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This sermon was originally preached on January 7, 2024 at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Hopkins, MN. The livestream of our contemporary and traditional services may be viewed here and here.
Read today's gospel text (Mark 1:4-11) here.
Breath and Water.
The two elements apart from which we literally cannot survive are the primal roots of today’s text. And with these two elements, time begins to collapse, as Mark invites us into Jesus’s story through his rebel cousin John, who is the radical and revolutionary fulfillment of Malachi and Isaiah’s ancient prophecies. A crazy man who lives in the wilderness on locusts and wild honey, clothed in camel hide and leather, and whose head will eventually be delivered on a platter to King Herod’s stepdaughter. Were he born in our era, he’d be the kind of revolutionary you might hear preaching on a street corner or leading a protest for revolution. He lives his life on the margins, preaching radical transformation of people and culture, ritualized in baptism. And, as God’s messenger and the forerunner of Christ the Mightiest, John has traction with “all the people” joining him at the Jordan from throughout the land of Judea and Jerusalem.
Which I say to underscore the simple, if implied, fact that there is a significant socio-political & cultural shift in progress that makes John’s radical presentation and message attractive and enthralling to “all the people.” We know from other texts and histories surrounding Jesus’s birth and early life, including his mother’s own song in Luke 1, that Palestinian Jews like Jesus and John lived under the harsh and heavy boot of Roman occupation.The occupation was so cruel, in fact, that by just a few decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jews rose up in violent rebellion against the Roman Empire waging the first of three major Jewish-Roman wars. Point being, revolutionaries rise when revolution is needed; radicals rise up when roots need tending. And both John and Jesus are among the rising.
It may seem like I’m off on a tangent here, but it’s important to know who John was if we are to understand the baptism, temptation, and ministry of Jesus, all of which directly led to and culminated in his crucifixion by the Roman Empire, a form of execution which was itself, according to theological historian Bart Eherman, an especially torturous, degrading, and humiliating form of death reserved for “low lifes and enemies of the state.”
And John, Mark tells us, is the one both Isaiah and Malachi prophesied would precede the Messiah: the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the LORD whose sandals he’s unfit to tie. Now, I want to pause and notice a few of the words that anchor today’s Gospel. First, in quoting Isaiah 40:3 here, Mark is specifically identifying John as the herald, and Jesus as The “LORD,” the One God whose unspeakable personal name was given to Moses; the name which means I AM THAT I AM; the name which Father Richard Rohr describes as the act of breathing itself: Yah (breathe in) - Weh (breathe out).
Notice also, the word translated as Spirit here is the Greek word Pneuma, which literally translates to Breath or Air. In both words, in both verses, spread across centuries, we hear that God is Breath: life itself. But we also see the breathing and flowing relationship between John who preaches the coming of the Word, and Jesus who IS that Word; between John who baptizes in the element that seizes breath -- water -- and heralds the coming of Jesus who baptizes with Breath. This John-and-Jesus call-and-answer flows right up to the moment when John raises Jesus from the water and time stops as the sky opens up and Breath descends to fill Jesus’s lungs and ignite his ministry as wind ignites fire.
Fast forward to Christ’s crucifixion in Mark 15, and you’ll notice, again, the prophetic threads moving throughout the tapestry of Jesus’s life, ministry, and the After we live in now: Just as today’s text shows the heavens tearing open for the Spirit’s descent giving Breath to the One coming up from the Water; so too, when Jesus gives his last breath in Mark 15:39, the veil to the Temple’s Holiest of Holies is torn open, making a way for all to have direct relationship with the Most High God.
Rewind to the Pentateuch and we see how and why the tearing of the temple veil at Jesus’s crucifixion is as consequential as the opening of the heavens at Jesus’s baptism, because behind that temple veil sat the Ark of the Covenant, the seat of God’s own self -- and it was a place, since the foundation of the Tabernacle and the order of priests in the book Exodus, which only the High Priest could enter, and him only once per year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Hebrew year.
