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January 13, 2013–Expectations

Contributed by Brian Hiortdahl, Chicago, IL


Warm-up Question

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?  How are you doing so far?


It is reported that December 22, 2012 happened.  It was the day after the “end of the world” predicted because an ancient Mayan calendar cycle expired on December 21.  The date inspired an apocalyptic movie released three years ago and plenty of “doomsday” preparations around the globe as many people expected the world to end:


Discussion Questions

  •  If you knew for certain the world would end tomorrow, what would you do today?
  • When have you expected something that did not actually happen?  How did you feel afterward?
  • What are you excited or worried about right now–what are you currently expecting?  How will you probably react if things turn out differently than you anticipate?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 13, 2013 (Baptism of  Our Lord)

Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

The vibe around John the Baptist was probably similar to that of last December.  Luke writes that “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”  Long standing prophecy was finally (maybe, probably?) about to come true, and they would be there to see it!

John had his own expectations:  “one who is more powerful than I is coming….He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Earlier he had warned his listeners that “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  John was expecting a Messiah armed with blades of judgment who would come and clean house.

What John got instead was hard time.  Did you notice that there are verses cut out of the middle of the gospel reading?  They inform us that Herod put John in prison.  From there, John got rumors and reports about Jesus, who didn’t quite fit the profile he was expecting, so he sent two of his followers to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ response is a summary of his ministry:  “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:19-23)

This is probably not exactly what John or the people were expecting from a Messiah.  In the way he goes about his ministry, Jesus seems to be listening not to the voices around him as much as he is focused on the voice above him:  the voice at his baptism which said, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Discussion Questions

  •  How do you imagine John responded to Jesus’ answer?
  • What are your expectations of Jesus?  Does he meet them, disappoint them, exceed them, change them?
  • To what voices in your life do you most often listen?
  • How do you listen to the Voice that spoke love and pleasure at your baptism?  How does God’s word to you compare or contrast with others’ expectations of you?

Activity Suggestions

  •  Wash something–hands, dishes, body, clothes, whatever.  When you do so, follow Martin Luther’s advice, making the sign of the cross in remembrance of your baptism.
  • Talk with your parents, godparents, and/or someone who was present at your baptism, and look at photos if you have them.  What do they remember most?  How have their hopes and expectations for you changed since that day?
  • Plan a baptism party.  (I annually host one around January 17, the anniversary of my baptism.  Yes, there will be cake.)  This Sunday, when we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, is a great time to do this as a group.

Closing Prayer

Thank you, loving God, for your unexpected goodness and grace to us.  Thank you for naming us your own in holy baptism and calling us to follow Jesus in lives of service and blessing to others.  Help us who are surrounded by so many voices to keep listening to yours.  Amen

December 16, 2012–Expanding the Promise

Contributed by Steven Alloway, Granada Hills, CA


Warm-up Question

What would your life be like if you had extraordinary superpowers? What would you do and how would you use them? What if one day you discovered that everyone in the world had the same superpowers as you?

Expanding the Promise

Amber Case studies the interaction between humans and technology, in a field known as Cyborg Anthropology. This can include things such as prosthetic limbs and electronic implants in the brain, but more commonly deals with computers, smartphones, and other devices that people use every day.

“A cyborg is simply someone who interacts with technology,” says Case. “The technology can be a physical or mental extension, and doesn’t need to be implanted in the person.”

As we interact with this technology, it gives us abilities that just a few years ago were purely in the realm of science fiction, from sensors that turn lights on and off as we enter or leave a room, to camera phones that allow us to speak face to face with someone on the other side of the globe.

“A cyborg is not a Terminator or Robocop,” says Case. “Everyone that uses technology is a superhuman. It’s not so strange anymore because it’s the norm—most everyone else around us is also a superhuman.”


Discussion Questions

  • What kind of technology do you use in your everyday life? What does it allow you to do?
  • What can you do with technology now that you weren’t able to do five years ago? What can you do that your parents couldn’t do when they were your age?
  • Are there disadvantages to this technology? What do you do when your batteries run out unexpectedly, or you’re in a place where you’re unable to connect?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 16, 2012 (Third Sunday of Advent)

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

The Jews were God’s chosen people: the children of Abraham. He had set them apart from the rest of the world, blessing them and giving them a rich inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey. As such, it was hard not to feel superior. But John tells the people something different. Being children of Abraham doesn’t make them superior. The Lord can raise up children of Abraham from the stones!

