a fresh start

This is a picture of my grandfather baptizing new Christians. He was younger then than I am now and I often wonder what was going through his mind in that muddy river.  Working with our text for Sunday brought the picture to mind, as Mark begins his telling of the gospel by narrating Jesus’ own baptism. All of worship focused on baptism and new beginnings in different ways–from remembering our own baptism, to longing for renewal in our lives now. What do you remember about your baptism? Where do you need renewal even now.

Audio from Sunday is below, and text is after the jump.

It’s hard to believe. Isn’t it? People streaming out into the desert to be dunked in a muddy river by a strange man, and not just a few people, but dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands, coming from twenty, thirty miles away, by foot. For what?  Repentance?

I find it hard to believe.

Except, it’s January. I like to cook. I read a lot of food blogs and cooking magazines. They are all full of advice for January diets, or “cleanses.” There are juice cleanses, and vegan cleanses, and foodie cleanses for those who can’t part with their glass of wine. The promise is that this could be the year when you could have your cake and your skinny jeans—as long as you repent of your previous, immoderate ways.

Maybe repentance is more seductive than it seems at first glance.

Who can resist the pull of being ourselves but better? Maybe it’s not food writing that pulls you in, but in January, even if we’re staunch anti-New-Year’s-resolution-ists, it’s hard to escape the cultural pressure to consider what we’d like to change. Maybe this will be the year you defeat clutter, maybe you’ll finally read the great works of fiction you’ve been meaning to, maybe you’ll finally find that perfect balance between work, children, partner, and self-care (you let me know when you find it). Or maybe your desire for change is internal—to be kinder to others or more compassionate to yourself, to be less judgmental or more discerning, to be less anxious, or to practice simply letting things be.

So maybe it’s not quite so hard to believe that people trekked out to this wild man to take part in his ritual of repentance.

Repentance is an old-fashioned word, but it’s a reality we know well. It’s a dream packaged and sold to us at every turn. And we long for it. We may not want the churchy, formal word, but we long to be able to turn our backs on the yucky parts of our lives and dwell more fully in the life-giving, beautiful parts of our selves. We long to find a way of life that will be ethical and just. We long for better and brighter. We might even have joined those folks streaming out to the wild prophet in the desert.

I wonder if they knew what they’d find there. If they knew what to expect, or if they just went with hope that this, finally, might offer a fresh start.

Let’s drop back for a minute and get some context for what John was doing. The story says he was baptizing people. As we talked about this at our Tuesday Bible study we wondered, what does baptism mean in a pre-Christian context. It’s a really good question. What did this mean for the folks at that time?

The best guess from historical sources is this: at the time there were purification rites, rituals of repentance, that Jews could take part in at the temple. Some of those rites involved water—washing or sprinkling to symbolize repentance. It also is likely that there was already a practice of full immersion baptism, but not for everybody, just for gentiles converting to Judaism. So, if you were like John or Jesus or any of the other folks coming out to the desert, and you were born Jewish, you didn’t need to be baptized. You could just go to the temple and, like we do with the prayer of confession each week, confess, repent, and be assured of your forgiveness.

John’s baptism, by contrast, was a radical thing. He was treating insiders like strangers to the faith—inviting people to start over completely. And not just that, but he’s not anywhere near the temple, the site of official penitence. He’s way out in the wilderness.

The wilderness is, on the one hand, a striking rejection of the spiritual system of the day. The same rejection is made by many today—the claim that we are more likely to meet God in the mountains or by the water than we are in a church house. John was saying, you’re not going to find the fresh start you crave in that temple. You’ve got a better chance finding it out here in the desert.

But it wasn’t just rejection that the wilderness offered. It also offered a return. This wasn’t just any wilderness, or just any river. It was here that they had been formed as a people. In this wilderness their ancestors had wandered, they met God and learned the shape of God’s law and love. And their people had come through this very river when entering the Promised Land, so long ago.

John called not just for rejection, but also to return. Return to your roots, return to the wilderness with all of the fear and lostness it symbolizes, and walk once more through this river. Enter the Promised Land.

That dual impulse, rejection and return, is at the heart of any true repentance. The word repent means to turn back, to turn around, go the other way. It’s like when you’re driving somewhere and suddenly realize you’re on the wrong road. You stop, and turn around, and go back to the right way. You reject that wrong road and return to the right road. You repent.

