Waiting For Superman
WAITING FOR SUPERMAN
I have to admit that is strange that the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is from Mark. It is weird because Mark, unlike the Matthew and Luke, has nothing like a birth narrative. And unlike John, Mark does not have a cosmic prologue that gives us an explicit explanation about the divine nature of Jesus. Mark’s narrative is characterized by words like, “immediately and suddenly.” There is an urgency to Jesus’ mission in Mark. Jesus is less of a teacher in Mark and more of a doer. Jesus is less the great physician, as he is in Luke, and more a spiritual warrior, a hard hitting action hero, challenging the dark forces that have enslaved this world, and causing a whole lot of commotion and noise in the process. Jesus get’s in your face in the book of Mark, yet unlike the book of John, he does not go into long dialogues about his divine nature. There is a mystery to Jesus in Mark. While his actions are very public he is not an open book.
Yet, I believe this passage is a good passage for the second Sunday in Advent. For, the word advent, comes from a Latin word that means, “coming.” It is the time in the liturgical year that we reflect on the coming of Jesus. During the advent and Christmas season or focus is generally on the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. But this passage reminds us that the coming of Jesus didn’t end with him being born in a manger. Most of Judea would not have known that Jesus even existed till his baptism, because it marks the beginning of his public ministry. Yet, for much of my life, I didn’t really understand the significance of Jesus Baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Though Mark describes this event in riveting detail he doesn’t really comment on its meaning. But Mark stresses the importance of this event by saying that the heavens were torn, the Greek here is where we get the word schism. Mark is describing a monumental, apocalyptic event. By apocalyptic I mean what the original Greek word apocalypse meant, which was a revealing, a pulling back of the curtain of this reality, to reveal something of God’s reality.
Central to understanding this passage is understanding the contrast between John the Baptist’s of water for repentance and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit that John says Jesus will provide, because the two are directly contrasted.
To understand what John’s baptism meant we must understand the Jewish tradition of Baptism. The Temple at Jerusalem and many synagogues had what was known as a mikveh, or a ritual purity bath. While some communities, like the Qumran community, of the Dead Sea Scrolls fame, ritually washed daily, most Jews were required to ritually wash on special occasions such as Yom Kippur, the High Holy Day of atonement. Gentiles, or non Jews, however, were all required to be baptized and circumcised . So for John to tell every Jew that they needed to be baptized for the remission of Sins, would be offensive in a way because it would put them on par with an unclean and uncircumcised Gentile. This was an in your face act of repentance.
The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia, which literally means to “change one’s mind.” The Hebrew word behind the Greek means to turn around and go in the other direction. The Greek meta, meaning above or beyond, and noia meaning mind. The word gives the picture of a complete change of worldview and the way one behaves. It is from this Greek word that we get our modern word paranoia, para being next to against, so the word literally means against one’s own mind, which I think describes paranoia pretty well. So metanoia is the polar opposite of paranoia. It means not overemphasizing or underemphasizing things, but seeing things from God’s perspective.
So the question remains did John, and Mark who recorded his words, think it was the act of his baptism that forgave sins? As recorded in the book of Acts, the early church did not think John’s baptism was sufficient for salvation. If baptism, is indeed what saves us, then I suggest you fire me and invest in some water ballons and super soakers and get to it. Mark records that Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins, so it seems that at least Mark did not perceive baptism as a saving act. Instead, John’s Baptism seems to be a sign of God working repentance in an individual. It is figuratively and literally an individual being immersed in remorse for their sins. Though John and us baptize in water, it is God who gives the gift of repentance. In the Reformed tradition we do not believe that we repent and then grace saves us, even repentance is an act of God’s Grace that we respond to.
Even our own book of order does not see Baptism as magically saving our children or adults since we are allowed to baptize adults in the Reformed tradition. Instead, Baptism is seen as a “sign and a seal” of God’s grace. With infant baptism we say that God is working, calling our children to himself, even before they can understand what is going on. Baptism is symbolic of a spiritual reality but as even John points out water baptism points to the spiritual reality of Jesus, the one who will baptize, immerse us in the Spirit of God.
