Centures ago, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming that God was on the move, that the Reign of God was at hand, that it was unstoppable and inevitable and–try as we might–no one would be able to resist its power. It would be as if we lived in a small French village during WWII, and a report has been circulating that the enemy is advancing and will be here next week. We’re terrified because our way of life is about to be turned upside down. We are painfully aware that we have no weapons to repel this assault; we are defenseless and terrified.
“The Lord is coming!”, John shouts, “God is coming and we are defenseless. God comes to judge in favor of the oppressed and marginalized, so we must repent, be baptized and prepare to witness God’s awesome victory!” Hearing the passion in his voice, people flocked to the wilderness to hear his message. Terrified, yet hopeful, many came to be baptized, including one Jesus of Nazareth.
John alone knows something about this Jesus: he knows he is the messenger of God, the one whose coming he has been announcing. John is awed and humbled by the sight of Jesus and when Jesus approaches him requesting baptism for himself, John is uncertain about how to proceed. He resists internally, but as he honors the request, he witnesses the power of God unleashed. He sees the Spirit in the form of a dove come down upon Jesus and in this mystical encounter a voice says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.” And just as John had promised, the Powerful One arrives in the person of this humble man from Nazareth. God has invaded the earth, not with violence and death, not with weapons of war and destruction, but with the power of God’s Word.
Mark describes the coming of Jesus in strong language. He tells us, “Jesus saw the heavens torn apart, meaning that a hole was ripped in the invisible barrier dividing heaven and earth, and God cannot be held back. There is no defense against the coming of God because God has burst into this world: God is on the loose through the presence of Jesus.
On the First Sunday of Advent, just 6 weeks ago, we read Isaiah’s ancient prayer, “O God, tear open the heavens and come down!” Today we see the fulfillment of that prayer. In marking Jesus through his baptism, giving him the courage to embrace his mission, God has indeed torn apart the heavens. And when this happens, when God pours all the power God has into the life of Jesus, doesn’t that leave us vulnerable, like that French village? Aren’t we left defenseless, waiting for an invasion that is inevitable?
If we’re honest, God’s power IS frightening. God can even seem to be our enemy because once the divine power is unleashed, it impells us to do things differently than we have before. If we are attached to the comfortable life we have made for ourselves, we’re in big trouble. Our whole world can be turned on its head once we acknowledge that God is on the loose. It’s easier to keep God on the other side of the vault that divides heaven from earth, only letting God out of the box when it’s convenient. It’s alright to be filled with the power of God when it’s to our advantage, but most of the time it might be better to just leave well enough along.
Even in our defenseless French village, somebody could pick up a rifle and start shooting at the invading army in one last desperate, fruitless attempt at resistance. God, too, sometimes meets with similar resistance from each of us. And Mark, in describing the death of Jesus, reminds us once more that the power of God is on the loose. Even on the cross, God can’t be nailed down or restricted in any way. Mark reports that at the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple is torn in two, and he uses the same Greek word only twice in his Gospel: to describe the ripping open of the heavens when Jesus was baptized and to describe what happened at the time of his death. Mark is telling us that in Christ, God’s power is always on the loose in our world, always available to us, forever changing our attitudes, forever transfiguring our world, with or without us.
The baptism of Jesus is what started all this commotion. Baptism put Jesus on a collision course with danger and death, but also on a course of victory and life. This is the one into whom we ourselves are baptized, and the message is clear: if baptism was good but dangerous for Jesus, then Baptism is good but also dangerous for each of us. It was dangerous for countless martyrs whose lives of witness became the seeds of the Catholic tradition. It was dangerous for Dr. Martin Luther King and Dietrick Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe. It was dangerous for Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day because it changed the way they perceived people, namely, as living incarnations of the Christ. It is just as dangerous for us because God’s power within us will make the world around us nervous. We might lose some friends in the process; we might find ourselves publicly criticized. We may experience loneliness and despair and the feeling that God has abandoned us. But we will also triumph.
Baptism is dangerous because it changes us and our lives will be different because we are made into Christ in the world. Despite the danger, Baptism is good because it aligns us with God’s dream for humanity. The same power that overshadowed Jesus in the Jordan River hovers over us, ready to make us witnesses, ready to enlist our efforts in the ultimate extreme world makeover.
God is on the loose and the world is closer to its destiny today than it was 2,000 years ago, but there are still far too many who suffer needlessly. There are still countless millions who go to bed every night with an empty belly, wondering if they will ever find enough food. There are those right here in Fort Wayne who do not believe that God loves them, that they are worthy of love, that they have a role to play in this great healing drama God is staging for the betterment of humanity. The world is never going to be ready to passively receive this level of healing and love; there is resistance on many levels. But Jesus reminds us that the battle is already won, that God has already triumphed, that the Reign of God is subversively on the move, its divine power on the loose.
And so we come to this moment in time, standing hand in hand with all those who fought the fight before us. We affirm with them that God’s power and love are here to stay. God’s forgiveness and healing are here to stay. God’s justice and life are here to stay. Christ is here to stay; we know this because you and I are here, and resistance is pointless.