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Take Me to the Water
Acts 8:14-17 & Luke 3:21-22
January 10th, 2016
Jesus loved Isaiah. He quotes that prophet more than any other, in Luke’s gospel he announces his ministry as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of a God of liberation, come to bring “sight to the blind, release to the captive and good news to the poor.” And it’s not hard to imagine Jesus there in the river with John, a crowd gathered on the shore, and these words of Isaiah coming to life in Jesus’ heart and mind…
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
You might notice an abrupt shift. We have just finished Christmas, just had the birth and Jesus is already full-grown in the river with John. It’s how most of the gospels work, very little if anything about Jesus’ childhood. Mark’s gospel even starts right here in the river. And this is, in part, because this baptism is seen as a sign, a marker, if you will, of Jesus’ life, mission and authority. This is the moment of Epiphany, for some Christians. Epiphany, which means “manifestation” or “striking appearance” in ancient Greek, is part of the Christian calendar, and though it takes place on the same day for all the flavors of Jesus followers, it doesn’t symbolize or mean the same things. In the west, generally speaking, this holiday, which was last Wednesday, marks the visit of the magi to Jesus, thus marking his significance to the Gentiles. But in the eastern wing of the church, the epiphany comes in the river, with a dove descending on Jesus and a voice saying, “you are mine”, echoing the words from Isaiah.
All of it is a way to say that Jesus is special. He holds a unique place in our hearts as Christians and that special place helps us to generate special stories about him. But it is also to hold up Jesus as a model for us, as a teacher who keeps on teaching. How does Jesus’ story impact my story? For Luke, it is the baptism that brings this into focus, and that baptism comes within a larger story. John is preaching to the people a baptism of repentance. With his usual charm, he cries out to the crowds that come out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance…Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” There is little John the Baptist in Joel Osteen.
But we ought to notice that in Luke’s version, John is not present at the moment of epiphany…he is in prison, meaning someone else baptized Jesus, presumably, and Jesus is off to the side praying when the Spirit comes upon him. Or maybe no one else baptized Jesus. Maybe he baptized himself, he is Jesus after all. Or maybe baptism isn’t about the dunking, it’s about the Spirit. See that, to me, is the compelling part of any version of Jesus in the Jordan. Why? Why do we dip ourselves in water? What does it mean? How can we take these centuries of theology and ritual and glean some meaning from it?
Let’s look at two elements from Luke’s story. First, in all the stories we have, baptism is about identity. As in Mark, the voice from heaven is addressed to Jesus in the first person: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism, our tradition says, teaches us who we are, and whose we are – God’s beloved children – and roots us in the promise of God’s infinite love without exceptions. As, David Lose writes in his commentary – “In an era when so many of the traditional elements of identity-construction have been diminished – we change jobs and careers with frequency, most of us have multiple residences rather grown up and live in a single community, fewer families remain intact – there is a craving to figure out just who we are. In response to this craving and need, baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are, God’s beloved children. We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.”
The other thing that Luke’s account reveals is that, whatever your feelings about baptism for children, or “believer’s baptism” or dunking or sprinkling, we emphasize that this is God’s work. Remember that in Luke’s account John does not actually baptize Jesus. Is it some unnamed person? Is it the Holy Spirit? We don’t know. And how does Jesus get baptized…what age is he? What words does he say? Is he dunked three times all the way under the water or…is the point that he has a transformational moment and the particulars of the ritual are pretty irrelevant? What the story of Jesus’ baptism ought to bring home for us is that what matters, what is transformational, is the confidence that no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God, our “beloved-ness”, is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go. That confidence frees us up to now wrestle with how to take that gift, given to us, and give it away to others. It frees us up to quit seeking our definition in characteristics or consumption, politics or possessions, and to remember ourselves as created beings, connected to something vast and eternal.
That kind of acceptance is life-changing. It places us in a context, where we are part of a bigger effort and the justice and peace and nurture of the world is no longer on our shoulders alone, but is a shared journey….a journey that often happens without us having the slightest bit of control over it at all. In many ways, our baptism brings us into a new life, a life that often defies our cultural programming, our “common sense” and which doesn’t come to us in a single moment, but rather is learned in a series of moments, over a long period of time…learned on our own and also amongst one another, in times of encounter with “the other” and in moments of introspection as we seek God, who seems to always dip just below the surface of the water, making us dip our heads in again and again.
This is one of the reasons that we don’t connect baptism with membership here at Fellowship. Baptism is a ritual of personal transformation, not an act that brings you into belonging, but instead symbolizes a change in you. Baptism is a ritual, not the transformation itself. When a couple kiss at the end of the wedding ceremony, no one claps because they think that these people have now fallen in love. They clap because this is the symbolic beginning of something that has already started.
Here we christen babies, because that is a ritual of belonging, marking that child as part of a greater community. While that might be an aspect of baptism, we baptize when it seems like the person being baptized can understand what the ritual means, and what it symbolizes for them, and maybe that happens more than once. I could imagine a person being baptized multiple times, for it is a mark of change and we all undergo lots of change in our lives. But there’s one more thing that baptism symbolizes…perhaps the most important thing. It ritualizes something that I don’t think any of us realize in a moment. It evokes in us a sense of meaning, of call, if you will. I think that anymore we need that sense of call, if only to allow us to set ourselves aside from the myriad of fatalistic ideologies clamoring for our attention. Our baptism reminds us that our idealism, our hearts’ fondest wish, is not so silly after all…but it may ask us to search for that dream, to work for it, to change something to let one thing die so that new life might be born. Our baptism reminds us that at the times that we all feel powerless and perhaps even hopeless, that we have power. We have hope. But it doesn’t look like the power of politics or warfare, and it doesn’t feel like the hope of lottery winnings or good fortune. No, this is the power and the hope of resurrection, given to us in the story of a penniless, traveling rabbi from the backwoods of the empire preaching love, mercy and justice.
As Sarah Dylan Breuer wrote in her commentary on Luke, almost echoing a Jeff Foxworthy kind of description:
If some part of you believes that the world as it is on the front page of the newspaper
is not the world as it was meant to be, you’re not crazy and you’re not just a starry-eyed idealist;
you are feeling God’s call in Baptism. If some part of you wants something more than the chance to achieve enough
to feel pressured to achieve more or to defend what you thought you won,
you’re not just greedy or lazy or odd; you’re feeling God’s call in Baptism.
And if you feel at times that the world and the life you’re aching for is more than
you could bring into being by your own achievement, even if you wanted it only for yourself
and those you care about (and who can restrict caring to just a few?),
you haven’t run into the thing that makes the dream impossible;
you just might be hearing the call of Baptism.
Our New Year’s revolution this morning is to remember our baptism, whether we have had that ritualized or not…to remember and claim and evoke that in us which we know is true, our “beloved-ness”, and to let that help us over the hurdle in front of us, to own that in a way that lets us know while we are not in control of the universe, we are here to do something. So I invite you as you leave today to remember your baptism tangibly. There is a baptismal font just by the door. Dip a finger in the water, mark your forehead, touch your wrist, or just look at the font as you pass. Maybe this is not the font in which you were baptized, maybe you’ve never been through a ritual of baptism, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t had a baptismal moment. I will be standing over here, at our primary font, for those of you who would like some extra time, and perhaps to share a prayer of remembrance. Take a moment – remember a time of epiphany, an instance of transformation, some place that you realized, even if only for a second, that there is something bigger than you, something beyond your ability to manipulate or control, when you became aware that the way you truly accept love is by giving it away. Perhaps, as you touch the water, you might say to yourself something like, “I am God’s beloved child, called and sent – and empowered – to make a difference in the world.” For you are.