Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 7, 2018
“The Baptism of Jesus”
Epiphany 1, Year B
Mark 1:4-11. Acts 19:1-7
How many of you woke up January 1st resolved to in some way be better, slimmer, smarter, healthier, calmer, or just eat more kale? And how many of are still going strong? Excellent.
Researchers tell us that for the first 7 days of the new year people are pretty good about keeping their New Year’s Resolutions. I fear I must warn you though that tomorrow, well, tomorrow is not looking good.
According to David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, “By Jan. 8, some 25 percent of resolutions (will) have fallen by the wayside. And by the time the year ends, fewer than 10 percent (will be) fully kept.”
Which is shockingly low when you think about the billions and billions of dollars perfectly rational people like you and me will spend this year on self-improvement.
Given the amount of money and energy we will lay out on everything from under-armour to coaching to adult coloring books (which are not as sexy as they sound), you would think Americans would be the healthiest, wealthiest, most content people to have ever walked the planet and only getting better by the day.
But this just in: we are not – not by a long shot – in large part because when we seek out happiness, when we strive for contentment, when we determine that this will be the year we finally get in shape, out of debt, up our game, or calm the heck down, we tend to start with the negative.
We make resolutions out of shame, guilt, fear, or frustration. We make resolutions to escape who we have become. I mean how many of us have woken up on January 1st and resolved to stop drinking so much because of the stupid awful thing we said last night,
or stop eating ice cream because we hate our thighs,
or start yoga because we’re sick of feeling so stressed out,
or not buy anything new for the next 6 months -except new Lululemon tights for yoga – because we’re ashamed of our credit card bill?
Asking for a friend.
We step on the scale, balance the check book, look in the mirror, or gaze into the future and find ourselves wanting. And from that place of not enough, from that place of all that is wrong with us, from that place of what we hate about ourselves, we determine to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps only to end up tripping all over them by day 8.
According to DeSteno, “we too often think about self-improvement and the pursuit of our goals in bracing, self-flagellating terms: I will do better, I will muscle through, I will wake up earlier.” I got myself into this mess and if I can just muster enough willpower I will get myself out. Sound familiar? “But it doesn’t need to be that way,” he says, “and it shouldn’t.”
It turns out that shame and self loathing are lousy motivators, sheer will power can only take you so far, and going it alone rarely gets you anywhere at all.
What researchers like DeSteno are coming to understand is that the key to truly changing our behaviors is to make changes from a place of love and gratitude for who we already are, to live into those changes with self-compassion -meaning that if you messed up today it’s ok, you can try again tomorrow -, and to put the change into practice in community with one another.
The truth is that you’re much more likely to keep getting up early to exercise if there’s a friend out there waiting for you or save for retirement if you can stay focused on a future full of grandkids coming to visit you.
If you pass on a second glass of wine or decline that impulse purchase, not because you’ll hate yourself in the morning but out of respect for yourself, you’re much more likely to keep making healthy choices.
If you can forgive yourself for falling off the wagon, you’re much more likely to climb back on. And I can tell you from personal experience that kale tastes better when you eat it out of love for your body rather than as some form of penance. I’m not saying it tastes good. But it does taste better.
Resolutions made from a place of love and gratitude for ourselves, resolutions practiced with grace for ourselves in community with one another, are the resolutions that have the power to change us. But here’s the really interesting thing, the truth that will hopefully turn my words from an op-ed into a sermon. I think the same goes for religion.
I think any faith born out of shame, guilt, fear, or frustration will most likely only lead to more of the same. But a faith born our of love and gratitude for ourselves, practiced with grace for ourselves in community with one another really can change us.
Such a faith could change the world, but unfortunately, at least within Christianity, there’s been a breakdown in communication leaving lots of people with an incomplete version of the gospel. We see this clearly in our scripture reading from Acts, but honestly I think we also see it all around us even now.
In this odd little story, Paul runs into 12 disciples of John the Baptist, 12 disciples who had confessed their sins and been baptized by John in the river Jordan in anticipation of a messiah who was to come, but never got the memo that Jesus did finally arrive.