It seems an odd passage to study in the middle of Advent. Where’s the “peace on Earth, good will to mankind”? Instead, we get, “You brood of vipers!” and promises of axes and fires poised for the judgment. But if you look more closely, it’s actually a very appropriate passage. Advent is the preparation for the coming of the Savior. And that’s exactly what this is. John was sent to prepare the way of the Lord: to get the people ready for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s just not what we’re used to at Christmas.

Still, at its core, it’s a very hopeful passage. It’s a foreshadowing of what Jesus came to do: to take the promise given to the Jews, and open it up to everyone. To make us ALL children of Abraham, and recipients of a rich inheritance—salvation.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Though anyone can now receive the inheritance of salvation, John makes it very clear that not everyone will. Only those who bear fruit will receive the promised blessings. The rest will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So how do we bear fruit? First we must be baptized. Baptized not only with water, but with the fire of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t like the fire that will burn up the refuse that produces no fruit. Rather, this fire burns within us. Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to be “on fire” for the Lord, filled with the joy of salvation and spreading that joy, that fire, to those around us. And that’s what the coming of the Savior is all about.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you tend to feel superior to the people in your life who aren’t Christians? Or do you try to spread the good news of Christ to them, so that they can have the same fire that you do?
  • “Baptism by fire” is sometimes used to mean a painful or harrowing ordeal which makes us better people, once we’ve come through it. In what way has your Christian life been a “baptism by fire”? What are some difficulties you’ve had to endure for your faith, and how have they made you a better person, or a better Christian?
  • What are some things that you have now, or are able to do now, that wouldn’t be possible without Christ in your life?

Activity Suggestions

Read the promise first made to Abraham in Genesis 17. Compare it to the promise in Romans 4, that we can all be children of Abraham.

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, thank you for the promise that you made to include us in the inheritance of Abraham. Make your Spirit burn in us, so that we may bear fruit, sharing that promise with those around us and spreading the joy of your salvation.  Prepare our hearts for your unexpected coming into our lives and our world. Amen.

February 26, 2012–De-Baptism?

Contributed by Scott Moore, Erfurt, Germany

Warm-up Question

What would you undo in your life if you could?


Rene LeBouvier (71) has become the symbol for a number of dissatisfied Christians throughout Europe, Great Britain, and North America. LeBouvier has one seemingly simple request: he would like to have his baptism undone. He wants to be de-baptized.

As a young man, LeBouvier found himself and his beliefs to be further and further away from that of his Christian upbringing as a Roman Catholic in rural France. In 2000, he asked the Catholic Church to be “un-baptized”. He was informed that his request to leave the church had been noted but he could not be de-baptized. A few years later, he tried again only to be informed that a de-baptism was not possible. So, he took the church to court.

In October, 2011, the French court in Normandy ruled in his favor citing any person’s rights to revoke his or her membership from any organization. The Catholic church has appealed the decision on the grounds that baptism cannot be undone in God’s eyes as well as the church’s. The case has yet to be finally decided.

Discussion Questions

  • When do you think a de-baptism might be necessary?
  • What should the requirements be for someone to be de-baptized, in such a case?
  • What effect would there be on someone if they could be de-baptized?
  • What would a de-baptism look like?
  • If someone said, they had been de-baptized and wanted to participate in a congregation’s life (worship, Communion, etc.) should they be re-baptized?
  • What should the Church do/say to people who request this? (In 2010 there were a reported 2,000 requests for de-baptism in Belgium).

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, February 26, 2012 (First Sunday in Lent)

Genesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

This Sunday’s Gospel text has three parts: The baptism of Jesus, Jesus’ time in the wilderness, and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Looking closely at the flow of these events in Jesus life, it seems to be a pretty tough life to be loved by God in the way that Jesus is loved. (This goes for those of us who are baptized, too.) Jesus comes and does what many others were doing. They were responding to the preaching of John the Baptizer to repent and think again about their lives. He called them to be washed anew in the Jordan River. He called them to a new life. Jesus gets baptized, Jesus gets a heavenly show, Jesus gets the Holy Spirit as a dove coming down on him, and Jesus gets the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” Now one would think that everything gets better after that. Well, think again.

