January 7, 2018


January 7, 2018
Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7; Genesis 1:1-5

Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark has no stories about Jesus’ birth or his early childhood.  After a few introductory verses, the Gospel of Mark jumps right into the description about Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry, presumably when he was about 30 years old.  If that is true, then Jesus had a lot of life experience under his belt before he ever stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, John—a baptism that would change his life forever and actually would result in his life being cut short because of his devotion to living by the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled him to live according to God’s good pleasure rather than be influenced by all of the pressures of this world.

I would guess that all of us could look back on our lives and identify those moments when we had a certain revelation or experience that would change our lives forever.  Related to our lessons for today, I would recall two such moments in my life—both of which occurred when I was 20-years old and both of which would inform my theology for the rest of my life.  The first such moment occurred one day when I was sitting at the lunch table in the dining hall at Concordia Senior College and suddenly realized that the importance of this first story in Genesis had little, if anything, to do with a literal 7-day creation as I had been taught since my childhood.  Instead, it struck me in that moment that this story about God creating the heavens and the earth had everything to do with who God is, who we are in relationship to God, and what our responsibility is in relationship to the world in which God has placed us as human beings.  I blame this shift in understanding and perspective on the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the one, who, according to Jesus, guides us into the way of truth.

The second such moment came that same year after I had learned over the summer that two of my dearest friends had received the baptism with the Holy Spirit and could speak in tongues as a result of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  They both were such vibrant and positive persons, and I wanted what they had.  So, when I went to the Senior College that fall, I regularly would go down into the tiny chapel in the basement of our dorm and pray for this gift of the Holy Spirit.  After about 5 months of this endeavor, I still hadn’t had the bright light experience that my 2 friends had described to me, and I had no experience of speaking in tongues.  Perhaps I should have asked somebody to lay hands on me at the time, but I was unaware of this possibility back then. 

Instead, I came to the conclusion that speaking in tongues probably was not going to be my gift, and that the Holy Spirit would have to endow me with some other gifts that would be as beneficial to me and to others in my life, and give me the satisfaction of knowing that I still was a beloved child of God who could please God in other ways in my life.  Little did I know that one of those gifts of the Holy Spirit eventually would be the gift of prophecy as mentioned in our lesson from Acts for today—a gift that has inspired me to recognize that the seventh day as described in this Genesis story is the main reason why this story was written, and to understand that the baptism of Jesus with the power of the Holy Spirit gave him the faith and courage to go public with his prophetic message about the good news of God’s realm in which God’s justice and peace would rule the day.

The timing of this baptism in Jesus’ life raises the question about whether or not Jesus was filled with this Holy Spirit earlier in his life.  If we take to heart this description in Genesis about the Spirit of God sweeping over the face of the earth at the beginning of time and about God breathing into every human being the Spirit of life from the very beginning, then we might conclude that from the beginning of his life, Jesus already was filled with the Spirit of God as the angel Gabriel had announced to his mother, Mary.  I would suggest that the same holds true for each and every one of us.  When all of us were born, we already had the Spirit of God breathed into us to give us life.

If such is the case, then what is the importance, or better yet, what is the necessity of being baptized in the name of Jesus if this Spirit of God already resides in each and every one of us at birth?  I would answer this question by considering a seed that is planted in the ground.  That seed already is alive and is ready to be nourished.  However, if that seed is not watered, it may never sprout and grow into what it was meant to be.  Baptism with the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus serves this same purpose in our lives, without which we may not reach the full potential of being what God has created us to be.

As far as we know, Jesus never baptized anyone with water during his ministry.  However, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus did breathe on his disciples after his resurrection, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and indicated to them that they now had the authority to forgive sins.  That is exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost when Jesus’ disciples experienced another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Being moved by this Holy Spirit, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus so that their sins might be forgiven and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As the Apostle Paul developed his own theology about this gift of the Holy Spirit, he talked about the baptism with the Holy Spirit also being the means by which people are set free from their bondage to sin.  That is why in our Lutheran tradition, we claim that a person only needs to be baptized once in their life, and then we encourage everyone to renew their baptismal covenant on a daily basis.  In doing so, we exercise the power of this Spirit every day to say an emphatic “no” to sin every time that we are tempted to displease God throughout the day, just as Jesus chose to say “no” to the temptations in the wilderness immediately following his baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Here is where the words of the voice from heaven are so important for us to hear today and every day, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”  No matter whether we are baptized as an infant, as an adolescent, or as an adult, this same declaration that Jesus heard at his baptism is pronounced at our baptism as an affirmation of who we are in the eyes of God.  God has created all of us and declared that we all are very good.  That is who and what we are in the core of our being as creatures of God’s design and children of God’s inception.  Consequently, God has an infinite love for us that knows no bounds.  Such is the beginning of our relationship with God that is affirmed in our baptism and is reaffirmed every day that we remember the blessing of our baptism and renew our commitment to be the presence of God’s love in this world in the same way that Jesus reflected God’s love throughout his lifetime.

Contrary to some traditional theologies that emphasize how we basically are poor, miserable sinners from the beginning of our lives and how we have to spend our lives trying to please God or proving to God how good we are until we are forgiven, I would emphasize that we who are baptized in the name of Jesus are reminded about how much we already are loved by God and how we already are pleasing to God in every aspect of our lives. As a result of this confirmation at our baptism, we can wake up every morning with the confidence of knowing in the core of our being that we are eternally embraced in God’s love and that we who are God’s beloved children are totally pleasing to God and are set free from our bondage to sin by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grounded in this love of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given the faith, courage, and power to resist all manner of temptations in our lives as Jesus did throughout his life.  This Spirit also helps us to see all of the pressures that we encounter in this life that tempt us to be something other than what God has created us to be and then to be able to say “no” to these pressures that sometimes are very subtle and at other times are so very overwhelming.  If you are uncertain about how you can detect these pressures and resist them, you always have this Spirit to remind you about Jesus’ testimony and witness and to give you the courage to follow in Jesus’ way of love, justice, peace, and freedom.  That is why in our baptismal rite, we make the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead and say to them, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

To carry this cross of Jesus Christ is not an easy thing to do because it means that we will live as simply as Jesus did, love all people as boldly as Jesus did, forgive others as graciously as Jesus did, pursue God’s justice as Jesus did, liberate people from their poverty and oppression as Jesus did, treat everyone equitably as Jesus did, resist all forms of violence as Jesus did, and strive to make peace as Jesus did, knowing full well that when we fail to carry this cross of Christ in any way—and we will—we can trust that we already are forgiven completely and forever by God just as Jesus extended this forgiveness to everyone from the cross on which he died.

You may or may not have the gift of speaking in tongues or of prophecy, but mark my word, all of us have been given the authority and power to follow in this way of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As you determine how you will exercise this authority and power in your life, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful—faithful unto the One who has breathed on us the Holy Spirit and has put the fire in our souls to want to please God in all that we think, say, and do.  Amen.