Sermon by Laura 1.12.20 Baptism of the Lord, Narrative Lectionary Year 2. Mark 1:4-11, 2:1-12
Okay, Language Arts 101 time. Who can tell me what a “metaphor” is? Raise your hands…(take an answer or two). Yes! A metaphor is a figure of speech, a combination of words, in which one thing is compared to another.
“Up” and “Down” are primary metaphors; they are so basic to our thinking that we don’t even realize we are using them metaphorically. Literally, they are names for how we orient ourselves, as creatures subject to gravity, right? Whatever is above me is, directionally, “up,” whatever is below me is “down.”
But from there, they have accrued all sorts of other resonances. For example, we use them to describe emotional states: “I’m feeling up” means we are happy; “I’m feeling down” means we are sad. Or we use them to describe power states: we “one-up” to gain advantage over others; we “put-down” to diminish another.
We even give these words spiritual significance. “Going up” is good—it’s where we picture heaven, the location of an afterlife of reward. “Going down?” Not so good. It’s where we picture the location of afterlife punishment. Through our metaphorical minds, “up” and “down” become a value judgment, even a moral rule. We Christians strive to be upright persons, growing up in stature to become more like the God we imagine dwells up there somewhere, far above the dirty, messy, ordinary, earth down here below.
So today’s scriptures may feel disorienting: as they both demonstrate “[s]ometimes Jesus is not above us, but below.”
First, the story of Jesus’ baptism. Mark’s gospel pictures the masses of people, both town and country folks, drawn to the River Jordan and the hope John the Baptizer offers.
Talk about metaphors! The ritual of baptism is full of them. Baptism is a bath, cleansing us for a new kind of life. Or, more dangerously: baptism is a flood, drowning the ways of sin and death. And one more: baptism is crossing over from the land of slavery to the Promised Land.
These metaphor-images and more are what make this sign-act so significant as a marker of the life-transformation which comes with repentance. And Jesus shows up among the crowds to receive this life-transforming treatment. In Matthew’s version of this story, an interchange between John and Jesus suggests that Jesus doesn’t actually need it. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” says John. Yet Jesus insists it’s the right thing to do. His willing participation in this ritual, plunging him below the waters, powerfully reveals the fullness of God’s identification and solidarity with humanity in the incarnation.
Jesus comes up out of those waters to see the heavens torn open, the Spirit-dove coming down, and the voice of affirmation ringing out, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” The voice affirms Jesus’ willingness to go below, to take his place down here alongside every sin-sick human being longing for salvation. At the same time, it also verifies Jesus’ intimate kinship with the heavens above; it claims Jesus’ intimacy with the loving God as the Ground of Being on which Jesus takes his stand, to carry out the vocation of God’s Beloved: Son of God, Son of Humanity, closing the gap between up and down, above and below, in everything he is and does.
The second story is conditioned by the first. After his baptism, Jesus begins his astonishing ministry. Those who meet him sense the remarkable depth of his authority as he teaches, heals and casts out demons. Unclean spirits obey him, disciples leave everything to follow him, and lepers are made clean by his decisive touch.
So, when, after his first ministry tour, Jesus returns to his home in Capernaum, he’s become a sort of celebrity. Such a crowd of people fills his house, that no one else can move or enter in. They press in to hear as Jesus speaks the word to them. He probably comes back to his favorite theme: “God’s kingdom’s come near. Repent, and believe the good news!”
But suddenly, there’s something unexpected. Dust and dirt begin to fall on their faces. The mud and thatch above come apart, and a gaping hole is torn in the roof.
Can you imagine if that happened here in this house on a Sunday morning? What if you looked up to see the ceiling torn open by some guys who then lower down a body on a stretcher and lay it gently at the preacher’s feet?
If we’re not sure what we would do, we might want to consider that it’s the kind of thing that happens in Jesus’ presence! And Jesus doesn’t miss a beat. As one preacher notes, Jesus is like a great jazz musician; he knows how to improvise!
