January 13, 2019
This is the water on which God breathed and the Spirit brooded when God began creating us.
This water covered the earth deeper than the Himalayas when God wanted to start over. This is the foot of the rainbow that’s meant to tell us God won’t destroy the creation again.
This is the water that opened at Moses’ command when God led God’s people out of slavery.
This water sprung from rocks in the desert when people started whining to go back to the way things used to be.
These are the salty tears King David shed when Nathan accused him of the worst sin. These are the tears he shed when he pleaded to God for forgiveness, and got it.
These are the waters of Babylon by which our ancestors sat down and wept, their harps and tongues silent for homesickness.
And this is the water that broke in a barn in Bethlehem.
Out of this water John pulled a stunned Jesus from the River Jordan, as we hear in Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Water is life giving. Without it we would not exist. From the moment of conception, we are cradled in water. The human body is over 70% water. We are supposed to drink 8 glasses of water a day. I find that challenging. Water heals and cleanses. It enables plants to grow.
Process Theologian Marjorie Suchocki uses water as a metaphor for God - how it has a power all its own - how it flows through and around those things in its path, changing them in the process and also changing itself - taking on new forms, from rain to snow to ice to vapor. As it flows, water makes its way around every potential obstacle until it comes together into a new body of water. From many streams, a new river is created.
It is to the River Jordan that the crowds came seeking a wild-eyed prophet preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These were people looking for hope, in what seemed like a hopeless world under the oppressive might of the Roman Empire. That was a forbidding desert they crossed to find John. Was he the Messiah they had been waiting for? John assures them he was not. One more powerful than he was coming.
We know that water rituals in ancient Israel predate even John the Baptist.
Throughout much of Israel’s history various kinds of “washings,” or water rituals were commonly known and practiced, mostly for the purpose of religious purification. These cleansings were understood to be ongoing symbols of God’s inner cleansing. Archaeologists have discovered ceremonial mikveh or immersion pool baths throughout Israel. They believe they were used for regular washings by immersion and by pouring flowing water over oneself. We saw some of them when I visited Israel.
Water rituals were also found in the act of Jewish proselyte baptism. To receive converts into the faith, Jewish leaders would sometimes guide them into a river as a symbolic cleansing of their souls, while the baptizer stood beside the convert in the water reciting appropriate words from the Hebrew scriptures. The ritual was a sign of the person’s belief and reception into the faith, much like Christian baptism today - without the river.
The baptism John practiced was different. He wasn’t welcoming converts into the faith. His was a rite of moral purification, preparing people for the approaching Kingdom of God. At the river he dunked them as a sign of their resolution to turn from their sins. He baptized them into a new way of life, redirected towards God.
In Luke’s gospel, we don’t know if John recognized Jesus. It may have come as a shock to see him there among the crowds, a gentle carpenter, unlike the ax-wielding arsonist he has just described. Why did he come? Jesus knew the traditions of his people, including the cleansing bath taken by Jews for various reasons.
In order to lead, one must lead by example. And in this humble act, Jesus is doing just that. Repentance means turning your life around, heading in a new direction. Barbara Brown Taylor describes the scene this way: Jesus “goes into the waters of the Jordan a carpenter, and comes out a Messiah. He is the same person, but with a new direction. His being is the same, but his doing is about to take a radical turn.”
I wonder if Jesus was surprised, that, while he was praying after coming out of the water “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” Wow, that’s a real affirmation, and he hadn’t even started his formal ministry!
I tend to look at many of these stories metaphorically. Are these visual and sound effects the symbols of something happening to Jesus internally at the time — a transformation that prepared him for ministry? As John immersed him into the Jordan, was Jesus re-immersed into the spirit within, into that spark of divinity at the center of his being, where he could see clearly the reign of God — where his eyes opened fully to the presence of God’s love that surrounded him at every moment and in every place?
We have no stories of Jesus baptizing anyone, but the Gospel of Matthew ends with him commissioning his disciples with the words “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In The Acts of the Apostles, after Pentecost, John’s rite was continued and adapted by the apostles. It was the regular means of initiation into the Christian community.
