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January 9, 2000
First Sunday After Epiphany
The Baptism of Christ

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Brand Spanking New!

"Brand spanking new!"

Have you ever used that phrase?  If you have, you were referring to something really new.  Right off the assembly line new.

That's what "brand spanking new" means.  It is a newborn infant brought to a rude awakening life with a spank on the bottom. It brings to mind words and phrases that create pictures in your mind.  It is:

*  a spring shower
*  a rosebud
*  the breaking of the dawn

"Brand spanking new" is a hopeful, promise filled idea.  It is more than "fresh" it is the idea of:

*  a clean slate
*  a schedule, not yet filled in
*  a vacation week with no appointments

It is the absolutely, totally wonderful feeling of waking up on a Monday and realizing that you have forgotten it is a holiday.

Wow!

A day without commitments or meetings.  A day without agenda or expectations. A whole twenty four hours all to yourself.

Isn't that a magnificent thought?

Until!  Until that little dog that yaps away in the back of your mind begins to nag and scold you about the bill you didn't pay -- the call you didn't make -- the fence you need to mend -- the plans you need to make.   And you hate to make new plans, because there are too many old plans you haven't gotten around to yet.

Doesn't the idea of "a clean slate" or "a chance to start all over " sometimes sound wonderful to you?

***

A little over a week ago there was a lot of attention paid to the fact that we were at the first day of a new century.  Some people spoke of it as the first day of a whole new millennium, while others reminded us that we have to complete this year before a third millennium actually begins.   Nevertheless, we live in significant times and this generation will be the generation that lived -- not only at the "turn of the century", but at the, "turn of the millennium."

In spite of all that, there will never be a new day or a new beginning like the new day and new beginning in our scripture reading from Genesis:

"And there was evening and there was morning,
       the first day!"

Shortly after this "brand spanking new" day, things went downhill.  The introduction of human beings into the picture brought sin and grief to spoil the wonderful beginning.

// "It was all Adam's fault you know," my secretary likes to say to men as she draws them in for her ultimate punch line.  "Adam's fault," they respond, "Who ate the fruit in the first place?"

"There you have it," she replies, "Guys are never around when you need them.  Adam should have stayed home where he belonged."  Then she asks her favorite question of this winter. (She will ask it, I think, until every male in the church has heard it.)  "Let me ask you this -- if a man is out in the woods and says something -- and no one is there to hear him -- is he still wrong?"  //

***

The central message of our lectionary readings for today is that no matter what day it is on the calendar or how hectic and bogged down our lives have become -- no matter how badly we have failed or deeply we have transgressed -- there is always the opportunity for a new day and a new beginning with God.

That is good news!

Something important begs to be understood in the scripture lessons from Mark and Acts. Namely: There is a huge difference between trying to reform our lives in our own strength and experiencing the renewal that comes from God's strength. You might say that humankind's attempts at reform are pitiful while the Holy Spirit's work in our lives is powerful.

Let's look at how the texts show us the difference.

In the Gospel of Mark, John (called "the baptizer" because of his work) calls people to acknowledge and confess their sin and to turn away from the old sinful life to a new righteous life.  As a sign of their turning away from the old life -- that is of their repentance -- they came to John at the Jordan and were baptized.

Briefly, repentance means "to change your mind or to get a new mind" with regard to something in your life.  You decide to turn away from it. You decide to "reform." perhaps you made some decisions to "reform" when the new year came.  You decided to give up being a "couch potato" and begin an exercise program.  Or maybe you decided to stop smoking or eating or surfing the net.

Whatever your reform intentions were all about, you discover how difficult self-reform is.  All of us have either dealt with addictions or have people in our lives we love a lot who have dealt with or are now dealing with addictions.  One of the most agonizing things in an addict's life is the horrible sense of recognition within that they simply do not have power over the thing that is wrecking their life.

When you are trying to reform.  When you acknowledge the need to change and are ready to turn away from the old, you qualify for John's baptism.  That is you are ready to make the change.  The problem is this.   You are going to change in principle but have no power to change in fact!

