Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, January 10
First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus
Affirmed by Love/Beloved, Be Loved
God, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, mark us with your image, and raise us to live our baptismal vows empowered by the Holy Spirit and the example of Christ our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
All Readings For This Sunday
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
1. How does one "remember one's baptism"?
2. What does baptism mean to you?
3. What is the power of a blessing?
4. Who has been your "John the Baptist"?
5. What does affirmation have to do with spiritual wholeness?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Water, wind and fire: something important is about to happen, and it always helps to have special effects. So far, the Gospel of Luke has been full of important events, especially the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, each one accomplished by God's Spirit moving powerfully in most extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes, people have been afraid – angels appearing in the sky and all. Maybe that's why the words, "Do not be afraid," have already occurred so often, by this third chapter of Luke. Angels have told Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds on a hillside not to fear. But water, wind, and fire have always had the power to inspire fear in humans – just think of the many ways we experienced fearsome winds and water and fire in recent years: tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes, fires that threaten our wildernesses out West and our neighbors next door.
And yet all three of these – water, fire and wind – have a mystical quality, too: water is the stuff of life – beginning with birth, we thirst for it all our days and someday we may fight wars over it. We may be able to live without oil, but we cannot live without water, the stuff of life. Fire brings light in the darkest night and heat in the coldest winter, and harnessing its power has helped us to build civilizations. And wind is the most evocative sign of the Spirit moving among us; the word "Spirit" in our reading from the Gospel of Luke can also be translated as "wind." When heaven was opened, and the Spirit descended upon Jesus, standing there in the River Jordan, the wings of that dove must have felt like a great rustling wind blowing through.
The season for revelation
It's no accident that we hear the story of Jesus' baptism during the season of Epiphany, the season of manifestation, of revelation, of a bright shining light. This story is full of revelation about who Jesus is: imagine the heavens as they open up and the voice of God speaks directly to Jesus, saying, "You are my Beloved." Here in Luke's Gospel, John himself doesn't necessarily know who Jesus is at first. The prophet is in for an epiphany himself, even as he keeps preaching his message of repentance and warning, and baptizes all the people, one after another, as they come forward.
John always seems driven, like any man who's convinced that he's on a mission from God. He doesn't bother with careful or time-consuming "preparation for baptism" classes for these candidates; his entire curriculum seems to consist of fire-and-brimstone sermons. And he doesn't decide whether or not the people are worthy, according to Renita J. Weems: he leaves the judging to Jesus and makes "no difference among them (Jew and non-Jew, rich and poor, elite and marginalized, women and men, Galilean and Bethanite, fishermen and tax collectors, fellow desert priests and members of the Sanhedrin)." So John may be so consumed in his work that he might miss "the one who is to come," right before his eyes.
Jesus, turning to a new direction
We don't know, of course, if the Jesus who appeared met his expectations: in her sermon, "Sacramental Mud," Barbara Brown Taylor draws a stark contrast between the "ax-wielding arsonist" John warns the crowd about in verse 17 and the "gentle carpenter whom the Holy Spirit chose for a roost" who shows up, along with the crowd, to be baptized. She describes the revelation that occurs in this scene in simple terms: Jesus "goes into the waters of the Jordan a carpenter and comes out a Messiah. He is the same person, but with a new direction. His being is the same, but his doing is about to take a radical turn." It's a subtle twist on the notion of "repentance," which means, of course, a turning away, taking a new direction. Jesus doesn't have to turn away from sin, but according to Taylor, he is turning now toward his ministry.
