Where It All Begins
A sermon on Mark 1:4-14, Photo: "The Spirit Descending Like a Dove," fused glass art by Serena Rice, used by permission.
Our altar decoration today is a fused glass art piece that I actually created for Abiding Peace at the conclusion of my time as a pastoral intern.
The design is a dove, which is commonly used to represent peace, so it’s a natural symbol to include in our worship space (what with peace being part of our name).
But the dove also – as in today’s gospel story – is described as the physical form in which God’s Spirit sometimes appears.
And that meaning was very much in my mind when I designed this piece. It’s the reason that I oriented the image in the way I did, so that the red heart in the center would be right way up when the dove is positioned as though it is flying down to us from heaven.
Apparently, however, this directional design is not obvious to everyone... because I have lost track of the number of times that Ben or I have come in on Sunday morning to find the dove turned to fly up.
[Now, I just need to pause for a second to say that I love and appreciate the members of our altar guild, and all the behind-the-scenes work that they do to set up for worship. My Sunday mornings would be beyond hectic without them.
And also, I hold to my claim that “you can’t mess up worship” so this is not intended to be a call-out. Worship is still worship, even if the art is oriented the wrong way and no one catches it before we start.]
With that being said… I can’t help but wonder if there is some significance to the instinct to turn the dove around so that it’s implied direction of movement is from us toward God (because we think of God as being above, even though God is everyhere).
Now, I can sympathize with this instinct, especially on a Sunday where our focus is on the act of baptism. It feels consistent with what happens in this ancient practice, right?
We come to the water…
We prayer our prayers of confession and repentance…
We reach our arms out to God…
Or, rather, I think that’s how it often feels… like the start of faith comes when we reach out to God.
And I recognize that today’s gospel reading seems to reinforce this perspective, because it presents John’s baptism as a preparation for the baptism that Jesus will bring.
And John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance.
But, what does repentance mean?
Does it mean our initiative, our remorse, our change in behavior?
In some ways, yes. If we consider the original word used in the Greek New Testament, it is metanoia (μετάνοια) which combines the words for change and thought or mind.
So, repentance is definitely about the repentant person changing.
But the nuance of this phrase, particularly in the context of baptism, evokes a more embodied sense of turning around and moving in the opposite direction.
As the SALT project commentary suggests this week, it is, “a thoroughgoing shift and reorientation.”
And if you think about it, people don’t just turn around out of the blue. They turn in response to a stimulus: a sound that draws their attention, or barrier in their path, or someone else calling them to come.
Turning around is a response, it’s not the initiating action.
And so is repentance. It is a response to God’s initiating action.
As seminary professor Alicia Vargas writes about this passage, “it is forgiveness that empowers the whole dynamic: God’s decision not to hold your past sins against you but to free you from that past in order to enable a future new life with God.”
And if we can recognize that even the baptism of repentance is not about us reaching out to God because of our remorse or contrition, but it’s about us responding to God’s initiating action to free us and empower change in our lives… then we can see how this whole story of Jesus baptism demonstrates for us – over and over – that God is the one who reaches out to us first.
We see God reaching out in the very fact that Jesus comes to be baptized at all.
John certainly doesn’t seem to expect it. He knows Jesus is coming to the people, but he also knows that he (John) “is not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John would hardly expect Jesus to join in John’s preparatory baptism.
But Jesus does come to John in order to participate in the baptism of repentance.
Which has to make us wonder… why?
If we see repentance ONLY as a confession of sin, then Jesus’ baptism is bizarre. Jesus is God with us. He is without sin.
But if repentance is about change… about reorientation, then it starts to make sense.
From that perspective, Jesus’s baptism is just the natural continuation of his incarnation: God’s profound and scandalous decision to come to us, to live with us, to join us in our humanity.
The SALT project commentary expresses the significance of Jesus’s decision to, “get in line with the rest of us. It’s an expression of the astonishing humility and solidarity of the Incarnation: In Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in the rite of repentance and renewal.”
And this joining with us is not merely symbolic. It’s not just a show of solidarity for the optics of it.
In the moment when Jesus comes up out of the baptismal waters, God makes a radical change.
Mark describes Jesus as seeing the heavens “torn apart.”
This is not a gentle parting of clouds that will soon close up again… this is ripping a tear in the fabric of reality.
Ancient Hebrew cosmology understood heaven and earth to exist on parallel but inviolably separate planes. Heaven above. Earth below. No cross-over.
But what Mark describes is God tearing apart the barrier God had made in creation between God’s realm and ours. What had been separate now was connected. God changed the shape of reality when Jesus was baptized.
And God made that change so that the Spirit could come down from God to enter into Jesus.
Our English translation softens the language a bit, but the original Greek doesn’t say the dove descended on him, it says into.
Think of your favorite sci fi or fantasy movie where an external power is channeled into a character’s body. Except, it’s not special effects. It’s God’s Spirit literally, physically, entering into Jesus to empower him for his ministry.
Which means that even JESUS – even God’s Beloved, Incarnate Son – needed the Spirit of God to initiate his change, his metanoia.
Which is INCREDIBLY Good News! Because it means that we were never meant to change all on our own. The responsibility has never been on us to be the ones generate our own transformation. We aren’t even expected to reach out to God first.
God reaching out to us is where it all begins. The dove is flying down.
On the first Sunday of the year… when we all draw our “Epiphany Stars,” and are perhaps digging into this year’s New Year’s Resolutions, hyping ourselves us that this year we are going to stick with it... I imagine we might need the reminder of which way to “orient” the Dove of God’s transforming Spirit.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with us setting goals for ourselves, or laying claim to an inspiring word for the year, or committing ourselves to changes that we need or want to make.
But when we do, let’s try to remember that the most powerful change is the one that starts with God.
With God deciding to join us in repentance and renewal.
With God tearing open the heavens to come to us.
With God calling Jesus Beloved so that he could show us that we are each Beloved too. Just as we are. Thanks be to God.
 For reference, see discussion by Matt Skinner in the Sermon Brainwave podcast for Baptism of our Lord Sunday, 2024.