+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
I mentioned at the beginning of the service that today, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, marks for many “liturgical” churches the observance of the “Baptism of Our Lord”, a significant festival on which we spend time pondering the importance of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. You may have noticed that the story of Jesus’ baptism is nowhere to be found today, and that, of course, is because Mark’s rapid-fire story covered that ground two full weeks ago. Where most other congregations who are observing this occasion are reading that story this morning, we are well-past it, instead hearing more about the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus in the Galilean town of Capernaum. What does Jesus’ mission of mercy in Galilee have to do with his baptism in the Judean wilderness? Hopefully that will be made clear in the next several minutes; for now, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is up to in this morning’s reading.
The opening episode in today’s text is a little bit curious, particularly if we pay attention to an easily-missed detail from last week’s reading. Toward the end of chapter one, Mark recalls that Jesus is stationed at his disciple’s mother-in-law’s house, and people who have heard about his ability to heal and cast out demons are coming from all over town, bringing their loved ones who are afflicted by disease or demons to be restored to wholeness. Here’s Mark’s summary of what happened that night:
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. (Mark 1:32-34, NRSV)
Though it may not seem clear, Mark intends us to understand this as an all-encompassing healing. ALL who are sick and suffering from possession are brought to Jesus, and he heals them all – many, many people are brought to new and abundant life because of what Jesus does that night.
Fast forward to today’s reading, and suddenly Jesus is confronted with another situation that requires healing. We don’t know whether this paralyzed man came from out of town or whether his paralysis was caused by a recent injury, but in any case, Jesus’ ministry of healing was required once again. (As an aside, I’m almost as impressed by Jesus’ ability to keep teaching while a group of guys was digging through the ceiling directly above him, but that’s a topic for another sermon). What makes this story different is that Jesus ups the ante, so to speak. He doesn’t stop with the physical need of the man lying before him; he also reckons with the spiritual need that he – and, indeed, all people – have: forgiveness, reconciliation – in short, restoration to relationship with God. It’s this new dimension of his ministry, this pronouncement of sin, that raises the ire of the “experts in the law” gathered there in that cramped house. As their statement suggests, they – and, if we’re clear about our own theology, we – believe that only God can forgive sins. There’s a reason, it turns out, that the order of confession and forgiveness at the beginning of each of our services specifies that forgiveness comes from God by the authority of Jesus, not from me. As a called and ordained minister of Christ, and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins. In other words, I declare the reality that your sins have already been forgiven by God for the sake of (and by the authority of) Jesus. So these scribes aren’t saying anything unusual. They’re acknowledging that God is the source of forgiveness, and that the idea that just any human being can claim this ability is contrary to Scripture.
The rub, of course, is that Jesus isn’t just any human being, and that’s where the whole story of Jesus’ baptism comes in. Let’s recall the scene as Mark tells it:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with1 water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4-11 NRSV)
The baptism that Jesus receive was an affirmation of his unique identity and a confirmation of his unique ministry. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, went out preaching and teaching and healing and casting out demons because that was what he was sent out to do (Mark 1:38, NRSV). That he did those things in a way that no one had ever done them before was a consequence of the fact that he was unlike anyone else who had ever lived. We celebrate Jesus’ baptism because it was the visible sign of his evident authority, and because that sign has in a different sense been repeated in the one baptism that is shared by Christians throughout the world and throughout time and space. Yes, there was something unique about the baptism of Jesus, but there is also something in that baptism which is shared by all who have received this sign of God’s love and grace in our own lives – “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Through that baptism, God’s divine breath rushes into our bodies, and we are forever changed. The old garment that clings so closely to us is torn asunder by the new thing that God does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The new wine of God’s grace bursts forth from the old wineskins of sin and death that surround us and our broken world.
This word about the old and the new is not a polemic against Judaism. It is a recognition that human existence is caught inescapably between settled patterns and new thinking, between “the way we’ve always done things” and “the way that things are changing”. Every religion deals with this tension – Christianity just as much as any other – and Jesus comes to challenge “business as usual” so that new life, new possibility, new horizons might be seen and explored. As people who bear Christ’s name and who are filled with God’s Holy Spirit, we are called always to be looking out for the new thing that God is doing so that we might be partners with God in pointing toward the new creation is even now springing out among us. Where Christ is present, healing and restoration are possible. Where Christ is present, those who are lonely find dignity and love and relationship. Where Christ is present, new things are always possible.
On this feast day, may you be reminded of the new thing that God offers to you and me and all people through this sacrament, this mystery of grace and new life. May we be inspired to look at our world anew, with eyes opened to the possibility of abundant life poured out like water in a world parched by the withering heat of hatred and judgment and conflict and distrust. May the grace of God burst forth anew into our hearts, so that others might know that grace in all that we say and do. Thanks be to God! Amen.