Isaiah 43:1-7 | Psalm 29 | Acts 8:14-17 | Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
We make a fatal error, I think, when we reduce the Christian faith to so many thoughts or words, to an intellectual exercise of some sort that suggests it is about what goes on in our heads rather than what happens in heaven and on the earth. Today, as we tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, and explore the meanings of our own, I suspect is as good a day as any to remember this.
We are dust creatures; these ancient scriptures tell us. From dust we have come and to dust we will return. And yet, we are born in water. We are creature, not creator. We are held and supported and beholden to a Love that is a vast ocean, that flows to us and in us far beyond any limits we can imagine, to a relentless undertow of grace that is far more powerful than the political or economic currents of any particular moment. And as many of us who have made the hard choice to delay our gratification when it comes to watching the Seahawks may be particularly mindful, water, at zero degrees Fahrenheit can get very hard and very real and it can effect everything. And sometimes it can be a real inconvenience.
So today is as good a day as any, I suspect, for us to get out of our heads and into the real world, to give ourselves to this thing called baptism and all it evokes .
And that’s probably the first thing for us to remember as we encounter this story of Jesus entering into the waters to be baptized by John. When we speak of baptism, we speak of real things—earth and sky, body and blood. In Luke’s telling, it’s all about the material things—about what we can see and touch. You’ll recall that in the manger, God comes in bodily form. And in case we didn’t catch it the first time, at Jesus’ baptism, God, the Spirit comes down in bodily form again, like a dove. Baptism isn’t about some nice little, harmless ritual in which a little water falls on someone. This isn’t about some event that is just in the past. This is about a promise related to a Spirit far beyond our reckoning, a holiness far bigger than we can imagine, that has everything to do with what happens in the real world, the created order, our day-to-day living.
“I baptize you with water,” John tells the gathered at the river. “But one who is more powerful than I is coming… with the Holy Spirit and fire.” These images and these rituals and these stories, they are simply a foretaste, a teaser, an invitation for you to let your God-given imagination take you where it needs to go.
We deal in metaphors because we are dealing with something bigger than us. A surplus of meaning. A mystery that is easy to catch, but hard to hold onto because it asks us to remember that we walk by faith and not by sight, that holds onto us because it is mighty and true. “The voice of the Lord is over the waters;” the psalmist sings.
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
This God, this Spirit, this Son calls us, guides us, saves us as we follow this way. That is what baptism is about. We are called to be fishers of men and women. We were created for this very thing, to be brothers and sisters with the whole of humanity for the sake of the world.
Anything that comes to mind for you when it comes to water is fair game. Our ancestors were good teachers. Imaginative, creative, sophisticated. Baptism of the Lord is a teaching tool, as is every image on every Sunday, inviting us to power we never fully understand. So let your imagination take you to the meanings that will em-power and en-courage you.
Water turns a parched land into fertile soil.
It takes water to make the grain from that soil into something that can feed us. And what a spread we can imagine! Can you imagine the richness that is possible? A feast of goodness and kindness and friendship that holds us amidst the uncertainty of our lives. This is the way into which we are invited in baptism as promises are made to us and by us and for us.
But let’s be clear. There is no promise here that everything will be great or easy or painless. If nothing else let’s remember that Jesus goes straight from his baptism into the wilderness to suffer and be tempted. It is no different for us. We know we slip and fall. We know we fail. We know we can get lost in it all. There is so much beyond our knowing. So much shrouded in silence and mystery.
But we go with hope because we have been given a communion of saints who accompany us. Who care for us. Who wash our wounds, and sometimes (35) even our feet. We are a communion, a team drawn together around common promises that speak to a future as well as a past.
We gather around the font for confession, among other things, to remember that we need to be washed again and again. We need to be able to start again, to grab for that future, to be reassured, refreshed if we are to hope to make it to the end.
Our sufferings and our uncertainties can cause us to grow hard and brittle. But baptism’s promise is that there is no substance that God’s grace can’t slowly break down. Baptism is about hope. An invitation to rest not in our own devices, but in God’s welcome—to grow in season and out of season as part of God’s holy creation.
Do you see now? The ancients looked to water because water is life. And it points us to the Creator who brooded over the water and somehow imagines us into being—a mystery for sure! A holy people surrounded by holy things in need of our care. A people who not only survive, but thrive, and sometimes, even dance. What better would you want to give yourself to?
Thanks be to God.