By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 10, 2021
Mark 1:4–11 (ESV)
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Genesis 1:1–5 (ESV)
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
This past week I have been in shock to be honest. I have listened, watch, and read things that I once thought I would never see in my lifetime. What are we doing? I have watched this slowly take hold in our nation and even within our community over the past ten years. I have watched as our friends have divided themselves and forgotten what is important. It makes me ask a question what is important? What is important right now?
This is the one thing that has been coursing through my mind. What is important? The past year has been one of the hardest years I have ever personally face. I have gone to school to learn how to be a pastor. I have had training, I have had lessons, I have learned, and have listened. Yet with all this training nothing prepared me for the year we faced. I have served as a pastor for seventeen years, and ten of those years have been here. I have had to learn to balance life as bi-vocational pastor. I have read books that try to say that this is a bright future for the church, yet the experience I have felt during those years has been struggle. For seventeen years I have worked, encouraged, and prayed. In those years, the church has recognized something that I did not. They saw that I loved the church to such a degree that the church asked me to serve as the elder of the north east area, and later as an elder at large. I am sitting in that seat and I ask this question. I sit as one of the leaders of the Friends Church of Mid America Yearly Meeting and I am questioning why we are even here. I question because I see so many people I have loved and respected divide.
Some of my friends across the country asked how we were going to approach this week. Some had a clear path, and others were like me in a state of shock. I told them that I was going to speak about the baptism of Jesus, others said that they were going to speak on Genesis, and while I sat down to study and pray. I found a void. I felt as if the very voice of God was silent when the world around me was screaming.
The world screams and where is God?
This caused me to stop. It caused me to question a great deal. It scares me because where are we looking for God? Are we looking for him in the kingdom courts? Are we looking for him in the pews of religious organizations? Where is God?
This seems to be the story of human existence. There is struggle. There are questions. There are people wondering around trying to find a path. John the Baptist can be seen in a similar situation.
John lived in a family and religious system that should have provided him with all the answers. Israel rebuilt the temple and had worshipped in that temple for hundreds of years. They should have been hearing the voice of God through the various priests and sacrifices, yet where is John in all of this? He was not in the temple courts but in the wilderness. He was wondering around trying to find a path.
John was wondering through the wilderness. And as he wonders he preaches. He preaches a message that is unique and contrary to his contemporaries. He does not direct people to the temple. He does not direct them to the mountain in Samaria that served as the holy place of the northern tribes. Instead, he directs them to water.
This week I have found myself drawn to the water of this story. I have meditated on the water. Thought about it as I shower and as I heat it on the stove to cook a meal. I have thought about it as I fill a cup after a long day at work. There is something about water.
There is something cleansing and refreshing about water. When we have a stressful day one of the things, we long for is a bath or a shower, those moments in the water seem to wash away the tension for a moment allowing us to relax just enough. And it is water that seeps from our eyes as we mourn or incur an injury and those tears seem to carry just a bit of the pain away from our hearts and after a while, we can catch our breath and face another day. There is something powerful and symbolic about the water, and as a man that grew up on a farm, I know water is life.
John cries out in the wilderness and people come to hear what he has to say. He cries out to them to repent or to turn from the life they have been living and to walk a different direction. And he marks that change in water. Why water?
This is where the creation story comes into play. “In the beginning,” the writer of Genesis says, “God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” How often do we think of this first chapter of scripture and consider what is being said? The earth was without form and void, and the Spirit hovered over face or the surface of the waters. There was nothing, there was emptiness and a void. There was darkness that enveloped the surface of the deep. Listen to the words. Listen to how dreadful they sound: without form, void, darkness, deep.
These are words of despair, words of hopelessness. They are words devoid of life. Words of fear. And the Spirit hovers right there over all of that. The Spirit hovers over the waters. The Spirit hovers over that expanse of fear and chaos. God is there amid the darkness. God is there in the void. God hovers over the face of the water. And God speaks.
God’s first words are spoken over the waters. And at that moment everything changes. There was light the instant the words were uttered. And that light was good. God separated the light from the darkness and called the light day and the darkness night. And there was evening or darkness and there was morning, the first day.
