Sermon for Sunday, January 7, 2018 at the start of the new year. Based on the gospel, Mark 1: 4-11.
Are we up to cleaning --- going after those dusty corners and cobwebs, perhaps even going through some of our stuff? Are we up to uncluttering the closets of our hearts and minds on this the first Sunday of a new year?
I have been thinking about cleaning given the mess our home was after the Christmas festivities, you may be like my family wondering if it is time for some extra housecleaning. After all, taking down all those decorations can expose some dirt in places we don't normally see.
In our cleaning, I don’t know about you, but we have been trying to avoid chemicals as our only cleaning option. Does your bathtub look dull and water-spotted after repeated lengthy baths? One way is to juice up a couple of the grapefruits and add four tablespoons of salt and give the bathtub a good rubdown.
Same goes for those brass or chrome fixtures. They will shine with lemon juice and baking soda. Need to scrub down those kitchen counters? A couple of tablespoons of baking soda, a cup of white vinegar and a few drops of eucalyptus oil will do the job.
In fact, baking soda might be the best kept secret cleaning ingredient in the world. I heard of a woman who visits all her new neighbors and gives them a housewarming present of baking soda and duct tape. Purportedly she does this under the premise of what else do you need to take care of a household?
Now of course, if we don’t want to go the natural route there are many chemical options out there which personally speaking we have succumbed to doing more often than I would like to admit. The point is that there are a lot of ways to get stuff clean in the kitchen, bathroom and home.
On this first Sunday of the New Year, it is beneficial to consider our own practices and what doe we mean as Christians regarding deeper cleaning --- getting beyond the surface of our lives. For that we need some expert advice and, fortunately, this week provides us with the expertise of John, perhaps the “original” Mr. Clean. If you don’t believe me, just look at his name over this many centuries --- John ... the Baptizer!
This Sunday, Mark introduces us to John at the beginning of his gospel --- a gospel which the author of Mark announces as though some old nastiness has already been wiped away; “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It seems to be Mark's way of telling us that the story of Jesus comes with a base assumption that what we are about to hear is the good news for a world stained and dulled by our broken relationship with God.
Mark continues that the first messenger of that good news is John. Mark doesn't give us the detail that Luke does about this strange figure appearing in the desert. There's no mention of a family relationship with Jesus, nor is there much else of John’s back story. Rather, Mark is more concerned with what John has come to do: announce the arrival of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to prepare people for his coming.
Interestingly, that preparation would involve some opportunities for some deep cleansing action. This cleansing did not happen in a synagogue or bathroom. Rather, John went down to the banks of the Jordan River to instruct people how to get deeply clean in a way that would remove even the most hidden and oldest dirt embedded in their lives.
What intrigued me is that while looking and thinking of this lesson as we cleaned our home, it seems like John has three key tips that will be helpful to us as we engage in some “active cleansing” of our own.
First, I noticed that John uses all-natural ingredients. John's ministry is about as organic as it gets, drawing from the deep roots of Israel's prophets. It's no coincidence that Mark conflates Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) in describing John's mission as the “messenger” who will prepare the way and as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” For the author of Mark, John's mission is that linkage between the stories of Hebrew Bible and the Good News of Jesus.
God is about to do a new thing, John is saying, but it is springing up from the soil of Israel's history. A history of agreeing to a covenant of being God’s representatives to the world --- an “election” as it is sometimes called. This history of a relationship with God however is marked with problems: exile and redemption.
John himself models that history in his own organic dress and diet. His “camel's hair” clothing and leather belt are a visual reminder to the audience of the prophet Elijah, whom many believed would return before the coming of the Messiah. His diet of “locusts and wild honey” is the ultimate combination of natural protein and sugar --- although some scholars suggest that the “locusts” refers to the pods of the carob tree.
John may not have been dressed in white with the scrubbed and sanitized appearance of television commercials' Mr. Clean, but his way of life had the scent of authenticity and his ministry was all about dealing with the deeply ingrained dirt that had clung to Israel since the exile and to humanity since it’s evolutionary steps.
