It may seem strange to jump from Christmas to Jesus’ baptism, from his birth to his early to mid-thirties. But in making that leap, we are following the Scriptures. With the exception of Luke’s account of a family pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old, we know nothing about Jesus from his birth to his baptism. We can guess that like most Jewish boys he attended synagogue school. Perhaps he even did advanced work in the Hebrew Scriptures with the local rabbi. He must have found some time for reflection and meditation. We assume that he learned his trade from his father and labored as a carpenter for years in Nazareth. But what was his childhood like? And what were his teen years like? Was he ever grounded? Did he ever date? As a young person did he have an identity crisis? Why did he wait so long to begin his ministry? Was it because his father died early in his life and he was thus needed to support the family until all his siblings were out on their own? We can speculate for weeks and never know the answers to these questions. All we know is that suddenly out of nowhere, Jesus appeared before John the Baptizer and submitted to baptism. And at that point he received a revelation which launched his ministry.
I want us to look at Jesus’ baptism in light of two images in our text: water and the dove. Both of those images recall the first verses of Genesis–the very beginning of our sacred tradition. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” The Hebrews believed that the world originated from and was founded upon a watery abyss called the deep. And over the surface of this water God’s spirit stirred like a bird hovering over her nest. The spirit was stirring up the waters preparing for God’s marvelous creation.
These images of water and hovering allow us to interpret Jesus’ baptism as an act of creation or perhaps we should say re-creation. Just as God brought order out of chaos in the beginning, through Jesus God is now starting a new creative act. Jesus is willing to be immersed not only in the Jordan River, but also in the reality of this broken world and its desperate need for transformation and new life. And as he comes out of the Jordan, the same spirit which stirred up the waters of the deep at the dawn of creation now rests permanently upon him. Emerging from the river, Jesus becomes God’s creative force in this world and the means whereby all things are made new.
Now I am not uptight over the method churches use for baptism, but I do prefer immersion because it best communicates what the Scriptures teach about this sacrament. The symbolism of immersion captures this idea of new creation. We die with Christ and rise with him to walk in the newness of life, Paul says. We enter the watery abyss of chaos and death and allow ourselves to be reborn. My fear is that we do not take this act as seriously as we should. If we really understood what baptism communicates and symbolizes, we might be a little more reluctant to step in the baptismal pool.
Let’s suppose that the act of baptism actually has the power to transform us into a new creation after the pattern of Jesus. In other words, rather than being a symbol it literally would have the power to cause the change we need. I wonder how many of us would take the plunge. Maybe we would be like some people when they approach a swimming pool. It’s really amusing to observe the different ways people approach the water. Some dive right in. Their attitude is, “Let’s get it over with–all the change, all the shock, all the discomfort at one time so we can get on with it.” And then there are the toe-danglers. They approach the water with the utmost delicacy. And after a split second of wetting their tootsies, they pull them out screaming and shuddering. And that’s as far as they are willing to go. And then there are those who don’t even get that far. They stay back from the water and occasionally are sprayed by those who splash and drip water upon them. And then there are those who start slowly, inch by inch–first a toe, then a foot, then the other foot, then the ankles, then the calves, then the knees, the thighs, the abdomen and rump, the love-handles, the stomach, the back, the chest, the shoulders, and when they have no other choice, their arms, and finally the head–and of course, by then it’s time to close the pool and go home.
If the act of baptism were not just a symbol but actually had the power to transform us in and of itself, I suspect we would be like those people approaching the water in a swimming pool. Some prefer to sunbathe and be sprinkled by the Christianity of others. It’s called religion by association. They hope some of it will rub off on them, but they have no intention of taking the plunge. Others of us would want just a partial change. We would be willing to go only toe deep in the watery abyss of death and transformation–just enough to say that we’ve been there. And others of us want our transformation a little bit at a time. We prefer gradual change. We don’t want to shock our systems or our families or our friends. We’ll get there one day we hope, but perhaps no one will even notice we have arrived.
