The Baptism of Jesus: Genesis 1: 1-5 and Mark 1: 4-11
When put side by side, today’s readings from the opening verses of the book of Genesis and Mark’s gospel suggested to me a surprising connection, which is the theme of change.
The Genesis account of creation imagines God not creating everything at once, but starting at first with a formless void and then working day by day to change it, to shape it, first dividing and then populating the spaces. I hadn’t appreciated before that Genesis One portrays creation extending through time.
I imagine a gardener, one day staking out the ground, the next marking out lawn from path, then path from bed, then bringing out trees, bushes, flowers. As those of you who are gardeners will testify, it is a never-ending work! A continuous, creative process, improving, refining, improvising, elaborating, all in loving pursuit of an ever-changing, living expression of beauty.
A vision of God as constant creator of an evolving story runs through the scriptures into the New Testament. The people’s understanding of God, and God’s relationship with them, also evolves. The coming of Christ, his passion and resurrection, bring this vision to fullness of expression, and point forward to the redemption of the whole world: , as Paul imagines it, all of creation is as if “groaning with the pains of childbirth”, eager for the fullness of God to be revealed, when “we shall all be changed.”
Change is also the ground of John the Baptist’s message and his practice of baptism. Repentance here means a change of mind, a change of heart, a turning, away from that which is broken and back to that which is good and true.
Repentance is a forward-looking act of will, “repentance for forgiveness” John calls it, opening ourselves to a restored relationship with God: a promise and an invitation always open.
Jesus submits to John’s baptism, affirming his message and continuing it – much of Jesus’ teaching and his work with people offers forgiveness and restoration of life in response to repentance and change.
But change requires first the recognition of its need, the courage to admit. Here we all struggle. The culture in which we live is one of straight lines, no regrets, where turning is seen as weak.
Witness the contortions of public figures to avoid apology. And even those who seem to be apologising manage to avoid it. There is a new lexicon of non-apologies: The “ifpology” – “I am sorry if I offended” – not taking responsibility at all; then there is the sidestep from substance to communication: “I apologise for any misunderstanding I may have caused” and the corporate slide into the passive voice, “mistakes were made” – suggesting it was not by me.
How hard it is to give a full, unreserved apology when we mess up, as we so often do? I recall a Swiss primary school teacher I met at Taize, a lovely gentle person, who said that he never pressured a child to say sorry – he recognised that in the immediate aftermath of an incident the guilty child will feel a flood of defensive egoistic urges, to justify, to protect. That an apology at that point will be reluctant, formulaic: give them time to settle, and then, when you notice that they are ready, open a space for them to turn and say sorry. I couldn’t help wishing as he spoke that I had been the beneficiary of his wise handling.
One of the saddest things I hear said is that someone “will never change,” about someone else or even about themselves – I am too old, it would be too hard to change the habits of a lifetime. Such a collapse of hope is heart-breaking.
The first chapter of Genesis was written in a time of great difficulty and stress, and so in its way was John’s gospel. At such times we can be more willing to examine truths and defences we have been taking for granted.
We too find ourselves in a difficult moment, facing some anxious, lonely winter months. Perhaps now is not the time to make great promises of change, but it might be a time to reflect on how we hope to emerge from this crisis, to do the work of prayer and contemplation, facing down our hard, stubborn egos and resolving that when the time comes to rebuild, we will be open to God’s invitation, open to being reshaped by his creative love, so that we become a people who soften and turn, who desire change, who seek forgiveness, individually and collectively at every level.
Richard Young (Rector)