Immediately, Jesus is driven out into the desert—by the Holy Spirit! Forty days and forty nights. Satan, wild beasts, angels. After he survives that, Jesus returns to Galilee and picks up where John the Baptizer left off. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; Repent, and believe in the good news.” Certain people didn’t like John’s message. He ended up with his head on a platter. Certain people didn’t like Jesus’ message either. Jesus ended up on the cross. Jesus died and was buried. And…and this is a big “and.” And, Jesus was raised again.

Holy Baptism joins us to Jesus’ destiny—to his life, death, and resurrection. In this seemingly simple bath, we are made a part of the mystical Body of Christ. We are united with Christ. We are made one with him. That’s serious business.

This first Sunday of Lent is the beginning of a time in the church year that was originally created as an intensive time of preparation for those who were going to be baptized at Easter. It was the final stretch of a longer process where the seriousness of baptism into Christ starts to sink in. It was a time of deep questioning of the baptismal candidates, a time of uncovering all that needs spiritual healing.

The gift of Holy Baptism is a powerful one. It is a mystical and mysterious one. It is about membership, but not membership in a club or organization. It is membership in the Body of Christ. It is here that we hear in a particular way, “We are God’s beloved. In us God is well pleased.”

Discussion Questions

Share with the group the particulars of your baptism:

  • Where? When? Who was the pastor that baptized you?
  • Who were your sponsors/Godparents?
  • What do you remember?
  • Are there any special stories?
  • Did you get a baptismal verse?  What was it?  What does it mean to you?
  • How do you celebrate your baptismal birthday?

What are the pros and cons of being baptized as a baby versus being baptized at an age where you remember it?

What are the implications of being united with Christ in baptism? What does that mean for you?

Activity Suggestions

  • As a devotional exercise use “Thanksgiving for Baptism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 97 or the order below.  This can be done either in the worship space of your congregation or in your classroom. If you do it in your classroom, you will want to make sure you have things you need for the rite (bowl with water, ELWs, etc).

Evangelical Lutheran Worship–Thanksgiving for Baptism

Those present may make the sign of the cross, the sign marked at baptism, as the leader begins.

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.



Blessed be the holy Trinity, + one God, the fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvation.


One of the following or another appropriate scripture passage is read.

A reading from the Psalms: The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the LORD is upon the mighty waters. O LORD, give strength to your people; give them, O LORD, the blessings of peace.  (Psalm 29:3, 11)

A reading from the Psalms: Let the sea roar, and all that fills it, the world and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD. (Psalm 98:7-8)

A reading from Romans: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  (Romans 6:3-5)

A reading from Second Corinthians: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

A reading from Revelation: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

The leader addresses those who are gathered.

Joined to Christ in the waters of baptism, we are clothed with God’s mercy and forgiveness. Let us give thanks for the gift of baptism.

The leader gives thanks with these or similar words.

Holy God, holy and merciful, holy and mighty, you are the river of life, you are the everlasting wellspring, you are the fire of rebirth.

Glory to you for oceans and lakes, for rivers and streams.

Here particular bodies or sources of water may be named.

Honor to you for cloud and rain, for dew and snow. Your waters are below us, around us, above us: our life is born in you. You are the fountain of resurrection.

Praise to you for your saving waters: Noah and the animals survive the flood, Hagar discovers your well. The Israelites escape through the sea, and they drink from your gushing rock. Naaman washes his leprosy away, and the Samaritan woman will never be thirsty again.

Praise to you for the water of baptism and for your Word that saves us in this sacrament. Breathe your Spirit into all who are gathered here and into all creation. Illumine our days. Enliven our bones. Dry our tears. Wash away the sin within us, and drown the evil around us.

Satisfy all our thirst with your living water, Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Assembly singing may follow, especially song related to baptism. As a reminder of the gift of baptism, those present may be sprinkled with water during this time.

The order concludes with this or another suitable blessing.

Almighty God, who gives us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and forgives us all our sins, strengthen us in all goodness and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Thanksgiving for Baptism from Evangelical Lutheran Worship copyright © 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America admin Augsburg Fortress. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the Publisher.

  • If you prefer, consider composing your own brief liturgy to remember and give thanks for baptism.


