Baptism of the Lord, Year B
Genesis 1:1-5 † Psalm 29:1-11 † Acts 19:1-7 † Mark 1:4-11
I bought an app for my iPhone a while ago. It was the second time ever I shelled out any money for one. I suppose it’s the principle of the thing that typically keeps me from paying for a phone app. It wasn’t a lot of money, just 99 cents, but for what I got, I’m sure you’ll be impressed. It does one thing, and it does it really well. Five times a day it sends a note, a simple reminder, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” That’s it. Pretty cool, huh?
According to the app website, the invitations to stop and think about death arrive at random times throughout the day—at any moment, just like death. The app is called “WeCroak” which, I think you’ll agree, is a refreshingly straight-forward and direct name for a phone app. If you click on the message, it will take you to a quote about death, or, you might say, about life.
Here’s one example from this week, from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
Death arrives among all that sound
Like a shoe with no foot in it,
Like a suit with no man in it.
Or this more didactic one from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger:
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life—and only then will I be free to become myself.
There is only one button on the app, the “About” button. It doesn’t take you to a web site, or send you down another endless rabbit hole of wasted time from one link to another to another ultimately ending with kittens as all web things do. It simply says what it does: “5 Quotes Per Day” and then, hinting at the mission that its creator imagined, this tidbit of information: “In Bhutan they say contemplating death five times daily brings happiness.”
The website does offer one additional short paragraph of explanation, encouraging the message recipient to take a moment with each message for contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation. “We find,” it says,” that a regular practice of contemplating mortality helps spur needed change, accept what we must, let go of things that don’t matter and honor things that do.”
I’ve only been using it for a week or so, but so far, I find its making me pretty happy to be reminded five times a day that I’m going to die…
Maybe I could say that a little better.
It has made me happy to be invited to consider the importance of my life, its shape, its purpose, its value, to stop and think about what I’m doing with my time and to consider whether it is worthy of the fragile and brief and astonishing existence we mortals have been given by the God who created the heavens and the earth.
That’s really what baptism is all about, after all.
In Mark’s version of the story there is no indication that anyone but Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart” and “the Spirit descending like a dove on him”[i] Unlike the other gospels that have this story, there is no evidence in Mark that anyone other than Jesus himself hears the voice showing up at a seemingly random time reminding him he is God’s beloved child.
I am drawn to Mark’s interpretation because there were surely many time when Jesus would have found reason to doubt this powerful, life-giving affirmation. As he was assailed by death, as he was rejected by one person after another and betrayed by his closest friends, as he found himself at the business end of a tool for capital punishment, accused by religious and government institutions alike that he was worthy of death, we can imagine he might have questioned this strong message of belonging and purpose and sacred value.
Personally, one of the most powerful lines the Christian tradition gives to me as a pastor is the one we speak with thanksgiving in the funeral liturgy: that the recently departed one’s “baptism is now complete in death.” It is a “well done, good and faithful servant” statement, but even more powerful, I think, because it isn’t premised on your performance or mine. It is rooted in the waters over which God brooded, and then separated at creation, and in the strong affirmation that you and I belong to God and there is absolutely nothing we can do to change that.
It is, for me, the heavens opening up once again, and God speaking about who you are and who I am at all times and in all places whether we realize it or not, whether we live up to it or not.
Jesus realizes something about himself in this story. He has an epiphany—of his deep connection to God, of his sacred worth. He comes to realize something absolute about his identity and his vocation that becomes a driver for everything that he does, for all the he gives and sacrifices, for his deep and abiding love for others that changed our history then and now.
“When Jesus is…baptized,” writes Donna Schaper,
he has a significant connection back to the deep waters of creation. He goes from being without form to being someone with form. He goes back to the original. He has a heaven-opening event. He does what God did in the beginning: He reopens the world.[ii]
And his story, in this case, is no different than ours. Our lives matter absolutely, and each one of us has the God-given power to reopen our beautiful mess of a world. And baptism is that sign and seal of this profound mystery. We can choose to live into our true vocation, to live for the whole world rather than just ourselves—this is what is affirmed in Baptism—that we are christened to creation, that we are an inseparable part of the earth and of one another, that we belong to the world and in living for it, we encounter the fullness of life that we seek.
In life and in death we belong to God, so baptism reminds us. And while we often worry about the death part, baptism is for the living. It is that random, unexpected invitation to remember to live by remembering that we will die, that life is short and far too precious to squander.
[i] Mark 1:10.
[ii] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 7966-7969). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
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