Why in the world would those crowds, with Jesus among them, make the trek out into the wilderness to listen to a wild-eyed prophet warn them about fire and winnowing, and then to let him drag them down into a muddy river to (ironically) cleanse them of their sins and mark a new beginning to their lives? Richard Swanson is the most eloquent of those who describe the desperate and deep hope of the people in those days. He writes that John's preaching doesn't bring them out, but hope does, and he puts Jesus right in the middle of that "multitude of Jews who are all waiting for the promises they heard about from their grandmothers" in a time when "the sense of accumulated wrong is so powerful, the backlog of unkept promises so enormous, that the hopes coalesced into a focused question directed at John: Are you the messiah?" Swanson often speaks evocatively of those grandmothers and their promises, and he also reminds us of the faithfulness of those, including Jesus, who "keep Torah, hold the world stable, and try to point to the goodness of God," even in the face of one oppressor after another. Maybe they've heard about this powerful preacher, maybe they've heard that they can make a fresh start, maybe they're thinking that this might be the moment they have been waiting and longing for.
A scolding to get started
First, though, John yells at them. Or, as we might say, he pulls no punches in this sermon. One reason Luke tells this story is to make it absolutely clear to everyone, then and now, that Jesus, not John, is the messiah. This is obvious when John talks about "the one who is coming," who is "more powerful" than he is: "Jesus has power," Stephen I. Wright says; "John has not." Wright notes that Luke wants to show that Jesus is in line with the traditions--the faith and deep hope--of his people, but Luke also wants to make clear how Jesus is different from the prophets who came before him. Jesus is not just one more prophet in a long line of prophets. The people need to be prepared for the God of their ancestors, who has often acted in history, to do something "disruptive, uncomfortable, unexpected, and, above all, new," Wright says. Today we might say, "Fasten your seatbelts."
So John is not the messiah, and he yells at them, warning them about one who will come with a winnowing fork and a fire. Barbara Brown Taylor says: "Uh-oh, the people thought, knowing enough about what he meant to be afraid….it was going to hurt." And yet the crowds stay, and long enough to get down into the muddy river with him, getting ready for that one who is going to sort things out and purify them of their sins. John uses water to mark this turning away from sin, this new beginning. Like Jesus, he is a good Jewish prophet who knows the traditions of his people, including the cleansing bath taken by Jews for various religious reasons and by Gentiles when they convert to Judaism, according to Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson. Williamson and Allen also note that this baptism by John is about forgiveness of their sins, but it went farther when it "set people apart as a community for the new world."
The "not yet" of "already/not yet"
It seems to me that this makes baptism much more than a personal, private thing between an individual and God, or within a family or a congregation. Instead, it's a powerful bonding experience after which nothing is ever the same, for we understand that we now belong to something much greater than ourselves, this new community engaged with God in the transformation of the world, in bringing a new world to reality at long last. Swanson says that baptism "connects people with promises too big to fit into the world as it is presently constituted"; it's no wonder, then, that we are a people who yearn for the "not yet" of the "already/not yet" of God's reign. This brings us to church, and a moment in church history, if you will, when John "set[s] in motion the ministry the apostles would later continue in the book of Acts," writes Renita Weems. Not that Weems is saying that John the Baptist is about founding the institutional church, but he "staked his ministry on a belief in new beginnings."
Martin Luther, the great Reformation leader, passionately reminded people to "Remember your baptism!" Many (but certainly not all) of us were baptized as babies and can't "remember" our baptisms, of course. But I think Luther meant something bigger than our historical memory of one day. And I have a feeling he wasn't just talking about dressing up in a pretty white dress or suit, having a party and, if we're a baby, everyone saying how sweet we look. In his catechism, Luther wrote, "A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued." I think Martin Luther wanted us to remember each day who we are, and whose we are, and how beloved we are. Even in an age when we spend so much time talking about "self-esteem," don't we still long to hear that we are beloved?
