In fact, every single story I’ve heard about the heavens being opened to people I know occurred as they were dying. Even in the Scriptures, overwhelmingly this experience means it’s time to move on from this earth.
So what does it mean that Jesus sees the heavens no only opened, but _torn open_? The word in the original language is the same word from which we get the word “schism” in English, and it implies a violent tearing away of a covering, a traumatic event which leaves things changed forever. Why would God violently tear open the heavens at this point for Jesus to see? I think Peter would know what to say. In this Gospel of the suffering servant, he would say that, from the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus was personally aware that his mission, his service, was to die. But more than that, He was to die in order to open heaven for others in an entirely new way, which was not possible earlier. Precious few even in the Scriptures saw Heaven opened and stuck around much longer, and those that did were changed forever by what they saw. Jesus went from being a promise to a reality, from a baby born in a manger and a boy at the temple, to a full grown man, brought to this place to suffer and die, to enter heaven, in a way that no one else had ever done or would do again.
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You’re going to see the heavens opened, at least once. All of us will. Perhaps we’ll be around for the end of the world–maybe 2012 is the year like some goofballs are saying–and we’ll all experience the terror of humankind as all of the things we’ve felt were so solid melt away, and the fabric of existence is torn at the end before its remaking. Maybe. But if that doesn’t happen, then _definitely_ as your human eyesight fails for the last time, you’ll experience something like what Jesus did, heaven opens and you hear a voice from above. You will be alone with God at that point. And what will that voice say to you? “With you I am well pleased?” Really? I don’t know about each of you in detail, but I know that none of us has a lot to hope for by our own accounts. James writes that those who teach in the church will be judged more harshly, and for myself I have plenty of cause to worry on that score. I’ve served two churches, and barely a week goes by when I’m not haunted by memories of things I did wrong, or failed to do, not out of weakness, but out of selfishness and sin. A pastor I remain, but a broken one without any doubt. It is those closest to me, as well, who have suffered the most at my incompetent and self-centered hands. I didn’t fail in the large things primarily, though I did do some of that, but in all the small things, that I did or didn’t do. Some of you may have done some better, sure enough, but well enough to hear God the Father say, “of you I am well pleased? ” Some of you might be accounted worth something, as the world does the math, but the world itself is passing away.
This is why it is so meaningful for us to hear the words, “with you I am well pleased,” and to know that the man Jesus of Nazareth saw the heavens torn open with his own human eyes. The heavens weren’t just opened, as for a dying soul, but _torn open_ to mark a whole new way of things. Where human goodness had failed utterly, and no way out appeared visible, God’s chosen servant blazed a new path, the first inkling of that new creation that will some day soon come in fullness. Beginning at the waters of the Jordan, a new path to heaven has been set. That man, and that God, Jesus, died for your sins. He cleaned them up like a servant cleans up after a drunken master’s party, and bore on His own body the marks and the punishment as a servant calmly cleans up a disgusting mess. He, as God, died to God the Father on the cross, so that God might be both totally fair in condemning all sin, and totally forgiving for those who are willing to walk that path, the path of faith in His Son.
Jesus walked into those waters of Baptism not to repent of His own sins, but to begin His service of carrying your sins and mine. His baptism meant death for Him, as it meant life for all of us. God the Father was pleased with the plan, and announced it at both the beginning, with the words we heard in our lesson, and at the end, with Jesus’ resurrection. Both of those events point to a new creation that began with Jesus, its firstfruits, continues with us as we live lives of faith in Him. This is why your baptisms, far from being some one-time act, are significant in an ongoing, everyday way. That forgiveness sealed the beginning in your journey of faith, as in obedience to the command the waters of baptism washed your body. But the forgiveness is an ongoing forgiveness, and the vision of heavens being opened, as they will be at your death, have an ongoing significance as we return to the Jordan in spirit to die to sin each and every day. Every day, you can return in faith to that moment, regardless of how well you remember the details, because you can know that in that moment Jesus reached out and grabbed your hand. You received that hand in faith, regardless of how poorly you may have understood things at the time, and were sealed as partners in a journey. That journey is in a very real sense begun again, as the plan works itself out, each and every day. In light of this, being broken, even as I am a broken pastor, transforms from sadness to joyful humility, for even in our brokenness, and sometimes because of it, we can once again take that hand, hear the words, “with you I am well pleased,” and know that in Jesus, those words move from Him to us. God _is_ well pleased with you, because Jesus your servant took your sins away, and that hand once reached out is still there every single day.
