(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on the Baptism of Our Lord, 2015)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Someone asked me this week if I thought it was possible to really have a new start in life—a fresh start with your soul, a fresh start with your family or your key relationships. I’ve heard this question before. It’s a good question. And I’ve been taught both by our talk-show culture and by my theology to leap rather quickly to a certain answer.
But I thought about it for a while this time. Is it really possible to start over, to have a fresh beginning, a clean sheet of paper for our stories from this moment forward?
There are good reasons to want to start over, after all. People make big mistakes in life. Sometimes we can get on such a roll with our bad decisions that we can’t see any way forward. Being ignorant and obstinate and short-sighted is really habit forming, isn’t it? People want to start over after having an affair, or entering recovery, or experiencing a life-changing financial crisis. We want a new start with our kids, with our careers, with the place we live.
We want these things so badly and yet the world doesn’t really work that way. The world does not give us clean pages. Not ever. Everything has a history. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still shapes America in countless ways, even as laws and attitudes change. I think about where I grew up in Wisconsin, where there are a lot of Indian names—Chippewa, Mississippi, Milwaukee—and not a whole lot of Indian people. The new start for my ancestors came at the expense of someone else’s disaster.
And even when we make the best effort to start over, it is always harder than we want it to be. We don’t mean to cling to bad memories but we do anyway. We don’t mean to hold grudges but grudges don’t just go away. Our bodies don’t get to start over either—we carry in ourselves our whole history. I could deny Christ, walk out of this church today and insist on living only for myself and forget all about the Bible and everything but every time I looked at this little white scar on my wrist I would remember gutting a stranger’s house in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina with Lutheran Disaster Response, and I would remember joking about it, and I would remember that I believed in stuff at one point in my life.
Life doesn’t give us new starts. It gives us used parts. And honestly, I understand why people get resentful when they are asked to wipe the slate clean after some crisis or betrayal. I understand why “give me another chance” or “let it go” or “can’t you get over it” just doesn’t cut it. It’s cheap. It’s unfair. It can be a way of avoiding responsibility for the real and ongoing consequences of our actions.
So: is it possible to have a new start?
Today in our reading from Genesis we see God creating the heavens and the earth. And here is something new: form comes out of the void, order comes out of chaos, the Spirit of God broods over the waters and BAM there is light. God says it and it happens. A new start. The people of Israel told themselves this story when they were in exile in Babylon, surrounded by people who believed that the world was made from used parts—from the bodies of gods who had been killed in primordial wars. But their God didn’t do that. Their God stepped out on nowhere, took hold of nothing, and made himself a world.
And while this is the first really big moment of God creating a new start, you see him doing other little fresh creations here and there in the stories that follow. God gives Abraham and Sarah a child when they’re too old. God calls David. God calls unlikely people to be prophets.
But then we get to Jesus, and to our Gospel for today. And today we see God making a new start in and through the life of Jesus. Jesus has come down to the Jordan to be baptized. And if you’ve got a Bible handy and you want to look this passage up you’ll see that this comes at the very start of Mark’s Gospel. In Mark’s Gospel there is no angel coming to Mary, no shepherds or mangers, no Bethlehem and no wise men adoring the infant Jesus. Instead there is this moment. We have no idea what Jesus was doing with himself for the first thirty years of his life, and Mark doesn’t seem to care. This is where the story starts.
We don’t even know what exactly moved Jesus to come to John and be baptized in the first place. I mean, we know it was the movement of the Holy Spirit. But what was going on in Jesus’s own mind as he made his way to John’s baptism? We don’t know.
But what we hear is this: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in 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 I know we’ve just been through Christmas and put a whole lot of work into it and everything but THIS is the moment when Jesus’ ministry begins. This is the new start that will push Jesus first and then a group of disciples and then people from all over into a world they probably never imagined, and into a way of being with God that they probably didn’t know was possible. This is the moment that flows forth into forgiveness of sins for a great multitude that grows every single day.
Because if a new start is not something we can make for ourselves, it is something God can make for us. God does not need used parts. God does not need to take from one person to give to another. God does not need to keep a whole history in mind when something’s going to happen.
So when I answered this person about whether it was possible to have a new start, I said this: Yes, it is possible. It’s possible because it’s something God does for us in baptism and in the continual forgiveness of sins in our baptism. We say when we repent of our sin and believe in God’s grace God doesn’t just forgive us. God actually puts our sins out of mind. God forgets. We’re like writing paper, where you can see what was written before you erased it. Yes, it’s erased, but we know what was there. In the eyes of God, though, through the grace of baptism, we’re a clean sheet of paper.
Isn’t that a crazy thing to imagine? Not that God remembers what we forget, but that God has the ability to forget when we can’t? Not that God sees everything that we can’t, but that God has the power to overlook what our eyes can never miss? Not that God keeps everything but that God can lose track of things that we can’t stop clinging to? Isn’t that just crazy?
I mean, I feel like I’m a pretty ordinary sinner and yet if God told me that to pay for my sins I should spend the rest of my life silent in the desert eating roots and leaves I’d say, “Yeah, I can see that. That’s fair.” But that’s not what God does. God sets us free to live before him with confidence—humbly, yes, and gratefully, but as free children and not as people who are always having to pay off a debt. God is the one who can make a new start, in coming down to the Jordan to be baptized by one of his own creatures, and by washing us in that flood that drowns sin and death and raises us up to live in him forever.
And because God creates a new start in us through the forgiveness of sins, we can imagine a new start for ourselves and others. We can’t just make it happen—we’re not God. But we can learn from the grace we’ve been given. We can’t pretend, and shouldn’t pretend, that the past is over and done with. And we can’t pretend, and shouldn’t pretend, that all we need from each other is an apology and a commitment to do better. Forgiveness and reconciliation—and the idea that we just owe them to each other all the time—can be the tools of abusers and users and no one is obligated to give in to that. Justice is important—justice in our marriages, justice in our homes, justice in our communities and in the world.
But we can take the risk of being open to each other. We can take the risk of walking together. We can take the risk of forgiving each other even (and please note this part) if that forgiveness has to happen at an emotionally safe distance. We can extend some measure of the creativity God has shown us, by imagining something new.
So I want to end with two invitations today. The first is to those here who have not been baptized, or who have children who have not been baptized. If you are interested in being part of this new start, this new thing that is the church of Jesus Christ, make a note on your gold sheet or send me an email or speak to me after church. Baptism is open to anyone, any time. The life of grace that flows from baptism is open to anyone, any time.
The second invitation is to all of you baptized who are here. In a moment we’re going to affirm our baptism and be renewed in its promises and gifts. And I hope you will take this opportunity to be mindful of those places where you want to invite God to make a new start in you and through you. That is sort of God’s thing.