Follow the threads back further still, and we find ourselves at the story of Creation in Genesis 1 when God, who is Breath, moved the ancient, timeless waters to make way for Life to spring from this earth… Indeed, from the hovering of Spirit Breath through the waters of Genesis, to the parting of the Red Sea for the salvation of Israel in Exodus, to Isaiah’s prophecy that those who pass through the waters would not be consumed, to John’s prophetic Baptism of the Mightiest One in water and Spirit in today’s gospel, to the last words of Scripture in Revelation 22, where Jesus and the Spirit who is Breath offer all who would come the thirst quenching waters of everlasting life; all the way up to us today at Gethsemane, celebrating the power of birthing waters and Spirit Breath who lives and reigns among us -- from unfathomable beginning to right here and now, it is all One Thing. There is only ONE God, ONE life, ONE spirit, and ONE baptism, according to the Apostle Paul in Ephesians, and so we are, together, as a world of alive beings, participating in and part of ONE ETERNAL LIFE that has simply always Been.
Put another way, we are literally connected by breath and baptismal water, which is any and all water you will ever encounter, to everyone and everything who has ever and will ever breathe, birth, bathe, or be buried. Scientifically speaking, the water and air that made way for life on this planet billions of years ago are themselves the resurrection of the exploded suns and stardust that lived and died before this planet came to be; and so too are we the resurrection of all the life that came before us. The water that covers 71% of the earth and composes up to 60% of our own bodies is not new water, except insofar as what is resurrected is made new, Romans 6:4. It is the same water which soaked and cleaned and baptized John and Jesus which flows through our own rivers, lakes, streams, and faucets; AND the air we breathe today is also the same that filled Jesus and John the Baptist’s lungs, and the same that filled all their ancestors’s lungs millennia prior, and the same that will fill the lungs of every living creature to breathe air in the ages to come.
There is no separation between us and them, or between now and then. By the power of God, in the baptism, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and by the Breath who is Spirit given to us always, we are A living eternity.
And so, today’s invitation to remember our baptism is not just about our own individual baptisms, but OUR baptism as the people of God and as the resurrection of life long passed. It asks us to consider how deeply and inextricably connected we are to each other and every other living thing, through Spirit breath and baptismal waters.
In fact this gospel begs us to remember that we are not just called to personal acts of radical and revolutionary Love, we are the revolution. The resurrection. The restoration of Creation as God intended, over and against the dehumanization and degradation of Life under Empire. To LIVE as God intended, in Breath and Baptism from unfathomable beginning to unknowable end, is to exist in active rebellion against the powers & principalities that Steal our Breath and poison Baptismal waters of earth, both literally and metaphorically.
And yes! To live as God intended -- full of Breath and continually being formed by Baptismal waters that can smooth and round even the most jagged boulders and forge rivers through impassable mountains -- it may make you a target of Empire, as it did both Jesus and John. Because to stay in the flow of breath and baptism is antithetical to empire. We see it across time. Native Nations who lived in mutuality with the earth, air, fire, and water, faced genocide for refusing to treat the earth as a thing to be owned and exploited, rather than a living relative to be cared for. Revolutionaries like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr who cried out from the wilderness of enslavement and subjugation for the liberty to breathe and bathe and be just as they are, faced unthinkable punishments for rebelling against those who treated and traded them as property. Our Palestinian siblings right now cry out for a ceasefire, for an end to their genocide, for the right to return to their homes, to breathe clean air, and to stand freely by the sea, the ancient waters of their own baptism, without fear of bombardment or sniper bullets or white phosphorus poisoning their lungs.
To remember our baptism is to Breathe in God and Breathe Out God alongside every other thing, and to carry breath and water for and to those who are thirsty and breathless until they are full of life once more. It is to remember we each are irreplaceable and indivisible parts of One Interconnected Life that is infinitely bigger, wider, deeper, and older than we can imagine but which nevertheless thrives and survives on our particularities; It is to remember that all the breath and water that will eventually leave our bodies will be resurrected again as new life over and over, for eternity to come. We are a living eternity.
I think the most beautiful part of baptismal remembrance is noticing how thin the veil is between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. It’s impossible to think in terms of past or future when the Breath in my lungs and the Baptismal water on my fingertips place me squarely in the center of what simply Is, and is held together by God who is I AM, from everlasting to everlasting. Despite all my thinking I come to find that today is not a day to think, but to breathe and be re-baptized in the Eternity of Now. To inhale and exhale together One Breath, One Baptism, One Love through One Lord, who is in all, over all, through all, and for all, for always. Amen.
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