A dear friend who is a recovering alcoholic said to me, "If I heard once, I heard a million times that I needed to 'change'   -- as though I didn't know that.  I decided to change almost every night of my drinking life.  I would finish my bottle with the absolute promise to myself that the next day would be different.  it would be a 'new' day.  And it never was."

"I have baptized you with water," John said, "But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."  In other words, John asked for a promise to change while Jesus would give the power to change.

Baptism for a Christian is the spiritual equivalent of a Genesis day one.  It is a "brand spanking new" day. The literal sense for the verb "to baptize" means "to immerse or place fully into".  This sense is reflected in Second Corinthians 5:17, "... if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

My recovering friend said that his new day came when he quit fighting his addiction in his own strength and made a fresh commitment to give God the controls for his life. "It may be weird," he said, But it's like I handed over the remote."  [Not weird at all if you know men and their remotes!] When he quit struggling with the notion reforming his life for good, he received enough strength to have a brand new day -- every day -- one day at a time.   "Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof, Jesus said.

Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit -- or in other words -- places us in the Spirit who can give power from within instead of simply pressure from without.

***

The Book of Acts story of the visit of Paul to Ephesus is a great story about how the principle of reform becomes the power to reform. Paul discovers that the city of Ephesus has some people who were baptized under John's ministry and call to repentance.  They responded to John's call for turning away from a life of sin to a life that pleases God. They were baptized as a sign of that intent to change their lives.

Because they are followers of John's movement and ministry, these Ephesians are familiar with some of what the Apostle Paul is teaching and preaching.  Paul asks the question, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers."  As it turns out, these folk were not Christians and knew nothing of the Holy Spirit.  Paul --  we assume --   gives a bit of instruction and then baptizes the people as new Christians.

When they are baptized as Christian believers, something amazing happens.  The Holy Spirit energizes them from within.  The sign of that for the Ephesian people was tongue speaking and prophesying. For most of us, (but by no means all of us) these manifestations of the Holy Spirit are not a part of our spiritual experience, but the premise remains...  it is the Spirit of God within us that produces power to make changes that can be witnessed from without.

Whether it is speaking in tongues, recovery from an addiction or rearranging the priorities of my life -- the power to bring it all about is a gift of God that comes with my surrender to the work of God's Spirit in my life.

All of this is just so much religious talk until we answer the question...

Am I ready to have God run my life?

Think about this question.

Live with this question for a bit.

Answer this question when you can.

Am I ready to have God run my life?

When you can honestly, whole heatedly answer this question in the affirmative.  When you can say "YES!"

Your life will experience a wonderful moment of being...

"brand spanking new!"

 


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

In the readings there is a connection between the voice of God, the Spirit of God and baptism.  God speaks and creation is born, the voice of God declares, "You are my Son the Beloved..." at Jesus' baptism and the Holy Spirit comes.  Then the Spirit is manifested when the Ephesian disciples of John the Baptist are baptized in the name of Jesus.

There is also a connection between the Holy Spirit and the ability to hear the voice or words of God.  Consistent rejection of God's voice of  words leads to spiritual deafness.  Remember the words of Amos?   "And people will stagger from sea to sea, And from the north even to the east; They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, But they will not find it." [Amos 8:12]  Paul pointed to the inability of the human spirit apart from the Spirit of God to hear or understand spiritual things. "Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." [First Cor. 2:14]  One aspect of Baptism is initiation into a community where the voice of God is sought and the word of God attended to.  The body of Christ prays for "ear to hear...."

Mark 1:4-11

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has no birth narratives, but launches immediately into the "good news of Jesus Christ."  That good news begins with the voice of God which is a major theme of the texts for today.  The voice of God comes once again to Israel from a man named John who comes to be known as "the baptizer."  

John's ministry of calling people to repentance is a call to listen to the voice of God.  "Listen to God and turn away from sin."  Baptism was the sign of repentance and turning to the Lord brings forgiveness.  John's name means, "The Lord is gracious."

