Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
The good news begins with trouble. The texts are clear: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God ... John the baptizer appeared ... and people from the whole Judea countryside and all the people of Jerusalem ... were baptized by him on the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Before there is a creative Word from God, before there is any sign of a Saviour there is void and darkness and everyone knows that the trouble - the sin - is deep and unavoidable. It is possible to read too quickly and to miss the deep trouble that precedes the good news. But not today. Not here. Not this week. There is too much trouble for it to be ignored. Yes, we have been to the manger and sung the carols and greeted the child. Yes, we have celebrated his Epiphany. Yes, we have done all of this. But, somehow, it feels like we are still waiting ... waiting for the promised arrival in our midst. That longing text that began our year back on the first Sunday of Advent seems, in spite of our celebrations, to go unanswered: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1).
Ours is a season of a closed sky. There seems to be no easy communication, no ready movement between divine and human. The cries to heaven only escalate. To pay attention to the world at all is to be overwhelmed with the groans of so many who wait for the heavens to open and for mercy to rain down upon the earth. We hear the ache of our sisters and brothers in Africa crying out for care. We are burdened by the plans of nations for acts of massive brutality and violence, in the name of righteousness and peace. We despair at the devastation that daily, weekly, yearly leads us deeper and deeper into environmental catastrophes unimagined. Then, too, we know the ravages and the despair because for too many even here it is close ... close to home ... within our homes ... within us, if we only dare to admit it. All manner of trouble daunts our days and homes. Mental illness. Addiction. Unfaithfulness. Violence. Suicide. Depression. Tragedy. Grief. And more. We bury the trouble beneath a culture of denial. We try to find satisfaction in “bread and circuses.” We inhabit a culture of satiation, one that seeks be fed and entertained, to keep minds diverted ... because the sky is closed and there seems no imminent promise of the heavens opening and a voice speaking and of good news in the midst of our great despair.
The good news begins with trouble. Real trouble. It begins with void and with darkness. It begins with people from every walk of life, rural and urban, from every class and culture recognizing that it is late ... very late ... and that no one is innocent, that everyone is implicated, that there is no escape from the trouble, no pure people ... not the poor or the rich, not the addicted or the clean, not the Iraqis or the Americans, not the Liberals or the Greens. The trouble envelops all. The good news is a response to a deep and pervasive desire to be cleansed, to begin again, to let go of the ways of life that bring so much trouble. The gospel is not a disconnected slogan. It is not some magic mantra. It is a story that begins with trouble that is beyond hope, trouble beyond imagining, trouble that we cannot fix, cannot solve, cannot make better. Do you see? To speak about the good news, to be a people of the gospel, is to be prepared to face the truth about the world of a closed sky, where God’s voice is silent.
So we begin at the font. We begin here at the Jordan river. The font is the location where the trouble is named with daring honesty. Those who come to the fountain of forgiveness know that there is hard truth to be told about the troubles that envelop the whole world and every family and even each of us. If it were not true, forgiveness and newness would not be sought, not be needed, not be the thing most longed for. The font is the place of beginning. Here we begin the journey out of the trouble. Here we begin to discover the mystery of the good news that saves us and the world. This discovery does not come easily. It is not resolved overnight. The story of the gospel in our lives, the story of the good news overcoming our great sadness and despair, is a rich and complex unfolding drama. But it is gospel. It is good news. It is, finally, about the ways in which God overcomes the troubles that mark the beginning of the story.
“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.” He sees the heavens torn apart. The river which had been the location only of waiting and washing and longing becomes in this moment also the location of God’s activity. Heaven is ripped open. Holy Spirit slips out and rests on the one baptized. For the first time in a long, long season the One whose voice created light now speaks and, in speaking, anoints a Messiah, a Christ, a King worthy of the name. This is the beginning of the gospel. It is the opening scene in the drama of the overcoming of the darkness and the troubles by God, who is in the business of creating good news when there is only void. But notice this. No one who stands at the river with John sees what is happening ... not even John who is expecting one more powerful, one who will baptize with the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. John’s baptisms are preparatory. They are about turning from the ways that have led to trouble. The One who is to come will baptise with new ways and new Spirit. We who read and watch the drama unfold can see that Jesus is this promised one. But everyone in the story is blind to what is going on. They do not see the heavens torn apart. They do not glimpse the Spirit descending like a dove. They do not hear the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved”. It is only Jesus who sees it, Jesus who feels it, Jesus who hears it. It is the beginning of the good news, because Jesus now begins his journey towards overcoming the trouble. This journey occupies the church through Easter Sunday and beyond. For the next four months we follow the drama of the unfolding good news as Jesus confronts the overwhelming trouble. The gospel is not lived in a day. It takes time for the story of Jesus to become our own.
Though we have lived through this story as a people many times it seems that we are, once more, back at the beginning. It seems that we are more immersed in the troubles that confront and confound our world and our neighbours and ourselves than we are soaked in the utter joy and pure freedom of the power of the good news to change everything. It seems that we are witnesses with John at the river, standing here at the font, waiting for the heavens to be torn, the Spirit to descend and the voice to speak. Note that the Christian Year takes a long pause at this crucial moment in the text. We return to this text and this moment in eight Sundays. On the 1st Sunday in Lent we will read the next verse: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Between now and then the church ponders what happens to Jesus at the river. In some years this season of pondering the baptism of Jesus is brief. Easter is a “movable feast.” It moves with the moon’s cycles. Some years it comes early. Then the season after Epiphany is squeezed short. But some years, like this one, Easter comes later. Then the season of pondering the baptism of Jesus and his anointing as Messiah is longer. We can use the time. We have much to ponder. The troubles we face on many fronts are grave and hard. Our longing for good news is real, not pretend. Our desire for One whose ways can be trusted and whose promise is true is deep. We and our neighbours are vulnerable to all kinds of false promises. We need this time to hear and to answer the call of Jesus to trust him, to follow him and to be with him. Because trusting him and following him and being with him must requires that we not trust other powers and not follow other ways and not be with other gods who tempt us with their promises of ease.
The good news begins with trouble that calls God into action. The heavens are ripped apart. The Holy Spirit escapes, getting loose in the world. The voice of the Maker, Redeemer and Sustainer of all things speaks and anoints an obedient servant, a chosen one. This is the reason that when we do not see the heavens open or sense the Spirit’s presence or hear the voice spoken we will not despair. For Jesus has seen and sensed and heard. Our mothers and fathers in the faith have told us the truth. They lived to see the power of God breaking open futures that had been impossibly closed. They left us this font as an announcement that the deep troubles will not overwhelm God ... even on the bleak Good Friday and the long Holy Saturday that lie ahead. The troubles will, finally, not overwhelm God. And if the troubles will not overwhelm God then they will not overwhelm us or the world of God’s impassioned care. It is the gospel truth. Praise God from whom such blessings flow.