Closing Prayer

Almighty God, by our baptism into the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, you turn us from the old life of sin. Grant that we who are reborn to new life in him may live in righteousness and holiness all our days, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (“Daily Renewal,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p.86)

January 29, 2012–Hollywood and Demons

Contributed by Aaron Matson, Toronto, SD

Warm-up Question

Do you like scary movies? What’s the scariest movie you’ve seen?

Hollywood and Demons

At least since the 1973 movie, The Exorcist, Hollywood has been scaring audiences (and selling lots of tickets) with images of the devil, demons, and demon possession. The last few years have seen movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Devil Inside have continued the formula. It seems like demons have been added to the list of go-to villains in horror movies, along with Jason, Freddie, and Michael Myers.

So why is the idea of demons so scary? Well, the idea of evil, supernatural entities lurking about ready to do us harm is pretty alarming, I suppose. But maybe our fear also has to do with our lack of understanding about them, and about evil itself. We Christians have set teachings, beliefs, or dogmas about lots of things—baptism, communion, even the Triune God—but we don’t really have any set beliefs about demons or the devil. We have the witness of some biblical stories, and some legends and stories passed down from ancient and medieval Christians, and that is about it.

What we Christians are called to do though, is renounce them. Right before we baptize, and affirm our baptism in confirmation, we confess our faith in God with the Apostles’ Creed and we renounce the devil and all his forces, the powers of this world that defy God, and the ways of sin that draw us from God.


Discussion Questions

  •  Have you seen any movies that used demons or the devil as a villain? What did you think of how they were portrayed?
  • What have you heard about the devil or demons? What do people think the look like and act like?
  • Why do you think it is important for us Christians to renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God as we celebrate baptism? Do you think this should be a part of worship more often? Why?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 12, 2012 (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany)

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

In the gospel reading, the people are astounded by the authority of Jesus’ teaching. They are even more astounded by the authority Jesus’ has over the unclean spirit. He commands the spirit to shut up and go away—and the spirit obeys.

But before Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, it recognizes Jesus for who he is – the holy one of God. Others may not know who exactly this Jesus is, but in the Gospel of Mark, all the spirits know exactly who Jesus is and the power he has. The question the spirit asks, “What have you to to do with us?” might be better translated, “What is all this to you and me?” In other words, the unclean spirit spirit is saying “You have special power. You can see I’m pretty powerful, too. Who are you going to side with – powerful beings, or with these lowly humans? Have you come to destroy us?”

Jesus sides with us lowly humans, and shows the power he has over unclean spirits. In the ancient world, unclean spirits were thought to be the cause of disease, mental illness, and all sorts of tragedy and misfortune. They were a part of the chaos and disorder that afflicted humanity, like the waves of a stormy sea tossing around a small boat. As we see later in Mark, Jesus has the power to calm the chaos of stormy seas. As Martin Luther writes, Jesus has freed us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. That Jesus has come to free us from these powers of evil, chaos, and destruction is good news indeed. Can you imagine the joy and relief—and the wonder—of the people who first saw Jesus’ power over unclean spirits?


Discussion Questions

  •  Have you ever had to confront evil? What gave you strength in that time? If you have not faced evil yet, what in our Christian faith can give you strength to face it?
  • What chaos or stormy seas are causing you pain or stress in life? What calm can Jesus bring to them?


Activity Suggestions

  • Go into the sanctuary and gather around the baptismal font. Review the renunciation of evil and confession of faith in the order of Baptism. End with everyone making the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
  • Search newspapers, or Internet news sites. Where do you see evil? What do you think the Christian witness of Jesus and people of faith can bring to these situations?

Closing Prayer

Holy God, our protector and defender, we ask that you be with us, and all those who face evil powers, chaos, and destruction in life. In times of fear and doubt, strengthen and increase our faith, that we may know you are with us always, and trust, that as powerful as evil may seem, you are stronger yet. Amen.