Repentance is such an act of hope, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t usually think of it that way. But it is. What else would have lured hundreds of people into the desert? How else would we dare to abandon whatever way it is we’re on, but for the hope that maybe there’s a better way out there? We talked about this some last week—how the hardest thing is to believe that something new might be possible. How hard it is to dare to hope that maybe, just maybe, the way we are now doesn’t have to define us forever.

So often we can imagine the rejection and return that repentance would require—rejection of too much food and return to healthy eating, or rejection of unkind words and return to peace in the house, or rejection of inhuman labor standards and return to work with dignity—we can imagine the repentance, we can imagine being washed clean in the river and re-entering the Promised Land.

What we have trouble imagining is that it would stick. We’ve tried and failed so often. We’ve resolved year after year to buy less or quit smoking or pray every day, and year after year we’ve fallen short. How could we dare to hope that we could actually stay on the straight and narrow, that we could change, that our world could change? And without that hope, why bother to repent? Who would dare?

John, though, had news, new news, the beginning of good news, very good news. There is more out here in the wilderness than meets the eye. There’s one coming, he says, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, who has power, who will do a new thing.

It sounds strange, doesn’t it? A baptism of the Holy Spirit at the hands of one who is powerful beyond imagining. What on earth?

And then, if John’s words weren’t strange enough, this one appears, looking for all the world like anyone else in that line of penitents. I love that this is how Jesus shows up in Mark’s gospel—without a word, in line with the rest of broken, barely hoping humanity. Down in the water he goes and then up, and if you thought all this was strange before, it gets infinitely weirder.

The sky is ripped apart, there’s a voice, and the Spirit flapping and fluttering enters this One. The wild, free power of God has left the safe confines of heaven and has been set loose on earth in this one named Jesus.


The gospel of Mark doesn’t help us out by offering any context or explanation. Could everybody hear this voice? What exactly does it look like when the heavens are torn apart? What about this wild Spirit bird? Did it disappear? Out here in the wilderness, in the midst of all these people seeking a fresh start, something profoundly new has happened.

Mark gives us no context except to start this story by telling us it is the beginning of the good news. The beginning of the good news. This is how it begins, with a strange man in the wilderness, with the heavens torn open and God on the loose.

It’s unbelievable by any reasonable standard. If you’re sitting there thinking, this is crazy, and you’d have to be crazy to believe it, I think that’s a fair response. This is a crazy story.

But it is no crazier than believing that life could change, really, fundamentally change. It is no wilder than imagining that the brokenness inside could be healed, that the patterns of dysfunction in our lives could change.

Tomorrow banks and some businesses will pause as we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s legacy has largely been domesticated into platitudes and greeting card sentiments. But pause for a moment and try to remember how absolutely unbelievable he and his friends were, dreaming crazy dreams that people would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Can you imagine?

Dr. King dared to have that dream because he was rooted, grounded in the gospel, in the wild, crazy story that begins with people longing for repentance, and news of a baptism unlike any other.

If you’re tired of the brokenness in your life and in your world, if you’re longing for a new way, a fresh start, one place to begin is to dare to trust this story. Dare to trust, for just a moment, that something new has begun, that there is One who seeks to wash you with the Holy Spirit, who comes bearing life, life abundant. Dare to imagine that it might, just might be possible, and see how the world changes.

There will still be failure and brokenness—we’re human, after all—and there’s no final perfection this side of the grave. But if we dare to trust the news of this baptism, we might find ourselves affirming the truth that we’ve been affirming in baptism ever since.

That truth is this: You were made in the image of God who is good. You are loved. You are forgiven. You are set free. You are not defined by the brokenness and sin that fills your life and your world. There is new life at hand. It is here. The sky has broken open and God Almighty is here, in our midst. There is a way to life. It is not a painless road, or easy, but it is the way of life, and we do not walk it alone.

Do you want to walk it? Do you long for new life and a new heart? Do you dare to hope that a new thing might be being born in our world?

If you do, then come, come, friends. Jesus still calls us. Can you hear him? Come, he says, come, wade in the water with me. Wade, children, wade, in the waters of life. Wade and find yourself born again. Do you dare?

by Sarah W. Wiles
January 15, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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2 Responses to a fresh start

  1. Carolyn Joy says:

    Amen and amen.

  2. Linda Gaines says:

    How wonderful to be able to listen to Sarah preach the gospel when snow prevents us from being there

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