It is also interesting that John uses the most basic natural cleansing ingredient available -- water -- to do the work. But this water doesn't come from just any source. John stands at the banks of the Jordan River, significant because it was the same river that Israel had crossed to enter the Promised Land generations before. John seems to see his ministry as the beginning of a new Exodus, inviting people to enter into a different sort of Promised Land. As Israel had passed through the waters of the Red Sea and then the Jordan, now God's people would again need to pass through water to realize the new future promised by God's coming Messiah.
This leads to the second tip for active cleansing; know what kind of stain are we removing. When it comes to dealing with our human brokenness, we often think of treating the “sins” we commit. We know we've done some less than admirable stuff over the past year and we make resolutions not to do those things again. Unfortunately, that view of sin places us in the same situation as in Jesus’ day where sin had become reduced to legalistic notions about being ritually impure and “dirty” and unworthy of participating in Temple practices.
That however is a fruitless path because when we think of “sin” as simply a laundry list of missteps and mistakes, we miss the real problem that needs to be handled and that's “Sin” with a capital “S.” Biblically speaking, that capital “S” Sin is that broken relationship with God, along with its partner Death, that only a real Savior and Messiah can repair and remove.
I was reminded of what that means during our cold spell. You see, one day many years ago during a cold day in North Dakota, I was in such a rush for school that I neglected to take my gloves. By the time I had walked to school, I had frostbite. Thankfully my teacher knew exactly what to do, yet to this day when it gets cold I feel residues of that frostbite in my hands. Capital “S” sin is a bit like getting frostbite, once we have experienced frostbite we will feel the chill for a long time into the future.
Why did these people come out to see John and seek this sort of deeper cleansing? The personal reasons were probably as diverse as you and me but they all felt the chill of capital S sin. So, the areas we need to re-consider in our lives is the makeup of what we are trying to cleanse. If we don't think through them we will only scratch the surface and fail to get down to the nitty-gritty of the stain. Attacking a rust stain with a brush alone will not do it. Likewise, simply saying we will “forgive” or “love” without thinking through the full ramifications of what forgiveness and love entails, we only scratch the surface.
The third tip I noticed in today’s reading is the need for cleansing with a purpose. John baptized with the power of water, but repentance and forgiveness of sins was just the first step. The one for whom John was preparing would come and baptize “with the Holy Spirit,” for the future. The cleansing John was talking about wasn't just about what had happened in the past, but also what these shiny, fresh and new people, cleansed in the water of baptism, would do in the future.
This “way” we are on has a lot of dimensions to it, but one of the most important is that it prepares us for a daily future in the way of Jesus. Having been released from slavery to capital “S” Sin, and death, we can continue to walk in the life for which we were created from the beginning -- the “abundant life” of people made in the image of God. Baptism “in the Spirit” empowers and enables us to participate with God in God’s redemptive mission for the world, as it did with those first disciples. We not only get to hear and experience the “good news,” we are cleansed and have a purpose as daily “co-creators.”
This is what meant by Jesus own baptism. Jesus was not baptized because he was a “sinner” with a capital “s”, but because Jesus will be the one who leads us on a new Exodus through the water and on to freedom. Committing ourselves to this daily walk enables us to live in that freedom and deal with the symptoms of our brokenness that plague us recognizing that although we have been made clean we are not quite up to where God can fully settle in.
Our daily baptismal remembering incorporates us into the daily cleansing of Messiah's saving work. And it's important that we remember again that dealing with capital "S" Sin requires of us a deeper self-examination and habit changing in ways which we still find ourselves growing. It is like pretending we have a clean bathroom until, we know that we are going to have visitors at which time we really get to work.
John affirmed that the time had come for something new and it was coming. John is the preamble to the breaking in by Jesus into the socio-cultural-political ways of this world. This new way by Jesus advocates for an alternate deeply cleaned direction; a “way” we did not expect, one of compassion, gender equality, non-violence, non-hierarchical social structure, and radical equality. This is a “way” which will and continue to threaten the powers-that-be and will result in Jesus being crushed by his “adversaries.”
As we begin a new year on the way, John the Baptizer reminds us that it is the natural ingredients that do the best work of starting to strip away the grime that builds up. If we only focus through 2018 on avoiding sin, it is an ultimately futile path, because that would mean the only way to have a clean house is not live in it. Instead, God offers us the power through Baptism to recognize, minimize, and heal future brokenness in ourselves and in others as well as engage in that deep cleaning as live on the way. Amen.