Readings from Scripture (CEB) Mark 1:1-13
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, 2 happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:
Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
3 a voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
4 John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 5 Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
12 At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.
…[B]aptism is an acknowledgement of people’s belovedness … in the orthodox tradition a part of the baptismal service is a renunciation of Satan and his demons and of evil. The way I look at that and apply that is that baptism is a renunciation of all the competing voices that try to tell you who you are. The world gives you names like screw-up, faker, fat, slut, addict … in baptism you’re named beloved.
The world beckons with [labels/titles such as] rich, powerful, pretty, bright … in baptism you’re told you are beloved and that is enough. I think that everyone wants to be told who they are, and in baptism we’re told that we are a beloved child of God and to renounce anything that says otherwise. It’s a defiant thing to do. I look at baptism as defiance, because the world will always try to name us, and in baptism we say “no, my name is beloved.” Whether that happens when you’re an infant and you’re remembering your baptism as God naming you beloved, or whether it happens as an adult, I think that when we think about the significance of our baptism it’s that we are named by God, and that is enough. It is good news.
I’ve never thought of baptism as defiance. I’m more comfortable with the language of acknowledgment (of God’s love)and belovedness…in our own tradition we ask a question of ‘renunciation,’ asking if people will ‘resist’ evil…but defiance is something different.
Defiance is full of resistance and challenge and we saw defiance play out as protestors/rioters/terrorists defiantly marched up the steps and into the US Capitol building in D.C. this week. In our own backyard, a local church congregation defied the lockdown order and met for worship because they believed the lockdown infringed on their religious freedom.
If baptism is defiance – does God sanction all defiant acts?
There’s plenty of stories of defiance in the Bible. But for each story, be it Moses standing up to Pharoah, or Jonah running away from God – justice, mercy, and grace prevail – for God is an active participant in these stories, working through the people for the good of the community. I struggle to see this in the two situations this week, both in the U.S. and here, for justice is skewed and the community is a distant thought. Conspiracy theories and those peddling them have convinced both groups that they are disenfranchised. But when white nationalists can walk into a restricted space with plans and weapons and are treated with borderline respect (for some delayed arrest vs. immediate subdual/death), or when Christians can meet (meeting twice since the December 26th lockdown) with very little repercussions, then these two groups operate out of a place of privilege. Being white, or Christian, in a place that doesn’t demean or punish you for who you are or what you believe is an unrecognized privilege, and that built-in privilege diminishes their act and importance of their defiance. In the cases of these two groups, defiance seems self-serving, as they prize their community and their beliefs over everyone else, for in their gatherings, they risk the lives of others (Capitol police, Waterloo region, etc).
So then, what makes the defiance of baptism different?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote and preached and lived his faith at a time not unlike ours. Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor serving during the time of Adolf Hitler, watching as failed coups became fascist movements. His writings speak of the importance of our defiant lives of faith, acting not out of strength, but particularly the places of weakness:
“To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be [the person] that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”
For in baptism we become
“entirely in the world, rooted strong in the earth but now seeing this world in a light which shows … its needs and its hope.” The sacrament initiates one in a process whereby one is not taken out of reality but awakened to it. The authoritative Word of God in baptism speaks not once and withdraws in silence; rather, it is the creative power for the future, even to involving the baptized person in the sufferings and helplessness of the world.
The defiance of baptism awakens us to the suffering love of God – for God suffers when hearing names like screw-up, faker, and in response God’s defiant love calls us beloved – when acts of power inflicting more harm than good, God invites us to participate in the sufferings of this world.
I can see Jesus lining up for baptism. The Middle Eastern heat is unforgiving, and the water refreshing, but the people were there for different reasons. Jesus stood there, with countless broken people in front of and behind him, and he was just another face in the crowd. He wasn’t there because of some religious act, but in that moment Jesus chose to participate in the sufferings and helplessness of the world. He chose to align himself with us. He chose the broken. He chose the sinful. He chose the ones with no place to run. He lined up with the repentant and the ones just going through the motions. He chose the ones who didn’t get it right all the time but who were foolish enough to try again. He chose the depressed, the divorced, the fired. He chose the ones who couldn’t shake off the world’s labels like screw-up or faker, hoping that they would hear beloved instead. He chose the ones who stormed the Capitol building, those who let them in and those who stood their ground. He chose those who incited them, those who fed them lies for the last four years, and those who convinced them that this was a righteous holy war. Jesus chose those worshipping online, and even those contributing to the spread of covid because they believed the only way to worship was in person. He chose the ignorant, the shameful, and when he saw their suffering, he got in line too, as he was moved more with hope than pity.
For in that line stood people desperate enough to believe that new life was possible.
Herods would still insecurely vie for power, others would claim persecution and hide behind phrases like “religious freedom” when they would call for Jesus’ crucifixion. Crucifixion because Jesus chose to stand alongside us. Crucifixion because Jesus taught us that new life was possible. For he bore love in a broken world, offering compassion for people choosing hope, in order that justice and mercy and grace prevail.
We remember that in Jesus’ baptism, and in our baptisms, we are able to see this world in a light which shows … its needs and its hope. For the world needs to hear it is beloved, otherwise we will continue to operate with misguided notions of defiance. Without knowing we are beloved, we will continue to vying for power, overlook our privilege, and bring harm to others because of our actions. For in spite of all we’ve done, and all we haven’t done, God calls us each beloved. For there is hope for us yet.
May you see the heavens and the earth opened for you.
May God speak your name as one who knows and loves you dearly.
And may you find the strength to call others beloved too.
 And fines for defying a public lockdown in order to reduce the spread of a deadly disease are not “punishment” it’s a consequence for your choices and actions.