Sunday 14 January 2018
Baptism of the Lord
Today we are celebrating the holiday known as Baptism of the Lord. In it, we remember the time when Jesus himself was baptized, baptized by John in the Jordan River. It is often also a time when we reflect on our own baptism, about what baptism means in general, and about the covenant relationship that we have with God through baptism.
Just a moment ago we heard Mark’s version of the story of Jesus being baptized by John, about how he saw the heavens torn open, about how he heard a voice assuring him of God’s love for him. And I want to come back to that in a moment. But first I want to take us on a short detour through another of the texts that we have this morning: the reading from the Book of Genesis.
Genesis 1. The very beginning of the bible. And we all know how it starts: “In the beginning…” In the old King James Version, it reads, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” And then there is a second sentence: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” That is how most of us learned this passage. That’s how I learned it. God created everything out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo, we say in the Latin. First there was nothing, and then God, flash, created it.
But if you look very closely, you might notice that there is something strange about these first two verses of Genesis. In the KJV, first we have a declarative statement: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But we aren’t told anything about how God created the heavens and the earth. That’s what we’re expecting to hear next: how God did it. But the next verse doesn’t tell us. It says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Do you notice it? There is a step missing. We are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, but then, when we get to how that is going to happen, there’s already something there. There’s already a formless, void earth, and waters, and God’s Spirit blowing across the deep waters. How did those things get there?
Part of the problem is that the beginning of the Bible does not actually begin with “In the beginning.” When the Hebrew Bible was translated first into Greek and then into Latin, the translators squeezed a bit of the ambiguity of the original Hebrew out of the text. English translations that are influenced by the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate tend to begin, like the New Revised Standard Version we read today, with “In the beginning.” But listen to the Tanakh Translation, by the Jewish Publication Society, which doesn’t care at all about later Greek and Latin translations. The Tanakh Translation reads: “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.” This story might not start at the beginning. Something else happened before the time God started creating the earth..
The way most of us were taught this passage, we would read verse 1, and then we would mentally skip over verse 2 entirely, and then continue with verse 3. We have it in our minds that there was absolute nothingness, and God said “Light,” and then out of nothingness light appeared. But we can only read it that way if we ignore verse 2 about the formless earth, the deep waters, and the spirit of God. In Genesis, God does not create out of nothing; God creates out of chaos. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t create the chaos in the first place; it’s just that that isn’t what is narrated by Genesis. What Genesis narrates is God creating out of chaos, bringing form to formlessness.
There is a formless earth, an unfathomable deep, a darkness, and God’s spirit, God’s wind, God’s breath blowing across the surface of the waters. And out of this chaotic jumble, God begins to create, begins to divide things up, begins to put things in order. Light and darkness. Day and night. Ocean and sky. Land and water. Times and seasons. Plants and animals. God wades into the troubled, chaotic waters and brings forth a new creation, new life, new possibility. God speaks Light, and there is light. And it is good.
In Mark we find a scene that seems very different than Genesis 1. And yet, surprisingly, it has several of the same elements. There is a chaotic wilderness. There is water. There is God’s Spirit coming down over the face of the water. There is God’s voice from heaven, this time saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; in you I am well pleased.” God sees that it is good.
In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time we get to see Jesus. Mark has no story of Jesus’s birth or childhood. This is his entrance, nine verses in. He comes from Nazareth down to the Judean wilderness to be baptized along with all the others who are flocking to John. And while John says he is expecting someone more powerful than himself, he neither says nor does anything to indicate that he knows that Jesus is the one he is expecting.
Like all of the other pilgrims, Jesus hears John’s sermon of repentance. Come into the waters and change your life. Repent! Turn around. Change your mind. Change your way of living. Turn away from sin and injury and death. Turn toward God and healing and life.
And like all the others, Jesus wades out into the water. To his ankles. To his knees. To his waist. Like the others, he lets the baptizer drop him under. A symbolic drowning. Death to sin. Like the others, he is lifted up, out of the water. Resurrection. New life. New creation. New possibility.
But as he emerges from the water, it is Jesus alone who sees the heavens torn open, ripped like a piece of fabric, the heavenly realm revealed beyond. It is Jesus alone who sees the Spirit come down on him, like a dove, hovering over the face of the waters. And the voice speaks to Jesus alone, “You are my Son, my dearly loved. I find joy in you.” You are my child, my dearly loved. I find joy in you.