By the latter part of the third century the rite of baptism had developed and was quite different from what we know it be today. During that time adult baptism was being practiced, although some scholars argue that there is evidence in the New Testament that entire families in the early church were baptized together, and this may have included infants and children.
Baptisms were performed once a year - guess when? - on Easter. This followed a three-year period of study. During this time the candidates were not allowed to pray with, kiss (a lot of kissing went on), or receive the Eucharist with the faithful.
During the season of Lent there was an intense preparation of the candidates, including instruction and daily exorcism. In the three days before Easter the candidates fasted.
Then, on Easter morning, as the cock crowed, ancient accounts tell us that some form of the following ritual happened. Take yourself on a little time travel and imagine the following:
--Prayer is offered over the water.
--The Candidates undress - men and women in separate rooms.
--The bishop prepares oils of exorcism and thanksgiving (called
--Renunciations of Satan are spoken.
--The bishop breathes on the faces of the candidates (to recall the breath
of God at creation).
--The candidates are anointed thoroughly with the oil of exorcism (a
course, gritty oil).
--The candidates and deacon or deaconess go into the water.
--They are asked three questions starting with the words “Do you believe…?”
--They are immersed after each affirmation of the trinity.
--They are anointed with the oil of thanksgiving (a fine scented oil)
--Each candidate dresses in white.
--They process with a candle to the waiting church body which has been
praying all this time.
--The bishop gives the kiss of peace, on the mouth.
--The Lord’s Prayer is offered.
--The body of worshipers gives the kiss of peace.
--All participate in celebrating the Eucharist (3 cups -- water, milk, and honey, wine).
So in essence they combined what we would call Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion - all into the same ritual. In the fourth century, after Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, there was a fear that an infant might die before he or she was baptized, in which case they would be tainted with original sin, and instead of going to heaven, they would be stuck in limbo, so they started baptizing infants within seven days of birth. For over 1,000 years infant baptism was the norm.
Throughout the history of the church there has been one controversy after another surrounding Baptism. Who should be baptized? Who may baptize? When? Where? How? What actually happens when one is baptized? And it’s just as controversial today as it ever was.
In our tradition you may be baptized as an adult or as an infant. You may be sprinkled, poured over or immersed. If an ordained person is not available, a lay person may administer the sacrament. Baptism is not for the removal of original sin. It is the extravagant welcome of God into the body of Christ, a welcome to discipleship, to growing faith, to courageous witness, to sacrificial love. It’s a ritual signifying new beginnings.
Baptism is not only a personal celebration in the lives of the individual candidates and their families, but also a central celebration in the life of the local church, celebrated in the presence of the community who are gathered for worship.
Martin Luther passionately reminded people to “Remember your baptism!” In his catechism, he wrote, “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.” How many of you were baptized as infants? How many of you remember your baptism? How many remember the baptism of someone else? What do you remember about it?
I would place a bet that you don’t remember many of the words, but you remember the emotions.
That’s what I remember in the many baptisms I have participated in, or witnessed. I remember a woman being baptized in the river Jordan. She was so overcome with emotion she threw herself in the water, face first, before the minister had a chance to do anything. I remember a trans woman, who felt God hated her for who she was, and hadn’t been to church since she was a teenager. She stood, bathed in tears after I baptized her, receiving hugs from the congregation. This is the Spirit at work, making its presence known to us. Much later, an elderly man in our congregation remembered the sanctuary that day as being filled with love.
At our baptism, like Jesus, we are told we are a beloved child of God, that we are blessed. As we go through life, with all its ups and downs, times when we’ve messed up, or feel that the world is against us, it’s easy to feel unworthy, or unblessed. These are the times we need to be reminded of our baptism, that we are beloved by God and that God’s love surrounds us at all times.
My favorite baptism story comes from an acclaimed novel entitled Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, a UCC minster from my home town, Iowa City. It is written in the first person by the Rev. John Ames about his life and ministry in Iowa during the first half of the 20th Century. “We were very pious children,” he said.
Once we baptized a litter of cats… I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula. Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a great deal.
So finally I asked my father, in the most offhand way imaginable, what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the sacraments, but we thought the world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained…
I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing… There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.
This morning let us remind each other that we are beloved children of God by reaching out and touching those around us with the pure intent of blessing and the words “You are a beloved child of God.”