Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
“THE LAST CHAPTER FIRST”
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 7, 2018
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
Are you familiar with the “Who Dun It?” style of murder mystery? Agatha Christie is famous for using this formula in her murder mysteries. Novels, film and popular crime solving TV shows such as CSI use the same formula. It begins with a crime. A murder is committed, but we don’t know “who dun it.” As the plot unfolds, one suspect after another parades before the viewer. Finally, in the last chapter, the last scene, the last five minutes, the brilliant detective, Inspector Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or someone like them, exposes the culprit: “The Butler did it!” Crime solved. Mystery ended. Questions answered. Story concluded.
However, suppose we went to the library to check out an Agatha Christie murder mystery we had never read. Suppose that instead of starting at the beginning of the book, we cheated. We read the last chapter first and then went back and read the story from the beginning.
Or suppose we recorded an episode of “CSI” on our DVR. However, when it came time to watch it, we cheated. We watched the last five minutes first, and then went back and watched the entire episode from the beginning. In both cases, we would literally have changed the story. It would no longer be a “Who Dun It?” because now we would know from the beginning who was the murderer and how the story would end. You would experience the story in a new way. We would have a new story.
That is the Gospel. That is the Christian life. That is what happens in every Christian Baptism. That is what happened at the Baptism of Jesus. THE LAST CHAPTER happened FIRST!
We live our lives always wondering where our story might lead us. Where will the plot go? What will be the last chapter of our lives? What will they say about us when our story has ended, the book is closed and we are gone?
We spend our lives scrambling to answer these questions. A youth is afraid that, if he does not make the soccer team or get invited to sit at the right lunchroom table by the right kids, his life does not matter. A young adult frets because graduation is coming and she is going to have to decide what to do with her life. Colleagues nervously confide with each other at the local coffee shop because they must decide between career and family. The unexpected death of an old friend compounds the man’s worry about the shortness of breath that has plagued him for weeks. Daily there are reminders of the “last chapter.” We cannot avoid them, postpone them or pretend they do not exist.
Into this world comes John the Baptist warning everyone to get ready for the “last chapter.” No one can escape. Repent of your sins. Clean up your act. Get back on “the straight and narrow.” God is coming. The Messiah is near. Soon the curtain will fall, the screen will flash “The End,” and the last chapter will begin. The question is whether there will be a happy-ending or a sad ending.
We may not have John the Baptist breathing down our neck, but there is no shortage of those like him cluttering our world with their warnings and predictions. They promise us delightful endings and blissful last chapters IF we only do our part to follow their program, keep their rules and do our duty. Don’t let any of them ever tell you that they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” Don’t let any of them tell you that they don’t believe in god. Everyone has a “last chapter” for which they dream, a “last chapter” for which they hope, a “last chapter” for which they try to write a happy ending. Everyone has a god.
However, just when we think that we have written our “last chapter” with a happy ending, 1ife comes crashing down upon us. Or, shall I say, “God comes crashing down upon us?” Our gods are exposed for the fake news they are.
Today’s First Reading from the Book of Genesis reminds us that God not only created the world once upon a time, a long ago, in the distant past, but also that God continues to be involved in the ongoing development of creation. God did not walk away and leave us on our own.
That is the scary part, is it not? Regardless of how hard we work at writing our own “last chapter,” the Scriptures still insist that God has the last word. God decides when the show has ended and the curtain will fall. God finally writes the “last chapter” on life and history. That is hardly good news for sinners who have secrets hiding in their closets. I have yet to see any one escape the cemetery. Every year our Ash Wednesday liturgy reminds us: “From dust we came and to dust we shall return.”
It is our fear of that fate and our dread of that God that makes us shudder and drives us to disastrous deeds of foolishness. Witness the news every day and its stories of violence, abuse and deception. They are vivid illustrations of what desperate people will do to write a “last chapter” that will make their lives matter. Are we any different?
Into that world comes Jesus, offering himself to John the Baptist, the ultimate doomsday prophet, willing to become a part of our story. By submitting to John’s Baptism, Jesus offers to join our story and suffer with us the “last chapter” from which no human can ever hope to escape. However, as Jesus plunges into those deadly waters, something happens which had never happened at any of John’s previous baptisms. The heavens are “torn apart.” The Holy Spirit like a dove descends upon Jeus. A voice from heaven, from the creator of heaven and earth, declares that this Jesus is like no other. This Jesus is God’s beloved Son. No dreadful “last chapter” will ever let his life crumble into dust that will be trampled and forgotten. God will treasure Jesus always and forever, no matter what.
There is only one other time in the Gospel of Mark when something is “torn apart” like this. That happens precisely at the moment Jesus dies on the cross. This time it is not the heavens but the curtain in the temple dividing the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple that is “torn apart.”
The Gospel of Mark deliberately connects these two events by describing each event in a similar way. As the Gospel of Mark begins and Jesus is baptized, it is as if we are reading THE LAST CHAPTER FIRST. When the heavens are “torn apart” at Jesus Baptism, we are already catching a glimpse of the next time something will be “torn apart,” at Jesus’ death. At Jesus’ baptism the heavens are “torn apart” and God declares that Jesus is His Son. At Jesus death it is the curtain in the temple that is “torn apart.” This time it is not a voice from heaven but from the centurion at the foot of the cross who declares that Jesus is the Son of God. It is at the cross that someone finally figures out who Jesus is. Jesus’ baptism already points ahead to this dramatic conclusion.
On the one hand Jesus’ death was no different from the “last chapter” all of us must suffer. On the other hand, Jesus’ death was like no other. Because Jesus is the beloved Son of God, God will not abandon Him to the dust bin of history. Even though Jesus’ willingly became the “friend of sinners” and deserved a “last chapter” no different from ours, God would not let it end there.
God kept the promise He made to Jesus at His baptism. Because of that promise, Jesus’ “last chapter” will be different. God raises Jesus from the dead . . . and promises that same “last chapter” to all of us who are afraid that our “last chapter” will end in the cemetery.
Do you see what good news this means for us? Jesus’ baptism is our baptism. When we are baptized, God gives to us Jesus’ “last chapter.” God offers us Jesus’ fate and destiny. In our baptism we get THE LAST CHAPTER FIRST.
At the beginning of every Christian life, whether as an infant held in her parent’s arms, as child holding the hands of his godparents or as an adult weathered by years of living, God invites us to join Jesus in the Jordan River. God gives us the gift of Holy Baptism. God gives us Jesus’ LAST CHAPTER FIRST so that we can be confident of where the plot of our life is headed.
Today many of you will gather around the font to remember that day when God gave you a new LAST CHAPTER. You may have been too young to actually remember that day. That does not matter. What matters is THAT it happened. What matters is that God gave you a gift that God will never revoke.
Trusting that promise, we can create a new “story line.” We no longer have to live in the dark, in suspense and unsure of “Who dun it?” We no longer have to scramble to write our own “last chapters” afraid that we will disappear into the dust bin of forgotten yesterdays. We are free to live our lives with the peace that the world will never understand.
In the waters of Baptism we receive the risen Christ. There his “last chapter” becomes ours. Therefore, our “story line” can change as we live our lives differently from what they would have been. Confident of our “last chapter,” we no longer need to live in fear, always having to look out for ourselves because no one else will. We belong to a new community and a new family, where God is our Father and Jesus is our brother. We live hand in hand, loving and supporting one another, fearlessly unafraid, utterly selfless, because we have received THE LAST CHAPTER FIRST.