He knows a sacramental moment when he sees it, as the thing he’s been preaching is made manifest for all to see. Right here in that moment, above becomes below, the gap between up and down closes, and the kingdom comes near, in the act of four bold friends who believe the good news and turn to Jesus believing he can make their companion well. Just imagine what could happen if we trusted in Jesus like that!
Now, I’d never heard it before reading Mark for Everyone, but scholar N.T. Wright suggests that “Jesus himself was the unlucky householder who had his roof ruined that day.” From there, Wright pictures Jesus down below with the crowd in the mess these men have made of his home, gazing at them and at the sick friend they’ve worked so hard to bring into his presence. What can Jesus do but smile and wryly say, “Son, your sins are forgiven”?
I like that. It’s always bugged me how, in this story, Jesus’ first response is to talk about sins. So, Wright’s picture of this scene makes Jesus’ response seem a little less peculiar. Maybe Jesus’ forgiveness here is a direct response to the mess they’ve just made of his own house! Because otherwise, this guy clearly needs physical healing, and Jesus goes instead to forgiveness?
But I’ve also come to appreciate Mark’s brilliant, jarring way of telling these stories. It’s not what we have expected. It wakes us up and provokes our questions. What does forgiveness have to do with healing? And does Jesus have the authority to forgive sins?
At any rate, Jesus’ response sends the scribes into a tizzy. To them, his words are blasphemy. He seems to be claiming the capacity to forgive sins, something that is the sole privilege of God. Those scribes were the devoted church-people of their day, who put a lot into figuring out how to do religion right, how to relate to the God up there, high above, who has no equals.
That’s how they understood it, as we often do: God was not down here but up there. The Holy of Holies in the Temple represented how separate God’s presence was from their daily lives. Only the high priest could enter it once a year to atone for his people’s sins; forgiveness came through a sacrifice which sent those sins away.
But in these stories, Jesus turns it all upside down. A hole is torn in the heavens; a hole is made in the roof. And lo and behold, it turns out that God is not up there, God is down here, right here with us in this mess we’ve made of his house, forgiving us our sins and healing us.
And just as up and down come together in Jesus, in him we also find both healing and reconciliation. Both the physical and relational dimensions of our lives are addressed in Jesus; sin and illness both lose their power, as Jesus breaks down whatever walls alienate us from God and one another.
Maybe that’s Jesus’ point when he asks, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Stand up, take your mat, and walk?” This is Jesus in trickster-mode, and the answer to his question, is, simply, “Yes.” Yes, Jesus, heal me and forgive me, Yes, Jesus, help me stand up, take my mat, and walk in your ways. Yes.
That’s the answer the paralytic and his friends get, anyway, though it leaves the scribesscratching their heads in confusion. The sick man on the mat experiences total transformation. From an inert, passive body, completely dependent upon others, he is, in a sense, resurrected. The phrase “stand up” is here used to translate the Greek verb which means “rise,” the same verb which later describes Jesus’ own resurrection from death to life. “Stand up, take your mat, and go home,” Jesus tells him, and the once-passive man rises to become an active agent in his own life.
His transformation parallels ours, as our lives are immersed in the pattern of Jesus. Even as we are lowered down, following Jesus into baptism’s waters, the roof of the heavens is torn open for us, too. The Holy Spirit comes down to us, as God sees us as we are in Jesus, and names us Beloved Children, as Jesus sees us lowered down through the roof into his presence and says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
When we come up out of the waters, we too stand up into our vocation as active agents of God’s kingdom, and the ground on which we take our stand is God’s love for us and God’s delight in us, God’s beloved children.
I’m mixing up all these metaphors, my friends, because God is above us and below us, within us and among us, around us and moving through us. On Baptism Sunday, receive the good news:
You are immersed in Christ, in the depths of God’s love and you have risen to new life: So stand up, take up your mat, and walk, gladly proclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” Alleluia, and Amen.
 I appreciate and am mimicking Rev. Reggie Weaver’s description of this scene: https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf2003215/when_the_roof_crumbles
 N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 16.
 Annette Weissenrieder, Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, 61.