Christus Paradox V: Death and Life
And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ —Mark 1:11
Happy New Year. Today we are at the tail end of our Christmas Sermon series Christus Paradox, based on this hymn by Sylvia Dunstan. It invites us to stand between the paradoxes of Jesus. Today the paradox is of “Death and Life,” the traditional language used around baptism.
Today is Baptism of the Lord’s Day, always celebrated at the beginning of the new year. But it is also Epiphany: yesterday, January 6th is the traditional day to celebrate the three wise men bringing gifts to the Christ child. So today, we stand in the many streams of our Christian story.
We begin today at the beginning, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Mark foregoes Magi and Shepherds, and moves straight to Jesus’ ministry being blessed at the Jordan River. But, my thesis today is that this Jordan river baptism is, in fact, Mark’s Christmas story.
Listen for God’s love descending upon us like a dove, in this reading from the Gospel.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of 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.”
John the Baptist was a wild preacher, wearing the tattered remains of what might have once been a suit. He eats whatever leftovers the wilderness might behold and lives beyond the edge of the city, out past Schaumburg, Naperville, Joliet, somewhere between here and Rockford, Davenport, Galesburg, where houses and people are few and far between.
Everyone from the rural area gathers to see John—the soybean farmers and migrant workers, retired school teachers and volunteer firefighters. But everyone from the city gathers, too—the uber drivers and yoga instructors, real estate lawyers and Metra commuters.
No one was turned away from John’s wilderness spiritual oasis, and no one could resist that wild preacher in tattered clothes, John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus. No one yet knew that Jesus would be famous, no one but three wise men and a handful of shepherds.
Mark starts with this good news instead—that there is a preacher in the wilderness who turns no one away. “Have you been yet?” asks your hairstylist at the salon, in the same way they might ask if you’ve been to Hamilton yet, or seen the most recent Star Wars film. But they mean, “Have you been, yet? To see John the Baptist? His baptism of repentance? His forgiveness of sins?”
Maybe it’s a perfect story for the new year? Shedding the sins of 2017, we leave last year’s burdens behind, asking God for a fresh start in 2018. Maybe you’d go, too, out into the wilderness of Illinois, beyond the city, to see John the Baptist—seeking a new way, a new year, a new you, as they say.
Maybe at John’s riverside stand, you can submit your New Year’s resolution, like Charlie Brown can visit Lucy’s 5-cent psychiatry booth. Maybe John listens to our hopes and dreams for the year to come. He hears our promise to take up yoga, read for pleasure, cook dinner at home more often, press the snooze button less. He listens to our promise to run a mile every day, keep healthy snacks in the fridge, put the phone away 30 minutes before bed.
Maybe New Year’s resolutions are, at best, a request to be forgiven our 2017 shortcomings—the times we only kept junk food in the fridge, ate mostly take out, ran zero miles a month, scrolled through Facebook in bed late into the night instead of just getting the much needed sleep. When we resolve to ride our bike to work or drink less alcohol, when we vow at midnight on January 1st, to write down what we’re thankful for every day and place it in a jar to read at the end of the year, or decrease the amount of time we spend scrolling through social media feeds, are we not repenting? Choosing the way of life, instead of death? The way of life abundant?
Are we not saying that 2017 wasn’t all that perfect, and neither are we, but we have some hope for the time ahead of us, and we need absolution, forgiveness, first, so we can move into the new year?
What John is offering, this repentance for forgiveness of sins, is so official sounding, a string of religious vocabulary words. But a new translation looks back at the Greek word for repentance—Metanoia—and translates it “change your hearts and lives.” It has to do with turning around. There’s something freeing in that translation: not a directive to “repent” but an invitation to “change our hearts and lives.” It makes repentance possible. Change your hearts and lives, John says—that’s what we do on New Year’s Eve, when we, as a whole society, decide that it is, in fact, possible to change.
Change and forgiveness. That’s the other part of what John is offering, down by the riverside: forgiveness. Change and forgiveness. Forgiveness can, like repentance, become religious mumbo jumbo, spiritual phraseology, mushy language that sheds all semblance of meaning as soon as it comes out of a pastor’s mouth.