Much is written in our confessions and our Book of Order about the meaning of water Baptism. But not much is written about what the Spirit falling on Jesus meant and what it means for us. Much is written in Reformed theology about how the Holy Spirit calls us to believe and applies Christ’s sacrifice to our lives. But again, Christ being sinless, did not need to be saved. As Matthew and Luke tell us he was born by the Holy Spirit, so why did he need the Holy Spirit to fall upon him? Was it just to show off that he was special to the Father? If so, it is not clear if others saw the Spirit fall like a dove, or if this was a private vision of Jesus that he somehow relayed to his disciples.
I think the scriptures are actually very clear about why the Spirit fell on Jesus and what it means for us, it is just that most minister don’t teach this truth. In the words of Peter addressing a Jewish crowd in Acts 10:38, “you yourselves know what happened throughout all of Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” And in Matthew 12:28 Jesus declares, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God then the Kingdom has come upon you.” Jesus performed his miraculous ministry because he was anointed with the Holy Spirit. Indeed, before the Spirit falling on him, we have no record of him performing any miracles. So the Spirit fell on Jesus, not because he needed forgiveness, or needed to be saved, the Holy Spirit fell on Jesus to empower him for his ministry.
This leads me to address a common misconception that many Christians have, that Jesus did many of his miracles because he was God. That because Jesus was God he could do whatever he wanted to. In a sense Jesus was the original Superman people think. Of course, there are two fundamental differences between Jesus and Superman. The first, of course, is that Jesus was a real person, while Superman is a fictional character. But even if Superman was real, which I admit would be pretty cool, there would still be a major difference between him and Jesus, that being that Superman pretended to be a man but was in fact an alien, he was not human. Jesus, as we confess, was fully human, and fully God. But the problem is to be human, means to be limited, to not be able to do whatever we want, while to be God means that you can do whatever you want. But as we read in Philippians 2:7, Christ emptied himself to take on our form. To put it in laymen’s term when the Word, God, took flesh, he lived by the same rules that we human beings lived by. He could have done anything he wanted, but if he did, he would not have been human, just like superman really isn’t human. Instead, Jesus is God, who became man, and was anointed by the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus’ full title the Lord Jesus Christ means. Lord, or kuyrios in Greek, was a word used to replace Yahweh, the Divine name. Jesus is a Hebrew name which means, God Saves, and Christ, is not Jesus’ last name but the Greek word for messiah, both of which mean “anointed.” Thus if we translated Jesus’ full title we could say The all power full God, who became a man, to save his people, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thus we see two points in this story, a baptism of repentance and a baptism of the Spirit. An act of God that turns us to God and an act of God, the receiving of the Spirit, that saves us, and allows us to minister for God. This does not mean every church is called to gifts of healing and miracles, which are biblical, at every time. What it does mean is if there is a ministry that God has called his local church to, God will provide the ability to accomplish that mission. Just as salvation is an act of Grace, missions, and how we practically accomplish missions are also empowered by God’s Spirit.
In our church we are in need to fill several leadership positions on the Elders and Deacons. Like I said before I believe that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. Fundamentally, for me that means that we serve because we are inspired by the Spirit to serve, not because we the pastor guilts us into serving. You may not feel like you have the time to serve, that you are qualified to serve, or that you are too tired to serve. But God equips the called he does not call the equipped. If there is a ministry you are called to God provides the power to accomplish that ministry
Often we see life as cyclical. The seasons are cyclical, elections are cyclical, how children grow up, become parents, and have their own children, is cyclical. The time for planting and harvesting is cyclical. We think of life as circle, unbroken, and largely staying the same. But what Baptism, both of water, and of Spirit when we come to believe, is described in the scriptures as a clear break from the past. It is described as being transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness and into the Kingdom of light. In baptism we die and are born to new life. Baptism symbolizes a point where our world is changed and nothing will ever be the same. Just as my generation remembers where they were on 9/11 and the greatest generation remembers where they were on Pearl Harbor day, December 7th, 1941, Mark gives us the image of a decisive event in history that burns an imprint onto the mind of the church. But the Baptism of Jesus is not about a day of infamy but about the Spirit of the Lord coming to set the captive free. The baptism of Jesus is not about trauma but about healing, it is not about death but about the power of the Author of Life, it is not about business as usual, but about the power to perform a different type of ministry. It is not about waiting for Superman but about using the gifts he gave us for the common good to make straight the way of the Lord.