Overhearing the message
When I think of baptism, I remember something that happened to me many years ago. When I was attending seminary, I worshipped on Sunday mornings at a small, African American congregation of the United Church of Christ. The pastor of this church, the Rev. Dr. Leticia Rouser, is one of those unforgettable people in my life, and one of the people who prepared me for ministry. Leticia is well over six feet tall, and when she talked, I listened. I remember one Sunday morning when she announced that several people were going to be baptized that day, but the baptisms weren't going to happen there, in our sanctuary, but up the street, at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, because that church had "a tank." When Leticia preached that morning, she addressed the children seated in front of her, those about to be baptized, and I was impressed that her words — ones that we were, in a sense, "overhearing" — were just as powerful and moving to the rest of us as they must have been to those preparing to be baptized. (It was masterful preaching.)
Then the time came to move from our sanctuary to the other church, and I thought I would just slip away to my car and go back to school. I had never seen one of these tanks and for some reason I was feeling a little shy about the whole idea. Unfortunately, my pastor-mentor had other ideas. As we started to file out of the church, she said, "Come on, Kate, you're getting in the tank with me." I looked up at her. "No, Leticia, I don't think so…." "Oh, yes, you are, you're going to help me baptize these folks." "No, I really can't. I have stockings on." "Don't worry," she said, "we're going to get you all dressed up and ready — come on, girl, you're going with me."
Take us to the water
The next thing I knew, I was up to my waist in water, high up above the sanctuary of a church I had never seen before, and I had on a long white robe and there was a door up to my left and Leticia was in the water, singing, "Take me to the water, take me to the water," and children were coming out of the door up on the left and Leticia was bringing them down into the water with us (my job was to lift them back up to the door on our right, where someone would take them back up and dry them off), and she was baptizing them one by one, and she kept on singing, and I....I was deep in prayer, asking God, "Please don't let me let any of these children drown."
And then something happened. A young woman came down into the water — because, unbeknownst to me, we weren't baptizing only children that day, but an adult, too - and Leticia stopped singing and told the congregation down below that this woman had something she wanted to say to everyone gathered there that day, before she was baptized. To this day I can still see this woman's face and the radiance that shone upon it as she raised her eyes to heaven and said, "I just want to thank God for this day, that I have a chance to start my life over." Leticia started singing again and lowered this woman, radiance and all, down into the waters of baptism, and I found sudden strength to lift her up, or perhaps she didn't need me or my sudden strength, but I wasn't thinking about myself or my stockings or even about drowning anymore, and there was that shining light, that fire, that wind, that glimpse of the Spirit at work right before our eyes that day, in that place.
Inscribed on the palm of God's hand
Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God's grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life over. Just like those crowds coming out to the wilderness so long ago, with Jesus right there in their midst. The voice from heaven says, "You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God's words from Isaiah long before: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you" (43:1b, 4a).
God remembers us, Isaiah says; in fact, God reassures us, "I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands" (49:16). God's love didn't start yesterday, or even in the New Testament. It is ancient, before time, it is from of old, and it is focused on each and every one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. It's as if God is trying to say to each one of us, "No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don't you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God." The next question, then, is how well we acknowledge that "belovedness" in all of God's children, not just in us, not just in those we love and can "accept" in the circle of God's grace.
A "pure intention of blessing"
One of my favorite books is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. The narrator of the book is an elderly minister who knows he's about to die after a long and faithful but fairly quiet life as a pastor. He's writing to his young son, the child of a late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman, about things like watching his little boy play in the sprinkler, and a young couple walking in the rain. Water, the stuff of life. But he also tells the story of one of his childhood exploits as a preacher's kid who, with another PK, decided to baptize a litter of kittens. The boys took this all very seriously, he says, but the mother cat didn't appreciate what they were doing with her babies, and she interrupted their little service and took the kittens away right in mid-baptism.
Afterward, the preacher's little boy tries to reflect theologically on what had happened that day, but when he asks his father the pastor--theoretically, of course--about baptizing cats, he gets a stern lecture about respecting the sacraments. The boy, of course, felt that they had been respectful, for "we thought the whole world of those cats." Now, at the end of his life and after many years of baptizing the faithful of his flock, the old pastor looks back on that day from his childhood, and he remembers the feel of "those warm little brows," experiencing the difference between petting a cat and touching it "with the pure intention of blessing it."
