Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:9-15 Part 8
According to our text today, Jesus' first word when he began to preach was "Repent!" We have often been told that repentance is the beginning and the condition for a Christian life, a life of discipleship. Yet for many, "repentance" is still a mystery word or a foreign vocabulary still confused with lamenting our past or feeling sorry for our misdeeds.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent or the school of repentance to which we are called each year to deepen our faith and to revitalize our lives and faith commitments. Lent is a spiritual journey and its destinations an understanding of and a participation in Easter. If we never arrive anyplace, could it be because we have never really left, never fully embarked on the journey of Lent? Everything is so familiar and ordinary because we have left nothing behind. Like the early disciples, we know deep inside that a real Easter is really frightening and we are afraid.
The school of repentance, that six or seven week period which the church sets aside and calls Lent leads us to Easter where, with our preparation, we learn what has become of the "old" in us and what, by the grace of God, has taken root as the "new" in us.
In the early church, the main purpose and primary function of Lent was to prepare those being taught, the "catechumen" or newly converted Christians, for their baptism which was performed at Easter. For Christian discipleship in the world, it was crucial that one understand the meaning of one's baptism. For the early Christians, Lent and Easter were the rediscovery, the joyful recovery, of what they became and what they were made to be by their baptism into Christ's death and resurrection. In the church, baptism is called a sacrament that means a passage. We are moved from one place to another, we are transformed or changed in circumstances and condition. It is the transformation, not of the natural into the supernatural, but of the "old" into the "new." It is a passage into life as redeemed and restored by Christ.
Today our text tells us about the baptism of Christ by John. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People confessed their sins and were baptized. If Jesus was sinless, why did he ask to be baptized by John? Jesus was identifying with all humankind and taking the sins of the world upon himself. It was to "fulfill all righteousness" as Matthew says.
This scene has been depicted in many different ways. One of the more striking is the Baptism of Christ, painted by Jusepe de Rivera, a Spanish artist of the 17th century. In the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic church felt it had to reassure the faith of a populace disoriented by the philosophical and theological upheaval which had shaken the structure of the church and the structure of society. In an effort to do this, newly established religious orders were to appeal simply and directly to the emotions of the common man and overcome the distance which had developed between the faithful and the church encumbered by institutional and bureaucratic concerns, social class and political status, all with their attendant pomp and circumstance. You are approached personally and in the one-to-one relationship, nothing is to block you from immediate contact. This vital Spanish attitude, originating in the teaching of the Jesuits, is applied to a painting by the Spanish artist Rivera and no one does it better. Many of his paintings are of a single individual. There are not a lot of objects, items or details to distract you. The light falls on a face peering from a dark background. That's all there is—just you and the pensive, all-present face of a saint. He used peasants and common people as models, and he creates an immediate appeal to the viewer who is invited both visually and emotionally to identify with and participate in the scene.
For example, in Rivera's painting of the Entombment, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, the Virgin, Magdelene and young St. John are mourning in the space behind the body of Christ. The viewer is encouraged to mourn in the unobstructed space in front of the body of Christ.
One is also compelled to be more than a bystander looking at a self-contained scene when one encounters his painting of the Baptism of Christ. John the Baptist pours water on Christ's head out of a shell, the ancient symbol of baptism. A dove flutters overhead representing the presence of the Holy Spirit. There is no physical representation of God, as is often the case, but John is looking up into the heavens in answer to the voice of God's approval. The figures are close to the edge of the painting, and there is nothing between you and them. The striking thing is that Jesus is not looking down in mediation or contemplation, not looking at John or the dove and not looking up into the heavens. Jesus is looking out directly at the viewer, catching his or her eye, as if expecting some kind of response. This is a call to participate in the drama of faith rather than merely be a spectator or onlooker.
In his baptism, Christ begins the moral fight between life and death. In Lent we journey with him as he goes to put death to death. Our goal is not some abstract morality, not greater control, more authority or moral improvement, not personal self-perfecting or cleansing in a spiritual bubble-bath. Our goal is to participate, deeply and fully, in the ultimate and all-embracing act of God, who has redeemed, reclaimed and recreated the world in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Clarence D. Weaver