Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Dazzling Acceptance of God” (Mark 1:9-11)
January 7, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When our oldest daughter Cate was 18 months old, Steph and I took her to see the 1994 animated Disney classic The Lion King. In the opening sequence thousands of animals are running to Pride Rock to glimpse the newborn lion cub and future Lion King, Simba. Among these animals are a group of zebras (and the collective noun for a group of zebras is a “dazzle”—who knew?), a dazzle of zebras gallops across the screen and I tell Cate, who is sitting in my lap, wide-eyed with wonder, “Look, Cate, elephants!” Steph looks at me, “Uh, Dave, those are zebras.” By then of course, the dazzle of zebras was no longer on the screen, so there was no going back. Hopefully this was due to the interminable sleep deprivation of early parenthood rather than my inability to distinguish a zebra from an elephant.
As the animals gather at the foot of Pride Rock, Rafiki, a baboon which is a priest-like figure, enters the lion den where Simba is gently nestled in his mother Sarabi’s arms while his proud father, Mufasa looks on. Rafiki anoints baby Simba and sprinkles some dust on him, then takes him into his arms, slowly walks to the edge of Pride Rock, and holds Simba up for all to see. The dazzle of zebras and the herd of elephants and all the other animals celebrate—and as the clouds part a brilliant beam of sunshine falls on Simba, and all the animals bow in respect as Mufasa and Sarabi continue to look with favor upon their newborn cub, favor and total acceptance. Regardless of your sleep deprivation, it is a very moving scene.
Every year on the First Sunday after Epiphany the gospel reading is an account of a very important but often overlooked event, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River—as Mark succinctly wrote:
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” (Mark 1:9-11).
The setting of this gospel passage is the wilderness, where Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist has been preaching about repentance. The Holy Spirit was at work as droves of people were leaving Jerusalem and going to the wilderness to hear John, and then respond by repenting of their sins and being baptized in the Jordan River. John the Baptist described Jesus this way: “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” (Mark 1:7-8). And yet Jesus, the one who was indeed more powerful than John, stood in line with the sinners, waded into the Jordan River to John the Baptist and was baptized.
In his lucid commentary on this passage the late biblical scholar William L. Lane describes the historical significance of this:
In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus acknowledges the judgement of God upon Israel. At the same time his baptism signifies that his mission will be to endure the judgment of God. Jesus comes to John as the true Israelite whose repentance is perfect. He is the beloved Son, but he comes to the wilderness because sonship must be reaffirmed in the wilderness (The Gospel of Mark 54).
After Jesus was baptized “he saw the heavens torn apart”—just like in The Lion King—and Jesus heard from God the Father the one thing every son wants to hear from his father, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” Before Jesus’ earthly ministry began, before Jesus preached a single sermon, or spoke a single parable, or healed a single leper, or cast out a single demon—Jesus was reassured about his identity as the beloved Son of God—total acceptance.
The bad news is that many people in one way or another often experience the exact opposite of this; they experience rejection instead. Be forewarned, this sermon is going to get heavy, but hang in there, because it is a gospel sermon, which means good news is coming. I am going to juxtapose two illustrations.
Unlike the rest of my family, I love documentaries. If I ever want time alone, all I have to do is watch a documentary and the room clears out. One exception is the 2015 documentary The Ties That Bind, which Steph watched with me, about Bruce Springsteen and his 1980 double album, The River. Springsteen describes his song entitled “Independence Day” as “a part of a series of songs I wrote about my dad that weren’t completely autobiographical but were pretty emotionally autobiographical.” The lyrics are what a rejected son tells his estranged father as they stand in the kitchen the night before he leaves home:
Well Papa, go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now
I’ll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary’s Gate
We wouldn’t change this thing even if we could somehow
‘Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too
But they can’t touch me now and you can’t touch me now
They ain’t gonna do to me what I watched them do to you
So say goodbye, it’s Independence Day…
Now I don’t know what it always was with us
We chose the words and we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind
Well, say goodbye, it’s Independence Day
The second illustration is from the penultimate episode of the second season of the acclaimed Netflix series The Crown, in which Prince Philip sends his son, Charles, to the same boarding school he had attended. As Charles departs, Philip recalls his own youth during which he experienced great rejection. Philip’s mother was mentally disabled and his father an overbearing philanderer. When Philip was sixteen, his misbehavior at school led his favorite sister, Cecile, who was pregnant, to change flight plans—and in a tragic true-to-life nightmare she not only delivered a baby during the flight, but the plane crashed, and all were lost. This is all true.