Robinson's narrator connects blessing to baptism, which "doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it…" (Gilead). This story reminds me of my favorite moment in baptism, when the pastor places her hand on the head of the newly baptized person and says, "God's blessing be upon you, child of God, disciple of Christ, member of the church."
There is something so embodied, so incarnational, about baptism. In Preaching the Gospel without Blaming the Jews, Clark and Williamson say that "Jews in antiquity valued hearing more than engaging the other senses," but this story, and the story of all of our baptisms, has so much more than just hearing. In the first place, the people come out to the wilderness and see something of a wild man. Then, after they listen to John, they don't have intellectual discussions about what he has just said, and they are spared today's pundits who would want to explain to them what John meant. No, instead, they get down in the river and feel the water and the mud and John's hand upon them. They bring their whole selves, to be washed clean and made new, not just on their own, but again, as part of a new people, in a sense, longing for what is about to be.
God, identifying with us
Kim Beckmann observes the difference between "the Pentecost tongues of fire" and the "bodily, enfleshed form as a dove [in which] the Spirit appears." Jesus' own baptism is an epiphany that reveals that he is fully human and fully divine, even though we mostly forget about the first part. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that Jesus "took the plunge right along with the rest of us" and "never asks us to go anywhere he has not been first." Ann M. Svennungsen also describes Jesus in the water with us and calls it a sign of the God "who identifies with people who are sinful, broken, and overwhelmed." Stephen Wright goes even farther, saying that Jesus "identifies totally with his compatriots' sense of shame and yearning for a new start in the humiliating ritual of baptism." I have never heard the word "humiliating" associated with baptism before; how does it strike you?
Together, in the water. We return to the image, then, of the church into which we are baptized, this new people we have become. Svennungsen's lovely reflection speaks of "the voice of grace" as "the abiding melody that runs" through our lives, despite the noise that assaults our senses every day, telling us very different things. In worship, we find some respite from all that noise, and have a chance to "hear anew the abiding melody" of "God's unconditional love." What is the "abiding melody" that runs through your life? Can you hear the melody of God's love, in your own life and in the life of your congregation?
Fire, wind, water
Blessing. Beloved. Fire, wind, and water: life is utterly mysterious and yet, here in the unknown, here in the midst of all that might make us afraid, God is near to us, just as God was near to Jesus as he stood there in the River Jordan, with so much still ahead of him. As he moved ahead through it all, step by step, he knew that he was God's Beloved Child. Whether we can remember our baptismal day or not is less important than whether we can remember that we too are blessed and beloved. And even if we have not yet been baptized, we can rejoice that we are beloved and blessed, for baptism, as Gilead's narrator reminds us, is a blessing that doesn't make us or our lives sacred but acknowledges, recognizes that we are filled with grace. It doesn't matter if the sky opens up and the voice of God can be heard, for the Spirit is truly in our midst.
In this Epiphany season, there is no doubt that we will be blessed to witness the workings of God's Spirit in many and marvelous ways, from the smallest kindnesses to great healings, from stories of reconciliation and newfound faith to visions of ministry in this world that God loves. The life of faith is also a life of surprises, and Renita Weems suggests the possibility of one of them: "You may just find yourself standing waist deep in waters with a stranger," she writes, "hearing voices, seeing doves, feeling an odd glow within, and discovering things about others and about yourself your soul has yearned for years to know" (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001). Something important, then is definitely about to happen!
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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For further reflection
Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
"Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."
Payne Best, 20th century
"Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive….He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and close."
Victor Hugo. 19th century
"What a grand thing, to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!"
Hans Urs von Balthasar, 20th century
"The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God."
E.E. Cummings, 20th century
"For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It's always our self we find in the sea."
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
"Life in us is like the water in a river."
Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century
"Water is the driving force in nature."
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