Expecting a Lot from a Little Bit of Water
Jan. 13, 2013
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Rev. Mike Woods
Something about me that most of you probably don’t know: I’m not a lifelong Presbyterian … I was raised in the United Methodist Church. I didn’t become a Presbyterian until I met my wife, and I guess she converted me to Presbyterianism (and whether that was a good thing or a bad thing for Presbyterians, I don’t know).
But I grew up in a small, rural United Methodist congregation in the eastern part of the state of Alabama. And I was baptized in that church at age 12 by Rev. Clarence Monday. The liturgy that was used then wasn’t too different from the one that can be found in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. In fact, in some places, I believe they read the same word-for-word. The candidate for baptism agrees to trust in the gracious mercy of God, to turn away from the sin and evil of this world, to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to be his faithful disciple. There is some sort of Profession of Faith – usually a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed – and then the candidate promises to be a faithful member of the congregation, to share in its work and ministry, and to devote him or her self to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.
There is usually some sort of prayer giving thanks for the gift of water recalling the story we just read from the Gospel of Luke. It usually says something to the effect of:
We praise you for sending Jesus your Son,
who for us was baptized in the waters of the Jordan,
and was anointed as the Christ by your Holy Spirit.
Through the baptism of his death and resurrection,
you set us free from the bondage of sin and death,
and give us cleansing and rebirth.
In saying those words, our baptism is connected to that of Christ over two thousand years ago. The prayer goes on to ask for the presence of the Holy Spirit, to move over the water and bless it so that it might:
Wash away the sin of all who are cleansed by it,
Raise them to new life,
and graft them to the body of Christ.
… that they may have power to do (God’s) will,
and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.
The person is then baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Methodist Church, as in the Presbyterian, does not prescribe a particular method of baptism – the candidate has a choice. People can choose aspersion, affusion, immersion, or submersion. My brother (who was baptized that same day with me) and I both elected aspersion, or “sprinkling,” as some call it.
Being twelve years old, I was entering a time in my life when I was very concerned about my appearance. It was the early 70’s and young men wore their hair long … and we went to great lengths to wash it, brush it, and keep it styled. I did not relish the idea of being baptized before noon on Sunday, and then having to go home and wash and style it all over again before going to Methodist Youth Fellowship at three o’clock. I guarantee you, no more theological thought than that went it making that decision! (But, obviously, now, that problem would hardly be a concern for me!)
But as I think back on the experience now, one of the things that strikes me is, no matter how you were baptized – whether you were sprinkled, dunked, or poured – or by what tradition or denomination you were baptized – the sacrament asks for repentance … it asks for a turning away from evil and a cleansing of sins … for deliverance from death to life, from bondage to freedom, and from sin to righteousness.
In short, we expect God to do a lot with just a little bit of water.
I don’t know if John the Baptist used any particular ritual when he performed his baptisms. I don’t know if he recited scripture, had a prescribed prayer that he used, or what technique he used in baptism. I don’t know if he sprinkled, dunked or infused people. I do know that the stretch of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is a slow, meandering flow only about 20 yards across in some places and only 17 feet at its deepest. It is muddy and full of silt – the very silt that gives the Dead Sea its buoyant quality. It’s not the kind of river that would inspire you to cleanliness … not the place you would expect to emerge from feeling washed and spotless.
When you compare it to other rivers in the world – the Nile of Egypt, the Ganges of India, the mighty Mississippi of the US, even the Olentengy – the Jordan isn’t much to brag about. In the book of 2 Kings, when Naaman comes to Elisha to be healed of leprosy, Elisha tells him to wash himself in the Jordan seven times, and he will be healed. And Naaman looks at the Jordan … and looks at Elisha … and says, “Are you kidding? Did I have to come all the way from Damascus just to bathe in your dirty river?”
But as muddy and silty … as narrow and shallow … as slow and meandering as it can be, there is something about the Jordan that draws people to it … to come hear the message proclaimed by the Baptist … a message of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There is something about the Jordan itself and the place where it is that exceeds what we would otherwise be led to expect.
One of the things I do know about the Jordan is it has always been a border river: in the times of Abraham, it divided the land of Canaan from the land of Ammon; in the time of David and Solomon, it divided the kingdom of Israel from Gilead; in Jesus’ time, Samaria from Perea, and even in our own times, it divides Israel and the West Bank from the kingdom of Jordan. It was where Joshua led the children of Israel into the promised land … where Elijah led his protégé, Elisha, across on dry ground to begin their work together. It has always been a place where one thing comes to an end and another begins. It is a place of transition … a place between two worlds … it is a sacred place … where lives change … where we die to one thing and are born to another.
It is at the Jordan River that Jesus’ ministry begins … it’s where the Gospel begins to unfold. And baptism is where the gospel unfolds in our lives and where our work in God’s ministry begins. For us, as for Jesus, baptism marks the beginning of our journey – it is not the end.
There was a lot waiting to happen to Jesus after that day on the banks of the Jordan. The temptation in the desert is the very next thing that will happen to him, and I guarantee you, temptation is the very next thing that has happened to every person who has been baptized ever since then. Baptism doesn’t mean we will never face temptation again, or even when we do that we will face and resist it as easily as Christ did. What our baptism means is that when we are tempted, we face temptation in solidarity with one who has who has received the same baptism we have – who died for us, who defeated the powers of sin and death on our behalf and rose from the grave, and who has called us his own, so that we face temptation not with fear of judgment but with the assurance of his forgiveness.
As we continue to peruse the Gospel of Luke, we find that after the temptation in the wilderness, things start to get even worse for Jesus! The next stop is Nazareth, his home town, where he’s rejected by his neighbors and a crowd tries to throw him from a cliff! Even his own disciples don’t seem to quite understand the message he’s trying to tell them sometimes … they want to argue with him … they want to give him advice on how they think he ought to conduct his ministry. The authorities condemn him everywhere he goes. And all this happens long before Holy Week where, awaits him, betrayal, denial, and crucifixion.
Why is it we expect better than the son of God? Why do some people think baptism should be the end of their spiritual journey? That, now, everything should be easy? No temptation too hard to resist? That we don’t need to rethink our attitudes about people of other races? That it’s okay to hold onto our prejudices? To turn our backs on the poor? Or that we don’t need to learn to forgive as we have been forgiven?
Baptism is not the end of our spiritual journey – it’s the beginning … it marks what should signify our spiritual birth not our retirement! We still have a lot of growing to left to do! Although we receive baptism only once, there are times in our lives when we may become acutely aware of the fact that God’s grace has been working continually throughout our lives, and we realize we have grown.
The musical Les Miserables, which was recently released as a movie, tells of one such spiritual journey. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, who went to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. Hardened by his prison sentence and made bitter by the injustice he has faced, he seems destined for a life of anger, resentment, and crime. But an act of grace by a bishop gives him a chance at another life … a life where he doesn’t have to be the sinful, angry, bitter person he was. This new life is not easy – he is hounded by his former prison keeper and a group of criminals. He struggles with doing the right thing … he struggles with helping others versus watching out for his own self-interest. He is sometimes taken advantage of when he tries to do the right thing. But at the end of the story, as he sits dying, the conclusion he comes to is: To love another person is to see the face of God.
In the Presbyterian tradition we understand baptism as a symbol … that it signifies something grander and more holy than the few drops of water that are used. And what baptism signifies is, I think, the same truth that Jean Valjean realized … that no matter how trying this world can be, how unjust it sometimes is, or how hard life can sometimes be, we are surrounded by the grace of God. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.