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Sermon for January 10, 2021

Speaking of Life 3007 | God’s Graffiti

For hundreds of years, humans have used graffiti to tell a story of what is happening around them. Often, common symbols are used to mark a territory belonging to an individual or group. In the gospels, we see the Holy Spirit inspiring the repeating the use of words to create connections between gospel accounts, and mark that “God was here”. Just as God is living and active during Biblical times, he is constantly and faithfully working in the details of our lives. May you see the marking of his fingerprints in your life today!

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 3007 | God’s Graffiti
Greg Williams

During World War II, American soldiers developed a graffiti image that became an emblem of survival. Especially if you are from a military family, you’ve seen the image before: a person with a comically long nose peering over an edge with the phrase, “Kilroy was here.”

This odd image became a rallying cry for American troops to draw wherever they went. Every time they took an enemy stronghold or made it through a battle, Kilroy would show up on the wall. It was an image of hope and determination, as well as some much-needed humor.

There’s an oddly similar practice in the authorship of the gospels. A word will show up in one story and appear in another, tying the two narrative locations together to help us read what’s going on. It’s the Holy Spirit’s equivalent of “Kilroy Was Here” in the pages of scripture.

Let me give you an example of this practice, which the academics call a “verbal thread.” In Mark 1, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan and comes up out of the water to see the heavens “torn” open. We see Mark use this same word in another poignant place:

And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Mark 15:37-38 (ESV)

This verbal thread, this “Kilroy Was Here,” helps us tie together the story of Jesus’ baptism and the tearing of the curtain. Just as God tore the heavens to tell us that he was pleased with Jesus, so he tore open the curtain to tell us he is well-pleased with us.

Another important place is Peter’s denial of Jesus in John. In Chapter 18, Peter is in the temple courtyard and denies he knows Jesus as he warms himself by the “charcoal fire”. When Jesus lovingly restores Peter in Chapter 21, he’s waiting on the beach cooking fish over a “charcoal fire”. These instances are important verbal play that make us pay attention. How do these stories inform each other? We want to ask what do we learn about God when we put these anecdotes side-by-side?

In a sense, God does this in our lives too. Every once in a while, when we look with the right kind of eyes, we can see his graffiti on the wall: “God was here.” God was present, God brought this blessing or this change, seemingly out of nowhere and his fingerprints are all over it. I encourage you to keep a watchful eye for the threads of God’s presence in your life.

I am Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.


Psalm 29 • Genesis 1:1-5 • Acts 19:1-7 • Mark 1:4-11

The theme for this week is the voice of the Lord in re-creation. The call to worship Psalm describes the tremendous power of the voice of God that rules over every last detail of creation. Genesis 1 tells us of the voice of God creating the universe out of nothing—speaking it into creation. Acts 19 shares about the re-creation of being in Christ, signified by receiving the Holy Spirit. Our sermon covers Mark 1, the baptism of Jesus. The powerful symbols of re-creation and re-telling of this moment of Jesus’ life culminate in the blessing of God’s voice ringing through creation: “I am well-pleased with you.”

The Baptism of the Lord

Jesus Immerses himself in Our Story

Mark 1:4-11 (ESV)

Read or have someone read Mark 1:4-11 ESV.

One tool often used in journalism is the nutshell paragraph, often just called the “nut graph.” This is that split-second summary most of us are used to seeing near the beginning of an article.

“Today in Washington, lawmakers gathered to discuss…”

“Trade negotiations continue between this and that country, with no end in sight…”

“In this article, we’ll look at how the hurricane affected the small town and…”

After giving that nutshell paragraph, the journalist will then go on to expand the story with background, events and conclusions. The first paragraph is essentially a contract between the writer and the reader: “here’s what we’re going to talk about, so you know you’re not wasting your time.”

This is different from artistic writing, where the story may be told over chapters and chapters. The story is often told slowly to keep you reading. Even commercial writing for a product might be a little more subtle about what they’re actually talking about than journalism.