This first story excites my mind and my spirit. I have a scientific background and even though much of my education tried to tell me that God was not in creation this story excites me. It excites me because all the elements of life scientifically and philosophically are present in this story. For life to begin we need water and light. The ancients in their primitive storytelling speak of things science still tries to understand. Life emerges from the waters because of light. With a simple utterance of a phrase God begins to bring forth something meaningful out of something without purpose. Out of nothing God creates.
God hovers over the formless void, and John wanders in the wilderness. God speaks while hovering over the waters, and John directs those that listen to his cries to the waters.
I contemplated these things this week. I prayed as I heard the news this week. I sat sick to my stomach as I listened to reports and videos. And I was nearly moved to tears as I listen to people speak, not out of pride or hope, I was moved to tears out of despair. I listen to people make claims with words that are completely negated by their actions. And I wonder where is God in all of this?
Storms are raging all around us and darkness is engulfing us. We have become unhinged and unanchored. We are celebrating what should drive us to tears. And I again urge us to shut off the news, turn off the radios, and refocus our attention on what is most important. Where is God?
John did not find God in the glimmering temple courts, but in the wilderness. He did not find God in the hustle and bustle of the city. He did not find God in the seat of the empire. He found what he sought in the wilderness. Out in the margin of society where the chaos was quieted. He left the life he knew. He left the culture and society that promised him greatness. He left so he could find hope. He turned away from all that he knew and he sought a path the world around him had forgotten and he walked.
He walked to the banks of the Jordan, and he cried out. We often look at this as being he began to preach boldly. He yelled his message at the top of his lungs, but what if we look at it from a different perspective. What if we consider the possibility that John just might have been a broken man? What if we consider the possibility that John saw the corruption in is culture, the injustice within his society, and he walked out into the wilderness in despair? What if John was out there thinking that all hope was gone? Maybe John once embraced his role, maybe he plunged himself headlong into his religious studies full of righteous energy. Maybe he spent thirty years preparing to become a high priest to usher in the coming king like everyone thought. Only to find that the temple he served sold their soul to the empire and greed? And with each passing year he died a bit more until he could take it no more and he ran? Maybe he looked at his country and saw nothing but a formless void and darkness. Maybe he went out into the wilderness thinking he was a failure and all was lost.
And he walked out in the wilderness and it was in the wilderness that he finally began to see the truth. It is not about power. It is not about influence. It is not about having the ear of the governing bodies. But it is encouraging the person right next to you that is the most important thing to do. He went out into the wilderness crying and then in the wilderness he gained his voice.
Repent, turn around and go the other direction. Take a different path and return to God. The world is giving us formless chaos. The directions they are giving just lead to more darkness and despair. Ever step we take in the world just leads to more heartache and more pain, and the only end in sight is fear, anger, war, and death. Repent. Turn around, go the other direction, take a different path. Stop running after the things of this world and return to what really matters. Return home.
The crossing of the Jordan was the sign of entering the promised land. The hope of Israel where they would be God’s people and He would be their God. They would be a light to the world, a nation where God would rule, and each person would follow what was right in their heart. The hope was that God would be in the center of their hearts, and that God would direct them. And that is what John was encouraging them to return to. Each person living their lives with one another, encouraging, and helping each other for mutual profit.
John boldly cried on the banks of the Jordan, and people listened. He boldly told them that God was hovering over the void of their lives and over the water was willing to create something new. But he also knew that he was a broken man speaking to broken people. He could dunk them beneath the water until everyone’s fingers were wrinkled like prunes, and as hard as they would try, they would eventually go back to the ways they once had known. He knew that he could not bring life out of the void, so he told them that there would be another. He fully recognized his role, and he became the prophet that was foretold.
And in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended on him like a dove and a voice came from heaven. The Spirit hovered again over the waters, and God spoke. And life emerged from the formless void and hope was once again enlightened the darkness.
Where is God in this darkness that envelopes our world? Where is God in the despair we might feel in this moment? God is right where He has always been, hovering over the void. He is hovering within the very things that we fear, he is hovering within the darkness we seem to find ourselves in. He is with us in the brokenness. He is enduring our pain with us. And he is speaking over the water to bring life out of nothing, and restoration to our dehydrated lives. He is speaking in the wilderness crying out to us to repent, to return, to refocus not on the things of the world but on the things of God. He is encouraging us to stop worrying about what is happening thousands of miles away and instead encourage the person next to you, because that person might be trapped in the void, in the darkness needing the light.