Sunday 10 January 2021: Baptism of Christ
That is the end, right there
Context: a medium sized multi-cultural congregation in inner city London
Aim: to encourage people at a time of change and uncertainty
As Apollo 13 sped on its way towards the moon in April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded during a routine procedure. The spacecraft was two days into its mission and there was confusion both on board and on the ground but as the seriousness of the incident began to dawn on the mission controllers one of them was heard to exclaim: ‘That is the end, right there.’ This was the end of the planned mission, but it was to become the beginning of the most extraordinary spaceflight of all time. Against all the odds, the three men in the crew were brought back safely to earth.
In our gospel text we are presented with Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. There is no birth narrative as in Matthew and Luke, no deep theological exploration as in John, but instead Mark dives straight in and tells us about the baptism of Jesus by the Baptist. Yet although this is a beginning of a story it is also an ending. And the end needs to be grasped before the new story can truly unfold.
We know that in the first century there was a great air of expectation amongst the religious Jews in Palestine. People believed that God was about to do something new and that the old age was coming to an end. They lived under Roman occupation and with the daily humiliation of being a people no longer in control of their destiny. There was a longing for change and so it is no surprise that people flocked to hear John preach in the wilderness. He gave voice to their feelings, their hopes and their longings, and his offer of baptism symbolised their need for a new start. And Jesus joined them in the queue.
A NEW BEGINNING
When we came out of the Coronavirus lockdown, although shops were reopening there were queues everywhere. They have become a way of life and people by and large wait patiently, knowing that this is for everyone’s benefit. I wonder what the people were thinking as they queued to be baptised. What was Jesus thinking?
If we only had Mark’s gospel we would be asking lots of questions at this point. Who is this Jesus? What is his background? What has he been doing up to now? And even though we have some of the answers to these questions from the other gospel writers, we might still wonder this – how much was Jesus aware of what was about to happen to him?
For this story is not just at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is also about the end of all that has come before. As a new chapter begins for Jesus, so another chapter closes. We sense this as the gospel continues – for the next passage, which is not part of today’s reading, is the story of the temptations in the desert where Jesus struggles with the true nature of his calling. So as Jesus queues up to be baptised, I wonder, what is he about to leave behind? What is coming to an end for him?
As the three astronauts aboard that stricken Apollo 13 began to put all their efforts into staying alive and carrying out the hundreds of new and precise instructions that the mission controllers and the scientists back on earth were passing to them, they had little time to think about what had just been lost. There would be no moon landing, no opportunity to carry out what they had trained for, no glory of success. Instead they faced hunger, cold, numbing tiredness and many scenarios where they might have ended up being lost in space for ever.
As Jesus’s disciples today, we face constant new beginnings. The crisis of the last twelve months has challenged us as individuals and communities as we have had to adapt to new ways of being church. In our own lives we constantly face unexpected challenges and opportunities as well as disappointments and failures. Yet each of these new chapters also represents an ending. A new beginning is also a time of grieving for what is lost, a time of giving thanks for what has ended, a time of reflection on what is past. As we look at the story of Jesus, though, we are reminded that through all these challenges of a new beginning, the Spirit was with him. At his baptism the Spirit descended like a dove, and as he went into the desert for 40 days it was the Spirit that drove him there. And as we face new beginnings, and we will sometimes be forced to face endings we feel ill prepared for, so God promises that the Spirit will be with us too.
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