Friday, January 6, 2012

Jesus Takes On Sin

Baudette Lutheran Parish (Clementson, First and Wabanica)
January 8, 2012/ The Baptism of Our Lord
Mark 1:4-11

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
This first Sunday after the Epiphany always wakes me up—rather rudely!—in much the way a cup of overly-caffeinated coffee might jolt me out of my holiday slumbers. 

Christmas always concludes too quickly, with the season of Epiphany knocking on our doors….and Lent not that far behind.

1.      Why, most of us haven’t even gotten all our Christmas decorations “down” yet!  And yet today the Baby Jesus has suddenly grown into an adult.   We’d rather linger longer at the manger, with the Christ Child in swaddling clothes….but the church’s calendar forces us to see him as a full-grown man, who shaves and is making his way in the world.

It’s as if someone hit the “fast forward” button on the DVD player, making thirty years of Jesus’ life disappear just like that.

What a caffeine jolt to our systems!  

And yet, it’s probably a good thing.  For the fast pace, especially of Mark’s gospel, obliges us to remember that God in Christ assumed human flesh, not to make small talk with us, not to have a picnic or a joyride, but to get on the road and make his way toward the Cross, for us and for our salvation.

If the season of Epiphany is about the meaning of that word (Epiphany)—a revealing, a drawing back of the curtain about Jesus….this first jolt reveals something magnificent and world-turning:   that the Word became flesh not for beating-around-the-bush….but for the sake of doing vital business with us, rescuing humanity and renewing the whole creation.

2.      But there’s a second “jolt” in this morning’s gospel lesson—a second “shock to the system” that wakes us up.   Jesus doesn’t just come on the scene a grown-up adult.   He comes to the River Jordan to be baptized.

 The “jolt” in this is that baptism is for sinners.   Baptism is a washing-away of filth and dirt, a cleansing from sin.  Baptism is for the desperate, the lost, the god-forsaken!

Baptism is for sinners.   And Jesus is no sinner.

The second “jolt” this morning’s gospel lesson administers to us is that it shows us the one, the only person who has ever lived who doesn’t need baptism…and yet he comes to be baptized:  “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

And there’s nothing “accidental” about this.   Jesus fully plans to be here, up to his neck in the muddy water, with all the sinners who flocked to John the baptizer.

Jesus insisted on getting in line with everybody else, to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

What jolts us here is that Jesus isn’t the least bit shy about getting “up close and personal” with all manner of sinners.  Jesus isn’t worried about being caught in the wrong crowd.  Jesus seems to have no interest in keeping himself above the fray, unstained by contact with the ungodly.

Here, once more, we receive an epiphany, a revelation about who Jesus is and what he does.   Jesus befriends sinners.   Jesus gets close to sinners.    Jesus, we can say, even “takes on” sin.

Here’s a little image that might help.   During the recent holiday season, I washed a lot of dishes.   We hosted a staff party and family. Dirty dishes piled up, and so I spent some time at the kitchen sink.

When you’re washing a lot of dishes, the water can get pretty grungy.  In fact, you reach a point where a dish going into the water might come out dirtier than it was to begin with.

I picture the Jordan River like that.   It was literally a muddy river….but it got even dirtier with all those sins being washed away.      

But Jesus came to this dirty water and intentionally insisted that he be washed in it….even though he probably came up out of the water, dirtier than when he went in.   Because the sins of others--the sins of the whole world--were now clinging to him.

St Paul takes this whole notion as far as he can in II Corinthians when he writes:  “for our sake [God] made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (II Cor. 5:21)

3.      And this leads me to the third jolt we get in this gospel lesson:  Jesus gets baptized with sinners, Jesus “takes on” the filth of sin in the muddy river, and God lets it be known how pleased he is with that!

In a way, this is the sharpest jolt of all.  It’s surprising to see Baby Jesus all grown up, even though we still have the manger scene set up in our house.  It’s shocking to see this adult Jesus getting baptized with all those sinners.

But what defies all our customary ways of understanding God is that God looks upon this baptism scene and smiles broadly.   God is utterly pleased with what is happening as his beloved Son “takes on” sin in the Jordan River. 

God wants it this way.

And we see that here in three ways.   First, God himself “tears open” the heavens.   It’s a jarring word in the original Greek—“schizo” (related to “schizophrenia”).  God rips the heavens apart.  God makes a deliberate tear, a permanent opening in the veil that separates heaven from earth.   There is no turning back from this!  This tearing-apart of the heavens signals a new state of affairs.  Indeed, it is an overture to the New Creation God is initiating in Jesus.

Second, the Spirit of God descends like a dove on Jesus.   The same Spirit who “moved over the waters” in Genesis 1, the dove that Noah released from the ark—the dove that flew “over the waters” of the receding Flood--the Spirit and the dove come together as one, a powerful image of blessing.

And third, the Voice of God is heard, for the first time in Mark’s gospel:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is just how God wants it to be:  Jesus, doing vital business with humanity and the whole creation, Jesus taking on sin and rising from the water to begin his journey toward the Cross and the Grave, for us and for our salvation.   Capture that image—hang on to it.   This is what God has had in mind since before the first star began to twinkle.

For here, the most amazing epiphany, the greatest revelation, “shows itself” before our wondering eyes:  God knows how to do what we’re never all that sure about.  God knows how to deal with sinners.

Our natural inclination is to keep our distance from sinners--notorious, headline-grabbing sinners especially.   Someone messes up big time—and we turn away, we shun them, we keep them at arm’s length.   We avoid being tainted by them, “spoiled” by their manifest sinfulness.

But Jesus always made a bee-line toward sinners.    Jesus got close to, befriended, embraced sinners.    Not to roll around with them in the mud like a bunch of pigs, though.   Jesus didn’t “take on” our sin so that he might revel in sin with us.

No.   Jesus “took on” sin in order to “take on” sin, in the sense of defeating it, once and for all.  
Jesus “took on” sin but only so that he might “take away” sin.   We might say that Jesus captured sin, kidnapped sin, in order to bear it away from us, so that sin might no longer control us, have its way with us and kill us.

Jesus is head-over-heels in love with sinners, and that’s great news for all of us here this morning—a bunch of sinners, gathered together on January 8, 2012.

But just because Jesus loves sinners unconditionally, he does not love sin.  Jesus positively cannot stand our incurable obsession with ourselves.  Sin and Jesus have no future together.   One of them must go away,  disappear.   And that’s exactly what happened whenever, wherever Jesus encountered sin. He took it on in order to make it go away.

So Jesus cast out demons, healed sickness, rebuked the recalcitrant, and finally went to the Cross to nail sin onto that accursed Tree.   Jesus buried sin in his own Grave, to send our sin away from us forever, as far as the east is from the west.

But there’s even more.   This same Jesus who died to take our away our sins, rose again to pour out his Spirit upon the church—even as Jesus is making all things new.

And we get to be in on that action—with our Living Lord, reclaiming God’s whole creation, one sorry sinner at a time.  One broken relationship, one god-forsaken wanderer at a time.   God enlists us—forgiven sinners—to be part of that great rescuing action.

And that just might be the best “Epiphany jolt” of them all.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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