There is something about the New Year that always makes us want to start a new chapter in our book. It is very easy and quite logical to do this. Many of us make New Year’s resolutions to try and change something about ourselves. “New Year, New You” is one of the most popular phrases this time of year. However, many of our New Years resolutions focus on ourselves. We want to lose weight, be more active, eat better, spend more time with our spouse or children, or just generally a way to try and better ourselves.
Now there is nothing wrong with that because we are called to take care of ourselves. If we are caring for ourselves then it makes it easier for us to have the energy and passion to share the gospel. However, I often fail to hear of people examining their faith and taking a hard look at the covenant of faith we have made and making resolutions to embolden and strengthen our faith.
In the past few years, I have had friends who have begun to dedicate New Year’s resolutions to their faith, and even I have begun the same tradition as well. I focus a New Years resolution on my physical, emotional, spiritual, and social. This to help focus my efforts on the year on not just myself but also on God.
Therefore, as we start this year we are beginning a series on visioning. We are looking at what it means to have a vision, how we live into that vision, and how to grow our relationship with God through vision. Our Bishop in the Virginia Annual Conference Sharma Lewis set forth the vision of the Annual Conference last June pledging that as United Methodists in Virginia we will be “Disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners who influence others to serve.” (http://www.vaumc.org/ncfilerepository/AC2017/CanyouSeeItClosingWorship.pdf)
This will be the foundation of our sermon series, but we will get there next week. Because before we dive into a focus on vision I want us to look first at the nature of covenant. I want to do this because as we think about God guiding our vision we must first focus our hearts toward the covenant God calls us to live. Once we examine that covenant it can do the work of not just broadening our mind, but also focusing it.
In our passage today we hear about the institution of that covenant. That is within what we call the sacrament of baptism. Within this sacrament, we have an outward action of an inward and spiritual grace. And when we participate in this outward act we do so as means of God’s grace within our personal lives. God’s grace is present in baptism in the promise made through not just the baptized, but through the witnesses as well. Through the sacrament, we witness the grace upon the baptized, but we through that act are reminded of our own baptism and called to be active grace seekers in our lives while guiding the baptized in their faith journey.
Therefore we come to this passage today where Jesus is baptized, but oddly enough I want to focus not on Jesus but on John the Baptist. Because the manner in which Mark presents this text Jesus almost appears one of a great crowd of people being baptized. While we see from the telling that Jesus’ baptism is very significant in the grand scheme of his ministry, and within the greater context of our ministry and belief in him, I think that Mark’s focus on John the Baptist enlightens us what baptism itself means in the greater narrative of God.
John the Baptist sets forth what the true meaning of baptism is for us. Christ brings into place the baptism not just with water, but by the Holy Spirit. Mark writes, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4 NRSV)
John, through the writing of Mark, calls us within baptism to repent and be forgiven, but as with many other verses, the Greek gives us a bit more depth into what this actually means. The Greek word used here for repentance is metanoia, and actually repentance, at least in the manner we understand it doesn’t quite capture the true meaning of this passage.
The literal translation draws us towards a change of the heart. Theologian David Bentley Hart talks of the manner in which the phrase repentance focuses more on the negative connotations, but that metanoia actual denotes a more positive transformative power. He talks about the transformation towards, or a “change of heart” (Bentley Hart, David. New Testament. p. 560)
The true meaning of this word points us to a physical change in our lives, a change that is for the good and leads us to a life that is functionally different than the life we had before our baptism. It is because through Christ the Spirit changes us. We feel and experience that change. Wesley called it the New Birth, and in that, we become a new person in Christ.
However, another focus of Baptism lies in the covenant we make with God, and the covenant falls within this understanding of the transformation of the heart that is experienced in baptism. That is because our transformation hinges on this covenant. The transformation is lived out in how we participate in our covenant. It involves not just being personally pietistic, that is being spiritually connected with God, but it also involves our activity in social holiness, that is focusing on living out the faith we proclaim.
We have words that call us to grow inwardly and practice outwardly. To show the world who our God is and how our God functionally changes our lives, not because we are afraid of eternal damnation, but because we truly want to feel and experience God’s eternal grace. As Christians repentance is not meant to be used as a tool to demonize, but rather as a call to be a changed by God. This call from John the Baptist rests in the innermost depths of our being, and because we are impacted by this change we come to embody and live into the covenant that is made.
When Jesus comes to be baptized he commits to this life and is revealed, yet again, as the one God is choosing to do the work of the Kingdom through. God wants to do Kingdom work through you too.
Now I know many of us were baptized ages ago. I myself was baptized at 6 months old and to be honest I have no recollection of it. Even so, I was confirmed and proclaimed my baptismal vows for myself when I was almost 11, and even that memory is a bit fuzzy. However, I remind myself of those vows as a manner to keep myself accountable to the covenant I have made with God, and with the greater Kingdom that is being made through my actions in it. I want you to be reminded of your baptismal vows and to go forth and live into them. Be changed and transformed by God’s presence in your life.
In a moment we will be participating in a Remembrance of Baptism service. If you have been baptized I invite you to hear these words as you did whether consciously or unconsciously in your first baptism. Be reminded of the covenant you or someone made for you that you would eventually make later. If you have not been baptized I want you to listen to these words, consider the impact they would have on your life, and come talk to me later about making that commitment to be baptized and profess this faith all your own. View the water and the commitment as an opportunity to explore that next step in your faith whether you have received the waters of baptism before or not.