Lift the Lid
A Sermon by Bill McDonald from Mark 1:4-11
I love letters from children to God:
“Dear Mr. God, I wish you would not make it so easy for people to come apart. I had to have 3 stitches and a shot. Janet.”
“Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up. Joyce”
“Dear God, If we come back as somebody else, please don’t let me be Jennifer Horton—because I hate her. Denise”
And I read this one the other day: “Dear God, Please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now. Amanda”
Well, I think a lot of folks would disagree with Amanda. Why, there is New Year’s Day with its annual football glut. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day inspires us all to community service. Up in Punxsutawny, PA, the Groundhog watchers are quite roisterous on February 2nd. Valentines Day has Hallmark glorying and husbands agonizing all over the United States. Mardi Gras falls somewhere in there but in its current style of celebration it is probably best that Amanda doesn’t know about that one yet. Presidents’ Day makes us wonder which president but many of us still get the day off. All the Irish and semi-Irish love March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. And often April Fool’s Day sneaks in before Easter, giving you time to repent from your practical jokes.
But I would disagree with Amanda more in concept than in calendar because this time between Christmas and Easter is a time of excitement for the Christian as the wrappings of Christmas fall away and God’s present is revealed.
Much of the Christian world celebrates this first Sunday after Epiphany as the Baptism of the Lord and the lectionary gives us the text from Mark. John, the one we call John the Baptist or in these days of denominational competition John the Baptizer, appears in the desert wilderness near the Jordan River and begins baptizing penitents as a way of receiving forgiveness for their sins. But John is no priest, dully following through with a ritualistic cleansing routine. For he speaks with the fire of a prophet. In fact he styles himself as a prophet, identifying with the greatest prophet, Elijah. Like an Elvis-impersonator wearing scarves, John even takes care to wear the same type of leather belt around his waist that is described in the Old Testament as being worn by Elijah.
And in true prophetic humility John knows his place. He declares that a messenger from God is coming who will be so great that John isn’t even worthy of acting as his slave by untying his master’s sandals. He says that this coming One will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. We don’t know if John meant that this Messiah would use the Holy Spirit instead of water or the Holy Spirit after the water. But it doesn’t really matter anyway, because just the thought of having some divine essence do a Niagara Falls on us scares us so much that we don’t want to know more.
And then just one verse later Jesus shows up at the riverside. Did Jesus need to repent of his sins and be forgiven? That’s why John was baptizing people, it said. But we like to think of Jesus as sinless all his life – even though it might make us feel closer to him and more encouraged to know that he slipped a time or two, like we have. As Jesus is coming up out of the water, he sees something and hears something. Apparently in Mark, unlike the baptism accounts in Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the only one who sees and hears this strange vision. He sees the heavens torn apart as if God had put two huge hands on the sky and, tired of the separation, ripped the heavens apart for a direct look at humanity. The same wording used here at Jesus’ baptism is used again at his death when the curtain of the temple is torn apart, the cloth that separated humans from the Holy of Holies, the Presence of God, ripped in two. Then Jesus sees God’s Spirit descending, fluttering down like a dove might light on a power line. And God’s voice says to him, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And eternity broke open at that moment. Jesus then knew who he was. Our world has never been the same since. The wrapping paper is off the Gift of God and there is no putting it back on. Among all those presents hiding under the lowering branches of our Christmas trees was one we didn’t count on. Weren’t sure who sent it. But it looked nice. Expensive, costly. So we opened it anyway. No Postal Inspectors to protect us, no rubber gloves or face mask to shield us from its effects. We opened it—and Jesus came out, not as a harmless, controllable little baby, but as the fierce, demanding Lord of the World. And we haven’t been able to get him back into his box. We even sealed him in a tomb, but he wouldn’t stay.
When I was in my early teens, a group of us would gather on sticky summer nights under the Memphis street-lamps to marvel at the night creatures whirling in the light, to tell jokes and savor the carefree days of youth, and to dream up intricate plots and pranks to pull on one another. One of my buddies took a couple of nights away from us to celebrate his birthday with family. When he arrived home late at night, he found a beautifully wrapped shoebox, a present in his front door. Carrying it into the bright light of his kitchen, he tore away the papers and eagerly lifted the lid. When the light burst into that box, the thousands of brown hard-shell June bugs which we had worked for hours to collect from around our porch lights all came to life and took flight at one time to escape their captivity. His mother’s kitchen was carpeted from stove to cabinets with brown, flying, crawling, falling, upside-down and wriggling beetles. It was a literal explosion of unleashed power, beyond controlling.
That is what happens at this time of year. We lift the lid of the shoebox and the Spirit of Christ bursts forth, uncontrollable, an explosion of Spirit and power. Wasn’t Jesus a lot easier to ignore back in October or November? Weren’t we able to get by with doing wrong without guilt, with doing nothing about our faith, with doing whatever we wanted to do? But now this Jesus is everywhere around us, challenging our war lust, forcing our gaze into the refugee camps, constantly tap-tapping on our shoulders when we are too busy to be bothered. We didn’t want a Lord of the World; we were doing pretty well being the Lords of our own little worlds, thank you. We were pleased with a warm, tender bedtime story of mangers and sheep—and a child who never cried, much less made us hear the cries of the masses. Isaiah, not a puny prophet himself, said, “O, Lord, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1) And guess what? Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and God came down.
My friend said that, at first, he was just stunned when the bugs burst out of that box. Then he was mad because his mom was furious and he was going to have to re-capture every one of those winged pest-presents. And then, he said, he just sat down in the floor staring, admiring the prank and the bugs, marveling at the wonder of it all.
Recognizing who he was called to be, Jesus unleashed himself on the world. That can be an irritating problem for those who oppose his ways. That can enflame the anger of those who want Jesus to behave himself, to operate within our societal conventions. Or that can be the freshest, most renewing, life-giving gift you have ever received. Will we be shocked by Jesus—or angered—or will we stop and marvel at the wonder of it all?
Now, my dear little Amanda, that’s what I call an exciting day—right here between Christmas and Easter.