Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
January 7, 2018
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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.”
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.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
I’ve seen the movie Finding Nemo a few times but I did not specifically relate the ending of the movie to my sermon title until my memory was activated by my daughters this week. They saw the title of the sermon and immediately thought of the conclusion of the movie. At the end of Finding Nemo, the main plot is already finished. Marlin and Nemo have been reunited. Nemo, who had been taken from his home on the Great Barrier Reef, had been in captivity in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney. But a group of fish in that tank helped Nemo escape and then just about all of the movie is about Nemo’s time away. But at the very end there is this quick scene. Somehow the rest of the fish in the tank have managed to get the dentist to take them out of the tank and put them into plastic bags. They have made their way into the ocean, rolling out the window and into Sydney Harbor. The group, known as The Tank Gang, is seen bobbing up and down in the plastic bags, celebrating their freedom. There is a period of silence, broken when Bloat the puffer fish, voiced by Brad Garrett breaks the silence. He says, “Now what?” Oddly enough, in the sequel movie “Finding Dory,” The Tank Gang appears again in their plastic bags, this time in California. After the credits they are scooped up by Marine Life Institute employees and Bloat again voices the question, “Now what?”
It is that kind of Sunday in the Christian church. Advent is over. The decorations are down. We’ve put everything back in its normal place. Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The angels sang, the shepherds visited, and the wise men followed the star, delivered gifts, and then went home by another way.
We are on the other side of Christmas now- the ordinary side. While perhaps we were just here a few weeks ago, right before Advent began, somehow it is supposed to be different now. The gift of love has come. God is with us. Things have changed. But have they? And if they have, now what?
The gospel of Mark begins the story of Jesus not with a birth narrative, not with a story of angels and shepherds and wise men, but with the background of John the Baptist and the narrative of Jesus’ baptism. John preaches in no uncertain terms that what will follow him will be the story of the true Messiah, the Son of God, who will fulfill prophecy and inaugurate God’s plan. “Now what,” we might ask and Mark’s gospel attempts to answer the question. There is this baptism- when the heavens open and the voice of God confirms the holiness and the purpose of Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” It sounds so good. It is such a nice ending to the story. But the story isn’t over. “Now what,” we ask again.
The very next thing that happens after the baptism is important. The Spirit whisks Jesus away from the scene of triumph and into the wilderness, into the realm of death and evil and suffering and uncertainty. It seems as if God did not send Jesus into this world just to be nice. Jesus came to engage the darkness and the evil that holds it captive. Jesus came not to stay out of trouble but to assure us that the power and presence of God would be with us in the midst of trouble. He came to teach us that when things don’t go our way, we still have the blessing of God and the encouragement of the Spirit.
This week I discovered that “Now What?” is actually the name of a company in Brooklyn, NY that helps companies and organizations develop a vision. Oddly enough, “Now What?” works with groups not to create a vision statement but a vision question. The philosophy of the company is that “questions are the new answers.” It is in finding more questions that we find more solutions.
I believe that Mark tells the story of Jesus in the way he does because he wants us to know what following God meant for Jesus just as we try to figure out what following God might mean for us. Sometimes it brings more questions than answers. But that is how we find our faith. Now that the warm fuzzy feeling of Christmas is over, now that the decorations are gone, now that the angels and shepherds and wise men have returned to their boxes in the storage shed, now what? Mark wants us to know that God will be with us, as God was with Jesus, as we live Christmas into the wilderness of real life, with the promise of our baptism- that we have been chosen by God. As we live out our hopes in the reality of our circumstance, and as we find ourselves in the midst of doubt and fear, God is with us and God will use us. Like Jesus, we have God’s blessing. We are beloved.