But of course, baptism does not have the power in and of itself to bring about such a change. It’s a symbol–a powerful symbol, but a symbol nevertheless. But if we took seriously the potential of our baptism–if we realized that Jesus has gone before us in this watery abyss and is God’s agent for the new creation which can occur in our lives and in our world, maybe baptism would mean far more to us than it does now.
But let me leave you with hope and encouragement as we end with two thoughts. First, we could perhaps compare baptism to marriage. It has been my experience that most people when they get married haven’t a clue as to what they are getting themselves into. They confuse need with commitment and lust with love. But at some point during the marriage, some of them discover what marriage is all about. They learn to love unconditionally. They learn to allow for the other’s growth. They learn how to be compassionate, how to forgive, how to believe in the other. Sometimes it takes a crisis in the marriage to bring this realization. In other cases it just happens gradually, and people wake up one morning and realize how much in love they really are with that person lying beside them. Now these people don’t go back to the minister or the justice of the peace and say, “Marry us again. We didn’t know what we were doing the first time, but now we understand and are really ready to be married.” Some may renew their marriage vows, but they do not actually get married again. They simply realize what marriage can mean when it is taken seriously. And the same is true for baptism. We need not be baptized every time we deepen our understanding and experience of dying with Christ and being raised to new life. We simply say, “So that’s what it means!” and move on in our pilgrimage of trust and transformation.
And secondly, in baptism we are not required to do something alone. Jesus has taken the plunge with and for each of us. In his baptism he has identified with us in all our sin and pain, all our failure and weakness. And he came out of the water with God’s creative spirit permanently resting upon him. He is by our side as the potential of God’s new creation dawns in each of us. We are not alone in this act of death and re-creation. God has cast the divine lot with us for good or for evil. Perhaps in the final analysis what matters most in our baptism is not who we say we are and what we do, but who God says we are and what God does. With such hope we can all take the plunge.
COMMUNION: At this Table we have an opportunity to renew our baptismal vows. In our baptism we die with Christ and are raised to new life. At this Table we hear his words, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And we witness his glory as the first fruits of God’s new creation. Each time we approach this Table we have opportunities to be more deeply immersed in our Lord.
COMMISSION: Jesus entered the waters of baptism in order to demonstrate his solidarity with this world. He was baptized for a mission. We too are baptized for a mission. We rise from the baptismal waters and from this Table as the Body of Christ offered for the healing of God’s world. Let us take the plunge.
BENEDICTION: Washed in the pure waters of God’s new creation, nourished by the sacrificial love of Christ, and anointed by fire sent from heaven, let us go out into the world as children of God sharing joy and compassion, truth and love. Amen.
PASTORAL PRAYER: Loving and Eternal God, in whose purpose we live our lives, we earnestly pray that you will be near to us in the coming year–forgiving, healing, comforting, leading, saving. For your past demonstrations of faithfulness, love, and concern, we give thanks. Help us to trust you with our lives for this coming year. May we allow you to lead us in the paths of righteousness that will be opened to us–may we allow you to guide us through whatever deep valleys and dark shadows we may face-may we allow you to pilot us in the ways of love and peace in our dealings with others. Be to us the Good Shepherd who knows what we need and at what points we are afraid. And renew in us a sense of joyful anticipation over the individual and collective pilgrimages you have waiting for us.
We pray that as we go into this New Year, we will leave behind the old and decaying burdens of our sin. Give us the courage to confess our wrongs and to believe that you do forgive and forget. Although we have spent time without loving and perhaps years without noble purpose–although the calendar with frightening accuracy may condemn us, inspire us to believe that in Christ we can be forgiven–that the past–that OUR past can be redeemed. No longer let our evil cripple or shame us. Instead, lead us into the future free from sin, free to love, and eager to work in the vineyards you will set before us. We do pray that you will make our hearts tender with compassion for one another, and may our love be practical, concrete, and sacrificial in its expression.
We bring our prayer to a close with praise for Jesus Christ our Lord who daily lifts our hopes and leads us in your ways of truth and life. Accept our words, sentiments, and aspirations for his sake. Amen.