First Drown, Then Live

DECEMBER 2008: ADVENT SERMON

by John Timmer

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
–Mark 1:9

Every good story has a secret–a secret that evokes our curiosity, that keeps us turning the pages. Sometimes the storyteller lets us know the secret at the end of the story. Mystery writers keep us in suspense until the final chapter where we learn who strangled Thomas Carvey, or who poisoned Laura Tilson, or who pushed Dick Kramer in front of the oncoming train.

Soap operas keep us in suspense until the next episode. Will Tom, so unhappily married to Susan, find true happiness in the arms of Alice? To find out, tune in to tomorrow’s episode of Where Love Flowers.

There are also stories in which the storyteller reveals the secret at the very beginning. They let the readers know before they let the characters in the story know. This happens in the story of Little Red Riding Hood. When Little Red Riding Hood cries, “O Grandma, what a big mouth you have!” we know what she does not know. We know that she is looking at the mouth that will swallow her alive.

There is also a charming story about Karl Barth and an innocent tourist. Barth usually took the streetcar to the University of Basel, where he taught. One day a tourist sat down next to him and remarked to him that Basel was the city where the famous theologian Karl Barth lived. “Have you ever met him?” the tourist asked Barth. “Yes, I have,” Barth responded. “In fact, I shave him every morning.” The tourist returned home, bragging that although he had not seen Barth himself, he had met his barber. That’s a delightful story because, from the beginning, we knew a secret the tourist did not know. Some stories derive their power from our knowing the story’s secret from the start.

The Gospel of Mark is such a story. The secret of Mark’s story is the identity of Jesus. In the very first sentence Mark lets us in on this secret: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus is the Son of God. That’s the big secret. And to make sure that we don’t miss the secret, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, the story of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus, the story of Jesus hearing a voice from heaven telling him the secret of his identity: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Only Jesus heard that voice from heaven. None of the bystanders did. Only Jesus heard God tell him who he really is. And because Mark lets us in on the secret, we too know who Jesus really is. And because we do, we watch with amazement how the story of Jesus unfolds, how no one else in the Gospel of Mark seems to know who Jesus really is.

The teachers of the law don’t know the secret. They accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebub. The crowds don’t know the secret. They confuse Jesus with Elijah or some other prophet. The relatives and friends of Jesus don’t know the secret. They think that Jesus is mentally deranged. The disciples don’t know the secret. “Who then is this? ” they ask after Jesus calms the storm.

None of these people know who Jesus really is because Jesus does not look like who he really is, does not look like the Son of God. Just as the unassuming Barth, with his unkempt hair and wrinkled suit, sitting next to the tourist in the streetcar did not look like the world-famous theologian, so Jesus does not look like the Son of God. And that is why Mark tells us the secret at the very beginning–Mark wants us to remember it throughout the story. When members of the Jewish clergy spit in Jesus’ face, Mark wants us to remember the secret. When Roman soldiers play games with Jesus and kneel down before him in mock respect, Mark wants us to remember the secret. When soldiers drive spikes through Jesus’ hands, when bystanders taunt him to come down from the cross, when priests mock him, Mark wants us to remember the secret. When Jesus utters a loud and last cry, Mark wants us to remember the secret.

Mark wants us to remember the secret of Jesus’ identity revealed at the time of Jesus’ baptism so we will remember the secret of our identity revealed at the time of our baptism. At our baptism the secret of who we really are has been revealed. All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death, says Paul. We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life. Our baptism defines us in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection. Our baptism defines us as people who have died with Christ and who have been raised with Christ.

Our culture and its mass media daily seek to re-define us. They daily ask us: “Won’t you be like this instead? Or “Won’t you be like that instead? ” Jules Pfeiffer is a humorist who writes clever cartoons. In one of them he pictures a boy named Danny who talks like this:

Ever since I was a little kid, I didn’t want to be me.
I wanted to be like Billy Whittleton.
I walked like he walked; I talked like he talked.
Then Billy Whittleton changed.
He began to hang around with Herbi Vanderman.
He walked like Herbie Vanderman; he talked like Herbie V. Then it dawned on me that Herbie Vanderman walked and talked like Joey Hamerlin.
And Joey Hamerlin walked and talked like Corky Fabinson.
So here I am walking and talking like Billy Whittleton’s imitation of Herbie Vanderman’s version of Joey Hamerlin trying to walk and talk like Corky Fabinson.
And who do you think Corky Fabinson is always walking and talking like?
Of all people, dopey Kenny Wellington–that little pest–who walks and talks just like me.

This is not just a funny little cartoon. It’s about what Paul is talking about in Romans 12 where he says: “Don’t be conformed to this world.” Don’t let the world press you into its mold. Don’t let advertisers tell you what you need. Don’t believe the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy. Don’t believe the lies of therapists who offer to shape your morals so that you will live long and happily. Don’t believe the lies of preachers who heal God’s people lightly. Don’t believe all these lies, for they tell you who you are without telling you the deepest truth about yourselves.

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Why was he? Whatever for? To act out his impending death. In Mark 10 Jesus asks his disciples: “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? ” Then, as he moves steadily toward the cross, Jesus says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed.”

Jesus’ death on the cross is his baptism.

Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in Mark 1 is his first public announcement of his impending death. Mark portrays John the Baptist as an Old Testament prophet. John dresses like a prophet, wears clothing made of camel’s hair, has a leather belt around his waist. John eats like a prophet–locusts and wild honey. John preaches like a prophet: Repent! John calls up the ghosts that live in our basement. He stirs up what lies dormant in the hidden recesses of our soul. He rubs our noses in what we’re trying hard to forget. He awakens guilt feelings that we put to sleep long ago. He points to the mess we have made of things and says: Repent! Clean up your act! Break with your sinful past! Make a fresh start! Make straight in your life what is crooked!

All of which is bad news. All of which is like saying to a lame person: Walk! and to a blind person: Look! and to a deaf person: Listen! John’s baptism is bad news. Jesus comes to us through the baptism of John. Jesus preaches his good news through the bad news of John.

Why does he? To tell us that what John the Baptist demands cannot be done. To tell us that we cannot clean up our act, that we cannot break with our sinful past, that we cannot make a fresh start, that we cannot make straight what is crooked. Jesus comes to us through the baptism of John to tell us that we must pass through a process of death and resurrection, and that nothing short of his death and resurrection will make this possible.

Jesus went down under water to act out his impending death. Jesus also came up again from the water of the Jordan to act out his impending resurrection. Jesus’ baptism is behind our baptism. Our baptism only means something because it is of one piece with Christ’s baptism. That we are baptized into Christ means not only that we share in his death. It also means that we share in his resurrection life. Our baptism yokes us to the dying and rising Christ. Our baptism sums up everything Christ did for us. Christ did not come to improve us. His words to us are not: Imitate me! Try to be as loving and humble as I am. Christ rather came to drown us and to resurrect us.

Repentance as preached by John only leads to the conclusion “that the time of improving one’s life is over and gone, and that one is in need not of a physician but of an embalmer–or, impossibly and unthinkably, of someone who can raise the dead” (Robert Capon). If we live again, it’s not because the old parts of our life are put back into place but only because some wholly other life takes up residence in our bankrupt lives. New life begins with dying with Christ and rising with Christ.

As Paul writes, “We are baptized with Christ into his death. But if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. For if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”

John Timmer is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and is the author of several books. This sermon was originally preached during Advent 1993 at the Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Dr. Timmer served as pastor from 1980-1995.