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This is the message that needs to come out of Redeemer Lutheran Church. The bell tower, the high roof, and the stained glass cannot do it on their own. Too often the church as a whole has contented itself with scolding sinners from a distance and feeling smug about the failings of others. “I may not be perfect, but I’m sure better than her.” This is a disgusting and non-Biblical attitude. All of us have fallen, and all of us fall daily, and have hope only in a daily dying to sin and continual repentance. Redeemer, as I have told you from this pulpit before, has been a beautiful place to us, a place where by and large the members are humble, much more inclined to invite us on a group journey of mutual forgiveness and support than a show of supposed sanctification that is all show and no real substance. But this quality cannot be seen from a distance, but only as individuals. This has been possible for Redeemer during the time we’ve known you, and you’ve done it, too. In a larger church, this individual encouragement quickly becomes impossible unless they very actively divide into smaller groups.
Ricki and I have hope to keep up on our resolution to exercise this year because we are encouraging each other. You know, there are some things you cannot do alone, and the human spirit recoils from very much “big helping,” where a self-secure person gives out endless advice to someone who is struggling. Alcoholic Anonymous knows this. The only way to continually fight off an addiction to alcohol is to have two partners, both admitted alcoholics, who can help each other in the small ways–in the daily struggle, where one small thing can be the start of an avalanche. Is sinning in our life any different, really? Don’t we need someone to help in a small way against the small things that can undermine our resolutions, our hopes and dreams, in an avalanche of failure? As embarrassing as it may be, if you are struggling with porn, you probably won’t lick it without letting someone else in on the secret. That won’t happen in a group like an entire church, or through sermons alone, or worship alone–but only in one-on-one ministry and mutual consolation and encouragement. The hand of Jesus reached out in baptism is there, and the waters of baptism make it real for us, but without the everyday flesh-and-blood encouragement and warning, it just isn’t possible to live that life of faith.
It was almost exactly three years ago, on my birthday (January 11) 2009 that I preached to you from this pulpit for the first time. For over a third of the time since, I’ve sat in a pew right about there and sought, and found, healing in the word of God, in the ministry that happens here, and by the encouragement that a number of you who have befriended Ricki and me have offered. Here lately, though, the Lord has once again called out to me, broken pastor that I am, and put in my heart that there is a task for me to do. I feel that the entire church–not just Redeemer, but the church at large–needs to do some basic re-thinking about how we minister to each other. There is simply no time this morning for me to tell you all of my thoughts, but the end result of all of them is that, after discussing things with the Texas District of the LCMS, I’m going to begin this month doing some non-traditional mission work in Dripping Springs, Texas, which is slightly closer to my home than here. I’ll share with you that this thought terrifies me, because I am not a natural missionary–but it is precisely in this brokenness that I feel called. Much of my work will be available or done on line (and in fact this sermon is available on line at edgiese.com/believer) so I hope I can share my friendship with some of you in an ongoing way. Unfortunately, though, we can’t be in two places at once, and this change means that you will be seeing far less of Ricki and me in 2012 than you did in 2011. We both want to thank all of you for your hospitality and friendship, and this isn’t the end. I may be back to preach occasionally, because I’ll have a more flexible schedule than a normal pastor, but the call of God has come, and we must heed it.
Please join me in prayer…