Philip goes to Germany for the funeral. Wearing a black suit he walks through snow flurries behind the caisson bearing the casket of his sister. It is 1937, so the casket is draped with the swastika Nazi flag, with numerous matching banners hanging from the buildings lining the street, a street lined with people silently holding up their right arms in the Nazi salute. As camera bulbs flash and German shepherds bark, although followed by Nazi soldiers, Philip walks alone.
The next scene is at the crowded funeral reception. As Philip approaches his family, his sister says to their mom, “Momma, it’s Philip, your son.” Philip’s mother stands but looks puzzled and confused, as always, and says nothing. But unlike his mother, Philip’s father has something to say, “I’m surprised he dare show himself.” “Papa!” the sister implores, but their father stands and continues, “Had it not been for Philip and his indiscipline she would never had taken that flight.” Wearing a monocle in his left eye which makes him even more frightening the father walks toward Philip pointing at him, his raised voice silencing the room. “It’s true, isn’t it, boy? You’re the reason we’re all here, burying my favorite child.” Philip is silent. As his father turns away from him he says in disgust, “Get him out of here!” Philip turns and walks away. It is an absolutely devastating scene (Season 2, episode 9, “Paterfamilias”).
And of course Bruce Springsteen and Prince Philip are not the only ones who have experienced childhood rejection—all of us have in one way or another. Maybe in your life you have experienced something not unlike that kitchen conversation or funeral reception. In his epic novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck expresses profound insight about the fallout of such childhood rejection:
The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind (Penguin Classics edition 270).
Such rejection is awful, wounding, and indeed as Steinbeck wrote, “the greatest terror a child can have.” There are so many people who are angry because they have been rejected in some way. And ironically, rejected people often project their anger onto others, and take it out on people who have actually accepted them. This frequently happens in marriage, and in the church as well (not that you or I have ever experienced this—it’s all theoretical, right?). Rejection is the bad news.
Here is the good news. God has not rejected you, never has, never will. Instead, God has accepted you. We pray this every week in the post communion prayer, “Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer 365).
God the Father loves you so much that he sent his eternally Beloved Son, with whom he was eternally well-pleased, to die for you. On Good Friday Jesus, although followed by Roman soldiers, walked alone through the streets of Jerusalem, streets lined with buildings draped with insignia of the oppressing Romans, all the way to Calvary, where he died utterly rejected by a world that wanted to “get him out of here.”
As Jesus was held up on a cross for all to see, from earth Mary looked on, and from heaven God the Father looked on. Jesus’ mission was indeed “to endure the judgment of God,” and he did just that for you. And Jesus still knew his Heavenly Father loved him and was well-pleased with him, because in his final breath Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
And Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day—and the Risen Jesus, to whom scripture refers as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5) is, of course, the true Lion King. Moreover, the Risen Jesus, just as John the Baptist said, baptizes you with the Holy Spirit. Why? To assure you that you, you, are a beloved child of God, as scripture tells us:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:14-16).
In other words, no matter how much rejection you have endured in your life, no matter who has rejected you, no matter how many kitchen conversations and funeral reception experiences you have endured, no matter how angry that rejection has made you, the good news of the gospel is that God has not rejected you. God has accepted you. You are a beloved child of God.
Springsteen was right, “Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now”—but you do not have the last word, God does—and what God says about you changes everything now, and eternally—because God says, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
So may the Holy Spirit quicken you today with the dazzling acceptance of God.