Paradoxology: A Sermon on Mark 1:1-9

2nd Sunday After Epiphany

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We can’t offer God worthy praise because we’re sinners, but we can’t not offer Him worthy praise because He is perfectly holy and glorious. This is the paradoxology.

To a great extent, Christianity as a religion confronts us with paradoxes. God is one God but three persons. God is infinite, but became a finite man. The Second Person of the Trinity is everlasting, and yet died for us on the cross. Meditating on these paradoxes strains our minds, and yet they are the basis for our hope.

Paradoxes are different from contradictions. Contradictions are two things that simply cannot be true at the same time. For example, a man cannot be six feet tall and also five feet and seven inches tall. A dog cannot have completely white fur and completely brown fur. You can’t have thirty dollars in your wallet and also zero dollars in that same wallet. These are contradictions. Paradoxes are two things, on the other hand, that seem like they cannot possibly both be true, but they are. Paradoxes are two truths that seem to contradict each other, but are actually true because of each other.

As an educator, I am faced with a paradox: my students need to learn from my classroom, but they also need to have learning to succeed in my classroom. Learning is paradoxical because you know that you do not know, so you work to begin to know what you do not know, and then the more you know, the more you really learn that you need to learn a lot more before you learn anything. Paradoxically, one of the wisest humans to have lived was Socrates, who said that the height of wisdom was to know that you do not know. Unlike contradictions, between which we must decide one way or the other, paradoxes stretch the mind to help us to learn how to make two things we know to be true but which strain each other, and so deepen our love of the truth.

There’s a paradox under way right now. It is impossible for me to stand here and preach the Word of God. How dare I? I am not fit to speak of the Most High. He is holy. I am unholy. He is eternal, and I am mortal. His infinitely high ways are infinitely higher than my lowly ways. His words are pure, and mine are corrupt. The very idea is absurd, even blasphemous. How could I possibly speak of this perfect, loving, righteous God when I am an imperfect, unloving, and wicked man?

But then, it is impossible for me not to preach the Word of God. I know that it is true, that it contains the only means of salvation, that I am commanded by God to share the good news of His Son. How can I keep silent when the Lord of language commands me to speak? How dare I, an imperfect, unloving, and wicked man, otherwise dead in my trespasses, refuse the life-giving commands of a perfect, loving, righteous God?

Either way I go, woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips. I am unclean if I dare to speak of God, unclean if I dare not to. It reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem that goes, 

If I eat one more piece of pie, I shall die. If I do not eat one more piece of pie, I shall die. If either way it is decided that I must die, then I shall eat one more piece of pie. 

Paradoxes about pie are silly, but the paradox of my responsibility to share the worth of the Gospel as an unworthy messenger is sobering indeed.

This paradox was the same one that confronted John the Baptist when Jesus approached him to be baptized. John said of Christ in verse 7, “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” John has been called the last of the Old Testament prophets, and as such his sensitivity to the absolute holiness of God was profound, and so by extension John knew his own unworthiness. Indeed, John’s miraculous birth from Elisabeth’s otherwise barren womb seemed impossible, but was arranged by God to prefigure and be superseded by the even more paradoxical and miraculous virgin birth of Christ. John’s birth to Elisabeth in her old age recalls a similar situation with Abraham and Sarah, who likewise had to wait on God’s time to have the promise of Isaac’s birth fulfilled when Sarah was 90 years old, which seemed so impossible to Sarah that she actually laughed about it. Where Isaac’s birth was the initial fruit of God’s promise to Abraham that would lead to the establishment of the Mosaic covenant generations later, John’s birth was the hinge point that signalled a new covenant that would fulfill but even exceed the Abrahamic covenant in its glory. It’s for this reason that we are told that John was, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” A man born to a barren mother, John was himself a walking paradox, yet he still harbored original sin like you and I did. 

This is why John, as the voice of the Old Testament heralding the arrival of the Lord, was living in such a distinctly uncomfortable way. Camel’s hair is rough and coarse, and that John chooses it for his clothing shows his attempt to remove himself from the comforts of the world. Likewise he ate locusts and wild honey not because he had unusual culinary preferences, but because both were inferior forms of food that witnessed John’s penitential posture. John was living a life of intentional self-denial because he saw the same truth that Isaiah was struck with when he saw the glory of the Lord in Isaiah 6:5: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” It seemed paradoxical to Isaiah that his unclean lips could speak of the holiness of the Lord he saw then. But Isaiah’s speech was purified: “6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Like Isaiah, John was faced with an impossible, paradoxical task: he, a sinful man who desperately felt the need for cleansing by baptism, was asked to baptize the Holy One on whose behalf he had been baptizing others!

