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“God on the Loose”
Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12, Mark 1:4-11
Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord, Year B
The liturgical calendar always has the effect of compressing time, collapsing the thirty years between the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry into a few weeks between Christmas and Lent, but this effect is especially pronounced this year. By a quirk of the calendar, this year we have Baptism of the Lord Sunday falling the day after Epiphany, which was yesterday. Since I am unwilling to forgo the observance of either one, today we are giving a nod to both.
Epiphany is always and only Matthew’s story. Only Matthew tells about the visit of the magi to the house in Bethlehem – and yes, it is a house: Matthew says nothing about a stable or a manger.
Matthew has a specific theological purpose in telling the story of the foreign visitors who came to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. We don’t know exactly who these magi were, though we can say that they were probably not kings, as Christian tradition has it. Most likely they belonged to a scholarly class of the ancient Near Eastern world, and would have been versed in astronomy (such as it existed then), as well as medicine, mathematics and philosophy. In other words, they represented the highest knowledge and refinement of the ancient pagan world. But these learned men were brought to their knees in worship before an infant born to poor, Jewish parents. “Epiphany” means revelation: the identity of Jesus was being revealedto a larger world, not only the world outside Bethlehem but outside Jerusalem and Judea. Matthew emphasizes the foreignness of the magi: they are from a different country and a different religion. Jesus’s ministry would ultimately be to outsiders and strangers; the magi represent the first witnesses to a Messiah who will tell his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
In Mark’s Gospel there are no magi and no star, no Mary and Joseph, to begin the story of Jesus. There are no angels or shepherds either, as in Luke, and there is no poem about Jesus’s cosmic origins, as in John. For Mark, the story of Jesus begins not with his birth, but with his baptism.
When Jesus rises dripping from the Jordan River and the heavens break apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove, God announces who Jesus is: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is the only one who hears this voice. The heavenly words and the flutter of dove’s wings are meant for him alone; others are going to have to figure out who he is for themselves. In Matthew, Jesus’s identity is revealed to the world, but in Mark it is revealed only to Jesus himself – and the rest of the Gospel is about what Jesus makes of this revelation, and what others make of him.
The baptism of Jesus was an earth-shattering event. I mean that rather literally. Matthew and Luke say that the heavens were opened when Jesus was baptized, but Mark says that the heavens were “being ripped apart.” Something that has been opened can be closed again, like a door or a zipper, but something that has been torn or ripped never goes back to being exactly the way it was. Mark is saying that when Jesus was baptized divine mystery was entering the world in an entirely new way, and the world would not be the same after that. God would no longer be confined to sacred, protected spaces. In Jesus, God was “on the loose” in the world,[i] and Mark wants us to understand that something uncontrollable and dangerous had come into the world. Jesus would go through the world ripping apart the fabric of people’s expectations of who the Messiah would be.
Jesus’s baptism inaugurated his ministry and in some sense defined it. As the chosen, beloved one of God, he will also be God’s servant. Being identified as the Son of God will not exempt him from suffering – the moment he got down in the water with all the sinners, he made common cause with humanity, consenting to undergo the same hurts and losses and indignities that we do, but even more – from now on, as both God’s obedient servant and brother and friend to humanity, he would be vulnerable to us. His baptism was a preparation for the cross. There is one other place in Mark where Mark uses the Greek verb for “ripped apart”: it is at Jesus’s death. When Jesus died, the curtain of the Temple was “ripped apart,” removing the barrier between God and humanity forever.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus continued to rip through the barriers that kept God and human beings apart, and that kept human beings estranged from each other. He crossed the boundaries established by religion, sharing meals with tax collectors and prostitutes and all the other unsavory, impure people. He crossed boundaries of ethnicity and nationality, striking up friendships with people who represented the enemies of Israel. He crossed the boundaries between rich and poor, healthy and sick, insider and outsider.
Just as the infant Jesus threatened King Herod on his throne – a king so proud and so paranoid that he completely and tragically misunderstood what kind of kingdom Jesus was to inherit – just as the infant Jesus troubled Herod by his mere existence, the adult Jesus was trouble to the established order wherever he went. He challenged the power arrangements that kept the poor poor, that kept women and slaves in their place, that kept the insiders in and the outsiders out. It is no wonder that he met resistance almost everywhere. It is no wonder he was crucified.
And we are baptized in his name. Our baptism calls us to live lives of service, obedience, love and faithfulness after the pattern of Jesus. If we are living out our baptism, it seems that we ought to be troubling or unsettling someone, somewhere. We as the church ought to be a persistent thorn in the flesh of those persons and institutions that are primarily concerned with protecting privilege and consolidating power in the hands of a few, perpetuating a world of perennial insiders and outsiders. This is no easy task; it is a costly task -- but if the church is the servant of the world, it is a task we cannot avoid.
After Jesus, baptism would never be the same again, and Jesus was never the same again after his baptism. In accepting his identity as God’s chosen one, Jesus was marked for a life of pouring himself out for the sake of others. He calls us to that same kind of life, pouring ourselves out for the sake of the world.
In a world in which the heavens have been ripped apart and God is on the loose, things can never be business as usual. What do we make of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and what will the world make of us?
Manassas Presbyterian Church
January 7, 2018
[i] Donald H. Juel, A Master of Surprise (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 34-36.