January 10, 2021


Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

“Beginning with you”

It seems appropriate to me that every calendar year begins, in the Christian churches, with reading and reflecting on one of the stories about the day that Jesus was baptized. And this year, in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, we focus on the Gospel of Mark’s account of the baptism, where for Mark, this was truly the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Our Church Year does begin in late November or early December with the anticipation of the Messiah’s coming, and at Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth into our world to become Emmanuel, God-with-us. But while we find those birth narratives in Luke and Matthew, Mark simply begins with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John. For Mark’s community, the baptism was the key moment when Jesus was divinely chosen, adopted, and sent to be God’s living presence in the world. The Gospel writer describes it as “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

I know that we are already 10 days into our new calendar year. And those of you who made New Year’s resolutions may have them well in-hand, or perhaps you’ve already given up on some of them. But it seems to me, that “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday is an even better time to mark a new beginning. It was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – when he was assured of his identity as God’s Son, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit who would send him out in purpose and power to minister to the world.

And I believe that today is a good day to remember our baptisms also, to remember that we are deeply loved as God’s own children, and to receive the power and submit to the sending of the Holy Spirit who has plans to use us also for God’s work of loving and reconciling the world to God-self.

Let’s take notice of a few key details in today’s Gospel. When Jesus came up from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And after hearing the assurance that he is God’s beloved Son, the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness where he will wrestle with the new power that he has been given, and ultimately discern how God is calling him to bring love and light into the world.

With regard to others who would be baptized that day and in the years to come, John the Baptist said this: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” indicating that our baptisms would be about more than repentance and a cleansing from sin, but that we also (like Jesus) would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power to embody God’s love in the world.

Let’s take notice of the experience of some of the early Christian communities as they began to recognize the significance of baptism. In our reading from the Book of Acts today, we heard about the Apostle Paul visiting Ephesus and finding some disciples. He asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” And they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:2)

These disciples have been baptized, but as Paul soon discovers, they understood their baptism in the way that John the Baptist first administered it – as a turning point when they repented of their sin, received forgiveness, and committed to doing their best to follow God’s way of love.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s really good to recognize our failings, to turn in new directions of love and justice, and try really hard to do better. It’s like the New Year’s resolutions that the really disciplined ones among us make and keep throughout the year, and most of us abandon after a few weeks or months when we get tired.

What those early disciples learned from Paul was that baptism was not just a turning and a re-commitment to God’s ways, but it was a pouring out of the Holy Spirit of God to bless and help them each and every day.

The Christians at Ephesus were baptized again, not in the name of John this time, but in the name of Jesus, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And though we may lose sight of it at times, our Christian baptisms were in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We don’t need to be baptized again, but we do have the opportunity to remember our baptisms and to live into the reality that we are not alone in our attempts to live as Jesus’ loving disciples. We can draw on the power and submit to the sending of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s mission in the world as Jesus’ taught us to do.

Here’s the song that has been stuck in my head this week as I’ve been thinking about these things:
“Behold, behold, I make all things new
beginning with you, and starting from today.
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
my promise is true for I am Christ the Way.”

It’s a great little “shorter song” from John Bell and the Iona Community that reminds me that God doesn’t work in the world by magically wiping away the bad things and miraculously fixing the problems, but that God works towards justice, righteousness, love, and peace through God’s own people who participate in the work to make all things new and build the Reign of God.

It may be tempting in this time of ongoing pandemic to hunker down, stay safe, and just try to wait it out until things “return to normal.” Of course, we’ll pray about what we see happening in the news – for lower Covid numbers, for rapid administration of the vaccines, for the end of racism, violence, and division in our societies, for the well-being of the poor and the hungry, for the safety of refugees and migrant workers.

But as much as our Baptism assures us of our belovedness and our belonging to God, it also challenges us with that gift of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness and then sent him on to give his whole self and life for the sake of the world – that Spirit wants to equip and send us also.

So, I’m thinking about the Christians I’m going to interact with this week and the ways that I see them living out their baptisms with the Spirit’s help…

I’ll meet with members of First Church who have answered the call to eldership and who give their time, wisdom, gifts, and prayer to leading our ministry in this community by serving on the Session. It’s no small thing that these elders continue to work for the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed in our church and community, often making difficult, faithful, and courageous decisions for the building up of God’s Reign in this place.

I’ll also join in meetings this week of The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s International Affairs Committee. Although many of the issues they will deal with in this week’s online meetings are well beyond my experience or expertise, I’ll be able to participate as they lead the church in speaking out and acting for justice and peace around the world.

The topics will include seeking justice for Canada’s migrant workers, advocating for human rights and the protection of children in Palestine, and encouraging action to mitigate Climate Change and its negative impacts on communities around the world, among other things. And I will give thanks for the Spirit’s equipping and sending of individuals to do the research, the study, the writing, and the advocacy that are necessary to make a difference towards building the world that God intends for us.

Much closer to home, I’ll also participate this week with members of our church community in making and delivering meals for our members who are recovering from injuries. Our “Love on a Plate” team are responding to particular needs through an organized program that enacts God’s love, and I’m grateful for the people who enjoy sharing their gifts through the provision of food and brief visits.

Of course, it reminds me that there are others doing similar things in more informal ways – caring for those who are left out, lonely, grieving, or struggling – by phoning, gifting, and supporting others in love. I cannot make a pastoral phone call to a member of our church without hearing about all the others who have been calling them to check in and offer encouragement. And that brings me great joy!

These are just a few small examples of the ways that Christians are living into their baptisms, making use of the Spirit’s power, and submitting to the Spirit’s sending to participate in God’s work in the world. Over the next couple of Sundays, our Scripture readings from the Lectionary will provide us with more examples of God’s people being called, equipped, and sent in mission.

We’ll hear about Samuel and Jonah, about Philip, Nathanael, and the fishermen disciples. And I hope, as we reflect on them together, that each of us will consider this season as a new beginning as we remember our baptisms and let the Spirit send us out also into the ministries and missions for which we have been gifted.

“Behold, behold, I make all things new
beginning with you, and starting from today.
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
my promise is true for I am Christ the Way.”