John was so deeply aware of the holiness of Christ that he felt it even before he was born. Luke 1:41 reads, “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.” Even unborn, John knew his Savior and the delight serving him would bring. So it is no wonder that when Jesus approaches him to be baptized, John is astonished. Matthew 3:13 reads, “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” The whole thing seemed too paradoxical, too impossible. You’re the one who makes us clean – how can I clean you? But of course John could not refuse him, because he could not dishonor his Lord by disobeying him, who said in reply, “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” And John baptized Jesus. Never fall into the trap of disobeying God because you think you are not good enough to obey him.

Instead of relying on the limitations of his own human understanding, John submitted to the paradox. He did what almost seemed blasphemous to his own sensibilities – he applied the symbol of purification to the one who is totally pure and who brings us purification. And when he did, he was given the privilege of witnessing the official miracle that began Christ’s formal ministry: Mark 1:9-11 “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Scripture does not tell us how John the Baptist felt about this, but notice that there is no indication that this was some private vision in Christ head – it was objective, visible. An indescribable vision burst forth, and as that heavenly light cascaded over Christ, the Holy Spirit took a form distinctly visible to humans for the first time in recorded history. Although the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, this is the first time in Scripture that it is distinctly clarified that humans are perceiving the Holy Spirit specifically. And what’s more, John had the privilege of hearing the voice of God the Father himself speak an affirmation that Jesus was the Christ whom John had been called to testify. What an awesome vindication of his own calling, but even more what an incredible privilege – to audibly hear the voice of God the Father, whom John the Evangelist said no man has seen directly at any time!

John was asked to do something paradoxical, but in doing so he had the privilege of touching the Son of God’s body as he covered him with the baptismal waters. He had the blessing of seeing the Holy Spirit’s manifestation before his very eyes and having his ears physically filled with the voice of the Father. All of those days of hardship, preaching to skeptics, living with discomfort as he tried to work out his sins in penance, were met here. The hard-bitten darkness of his trials was rewarded with an intimate witness of the Trinity, the closest to complete experience of the Triune God that any living human has ever experienced here on earth, because he let God handle the paradoxes in his life.

Some of you here today may be living with paradoxes of your own. Maybe aspects of theology and biblical truth are confusing you. Or maybe you are struggling with guilt over sin and you wonder how you could approach this Lord’s Table and partake of the Lord’s Supper when you know you fall short. Because the burden really does seem intolerable. Perhaps you are afraid to witness about Christ because you’re afraid of being asked a question you can’t answer. How can you step into church, knowing what you’ve done? How can you participate in Holy Communion, knowing who you are? How can you have hope in Christ, knowing what is going on in your life, or in your loved one’s life, right now? The fact is that logical explanations of these problems, though possible, don’t get at the real, heart-heavy burden of the paradox of things that just seem impossible. But we worship a God who can turn the paradox into the occasion for the doxology. We look at hard situations pray to God, “Lord, this situation is impossible.” God hears those prayers and he says, “Oh, the situation is impossible? I can work with that.” 

Don’t misunderstand me here. It’s a good and wholesome thing to work to understand Scripture, to read theological books and have Bible studies, to delve into the paradoxes so that we can have our faith strengthened. But at the end of the day we have to submit to paradoxes like John baptizing Christ. We have to stand in the cold waters of discomfort and confusion and let God lead, and sometimes it won’t make sense at first. But into that darkness light can break out. Like the purifying touch of the burning coal on Isaiah’ lips, through the Lord’s Supper we can feel closer to Christ as we submit to the paradox of worship and eat of his blood and drink of his flesh spiritually  even when we don’t understand such things. Like John baptizing Christ in the Jordan, when we submit to the paradox of God calling us to be a testimony even though we know we fall short, we can witness the Holy Spirit transforming our lives and the lives of those we love, giving us the power to rise above our circumstances by God’s grace like a dove in flight. When we come at last before the Throne of the Father and we submit our broken, tear-stained, sin-stumbled lives covered with the Blood of Christ, we will hear from that throne a voice that will say, “You have lived with those painful paradoxes well, my good and faithful servant.” For Christ’s blood has adopted us into brotherhood and sisterhood with him and so into sonship and daughtership with the Most High. So when the Father sees you washed by the Son and lit by the Holy Ghost, He will say, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.

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