Jesus’ baptism is Mark’s “nutshell paragraph.” Mark writes his gospel in blunt, no-frills language and at lightning speed compared to the other three Gospels. You could almost summarize Mark as saying “and then and then and then” over and over all the way through the book! It was probably the first Gospel written, and that may have affected the speed portrayed within it.

Mark starts the conversation with this image of Jesus getting baptized by his cousin in an obscure strip of country east of Jerusalem. The crowd is a mix of cranky and hopeful, including people from the well-heeled to the unsavory parts of society. It is here that Mark compacts several stories into one narrative.

Here’s your nutshell paragraph for today. Let’s use it to look at how the baptism of Jesus tells us the world’s story, Israel’s story, and our story.

The World’s Story

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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11 ESV)

Another literary term we could use here is a nod, a wink, or a tip-of-the-hat. Writers and movie makers will sometimes make an oblique, sideways reference to something their audience will know. Think of shows that might use language or themes from politics either as a joke or to express a certain theme. As an American, if I hear the term “revolution” or “colonist,” it has a meaning tied to a story. The images brought to mind by those words might be completely different to a person in Africa, because they have been part of a different story.

The Gospels are heavily painted and layered with winks and tips to the Old Testament story. In this instance, we see strong references to the creation story in Genesis: the water, the Spirit hovering over the water and the voice of God starting a story.

Mark is telling us that Jesus is the re-creation. Everything is being made new and different. In many ways, it’s all starting over. We see this theme throughout the Gospels. The authors use wording like “in the beginning” and emphasize garden imagery and other things to bring across the fact that the human story is being told again, but this time with the author as a character himself.

We have the advantage of reading this from a historical point of view. But we also need to put ourselves in the mindset of those seeing this happening and first hearing these words. For them, water was not only necessary for life, but it was also a symbol of all that was chaotic, death-giving, and wild in the world. John’s vision of a new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21 includes the line “…and there was no more sea.” That doesn’t mean there was no water, but the chaos, destruction, and anti-life had all been brought to bear under the rule of Christ.

So baptism itself was a bit of a scary un-creation. It was meant to symbolize a kind of death. Can you breathe down there? No, you cannot. Further, you are at the mercy of the person holding you. With Jesus going down into the “death” of the water and coming up again, he signified his death and resurrection, and this act referenced the original creation itself.

The question will buzz in the back of all our minds: Why was Jesus baptized? Mark and others describe John’s work as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But Jesus didn’t have any sin to repent of and never would, so why is he there?

While we’re at it, why was Jesus crucified for crimes he never committed and bearing the sweat and heat of a life which he had created to be perfect? As Paul writes: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Just as we go through baptism, so Jesus goes through baptism. Just as we go through life with all its pain and joy, so did Jesus. Just as we go through painful distance from God because of our sin, so Jesus did, although he never committed the sin.

Put simply: He acted like us, so that we could act like him. But it’s not just an act – it is reality. He was one of us; we are being re-created to be like he is in our innermost being.

Part of that was entering baptism, going through what was an obscure ritual at the hands of his eccentric cousin who himself had little clue what was going on. Our baptism memories might be just as humble. This is the story Jesus entered. For lack of a better word, he was immersed in our story. This happened in his incarnation, in the womb, and was demonstrated again here at the Jordan River, and would be demonstrated again in his suffering and death. The good news is that he brings this story to a happy conclusion in his resurrection, and because he has joined himself to our story, we will be with him in his resurrection, too.

Israel’s Story

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I will send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:1-4 ESV)

Many of us are familiar with commercial breaks on TV. They are often used to add a helpful break in the story right before some huge reveal or twist, or before a famous star arrives on the scene. You might see someone’s reaction and then cut to commercial, leaving you on the edge of your seat wondering what comes next.

These words from Isaiah are kind of like that. Mark superimposes them here—a herald of the coming of Israel’s God when the way is prepared for him by the prophet. These words resound at the beginning of his Gospel and then Jesus arrives. Israel’s God has come, and he just happens to be in the form of a Hebrew kid from the lock-your-doors side of town, speaking with an accent! “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A big reveal indeed!

