I wonder if, like me, this reading of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river causes you to remember your own baptism, if you have been baptized …
I remember being baptized when I was about 13 years old. In Hesston Kansas, we attended the church that met on the Hesston College campus. At that age I wasn’t a very serious, reflective boy, I just went with the flow of others in that age group. And so I was a part of a cohort that was ready to be baptized one Sunday; it was a kind of rite of passage. There were probably eight or ten of us. I only have one strong memory from that event. We stood in the front of the sanctuary, but before Pastor Peter Weibe came to each one of us with a pitcher and towel and poured the water over our heads, we had a moment for any one of us to say something about our decision.
I only remember a boy, he was a year older than me, Rene, who wanted to speak – I’m sure there were others who spoke, but I remember Rene – all eyes looked at him, as he paused, and paused, obviously in thought and uncertainty of what he wanted to say … and then: “There’s just so many questions … And I guess that’s why I want to take this step of baptism.”
After all these years, it’s the clearest thing I remember from that day.
Baptism is rooted in an ancient Jewish ritual. It wasn’t called that, but it was a purification ritual, a ritual cleansing. Its context here is of course a bit different than how we understand it in the Christian tradition. So we have this interesting image of Jesus coming to find John the Baptist – who is himself this larger than life character, living in the desert – where water is scarce – preaching, calling people a Brood of vipers, that you’d better produce fruit, or the ax will be falling at your root, that every tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut and thrown into the fire. Clearly John was stirring things up and speaking out of the prophetic tradition! And John was baptizing with water. You might remember in December Jennifer preached from this passage immediately before today’s reading in Matthew.
Jesus comes to the Jordan river, which is itself full of symbolism for the Jews, the river they had crossed entering the promised land … and Jesus asks to be baptized there. But there’s a kind of embarrassment in the text- John saying how can I baptize you, you should be baptizing me and so on, it’s as if the enactment has it backwards- but Jesus insists. Many scholars would point out that partly because of this kind of tension or disagreement in the story, and also because it is referenced in three of the four gospels, that it's highly likely this story accurately reflects the historic event.
So when does this take place? The baptism takes place just as Jesus is about to embark on his three years of teaching in Galilee, of healing, associating with lepers, performing miracles, of preaching in parables about the kingdom of God. Jesus must have had a clear understanding that he was beginning what would be a demanding, difficult, decisive period in his life … It’s as if this baptism in the Jordan river is a beginning, and this is what Jesus hears:
Matthew writes: And when Jesus had been baptized he at once came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And suddenly there was a voice from heaven, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him.'"
Don’t we all wish to hear some kind of message like this from God? Don’t we all, in the midst of our questions, of our awareness of our faults and insecurities, when we wonder if we’re up to the task at hand … don’t we wish to feel the Spirit of God descend upon us?
Perhaps you can remember moments in your life when you did feel the Spirit of God in some profound, unusual way. Or perhaps rather, you think of a time when you hoped for the Spirit’s presence, but it didn’t come, and you wondered where is God in the midst of this?
This scene taking place is a pretty mystical image! Hearing a voice from heaven- it’s one of these stories in the Bible that we might wonder did that really happen that way?
The images I grew up with from Sunday School, or from movies that were made in the 70's or 80's, was that there was literally a dove flying up and around Jesus as he comes up out of the water, but this isn’t what it says. It says the Spirit of God descending LIKE a dove – so what was that like? What does a dove represent? … And what was that voice? Who heard it? Only Jesus? Who else was around?
It’s a very provocative image, and a pretty profound affirmation!
And don’t we all yearn at times for something so clear, so deeply affirming of who we are, of what we’ve become, or where we’re headed? To feel the Spirit of God as if it were a dove’s gentle presence?
I want to say something else about my past – in my late 20's I was working as a social worker in a low-income, gritty inner-city neighborhood in Washington, DC, at the Community of Hope – it's where I met Deanna. I was working with homeless families, with people ground down by poverty …. But I became deeply interested in mysticism. I wanted to not just follow Jesus in my life, to apply the ethics of Jesus’ teachings from the NT- I felt the need for a more intimate, experience of God, of feeling God’s touch that felt authentic, not something that might just be my imagination. Maybe too I wanted to hear a voice that said, this is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. I was searching, it was an age of big decisions – who to marry? What kind of work to do? Was I on the right path with my life? Or was I even on a path?