So, here’s the deal: the Journal of Behavioral Medicine has done it’s forgiveness research, and it seems worth it. Forgiveness is, they say, the trip out to see John the Baptist, worth the wilderness journey. Forgiveness, scientists say, impacts the quality of your sleep, decreases your fatigue, can help decrease the number of medications you need, can decrease your blood pressure, and can, in fact, increase your lifespan.
Sometimes forgiveness is easy: this weekend, my brother and his wife picked something up at the grocery. “How much do I owe you?” I ask. They replied, “nothing, silly.” They forgave my debt, just like that. But other things are more difficult to forgive.
Remember that 1990’s book, “The Five Love Languages”? The author, Gary, says that apologizing to your spouse is more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” Find out what the other person considers an authentic apology, he says, so that your apology is actually heard, so that is not hollow or dismissed. Forgiveness is a choice, he says. It opens the door to new life. Forgiveness can take an instant, it can happen right now, even if it takes a little while for the emotional or relational impact to set in. Forgiveness is a lifestyle, a way of life, not just a feeling. Forgiveness is vulnerable, selfless, healing.
Sometimes, too, forgiveness is not even about words. Sometimes it is tangible. One man, in the midst of grief after intense trauma, was told that sometimes physical training is the best way to find forgiveness. He decided to get a dog. He named her Shadow. Every morning, before 6 a.m., Shadow would nuzzle him awake, and they would walk to the park. Instead of laying in bed, holding onto his grief, unable to forgive the one who caused his loss, he was outdoors, his body moving, the fresh air and natural endorphins coursing through him—the best medicine.
Day by day, healing came. Forgiveness came, not all at once, but slowly, like in the hymn: morning by morning, new mercies I see.
Other times, forgiveness is literally a wilderness experience. Tom and Anthony, military veterans, needed healing that went beyond traditional medicine. They suffered from what experts call “moral injury.” Beyond PTSD, moral injury is the spiritual and emotional impact of doing or seeing something that violates your moral code: when someone must use deadly force in combat, knowingly harming civilians, following orders that were illegal, immoral or against the Geneva Convention, even a change in belief about the necessity of war—any of these can be the source of debilitating moral injury.
Tom and Anthony both sought treatment for their PTSD, but after six years of therapy, were still unable to forgive themselves for what they had done. There were “war wounds that time alone” couldn’t heal. And so, they decided to walk together, from Milwaukee to Los Angeles in search of forgiveness—155 days, 2,700 miles. Alongside traditional counseling, they used a meditative technique called power breathing, visited a Native American spiritual healer, and found communing with nature to be restorative, opening their eyes to the beauty of the world forgotten in the face of their debilitating depression.
It was a journey into the wilderness of this country to find forgiveness. It was a path that feels so lonely, and yet is shared with so many. So many of us seek the forgiveness of the wilderness that John the Baptist was offering that day by the riverside.
No wonder people were flocking to him. No wonder he was the talk of the town. No wonder every gospel writer tells his story. No wonder, ultimately, John the Baptist is killed in the most undignified manner, his head served up on a platter for a princess. He was offering something powerful, something freeing, something empowering, something transformational, and something healing. He was offering something at the liminal boundary between life and death—a forgiveness that gave life in the midst of a world that only offered death.
He knew, too, that the one coming after him was offering more than just forgiveness—but life abundant. The one coming after him, even he was unfit to tie his shoes, let alone pave the way for him. And yet, there in the wilderness, beyond the city, with everyone watching, John baptizes Jesus into this life-changing ministry.
Mark is the only gospel writer who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Luke has the shepherds. Matthew has the wise men. John has the prolegomena—the light shining in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. We can’t have Christmas without these three pieces of the story. But Mark starts here. In what we might consider the middle of the story. But, in a way, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove is Mark’s version of the Christmas story. Hear me out.
Jo Forrest told me recently how disruptive a dove is, at least, one landing on you. It is literally an “O My God” moment. Even the atheist ornithologist says “O My God” when a dove lands on them. It’s not so much spiritual as it is shocking—but maybe that, too, is spiritual—the shock.
I’ve never thought about how shocking this dove might have been—the one landing on Jesus at his baptism—I’ve always thought of doves as peaceful, the Holy Spirit floating softly down to land on Jesus’ shoulder. But now, I can only think of street pigeons—the dove of Illinois—and what it might feel like to have one land on you. The grey birds with their greasy rainbow shimmer, flocking to half-eaten cheeseburgers and picking over parking lot trash, landing on stone statues and clustering under the L-track heated platforms.