These guys are all cleaned up and ready to go. They have done the work and now they’re just waiting. Because as far as they know, that’s how the whole salvation thing works. You do your part for God and then God will show up and do God’s part for you. You repent and then God will forgive you. You believe and then God will come save you. You get your sinful, guilt ridden, sorry excuse for a life right before God and then God will be alright with you.
That’s John’s baptism. That’s a baptism of repentance and we all, Christian or not, understand that. We all know we can do better, be better, live and love better or we wouldn’t be spending billions of dollars a year on self-improvement.
Likewise, we all know the power of repentance, the power of confession, the power of coming clean before God and one another. And please hear me when I say that there is absolutely a place for John’s baptism in the context of our faith experience. It’s the logical starting point for most of us because we all know we’re not perfect.
It’s why we begin with a prayer of confession at the beginning of every worship service.
Repentance is necessary for us. It’s something we humans need. For when we repent we recognize our wrongs and turn around. We need to acknowledge our need for forgiveness in order to receive it.
But if that’s all you know, if that’s the beginning and end of the good news, if the gospel is a simple quid pro quo – you turn to God and then God will turn to you – then you’re missing something.
You’re missing the Spirit at the heart of Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit that is so full of love for Jesus already that it would tear the heavens in two the better to reach him. You’re missing the Spirit who names and claims Jesus as a beloved child in whom the Spirit is well pleased before that child has done one blessed thing.
All Jesus does is show up in the gospel of Mark, show up to be baptized, and God is there, already there, pleased as punch, because the good news at the heart of Jesus’ baptism is that Jesus is loved already, and by extension, so am I and so are you. You are forgiven already before you even open your mouth.
You don’t have to earn God’s good pleasure. You are near and dear to God’s heart not because of what you have done or will do, but because of who you are, a child of God. You were born enough. Fresh out of the gate God saw you and claimed you as perfect and whole.
Kind of like Obama getting the noble peace prize 7 months into his first year as president… In God’s eyes you are all potential all the time, and even if you just screwed up royally a moment ago, God has already forgiven you and is right here with you in this moment loving you and willing you try again.
We aren’t called to repent, do good, and strive for the kingdom because then God will accept us. We are called to do these things from a place of love and gratitude because God already does.
John’s baptism starts with what is wrong with us, with what needs to change about us – and sometimes for our own sakes that is where we need to start too. But Jesus’ baptism gives us a different starting point, a new reference point. Jesus baptism reminds us of what will never change, God’s claim upon all God’s children.
That’s what baptism is: a sign that come what may, we belong to God and nothing can change that. Baptism doesn’t ensure this will happen. Baptism is a symbol we can see and touch and experience to assure us that it already has.
Someone asked me recently why we pass the peace after confession, and this is why. It’s simply another sign. I don’t need to know what you confess or if your confession is sincere at the beginning of worship, but I do know that I can stand up here every Sunday and assure you that you are pardoned, redeemed, restored and forgiven because you are and have been from the beginning of time….because the good news is that it’s not about you…it’s about God.
We can pass the peace of Christ without judgment or fear to one another because God has made peace with us already and that peace is forever. This is the good news of Jesus’ baptism that rounds out John’s.
That is the gospel we are called to share with one another. We are to forgive one another not because others deserve it but because God has forgiven us already. We are to love one another, even our enemies, because God loves us already, loves us even when we live as enemies of God. And that is the good news Jesus lived and breathed.
In the words of David Lose: “Again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him, telling them via word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased.”
This is the Spirit at the heart of Jesus’ baptism. This is the good news the disciples of John the Baptist needed to receive. And perhaps this is the news you need to hear today as well. The good news we are reminded of every time we experience a baptism or feel the sign of the cross etched upon our foreheads.
It’s why I end every Common Ground by anointing those present. It’s why we will have bowls of water up here at the front during communion where you can stop and make the sign of the cross on your forehead.
Before you receive the bread and the cup, take a moment out of time to remember what is true for all time, that you are a beloved child of God, that God is pleased with you already. That although you may not be perfect, God’s love for you is and shall forever be.
So start there, not just with your resolutions but with your life and with your faith. Start from a place of love and gratitude and grace here in this community. For this is a faith with the power to change us for all time….change us and change the world.