Here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent where I was the guest preacher at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, Va. The lectionary text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John but I chose to lean on Matthew’s fuller version of it.
Even though Blades of Glory is one of my favorite movies, I’ve steered clear of the Winter Olympics ever since my second year at UVA when, during a Halloween party, I was mistaken not once, not twice, but four times for Brian Boitano.
On the prowl for girls, I didn’t think I could afford for girls to confuse my costume for that of a gay figure skater. I had thought my purple crushed velvet tights and loose, flowing shirt- the sort worn by Meatloaf in the Bat Out of Hell video- gave me away as a dead-ringer for Hamlet, which, it occurs to me now, is just as gay.
But no, I got Brian Boitano. I didn’t have a sword.
And South Park had just gone viral the year before with an episode of the animated Olympian refereeing mortal combat between Jesus and Santa Claus.
What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?
Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.
But this Winter Olympics a headline in the Washington Post grabbed me:
“She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”
The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, 30 years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin.
All 115 passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea.
Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.
Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for 10 years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children.
The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her.
Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die.
But she didn’t die.
Today she’s a 56 year old mother of 2 teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass.
She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God.
Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life cooking and cleaning, raising her kids and going to church. She was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by the question: “Can my sins be pardoned?”
“They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”
The headline is what grabbed me. It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. The headline could’ve read:
“He killed 17 people at Douglas High School. Now he wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”
The headline could’ve read:
“They watched apathetic as 122 children got shot since Columbine (home of South Park) and they did nothing. Now they wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’”
The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:
“Through hole in heaven, Father declares love with a dove. Wild-eyed prophet asks: ‘Can I baptize you?’”
‘Can I baptize you?’
The answer to all our questions about pardon come by noticing John the Baptist’s question: “‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’
All 4 Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire- a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them.
All 4 Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism; in fact, the only 2 events mentioned across all 4 Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross- they’re connected. Mark doesn’t have an Easter encounter. John doesn’t have a Christmas story. But all of the Gospels have got a baptism story. Mark leaves out what Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions.
‘Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?’
John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. John’s initial objection to baptizing Christ is important because it reminds us to distinguish between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. John’s baptism was a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy.
John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness). The water was a visible sign of your admission of guilt. But the water did not wash away your guilt.
John’s baptism did not make you righteous. John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. But it could not make you righteous.
That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism. It’s not because Jesus needed to repent. Jesus is without sin, as such, he’s got no reason to be baptized. No, Jesus insists on baptism not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do.
John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God.
“It is necessary,” Jesus tells John, “[not for me or my repentance] to fulfill all righteousness.”
In other words, the winnowing fork judgement that John the Baptist had preached, Christ takes on in his baptism. The winnowing is in the water. With his baptism, Christ isn’t acknowledging his unrighteousness. He’s entering into ours. He’s not repenting. He’s repenting us.
By plunging himself into John’s baptism-
Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.
As Martin Luther said, at Christmas, he becomes our flesh but, at his baptism, he becomes our sin.
The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with thieves beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with thieves all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.
Right before God.
As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” And as Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.”
Either headline could work as an alternative for what God declares with a dove through a hole in heaven.
Probably not? Probably not!?
Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame talking because she’s not speaking Christian.
You only get an answer like ‘Probably not’ when you don’t understand the distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John and your own baptism by Jesus into him.
John’s baptism was a work we do- we’re the active agents in John’s baptism.
John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.
Our baptism is a work God does.
Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon.
It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us.
Our baptism is not an act of repentance. Our baptism incorporates us into the act by which God repented us into righteousness.
It’s John’s kind of baptism that produces “probably not” because John’s baptism is just a token of your contrition. It’s not a visible pledge of your pardon. John’s baptism leaves you in your sin, hoping that God will forgive you.
But your baptism is not John’s baptism.
By your baptism you are not in your sin- though a sinner you are- because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.
Probably not– NO.
That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism.
In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness.
In your baptism, you enter into Christ.
In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says.
Your sin and your old self- it’s left behind, Paul says.
Buried with him in his death.
And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.
And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.
His perfect record.
His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.
There is no place on that record for our “Probably nots.” Because if you have been baptized into this baptism, then you are in Christ. And if you are in Christ, then there is now no condemnation.
No matter who it is who is in Christ, there is for them no condemnation.
No matter what you’ve done it cannot dilute what God has done.
And it cannot dilute what God has done to you by drowning you into him.
The answer to Kim’s question about her sins being pardoned- it requires another question: ‘Have you been baptized?’
Because if so, whether as a baby or a born-again, your sins have already been pardoned. Because by your baptism you are in Jesus Christ, who is himself the pardon of God. At his baptism, a hole in heaven declared him to be loved. And by your baptism into the holes of his hands and his side, heaven is opened to you- you, though you belong to a brood of vipers, are beloved.
One of my friends, a member of my church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled.
He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list.
“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.
I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did.
If this is blasphemy so be it:
Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”
Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.
What we do with water is not sentimental.
Our reconciliation by grace through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection- it can’t be reconciled with any of our notions of right. What we mean by what we do with water- it’s not sentimental nonsense (though it may be nonsense). A message that makes sense, message that squares with the headlines, would be:
Your sins are forgiven if…
Your sins are forgiven provided that…
Your sins are forgiven as long as…
You repent. You make amends. You pay back what you’ve taken.
But the promise of the Gospel that comes attached to water and wine and bread is that because you have been baptized in to Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, your sins are forgiven.
The grammar of grace is Because/Therefore not If/Then.
It makes no sense, but if you add anything to the forgiveness of sins, a single qualifier or condition, you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.
Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-
It isn’t expensive. It is even cheap. It’s free.
And grace begins exactly where we we think it should end.
Can his sins be pardoned?
Has he been baptized?
You can object. It is offensive. It is outrage-ous. After this week it sticks in my mouth too. I’m right there with you. If God’s grace for sinners offends you, if his pardon seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation:
We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother.
It’s offensive, I know. And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote.
In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:
“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”
Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends- maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our trespasses.