A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, CT on January 22, 2016: The Baptism of Our Lord (Year C: Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)
I have been reading Diana Butler Bass’ latest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World — a Spiritual Revolution. I have enjoyed her previous bestselling titles, including Christianity for the Rest of Us and A People’s History of Christianity.
However, she seems to be on a new journey with this book. Beginning with earth (dirt), air (sky), and water, she weaves an engaging story of connectedness ending in the revelation of the divine in the here and now. It is a love story about the earth, and as Phyllis Tickle reviewed, is “an anthem to the sacred unity of the physical and spiritual in the formation of human faith and in the maturation of the human soul.” For me, it is her story of getting reconnected to this planet, our island home, in sacramental and environmental ways.
Perhaps it was just me, but in reading her book (I’m not finished with it yet) and reading the scriptures appointed for today I seen some parallels. From Isaiah we hear the plight of the exiles, living in a dry, if not muddy, spiritually space. They feel separated from and abandoned by God. But they have not been forgotten: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” By being named, their fear should diminish and they should look forward to the one who will redeem them. God offers a protecting hand in fire and flood. God declares a covenantal love. From the north, south, east, and west God loves “every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:5-6)
This is true of us also; for in the beginning, we were made from dust of the earth, formed by the breath of God into living beings. Fire, water, earth, and air are symbolic to the story of God’s people, Israel and us. Diana calls this “the deep spiritual meaning of our human baptism.”
Do you remember your baptism? For many of us – no – we were infants. But do you have baptismal moments? Those places (real or imagined) that you can call up in your mind for peace and refreshment? For me it is sitting on a pristine beach in the Caribbean with my feet in the water, feeling the waves lap over my feet. It can also be sitting outside in the sunshine with a cool breeze washing over me. For me these “happy places” are always places of calmness and quiet – the sound of water, wind, and even the flickering of a warm campfire. Places of contemplation and renewal.
For Diana, perhaps it is her discovery of the riparian zone, the place where water and land touch, as she walks along the Potomac River near her home. Riverbanks are one of the “most significant ecosystems on the planet, as they act as a natural filter, cleaning water as it moves into the larger watershed, and protects surrounding soil from erosion by slowing the course of the river. It creates new soil and provides vibrant wildlife habitats.” (p. 68) She says these are “the most significant geographies for our life on earth.”
Could the Jordan River be one of those riparian zones? John is there at the Jordan baptizing people with water following the Jewish practice of religious purification by immersion in water. But for John, the significance of this rite was one of repentance – that’s not the same as cleansing. Luke offers a new understanding; one that we will hear again and again this year as we focus on his gospel. John speaks of a baptism as empowerment by the “Holy Spirit and fire.” And that is the last we hear from John. Jesus now takes center stage. At this place where water and land touch; a place where new life can be spawned.
Luke tells us that immediately after his baptism, Jesus prayed; none of the other gospel accounts tell us this. While he is at prayer, the heaven is “opened” to declare God’s glory; and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. Jesus is thus empowered by the Spirit for his ministry, as a voice from heaven speaks directly to him, declaring, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Called by name. Beloved.
Luke claims it is not the water that washes and refreshes. It is the Holy Spirit; she works like fire to judge, refine, and purify. Jesus’ baptism of Spirit and fire anticipates the wind and fire of Pentecost when the gathered community was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Ms. Bass says, “Jesus’ baptism is an icon of something we humans all experience – being born of water and wind, reborn by fire, and gathered in God from the ends of the earth.” It is with this history and tradition that we, through Jesus, are chosen and called, named at our baptism.
In the Acts of the Apostles following the Pentecost moment three years later, Peter responds in what we could describe as a Holy Spirit moment – he calls Jesus’ followers to repent of their old ways and be baptized with over three thousand responding dramatically to his call. They are no longer helpless and searching for what to do. They are not those exiles seeking to find their way home as in Isaiah. Their journey of faith would continue beyond that moment. They promised to “persevere in resisting evil,” and whenever they fell into sin to “repent and return to the Lord.” They turned from their old ways of life toward a new way of being, putting the teachings of Jesus into practice.
We get a glimpse of this in our reading from Acts today. While the water ritual was the central part of baptism, the laying on of hands, the “stirring up” of the Spirit, was shared with the Samaritans. Again: water, fire, wind.
For the early church, with words that would eventually form part of the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant, they began a new life––in spirit as well as in action. They “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”
So to be baptized meant taking time for preparation – sometimes months, sometimes years. Brett Webb Mitchell writes, “The primary way of learning was through the senses: aural and visual, touch and taste, feeling and movement. Being a Christian was fully an act of the body and mind.” Similar to the acts of God in nature – water, fire, wind, and earth; acts of renewal and rebirth. And so it remains today. This catechumenal period is something akin to what our confirmands do as they prepare to reaffirm the baptismal promises for themselves. For that is what the Rite of Confirmation is all about.
This is why we come together regularly in worship: to experience the Holy amongst us in bread and wine, considering the implications that has for our behavior in daily life. All of this reflects our faith and belonging to Christ. In baptism, God binds the divine self to us with a covenant promise, and our life in Christ begins. Over and over again in ever maturing ways, we respond by confessing our faith and promising obedience––to follow in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and the prayers. We promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”
From what I understand, the waters of the Jordan River are pretty muddy these days. And such is life sometimes. The spirituality of water may have new meanings today as water has become much more of a commodity in our drought and pollution stricken world. Diana predicts our connection to water and its spirituality will be starkly different in the future. But she calls for a “vibrant, spiritual vision – knowing God as water is not only about clarity and flow, but consists in great part of the muddiness of our own lives.”
Soon we will reaffirm our baptismal promises. After each question we will, hopefully, answer in a resounding, “I will, with God’s help.” For we need God’s help to be disciples of Jesus. God may come to us through still, flowing, clear, or muddy waters. Or with fire and wind. But it all cases, like Jesus, through baptism, we are named God’s own. Even with the dirt under our fingernails, we are named Christian – belonging to Christ, beloved of God.