For millennia, doves, or pigeons, really, have helped people navigate. They were domesticated around 5,000 years ago by sailors who used them to find land. It was no accident that Noah sent a dove out, and she returned with an olive branch. Noah was simply using the GPS technology available to him at the time to find his way home—it was as commonplace for him to use a dove as it is for you or I to use Google Maps.
Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon: they all used doves to communicate. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 was famously reported by carrier pigeon—the news traveled from present day Belgium across the English Canal to Count Rothschild. He was the first in England to hear the news. In World War I, the Army Corps had a pigeon named Cher Ami who saved 200 US Soldiers by delivering a message in time. And, even after the invention of the radio, the US Army still used pigeons to send messages. During World War II, they had 250,000 carrier pigeons trained to send messages during times of radio silence.
The white doves at weddings and funerals—they are usually specialized homing pigeons—trained to fly back to their coup. It would look a little less elegant if you release a whole bunch of beautiful white birds, only for them to bumble their way over to the wedding cake.
Scientists still don’t quite know why carrier pigeons can find their way home. I love it when a scientist can’t figure something out: it means that there is still something to learn in this well-explored world, still something to wonder about, and it lives on as a mystery beyond mystery—something beautifully poised as a spiritual metaphor. Scientists think maybe the pigeons use magnetic fields to orient themselves? Or polarized light? Or echolocation? Or infrasound? But, even extensive research has brought the ornithologists up short.
One year, when my father in law was having troubles with chipmunks in his yard, he set a humane trap, and we went on a drive—it had to be more than five miles away—in order to set that chipmunk free too far from his home to find his way back. But, with a carrier pigeon, you can take them across the ocean, and they’ll still find their way home.
I know too much about carrier pigeons now, I might have to get one, and train it to send messages to my brother in Hyde Park. If a pigeon lands in your backyard with a message tied to it’s leg, it’s probably from me. Harry Potter has his owl, maybe I can have a pigeon. It seems possible.
All this to say, really, is something about God. The God who meets us in Jesus Christ, the God who meets us in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism, that God is like the ancient doves who help us to find our way home, that God is like the pigeons who carry life-saving messages across impossibly far distances.
Mark skips over the Christmas story, but this is Mark’s Christmas story—the dove, a celestial messenger, sent to show the way home to God in Jesus Christ, as ancient as John’s “In the beginning was the word,” as bold as the angels who appear to shepherds in their flocks by night, as bright as the Magi’s star guiding them.
Catherine Keller, my favorite theologian, is in tune with the physicality of God’s appearance here. God does not come as untouchable light, as ungraspable wind, as invisible breath, but comes instead as like us, communicating in a medium we can understand, and doubly so. Both the human Christ and the heavenly dove speak to God’s love for us, God’s hope to communicate with us, God’s ever-always reaching out to us. She says, “The ‘very birdiness’ of the spirit’s activity plunges us into the earthy depths of the Spirit’s flight within the world.” In other words, God’s love has wings. God’s forgiveness has wings. God’s presence is, like Emily Dickinson might say, a thing with feathers.
The dove shares with us God’s message: these twin gifts of navigation and communication. God shows the way. God hears and speaks to us. God carries us home. In communication with God, we can find the way toward life-giving change, forgiveness, and renewal. May it be so, for you, for us, for this world, in these early days of 2018.
In the name of the father, son and holy spirit. Amen.
 Common English Bible, Mark 1:4 2012
 Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2005 Apr;28(2):157-67. The unique effects of forgiveness on health: an exploration of pathways. (and) Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2012 Aug;35(4):375-86.Forgive to live: forgiveness, health, and longevity.
Derek Davey, "Therapy Dog," Syracuse Veterans Writers Group, , accessed January 6, 2017, http://wrt.syr.edu/syrvetwriters/members-writing.html.
Brody, Jane E. " War Wounds That Time Alone Can’t Heal." New York Times (New York), June 6, 2016.
Noah Strycker, Thing with feathers: the surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 3-26.
 Catherine Keller, Face of the deep: a theology of becoming (London: Routledge, 2007), 233.