a sermon on Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-14
preached on January 11, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Beginnings are important moments. How you tell the beginning of a story changes how the rest of it is heard. If I start with “Once upon a time,” it will be really hard for you to hear anything I say as much more than a fairy tale. If I start with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” you’ll expect me to launch into Charles Dickens. And if I start with “So-and-so was born on such-and-such date,” then you’ll be ready for me to give you a full biography.
The beginnings of moments in our lives are important, too. First impressions can make a huge difference in how we interact with one another over the long term. The first time we do something, we set a pattern for how it is done that is often very hard to shake later on. And more and more we are learning how the things we do in the earliest months and years of our lives make a difference throughout all our days.
So today, our texts point us to two beginnings in the Bible—first the beginning of the beginning, the opening words of Genesis that tell of God’s creation of the world, and then the beginning of the story of Jesus, the dramatic shift of a relatively ordinary guy from a relatively ordinary town in the backwaters of the Roman empire to being the one who proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God and was executed for doing so. More than anything, these beginnings set the stage for how the rest of the story is told and heard, and we do well to let them shape our thinking and understanding of everything that follows.
The beginning of the creation story in Genesis sets the stage for the rest of the Bible. This story seems far less concerned with the exact details or process of creation and far more concerned with making it clear that God is at work in all of it. In this beginning, God creates light where there was none, the first step in the process of transforming the formless void of the earth into something new. And that is the real point of this beginning, to show how God acts to make something out of nothing, how God is in the business of transformation from the very beginning, how the world begins when the voice of God sweeps over the face of the waters.
And so the beginning of the story of Jesus in Mark also sets the stage for everything else that follows in the story of Jesus’ life. This beginning is much like the beginning of Genesis, as both point us to the transformative power of God that becomes so very clear when the voice of God sweeps over the face of the waters.
As he begins his story, Mark skips over so much of the stuff that we usually associate with the beginning of the Jesus story. There’s no mention of angels, shepherds, kings, or even Mary and Joseph. Jesus’ background and upbringing are unimportant and perhaps even distracting to Mark’s version of this story. Instead, in Mark’s telling, Jesus just sort of appears out of nowhere to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. John himself had just appeared in the wilderness to proclaim a message of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. People quickly identified him as a prophet, but John knew that his biggest role was to point forward to another who was still to come:
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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
And so when Jesus was baptized by John, God’s transformative power was revealed once again. The heavens were torn apart, and the Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus. Then a voice moved over the face of the waters, announcing to Jesus,
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ beginning was not quite over yet, either. After a brief interlude of forty days of temptation in the wilderness that we’ll hear more about in a few weeks, Mark continues setting the stage for everything else in his story of Jesus. “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,” bringing a message of transformation:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
As the one whom John said was coming after him, Jesus took John’s message of repentance one step further. There was more than an individual change of heart going on here—God’s transformative power was coming into its fullness in Jesus’ presence, and everyone was called to join in. All this became clear for Jesus in the waters of his baptism, in that moment when John held him under waters of the muddy Jordan River to symbolize repentance and new life. It was then, as he came up out of the water, that all the dots of his life connected for the first time. When Jesus experienced the heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove upon him, and a voice proclaiming his identity once and for all, he understood his mission and call in a new and complete way. This was not a total surprise to him, but as that voice called out over the face of those waters, he entered fully and completely into the work of fulfilling the time and embodying the kingdom of God.
In the waters of our baptism, we see much the same thing emerging around us. There is certainly nothing magical in those waters even as they mark the beginning of our lives of faith, and we are very unlikely to have a vision of heavens torn apart and a dive-bombing Spirit dove, let alone a heavenly voice offering a loud and clear declaration of our beloved status. But when our very human voices move over these waters to affirm the vows of repentance and new life for ourselves and to pray for God’s presence, the heavens are torn apart as God joins us here, the Spirit descends upon us to seal God’s love and grace upon us in a new and different way, and a voice moves over the waters to tell us that we too are beloved children of God. And so we too are called with Jesus to join in fulfilling the time and embodying the kingdom of God.
From his baptism, as the voice moved over those waters, Jesus was called to live this kind of life of transformation, to declare and embody God’s reign. This was not an entirely new thing. Jesus followed after a long line of those who had prepared the way. Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and countless other women and men carried God’s message across the generations. And Jesus followed very much in the footsteps of John the Baptist and even other similar, now-unknown prophets of his own day who were setting the stage for this message and this life. From the beginning, Jesus was called to proclaim and live the fullness of God’s new thing that already had been taking hold for generations, guiding others to the light of this new day so that they too could live in justice, peace, love, hope, and grace each and every day.
And so we also are called by the voice of God over the waters of our baptism to live lives of transformation as we declare and embody God’s reign in our lives and our world. We too follow in a long line of prophets and saints who have gone before us to prepare the way and make it clear that we are not doing this all alone. We too have companions on this journey who set the stage for the message and life of transformation that stand at the center of the coming reign of God. And ultimately, as our story begins at this font, we too are called to proclaim and live the fullness of God’s new thing that had been taking hold for generations, guiding others to the light of this new day so that they too could live in justice, peace, love, hope, and grace each and every day.
So today as we remember Jesus’ baptism and reaffirm the promises made in our own baptisms, may God’s voice move over these waters once again to remind us that we are God’s beloved children and to encourage us to continue proclaiming and living the reign of God until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.