At that time, about a year before I was married to Deanna, I spent a month at Holy Cross Abbey, near Berryville, the same monastery where Jennifer spends a week each year during advent. I had learned about the Trappists through the writings of Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist or also called Cistercian monk in Kentucky, and part of what I was drawn to was not just their practice of silence, which I loved, or their practice of simplicity and community, but the possibility of encountering God in a deeply interior, deeply personal way, the possibility of mysticism, of feeling God’s touch. There were many aspects that led me to taking that month at the monastery, rising at 3:15 am every morning, walking to the wooden choir section of the chapel, reading and singing psalms in the middle of the night. I think one of the reasons I was there was to seek some affirmation from God – not for the “religious” things I was doing – I know it sounds very religious – but affirmation for simply who I was, or wanted to be. Was what I was doing with my life worthwhile?
In the chapel at the monastery (and in most Catholic churches) is a bowl of water as you enter, and as we would walk in, each of us would dip our fingers in the water … for some reason it is one of the strong sensory memories I have … so that still when I enter a Catholic church, I go to the water, and always, as I touch my forehead, it reminds me of that time in my life.
Why do I remember that? What’s the mystery for me?
Water is all around us, it’s soothing, clean, elemental … this water actually came from our well, out of the earth at our home.
Unlike the Lord’s supper where we regularly drink from a cup and eat bread in remembrance, baptism generally occurs once in one’s life. But I like the idea of sometimes again raising water to my head, to renew that choice made long ago, to reenact that mystery of God’s Spirit dwelling within us, surrounding us as a community of believers.
And why are we baptized in water? Whether it is wading into a river, as Jesus did and likely as some of you did for baptism, or here above us to be “dipped’ under in the baptistry, or for others, like me, having water poured over my head and feel it dripping down over my shirt and neck…
Let me go back to the where we find Jesus in this story, beginning his years of public ministry, of encountering the forces around him– Jewish religious authorities, the Pharisees, the chief priests, the Zealots who were seeking to overthrow the Romans, the Roman soldiers who he must have seen regularly, and of course the crowds of people who came to listen to his parables, reaching out asking to be healed. Jesus begins to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah.
Isaiah 42 is the first of the four Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah that foretell a Messiah, a servant figure which Jesus embodies: It’s beautiful poetry, an image of One who is intimate and tender.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
This is a foretelling of what Jesus embodies as he moves forward into the future after his baptism by John.
It’s a new year we’ve just begun. A new decade even! Happy New Year! We don’t know what the new year holds. There are a lot of big questions.
Questions about the national election which is going to be all around us for the next 10 months
Questions about our planet, about how quickly the atmosphere continues to warm, how it will impact all of us, but especially vulnerable communities, and what our role, our responsibility is in all this
Questions about war, threats of war and justification for killing
Questions about how divided our country or community might be, and how to talk to those who we strongly disagree with
As a congregation, there are questions about our transition to a new conference, forming new relationships with a new conference letting go of the ties we’ve had for many years with Virginia conference
And for each of us personally, I, and you have questions about what the year holds
Some of you perhaps already are aware of what change or challenge is ahead
– A change in job
– Finishing high school and starting college or some other next step
– A transition to retirement
– Maybe some goals you’ve set for yourself
– Even several of you are considering your own baptism at CMC
But for many of us what lies ahead will be difficult, challenging, a surprise or maybe for some a great opportunity that is life-giving and joyful.
A year ago, almost to the day, Deanna and I were leaving for the semester with a group of students to Guatemala & Spain, and one of the things I say over the semester, repeatedly, is that “Travel is inherently unpredictable.” Be open to change.
Actually that’s true of life in general – Can I even say that the year ahead is inherently unpredictable – which can be a cause of anxiety, for worry, for nights when it’s hard to sleep.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
Like Jesus and his beginning at his baptism by John the Baptist, we are also cast forward into the unknown future, with all the questions that come with the unknown…especially young people who wonder what path to take, or where a path they think they want, might unexpectedly take them.
In the midst of our future, can we receive and sense the affirmation of the Spirit of God descending like a dove on us as a congregation?
Can we receive it for ourselves – through the symbolism of precious, clean, clear water on our forehead?
Can we hear the voice of God saying to us, that we – that you – are beloved, that God’s favor rests on you?
In writing this sermon the past week, I’ve heard in my memory over and over, Rene saying, at his baptism, “There’s just so many questions.” Which is what we have to hold in tension with the Spirit who lives and breathes among us.
At the back of the sanctuary, and of course here, are bowls of water. Can we say it’s holy water, because isn’t all water, in our day and age, holy water?
As you go out, or perhaps later this morning, dip your finger in the water, and touch your forehead. If you like, make the sign of the cross, to receive, to be reminded of the Spirit of God within you,
To remember your own baptism
To remind yourself of the mystery of God’s Spirit living within you, living among us as a congregation
That we are a local epiphany of Jesus in this community
That we will be a local epiphany of Jesus in this community this year
And to accept the affirmation that you are beloved, that your presence in the year ahead matters –
Your presence in this community matters
That your presence in our world matters.
Affirm and believe that mystery.[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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