Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 11, 2009

2009.01.11 “Apple of My Eye” The Baptism of the Lord

Central United Methodist Church

“Apple of My Eye”

The Baptism of the Lord

Mark 1: 4 – 11

January 11th, 2009

“At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him.  Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”  – Mark 1: 9 – 11

 

On this second Sunday of the year, we leave Christmas behind to journey out to the Jordan River where John the Baptist is preaching. 

For me it’s always a welcome journey, if only in imagination, because I like to think of the banks of the Jordan River as a place that’s warm, where the sun is shining, and there’s not 8 inches of snow on the ground, three things rarely true for us here in Chicago on the second Sunday in January. 

(If you’re curious, I came across a picture of what the supposed site of Jesus’ baptism on the Jordan River looks like. It’s partly cloudy, with a high of 56)

We go out to the Jordan in January not just because we imagine it warm and sunny, but because, after his birth, Jesus’ baptism was the next big event in his life, according to the Gospels, which are the only record we have.  It might be worth noting that that did not happen for some 20 to 25 years, so if significant spiritual events in your life seem few and far between, be encouraged. 

Perhaps the best aspect of reviewing Jesus’ baptism, is that it provides us with an opportunity to revisit our own. While this is appropriate to do anytime, it is especially so on the beginning of a new year, when festive memories fade and New Year’s resolutions waver, and it can be useful to review our own fundamental commitments. 

A helpful way to think about the baptism of Jesus, I believe, might be through a term derived from Celtic spirituality, described as “thin places.” Contrary to what you might think, “thin places” are not the places you want to avoid when you walk out onto a frozen pond in January, but places where whatever separates physical reality from spiritual reality is “thin”, and spiritual reality becomes tangible, perceptible.

Sometimes, thin places are places. The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, for example, or Bear Butte in Sturgis, South Dakota, a sacred place for the Sioux Nation.  A thin place I’m going to visit this week is perhaps the most famous church in the world, St. Peter’s in Rome.

Sometimes, however, thin places are not places, but experiences, as the baptism of Jesus was so described in the Gospels. It wasn’t that the River Jordan was a sacred place (though it might now be), it was that the experience he underwent at his baptism made it for him – and therefore for us — a “thin place.” 

I’m sure we all wish we could say about our baptisms, that they were thin places, either in terms of place or experience, but we can’t.  Some of us may not yet have been baptized.  Others of us have been baptized, but have no memory of it, especially if we were baptized as infants.

The last time I preached this sermon I called my mother to see what she could tell me about my baptism, thinking I had been baptized as a baby.  (I did so with a little anxiety — what if she told me I was never baptized?) It turns out, as she reminded me, I wasn’t baptized as a baby, but as a teenager. And, then I remembered. The style of my little Methodist congregation in West Kentucky in the 50’s and 60’s (and probably now) was southern revivalism.  We did the whole “Come to Jesus” thing, while we sang about 40 verses of “Just As I Am”, until finally one night my cousin and I gave up and went.  My mother also told me that my grandfather, a long time Baptist kicked out of the Baptist church because he had started attending the Methodist Church with his wife, my grandmother, also “joined” the Methodist Church that night, so more good than I thought came out of it.  I was baptized by sprinkling, in the land of Baptists who believed that the only way of baptizing was full immersion. Some of my friends chose that way, and I can still remember some of those services. Maybe if I’d been immersed I’ve have remembered it better.  I guarantee if I baptize you in Lake Michigan in January you’ll remember it all your life.

But even if we can’t remember — no problem — because, no matter how little we understand when we are baptized, we continue to learn its significance throughout our lifetime journey of faith, of which baptism is but the beginning.  Just as we do today.

And what do we learn? While baptism means many things, what it especially means is this: At our baptisms, like Jesus at the River Jordan, we are affirmed as God’s child, and beloved by God, the beginning not the end of a lifetime of Christian discipleship and service.

The late Henri Nouwen, in his book, Life of the Beloved, says that these words spoken by God over Jesus at his baptism are also the most important words spoken about us, and reflect the most intimate truth about us.

There are many voices in society and in life who seek to tell us who we are, perhaps the most critical being our parents.  Did their voices tell us — can we still hear them telling us — that we are worthless, or stupid, lazy or unloved? For some those are fatal pronouncements they never escape. There are so many people who suffer from low self-esteem, which leads them to lead outlandish even tragic lives in search of acceptance.  Parents: be careful what you say to your children: it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sadly, sometimes even the church has resorted to such demeaning language, to keep people in a state of dependency, rather than encouraging each and every Christian to grow up and become the mature son or daughter of God that God intends each of us to become.   If this is what you hope for your children, wouldn’t you expect that this would be God’s hope for us?

I wonder if Jesus didn’t experience something like that?  Perhaps ridiculed as the illegitimate child of Mary, left without a father by the early death of Joseph, demonic voices may have taunted him long before the wilderness: “You think you’re so special — Jesus, Son of Mary — you don’t even have a Father.”  “Who do you think you are?”

So how wonderful to be assured at his baptism that God his heavenly Father was pleased with him. What ever happened externally — a vision, a voice — internally, he knew it.  I like the way Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message:  “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” 

In a sermon preached 9 years ago now on Day 1 (formerly called The Protestant Hour, the Rev. Rosemary Brown described Jesus’ experience in a way we can understand also:

 

“That touches me in a deep and tender way. I can still hear my father saying to each one of his three children: “You are the apple of my eye, my pride and joy.” We were all marked by our parent’s love . . . . Jesus was the apple of God’s eye and God was pleased with him.” (The Rev. Rosemary Brown, “The Apple Of My Eye”, Sermon preached on the Protestant Hour, March 12, 2000)

 

That is the message affirmed at our baptism:  “You are the apple of my eye, and I am pleased with you.”

For us to hear God’s voice speaking those words in the deepest core of our being, as the deepest truth about us, more indelible than the most corrosive comments anyone can make, can be one of the most profound and formative experiences of our life, and can bring about a greater degree of peace, trust, and intimacy with God than we have ever known. To hear those words spoken of us, to know this truth about us, renders our life in a new perspective, and provides the only true motivation for a lifetime of discipleship and service.  It marks us, for all of our life. 

To illustrate how important such an affirmation can be, consider this story:

“One day a teacher asked her students to list the names of the other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name.  Then she told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.  It took the remainder of the class period to finish their assignment, and as the students left the room, each one handed in the papers.

That Saturday, the teacher wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and listed what everyone else had said about that person. On Monday she gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class was smiling. “Really?” she heard whispered. “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!”  and “I didn’t know others liked me so much,” were some of the comments.

No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. She never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter. The exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another.

That group of students moved on. Several years later, one of the students was killed in Vietnam and his teacher attended the funeral. The church was packed with his friends.  One by one those who loved him took a last walk by the casket. 

The teacher was the last to pass the casket. As she stood there, one of the soldiers who acted as pallbearer came up to her: “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” he asked. She nodded: “Yes.”  Then he said: “Mark talked about you a lot.”

After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates went together to a luncheon. Mark’s mother and father were there, obviously waiting to speak with his teacher. “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.”

Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times.  The teacher knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which she had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him. 

“Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”

All of Mark’s former classmates started to gather around.

Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list – it’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.”

Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding album.”

“I have mine too,” Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary.”

Vicki, another classmate, reached into her pocket- book, took out her wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me at all times, ” Vicki said and without batting an eyelash, she continued: “I think we all saved our lists.” 

That’s when the teacher finally sat down and cried.

Says God, “You are my Son/Daughter, chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”  Cherish this always.  Amen.

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