January 8, 2012–Person of the Year

Contributed by David Delaney, Salem, VA

Warm-up Questions

  •  What kind of people get your attention – I mean really get your attention for a good long period of time, maybe for as long as that person is willing to talk?  Can you think of anyone you know – celebrity, friend, or otherwise – whom you would be very willing and happy to listen to non-stop for ten minutes, or an hour, or a day?  What is it about such a person that makes you pay attention?  New ideas?  Personal charm?  Fantastic stories?  Outrageous language?   Alluring promises? Disaster waiting to happen?
  • Imagine for a bit what must have gotten people’s attention about John the Baptist.  Mark’s Gospel says that people from the whole area (maybe a 20-30 mile radius), including “all the people of Jerusalem” were coming to see him.  Maybe he was just an oddity for people in need of entertainment.  Maybe people heard about him and wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  But maybe he was a brave voice saying a new thing to a group of people who had kind of given up because of their situation.  What do you think?  What intrigues a group of people who are overtaxed, ruled by an occupying foreign power, feeling abandoned by God, and just in general watching their hopes and dreams fade?

Person of the Year

At the end of each year, news organizations and publications release their editorial choices for “newsmaker of the year” or a similar title.  For 2011, many names came to the top:  Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry, Pope Benedict XVII, Harold Camping (remember him?  He was the guy who predicted the end of the world for May), Apple Founder Steve Jobs, and as always, the President.

Yet Time Magazine named as Person of the Year “The Protestor,” not a specific individual, but anyone –  from the Tea Partiers to the Occupy Movementeers to the Egyptian and Syrian Protestors – who takes a stand against what they think is unjust power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few.  Recall that the so-called “Arab Spring” of protests in northern Africa began in Tunisia not by a great philosopher or statesman, but when an otherwise unknown man named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after claiming he was slapped by a policewoman.   Many, many important and notable people could have been named to the top news spot for 2011, but in the end it was people whose names had never really been mentioned before.

Notice that in the story of Jesus’ baptism which is our focus this week, Jesus himself is a bit player.  Most of the action and all of the dialogue are from John the Baptist and the “voice from heaven.”  Lots of important and notable people – including John the Baptist – could have been called by God to be the ones who would deliver the news about the coming Kingdom of God, as Jesus does in verse 15, and then to carry it all through Galilee and on to Jerusalem and the cross.   But Jesus seems to come out of nowhere, at least in Mark’s gospel.  And in some ways, that makes perfect sense.  His place of birth (Bethlehem) had some history behind it, but his hometown of Nazareth was a village so small and insignificant that it was not mentioned in any other sources of the day.  The other gospels have portions of Jesus’ ministry set there, but Mark doesn’t even mention Nazareth except when he is identifying Jesus.  When John announced that one was coming who would be even greater (more popular?) than he was, surely everyone expected Time’s Person of the Year, a great national leader, a great religious figure, someone of fame, power, and stature.  Who would have thought that the man that heaven would have identified as God’s beloved and well-pleasing Son would be this uncredentialed person from the middle of nowhere?

Discussion Questions

  • Does Jesus ever surprise you, coming out of nowhere to join in the work of your life like he did John’s?
  • Think back over your past year. Who would have been your personal “Person of the Year,” the person most influenced your life for good or ill?
  • How carefully do we watch for God or listen for a voice from heaven when those who are seemingly small and insignificant cross our paths?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 8, 2012 (Baptism of Our Lord)

 Genesis 1:1-5

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

 Gospel Reflection

It’s possible that the way we probably imagine the baptism of John – as people stepping into water, being washed or dipped, and then stepping out again – may not be the best way to visualize it.  Although it is rarely depicted this way, it is just as likely that we should imagine these people standing on the opposite bank of the Jordan from Judea, looking back west in agony over the economic and personal oppression brought by the Roman Empire as well as the deep sense of hurt and resentment at this pagan power having possession of the promised land that was supposed to have belonged to the Jews.  As they stood in the same place the original Israelites under Joshua had stood prior to their entry into the promised land, filled with despair and hope that God would finally do something, they would then come across the river again, just as the first Israelites had done, but this time being washed as they went, signifying that here was a people ready to occupy their promised land once again, not by virtue of their fighting or political skill, but by their repentance, that is, their readiness to be the representatives of God’s gracious law and mercy.   When we are baptized, we too are walking through a little re-creation of the Jordan river, waters that take us from being a people of no homeland to being a people of God’s own land.  Only now the land is no longer a section of real estate, but is instead our lives, remade in the pattern of Christ’s self-giving death and resurrection.  As the Israelites crossed the Jordan to a life of freedom and responsibility, and as John’s followers crossed the Jordan to a life of discipleship and witness, so we carry our baptism with us as a reminder, always speaking to us of God’s hopeful declaration of a promised land – the community of God’s people now and the hope of the life to come.