We live in a troubled world, a world of uncertainty and chaos. I know that I have felt increasing anxiety as I consider the state of our world. We are once again considering the possibility of nuclear war, a possibility I have not much thought of since the mid-1990’s, until now. We are grappling with race and racism—inadvertent, systemic, internalized racism, yes—but now blatant racism is also back in style. We live in a nation of uncertainty. What is the future of our health care system? What is the future for immigrants in this nation? What is the future for victims and perpetrators of sexual violence? What is the future for our courts, our elections, our democratic institutions? We live in a troubled world.
And not only in our public life, but also in our homes and hearts. What do I do after I graduate high school or college? What do I do when I no longer work and collect a paycheck? What do I do when my age catches up with me? What do I do when my health fails, or the health of one I love? What do I do after the death of a parent, a spouse, a child? What do I do when there is violence in my home, violence in my school, violence in my workplace, violence in my community, violence in my own self? What do I do when I am enslaved to addiction, to greed, to doubt? What do I do when I don’t belong, when I don’t feel like I have a place? What do I do when I don’t feel like anyone likes me, when I don’t like myself? What do I do when I don’t think I am worthy of love? We live in a troubled world.
And in a troubled world like ours, it can be tempting just to close our eyes, to close our ears, to close our hearts, our minds, and our doors. Let me just pretend that the trouble isn’t out there. Let me just pretend that the trouble doesn’t affect me. Let me just pretend that nothing is wrong.
And in a troubled world like ours, it can be hard to see the presence of God. Why is this happening, God? Why am I having to deal with this? God, if you really were here we wouldn’t be stuck in this mess.
And yet, when we find ourselves in the midst of trouble, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, in the midst of the roiling waters of the deep, what does the Spirit say? Wade in. Wade in.
Because in the trouble, in the chaos, in the uncertainty—that is where new life begins. In the churning waters of the deep and the blustering wind, that is where creation happens. In the troubled waters of Bethesda, that is where healing is offered. Through the towering waters of the Red Sea, that is where deliverance comes. It is in the trouble that we find God’s grace. New creation. New life. New possibility.
That is what our baptism reminds us. Baptism is not for us to separate ourselves from the world and it’s problems. No, in baptism, we pledge to go out into the world, to bring God’s peace where there is violence, to bring God’s justice where there is oppression, to bring God’s love where there is hate, to bring God’s faith where there is fear. Our Christian faith does not keep us safe up on the shore; our Christian faith invites us to wade in the water and be a part of God’s new creation, a part of God’s transforming grace. Our Christian faith invites us not only to brave the troubled waters, but also when things are stagnant to trouble the water with God.
But we don’t go in alone, do we? No. God sends us out together, two by two, seven by seven, congregation by congregation. In baptism we are joined together as one people, one family; we are never alone. We are there to catch each other when we fall, to lift each other up when we slip and sink beneath the waves.
Some of you have been wave-jumping at Camp Magruder on the Oregon Coast. The surf there is treacherous. There are sneaker waves. There is an undertow. It would be dangerous for one person to go out into the waves alone. It would be easy to get sucked under and pulled out to sea. But when many people go out together, all holding on to the same strong rope, even elementary kids can wade out into the crashing waves. Together we can withstand the waves. We are strength for each other’s weakness.
And even when we are weak, our God is strong. Jesus precedes us in baptism, and Jesus leads us out into the world, wades into the water with us, as the Spirit of God hovers over us, as we hear the voice speak “Life,” and there is life; as we hear the voice speak, “You are my child, dearly loved, I find joy in you.”
I am not asking you to dive headfirst into the abyss alone. And there will be times for all of us when we need to wade out, to catch our breath, to rest, to cough up that salt water that we swallowed, to warm up and dry off in the sun. We cannot live our whole lives in the waves. Nor should we jump heedlessly into danger with no purpose or without the help and support of community and of God.
But we must also remember that in the trouble, in the chaos, in the uncertainty, in the churning waters, there is danger, but there is also possibility. There is destruction, but there is also a new creation. There is death, even, but there is also resurrection. Wade in. We do not wade into the waters alone. Thanks be to God, through Jesus, our brother, our savior, our light, our life. Amen.