The retelling of Israel’s story launches:

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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:5-6 ESV)

Here is Israel—people passing through the river. We know from other Gospels that they are most likely on the east side of the river. John is re-enacting the story of Israel as they entered the promised land by crossing the Jordan River from the east.

Mark takes a moment to describe the fact that John looked and dressed (and probably smelled) like Elijah, the wild and wooly prophet of the wilderness in the Old Testament.

Finally, Jesus appears, passes through the water, and then is immediately led out into the desert by the Holy Spirit where he prepares for ministry and is tempted—just as Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. Jesus re-enacts the story of Israel, but instead of complaining and rebelling, he does so in perfect obedience.

Do you see that? Jesus is re-telling the story in the right way. He is coming to complete the story that Israel began. As he says in Matthew: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 3:17). He came to finish the story.

The next detail shows us a hint of the future of God’s relationship with humanity. Jesus is plunged under the water and comes back up:

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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11 ESV)

The heaven’s being torn open. There are fine words in Greek for opening or disclosing, but Mark chooses the word “torn.” This is an important choice of words. One vital thing to remember when reading the Gospels is that the authors never wasted ink—they made their word choices carefully.

In this case, that word “torn” appears in only one other place in the Gospel of Mark. Years later, Jesus is crucified. Among the many things going on, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). This is the same word! Just as God tore the division between his dimension and ours in the moment of baptism, so he tore the curtain open that separated the Holy of Holies for centuries in the temple.

That brings us into…

Our Story

Jesus’ baptism retells the story of the creation of the world—the voice of God and the Spirit hovering over the water. It also retells the story of Israel—passing through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to the promised land, then wandering in the desert just as Jesus went to the desert. Finally, the baptism of Jesus retells our story.

 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. 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. (Mark 1:7-9 ESV)

The passivity of Jesus’ baptism is striking. He comes out to the desert to be baptized by his eccentric cousin who is just about to get in so much trouble that he’ll be beheaded by the king. John’s work was a renewal movement, disruptive and disturbing to the powers that be. He didn’t go through HR or fill out the proper forms before initiating. This is a wild, strange spectacle, no doubt visited by as many lookers as participants. And it’s in the middle of this that Jesus humbles himself into the process.

John tries to stop him:

I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? (Matthew 3:14 ESV).

There are parallels to birth—the helplessness, the water, that first breath when you come into the world. This is the message of baptism and the gospel: This isn’t a self-improvement course or a bit of good advice—this is re-birth. You don’t need a course correction; you need to start over.

John begins to understand the power of what’s going on. He says he isn’t worthy to undo the strap on the sandal of the One coming. That is preparation for washing feet, which was the lowliest servants’ work, as we know from several other times in Scripture. But John says, “I can’t even get that close, this is above my pay grade.”

That’s that truth of it. Despite Hollywood and Hallmark’s many platitudes to reach down inside ourselves or speak from the heart, the gospel tells that the answer isn’t in there. We need stronger medicine. We need Jesus to come from outside and immerse himself in our story. And that’s what he did.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life: “God’s Graffiti”

  • We talked about the World War II graffiti slogan “Kilroy was here” that was used by soldiers. Do you and your friends or family have a similar kind of slogan or private joke you use to encourage each other?
  • We talked about how God’s graffiti shows up in our lives—small reminders of God’s presence that we see throughout our lives. Do you have any incidents like this? Did you feel that God was seeing you?

Questions for Sermon: “Jesus Immersed Himself in Our Story”

  • Do you remember your baptism? Was it a humble occasion in a make-shift church baptismal, or a hot tub? If you were baptized as an infant, have you heard stories or seen pictures? What is the story of your baptism?
  • We talked about how Jesus is re-telling and re-creating the story of humanity. Does that make sense to you? Why do you think he chose to re-enact the story of Israel in his life?
  • Have you seen God re-create or redeem the “lost stories” in your own life? Maybe mistakes you’ve made that he’s worked through and made something good? Relationships he’s redeemed? Difficult circumstances that he’s re-woven with blessings?

Quote to Ponder: “A story is based on what people think is important, so when we live a story, we are telling people around us what we think is important.” ~~Don Miller

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