Discussion Questions

  • Sometimes we dream of spending time with celebrities or meeting famous and important people.  Would we want to meet John the Baptist?  Hang out with him?  Follow his fashion example?  Share his special diet?   If John the Baptist came to your town, or even your church, what would the reaction be?
  • In all of the gospels, John is always the one who “prepares the way” for the coming of Christ.  He also prepares people to hear and receive the good news of God’s love and grace.  How have people done that for you over the years and who have those people been?  And what are some ways you can be that person for others?
  • Notice that verse one is more of a title than a sentence. We might paraphrase it as a sentence:  “Good news begins here!  … with Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God!”  except that the very next verse goes back to a passage of good news from hundreds of years earlier, from the prophet Isaiah.  Doesn’t this also show us that proclaiming the good news doesn’t just start with talking about Jesus, but looking back and seeing how God has been hard at work in the lives of a person or a group of people, preparing them over time to be receptive to Christ once he appears?  How do we see God working like that in ourselves or in others or in our schools or in our families or in the society around us?
  • The Judean wilderness was a rocky desert, watered only by the occasional natural spring, a place where it was easy to become disoriented and dehydrated.  In the history of God’s people, the wilderness had always signified two things:  death to those who were sent there, and the possibility of new life.  When in our own lives do we experience that kind of barrenness?
  • When we hear “a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” we probably think we know what that means because of baptisms we have seen in our churches, and we know what “repentance,” “forgiveness,” and “sins” are.  So we conclude that in John’s day people with guilty consciences were lined up by the water and by being baptized were no longer guilty for their evil deeds.  But we probably do better to reexamine what the Judeans’ experience with those ideas was.  “Sin” was not just something one did wrong, it was an awareness of a broken relationship with God.  “Forgiveness” was not only the cancellation of guilt, but the restoration of relationship on the basis of God’s freely-given grace.  “Repentance” was an acknowledgement of our responsibility for breaking that relationship in the first place and the desire and willingness to turn in directions that would not disrupt that relationship in the future.  What are our own definitions of these words?
  • When John promises that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit, what does that mean?   In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is the third member of the Trinity.   To baptize means to dip or immerse, so John says that Jesus will make it so that you are completely surrounded – as close as water is to your skin when you are walking through the Jordan – with the same love that he and his Father share.  What does this kind of promise mean to us?  Are we drawn to the promise of that kind of intimacy and honesty with God that this would bring?
  • Students of Mark’s gospel point to the connection between 1:10 – the heavens being torn open – and 15:18 – where the curtain of the temple (which was a tapestry of a vision of heaven) is torn in two.  Both images – the one at the beginning of the gospel and the one at the end – speak of the complete removal of any obstacle between God and God’s people with the arrival of Jesus.  Yet we still often feel like God is absent from our lives or from the tragedies and injustices of the world.  What kinds of things still separate us like a curtain from God?   Can we have closeness with God at the same time as we experience God’s distance, silence, or hiddenness?

Activity Suggestions

  • Baptism is our adoption into God’s family as God’s child, and God is “very pleased” (Mark 1:11) that this is so.  As a way of testing how your life would be affected if you always had a reminder of that gracious truth, take an index card and write the words of verse 11, starting with your own first name, “_____, You are my beloved child;  with you I am well pleased.”  Fold this index card and carry it around with you all week, in a pocket or purse where you will come across it often.  Then pay attention to how hearing this word from God – a reminder of your adoption – changes the way you think about yourself and the world around you.
  • Take a look at the John the Baptist story in the other three gospels.  If possible, obtain the page from “Synopsis of the Four Gospels” that has all four versions side-by-side or find a column chart of the four versions of the story on the internet.  Notice that there are various differences, but also that Jesus’ baptism is one of the stories of Jesus that is in all four gospels and is a very important part of the gospel narrative.  What might some of the differences mean in terms of the special emphasis each gospel writer is trying to make?

Closing Prayer

Almighty God, you have invited people throughout history to be both servants and children.  Bring us with the Israelites of old, the disciples of John, and Jesus himself, through the cleansing waters of the Jordan to lives of repentance and joy, so that our lives may be places of your promise and that others may be inspired and invited to join us in your gentle and glorious kingdom.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.