When Jesus comes for baptism, the voice of God and the Spirit of God come together in the coming of the Holy Spirit like a dove and the voice that affirms, "You are my Son, the Beloved;  with you I am well pleased." [See the sermon on the baptism of Jesus through the link at the top of this page.]

There is a basic affirmation in verses 10 and 11 of the Trinitarian faith as the Father,s voice is heard, the Spirit's presence is seen and the Son's obedience is praised.

Genesis 1:1-5

Let the words sink in...  "The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep."  Connecting these words from Genesis with the others texts of the day underscores the point that the Word of God brings order to our lives and light to our darkness.  God's Spirit "hovers" over the formless void and darkness of human experience and the Word of the Lord can bring creation / recreation.  There is a strong connection between the words of Mark and the words of Genesis.

As Genesis introduces the creation, mark introduces the re-creation.

I shall never be weary of hearing the first four words of the bible. [KJV, NASB, NIV et al]  "In the beginning GOD...!"  These four words alone declare that the universe has meaning and purpose and accordingly our lives have meaning and purpose.  They are a statement of faith in a world where countless numbers of people see the universe as a "formless void."  It is not, "In the beginning BANG!"  or, "In the beginning chance!"   Rather, "In the beginning GOD."

Baptism is a way of making that same declaration.  "In the beginning God!"

Acts 19:1-7

John 1:20 makes the point concerning  John the Baptist, "He {John} confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."   There was, however, a movement related to John the Baptist that persisted into the earliest days of the Church.  Paul discovered some of John's disciples in Ephesus.

Now these disciples hear that John's ministry was not a terminal religious movement, but was instead the ministry of a herald.  Each gospel in telling the story of John the Baptist makes the point that John spoke of One who was coming who would baptize -- not with water -- but with the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit, not the mechanical act of baptism that brings about creation / re-creation.  [The relationship between Genesis, Mark and Acts is woven together with the threads of "word," "spirit," "baptism" and "creation / re-creation."

The concluding words of this passage seem almost an afterthought, but the number twelve jumps out,  "...altogether, there were about twelve of them."  Twelve disciples, twelve tribes and now twelve disciples of John the Baptist who become followers of Christ.

 


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship

Leader:   Let us be together, O People of God, in the giving of our hearts in worship.
People:  Let us praise the Holy Name of God with all that is within us.
Leader:   The Lord our God reigns over all, the splendor of the Lord surrounds us.
People:  May the glory of the Lord come upon us,
Leader:   May the blessing of God fill this place,
People:  And may our hearts be filled with the peace of the Lord.   Amen.

Confession of Sin

We come in humility O Lord.  We come trusting that your mercy is sufficient to cover our sin, for our hearts would fail under the burden if Your were not the gracious God You are.  We have spoken badly of others, your children in the Body of Christ.  We have been silent when we should have spoken for You.  We judge others and often place ourselves above judgment.  We pray that You would forgive us our wrong and help us to so embrace Your love that we will become courageous followers of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, the word of the Lord assures us that if we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Open your hearts to receive the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sin.  May you be in peace.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Loving God, we thank You for the countless ways you nourish and sustain us along the way.  You are there even when we are unmindful, you are watching over us when we are oblivious to Your presence.  In these moments of worship we gain a glimpse into the brilliant light of Your Eternal presence.  We gain a foretaste of glory divine.

As we venture even further into the days of this new century and peer over the threshold of a new millennium, we can not imagine moving forward without You. O fill us with Your glory dear God, and send us from this time with You filled with the power of Your Spirit.  Help us to dedicate our lives to Your praise and glory for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

We are blessed, O giver of life, to even consider bringing these gifts to You.  How can we give to the One who has given us life, forgiveness of sin and hope to sustain us through all the days of our lives.  Thank you Lord.   Receive these gifts as the tokens of our hearts.  Amen.