January 12, 2020
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. We acknowledge, we honor, and we respond.
But what is this baptism thing? It is a sacrament and if I asked what a sacrament is, many of you, perhaps from your preparation for confirmation back in the day could spout it off. A sacrament is (and this is found in the catechism section of our Book of Common Prayer in page 857): “sacraments are outward signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” Simply put sacraments are things familiar to us that God uses to show God to us.
In our contemporary culture baptism may be thought as something we do to babies and we go Awwww. And in our building lay out, we do it often a little clandestinely in the back corner. What’s going on back there anyway?
Well, a lot.
This bowl of holy water and little babies make baptism seem tame, but there’s a wildness to baptism, a recklessness, a danger to consider.
The wildness comes as we take in all the angles of action going on.
In our narrative this morning, the Trinity is uniquely present – Jesus – incarnate God, the Holy Spirit as a dove, and God the Father expressed through voice, speech.
As we look at this, quite dramatic expression of the Trinity, let’s remember that Jesus is Savior, but also, that Jesus is also our model. He shows us how to live and informs our understanding of what is happening. So, a part of baptism for us now, today, is that the Trinity is expressing God. All of God present. All of God moving.
The wildness comes as we consider God’s voice and the water. We heard in our gospel account: “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Just as he came up from the water.
Historically, people were baptized more regularly as adults, and it was more regularly done as a full immersion – all of a person all the way under the water. Now, that changed over time, because of need and in response to culture. That’s the beautiful thing about liturgy – it is dynamic, not static. It changes in ways that are discovered with care in response to culture and crisis. The crisis of change with baptism was infant mortality. By illness and other factors, so, the sacrament of baptism began to be done with infants – because they might die.
Sacraments are familiar things…
What’s interesting is that God in God’s desire for us to dial into things, uses the common, and even at times the familiar practices of religion and culture to help facilitate understanding, revelation. We have sacraments –
those recognizable things that are conduits – not condiments, not mustard, but a means - of God to us, most significantly from scripture are Bread, wine, water.
But we also have cultural familiarities. For example, in the Old Testament God made covenant with people in the way that was familiar between people groups and lands. They got it, they understood it. Baptism began similarly, as people were proselytized to other religions or to Judaism, it typically involved a ritual bath for purification – cleansing.
So, people tracked with John the Baptist to an extent, but this baptism was different. It involved not just the outside of the person, but a supernatural happening within.
Familiar, but miraculously more.
God’s voice came as Jesus came up out of the water.
Maybe it was this timing because water is powerful. It can be refreshing, but here Jesus has let go of control of his body and given John the Baptist control to lay him under water. Letting go of control. Not breathing. Being under water. Danger. The ability of water to kill. Death.
The waters of baptism, are waters that identify us, connect us to Christ’s death. We come to the water with our lives, we are united with Christ in his death, and we come from the waters united with Christ in his resurrection – a new creation.
There’s a wildness to baptism, a being out of control.
No wonder God spoke to Jesus in it. He probably needed to hear God’s voice as he came up out of those waters. Breathing, regaining control of his body. A revelation of God during baptism – sounds like a sacrament.
But why would God demonstrate God’s presence through speech, through the Holy Spirit descending as a dove? Perhaps assurance. Maybe encouragement.
This is right before Jesus is tempted in the wilderness – spiritual battle, and right before he begins his public ministry.
And God is the same today – we need to remind ourselves. Even for infants in baptism. God does the miraculous as we are baptized – united with Christ in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; experiencing forgiveness, made new.
And in this miracle – this sacrament, God reveals God’s self. The very nature of a sacrament.
God in God’s graciousness does that in ways we can take in, that meet us. And that can be dramatic or almost appearing to not be happening at all. That is up to God – what it looks like, what it feels like. But it is always, always a miracle – it happens. If you can see it, if you cannot. If you’re an adult or an infant.
We see God’s example here at Christ’s baptism – revelation. And Christ is our model.
Our Psalm today helps us as we consider Jesus’ experience with God’s voice.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; breaking the cedars trees, shaking up the landscape, splitting flames of fire. Creation reacts to God’s voice. The descriptions sound loud, chaotic, changing landscape – in the land literally, and in our lives metaphorically – our inner landscape. And the result for Jesus and for us, that last verse of the Psalm directly translated from Hebrew tells us a little more pointedly: The Lord will give strength to [God’s] people; the Lord will bless [God’s] people with peace. This is going to happen. It is God who does it, we do not earn it, we do not make it happen, we with gratitude receive it; welcome it.
The fruits of revelation of God, of sacrament.
Baptism is not a neat and tidy thing to merely coo about as the water touches the babies. It is a wild revelation of God that miraculously transforms us. A conduit of revelation, perhaps strength and peace. My guess is beyond the miracle we all experience, it is also quite individualistic. God specifically provided for Jesus in his journey, and God specifically provides for us individually in ours.
In a moment, we will renew our baptismal covenant. Let us be present to this. When we speak these words, that for many of us were spoken for us by parents and godparents let us with intentionality remember our commitments, remind ourselves of who we are, and celebrate all that God has done.