In the movie Finding Nemo, there is a scene that takes place at the very end, even after the credits begin to roll. The story has come to its culmination. You know the story: Marlin, a father clownfish, makes a harrowing journey to rescue his son, Nemo, who had been taken from his Great Barrier Reef home to be held captive in a fish tank in the office of a Sydney dentist. In the end, of course, they are reunited and they all live happily ever after. Well, after the reunification, after the happily ever after, after the main story has ended, the viewer is brought into another story just beginning.
You see, those fish who had helped Nemo escape from that tank in the dentist’s office, had managed also to free themselves. While their tank is being cleaned, they rolled the plastic bags they were in along the counter and out the window, across the street and into Sydney Harbor. When the last one plunks into the water, a cheer arises and collective sigh of relief. Then reality dawns upon them as the bob in the ocean, encased in a thin layer of plastic. Bloat, the puffer fish, breaks the silence, “Now what?”
Now what? It is a question on my mind today. The expectant waiting of Advent is over. The great drama of Christmas is finished. Mary and Joseph, after their own harrowing journey, have welcomed their son into the world. The heavenly choirs of angels have sung and the shepherds have gone to Bethlehem to see their Messiah in the manger. Simeon and Anna have rejoiced over “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of to the people Israel” revealed in the temple. The Magi have followed the star, paid their respects, left their gifts, and gone home by another way.
Amen. That is Good News! It doesn’t get much better than that. And therein lies the challenge on this first Sunday in January. Now what? What good news is there left to be said today on the other side of Christmas?
It’s not just preachers who are challenged for it’s at about this time every year that we all realize something – something that we maybe just tuck under the tree for a few weeks during the holidays. Indeed, for all of the Christmas fuss we realize that we are still waiting. Yes, after all of the carols have been sung, all of the presents given, and all of the meals shared, we’re still waiting…still waiting for the kingdom to come…still waiting for the Church to thrive…still waiting for God’s will to be done. Here, on the other side of Christmas, we find ourselves still waiting for Jesus as we see the same old world with the same struggles and needs and fears as we saw before. So, here on the other side of Christmas we can’t help but ask, “Now what?”
Even our liturgical calendar seems to be struggling today. The planning calendar tells us that the liturgical color for today is still white, the color of Christmastide. And yet, this Sunday is also the day that we return to what is called the “season after Epiphany” or “Ordinary Time.” It seems that we are living, in the words of theologian Jasper Keith, “on the threshold between the numinous and the mundane.” We are living somewhere between the holidays and the every days.
And it seems that we’ve been in this story narrative before. Indeed, just five weeks ago, on the second Sunday of Advent, the gospel reading actually begins in the very same place of the very same Gospel as the one we heard this morning. Five weeks later and we find ourselves right back where we started.
We’re back in the wilderness. We’re back in line waiting for what John offers: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness for our sins. And even as we listen, even as we participate, even as we go under again for a thorough dunking in God’s grace, we know that sooner or later we’ll be right back here for more. It’s like we’ve escaped and are now just bobbing up and down expecting a miracle…bobbing up and down wondering, “Now what?”
And then Mark gives us our answer. For although we have started at the same place, the two Sundays present two far different endings. On the Second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel ends with the baptism that John proclaims. Do get me wrong, it’s not a bad baptism but ultimately it leaves us shivering in the wilderness with nothing between us and God except John and the Jordan. But now, on the other side of Christmas, Mark keeps the narrative going. Just when we think the story is over and the credits are beginning to roll, just when it seems that we will be in the wilderness for a long time to come, Mark continues:
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'”
“Now what?” we ask. “Now Jesus!” says Mark.
A mother was at home with her two young daughters one lazy afternoon. Everything seemed to be just fine until the mother realized something strange. The house was quiet. And as every parent knows, a quiet house in the daytime can only mean one thing: the kids are up to no good.
Quietly walking into each of the girls’ rooms and not finding them there, she began to get worried. Then she heard it: the sound of whispering followed by the flushing of a toilet. Following the sound, she soon realized where it was coming from. It was coming from her bathroom. Whispers, flush. Whispers, flush. Whispers, flush. Poking her head into the room, she was able to see both of her daughters standing over the commode. Whispers, flush. One of them was holding a dripping Barbie doll by the ankles and the other one had her finger on the handle. Whispers, flush. Wanting to hear what her daughter was saying, she slipped quietly into the room. Whispers, flush. And this is what she heard: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and in the hole you go.” Flush.
This is a true story. But you already knew that, didn’t you? You knew this was a true story because it’s your story, it’s my story, it’s our story. It’s the story of our baptism. It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism. When Mark describes the Baptism of Jesus, it’s a radical act. Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.”
His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.” It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion.
The way we tend to talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark had talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the water. But that is not how he talks about it.
Instead, Mark talks about the heavens, schizo, torn apart. It’s the word Matthew, Mark and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. It’s the word John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead. It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (Is. 63:19).
Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened. God has torn open the heavens and come down.
And this is why, in Mark’s judgment, the baptism of Jesus is so very clearly a radical act. In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and Mark wants the world to know.
But if God has broken through the barrier and broken into our lives, then what ensues is not something simpler and easier for us, but rather something infinitely more complex and urgent.
Baptism means that God has broken through; and so we, in turn, are called to break through…into the challenges and problems of the world with everything we’ve been given. It’s a summons to be part of the remarkable, redemptive work of God. To give our lives to something more challenging than any other kind of work–and in the end, surely more beautiful, true, and enduring than any other kind of work.
Jesus came up out of the waters, and perhaps that is what he saw: A vision of God, a vision of what it was to be alive, a vision of something he could give his life to. Thanks be to God.
But that is also what your baptism and mine point to. No matter where you are baptized…whether it’s in front of the same font where your grandmother and mother were baptized or whether it’s by the banks of a river, or whether it’s standing in the sanctuary of a place where even you can hardly believe you’ve found a home…no matter where it is, the water and the promise and the prayer are momentous…no, really, they only take a few moments.
But truly saying yes to our baptism – that is the daily work of the rest of our lives. It is saying yes to the world and yes to a life torn open by the love of God for the love of God.
In baptism, the heavens themselves were torn apart. And when we experience that for ourselves, when we know that for ourselves, and feel it on our hearts at last, it is the thrill of a lifetime. It is when everything finally begins.
Gracious God, we thank you for this story on the other side of Christmas. We thank you for the Spirit’s landing and your blessing upon Jesus at his baptism. We thank you for the same in ours. Help us live into the promise of our baptism. Help us to live courageously and joyfully. Take us where it may so long as that is where you need us to be. In Jesus’ name we ask. Amen.