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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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2rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mark 1:4-11

God's Claim Upon Us

Branding

The origin of marking livestock with an insignia or brand dates back to 2700 BC and the ancient Egyptians. Wall paintings in the ancient tombs of the Vally of the Kings depict livestock being thrown over in order to brand them. Branding irons have even been found dating back the 1500 BC and the 18th Dynasty. This iron burns the outline of a lioness suggesting that it may have been used to mark cattle belonging ot the goddess Sekhmet. The Greeks and Roman also used hot iron to burn into their cattle identifying marks. The famous Spanish explore Hernando Cortex brand consisted of the three crosses. Today cattle ranchers still rely on a permanent brand to prove the ownership of lost or stolen animals.

In the Christian life God places his mark upon us not by burning our skin but by the splash of water upon us in baptism. The Reformed tradition treats baptism very much like branding. The infant does not ask to be baptized. The responsibility for the decision resides with the parent. In baptism God claims the child as His own. From the moment that the water is placed on the child's head, the child belongs to God and God alone. We no longer belong to ourselves that is why we confess Christ as “Lord and Savior.” This is strikingly similar to how Jesus treated his own baptism.

The gospel of Mark gives us a very stark account of the story. This is typically of Mark. He is in a hurry. He has nothing on the birth of Jesus and rushes through his ministry leaving out more than he includes. He also pushing the story along by using the word euqus which can be translated as “straightway” or “immediately.” The Greek word conveys the sense of urgency. In the story of Jesus' baptism Mark uses it twice but the translators of the NIV soften it. In verse 10 we could translate the passage to read, “And immediately coming out of the water.” Later in verse 12 after Jesus has seen the dove and heard the voice of God, Mark tells that the Spirit “immediately” drove him into the wilderness to be tested.

Mark's hurriedness is also seen in his description of Jesus preparation for his baptism. We are not told any details. We do not know when he decided to leave Nazareth and visit his cousin. Mark's account conveys the notion that Jesus walked straight from Nazareth to the Jordon River without any stops in between. I doubt that such journey took place. Jesus probably heard that his cousin had begun to call the nation to repentance. More than likely, he traveled down to Jerusalem and spent time with John listening to him preach. John may not have even recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he first arrived. We just do not know. What we do know is that at some point Jesus felt compelled to water into the water and receive his baptism, not because he needed to repent from his sins but because he knew that it was the right thing to do. Matthew gives us this insight. In chapter 3 Mark records that when Jesus approached John to be baptized:

John tried to defer saying “But I need to be baptized by you...”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so for now, it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus understand stood that the spiritual life was not driven by passing whims or feelings. The spiritual life was to be shaped by and conform to the will of God. Why, because in the spiritual life we are not our own. God has placed his claim upon us and we belong to him. So Jesus knowing that he belonged to God submitted himself to John's baptism.

This is a difficult concept to grasp in are self-deterministic society. We bristle at the thought that our belonging to someone else might require a duty or obligation. We insist on the freedom to make our own choices. We do not like people telling us what to do. This struggle for freedom carries over into every aspect of society. We do not appreciate governmental interference in business. We resist being told by a bureaucrat what we can and cannot do in business. We complain to our representatives and senators when administrative policies are created that demand expensive compliance.

Our resistance to relinquish personal freedom is also evident by the inability of Congress to pass legislation requiring public service either in the military, the Peace Corps, Serve America or some other agency or group. People argue that it would be too costly. Others contend that mandatory conscription might thwart the promising career of young athlete, musician or scientist from blossoming. These are merely excuses that camouflage the crux of the issue.

The struggle for freedom is the focal point of parent-teen conflicts. Parents attempt to establish the rules of the house and teens strive with all their mental powers to figure out ways of not obeying the rules that restrict their freedom.

This longing for freedom even carries over into the spiritual life. Religions that have a lot of rules and laws are considered legalistic and unpopular. We assume Jesus came to free us from religious laws and to usher in an age of personal freedom. We are shocked to hear that God might expect us to live differently than we are living or do something for him.

We would rather hear sermons that expand on the message of the voice from above, “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased.” That is a fantastic message. Those words should ring in our ears every single day. They should drown out the self depreciating voices that belittle our gifts and abilities. Those words should stifle the negative comments that assault us throughout the day. God's words of affirmation should overwhelm us with feelings of acceptance and love. Those words, however, can not accomplish those ends unless we are willing to submit ourselves to his claim upon our lives. God does not comfort the wayward, the disobedient, the lazy or the selfish. God does not bless those who insist on refuse to submit to his claim upon their lives.

We Are Not Our Own

In his classic book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explained that if we belong to God, if God has placed his brand on us in baptism, it is then plan what we should shun and what we ought to be doing. summarized this message by writing:

We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels.

When you are faced with an important decision, how much time do you spend in prayer? How much time do you spend reading Scripture? We are tempted to say short perfunctory prayers asking for God's guidance and direction thinking that he will then honor whatever decision that we make. As we read through Mark this coming year together, please notice how often Jesus spent time in prayer. Even as God incarnate, Jesus the man, knew that he had to spend time with his heavenly Father to ensure that his actions and decision were directed from above.

We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature.

Carnal means flesh or sensual. Calvin is advising us not to seek after experiences and engage in activities purely for the pleasure they bring. We have enjoyed so much abundance during the past 60 years as a nation struggle accepting this. The pursuit of happiness is defined as the pursuit of sensual pleasure in our society. I am not sure we know how to be happy without engaging in an exciting and/or thrilling activity. Calvin warns that those who belong to God do not find their fulfillment through these earthly pleasures.

We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours.

Forget ourselves, Calvin's admonition directly contradicts the self-improvement industry with its focus on the self. The self help gurus teach us to become more in-tuned with our own individual needs, wants and wishes. We read books to improve are sales techniques, or communication skills, and our business acumen. Why, so that we will be more successful in everything we do. This will allow us to make more money, enjoy more friends and feel more alive. Jesus tells us to shift the focus from ourselves. Stop striving after ways of making life better just for yourself.

In the latest issue of Time, columnist Nancy Gibbs' asks “Is it every man for himself?” She then wonders if the economic crises will cause us to hanker down and wither the financial chaos in isolation or will we reach out to others. She sees evidence that many people are beginning to do the latter. Someone placed an 18-gold ring in a Salvation Army kettle drum this December in Uniontown, PA. A hotel manager in Sioux Falls SD opened his doors to 200 homeless people on Christmas Day. An 83 year old woman had all her possession and home burned up by the CA fires. A family invited her into their home and is helping her rebuild her life. These are all glimmers of hope. They are moving stories of what people can do when they forget about themselves and reach out to others.

President-elect Obama is hoping that American will response in mass to his voluntary service plan entitled “Renew America Together.” It will be officially launched on Martin Luther King Day. The idea has tremendous merit. Hopefully these tough economic times will push us to reorient our thinking from ourselves to others.

I wonder what the church could do in these difficult times if we could really grasp the meaning of our baptism. I wonder what we could accomplish if we realized that God has a claim up us. We are not our own. We and all that we have belong to him.

Baptism is not just a sentimental ritual that we perform because it makes for good pictures. Baptism is human activity to remind us of the Divine activity. We splash water on the face of a new born to show that God has placed a claim upon that child's life. We who are witnesses to the ceremony will be held responsible for teaching the child what took place and what it means but for also living out our own baptism.

Jesus heard the words, “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased because he understood that his life was not his own. His Father had claimed him and he was willing to live according to that claim. Let us who have passed through the waters of baptism not only hear the words of acceptance and assurance but let us also submit to the claim that is upon us.

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