Sermon Seeds: New Beginnings/Into Right Relationship
First Sunday after Epiphany Year B
The Baptism of Christ
New Beginnings/Into Right Relationship
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
When you enter the beautiful Amistad Chapel at the Church House, our national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, the first thing you encounter is a font of swirling water, on a stone floor with wavy lines going out “to the ends of the earth.” You can hear the churning waters throughout the chapel, during a worship service or in quiet, solitary reflection. The entrance to this place of prayer reminds us, we say, of the baptism in which Christians share a common identity in Christ. Entrance to the chapel, entrance to the church.
Often, however, when I stand at that font with a group of visitors, I ask them what associations water has for them in the life of faith. Youth groups often bring up Noah (not the happiest story about water), but invariably the list includes the waters at creation, the parting of the Red Sea, the water turned to wine at Cana, and, of course, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. I usually mention the universal experience of birth, when waters break and new life emerges. While that last example may seem unrelated to church talk, perhaps it’s closer to baptism than any of the others.
It seems that our stories about water, even at its best, often involve power and risk and drama. “Waters haunt all of us who profess the Christian faith,” Frank Yamada writes in his elegant reflection in The Christian Century (12-30-2008): “The human imagination is consumed with images of water.” Thirst is a more urgent need than hunger: we can last longer without food than water. No wonder water, then, has so much spiritual meaning, too. It’s no surprise, either, that water is part of those dramatic, memorable stories about “all humankind” (except for Noah’s family) wiped from the earth, or the chariots of Pharaoh washed away. However, the drama, power and risk are not so much associated with the story of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. In our mind’s eye, it’s a “nice” scene, John dipping Jesus beneath the waters of the river, and Jesus hearing the voice of God up above claiming him as God’s beloved Son, and a sweet dove, the Holy Spirit, hovering above. Even this revelation, in Mark’s story, is a private – one assumes quiet – experience, especially in the reading we’ve customarily given it. A “nice” baptism of Jesus goes well with our own experience of baptizing babies and even adults, a happy occasion, perhaps followed by a party, and not one involving risk or danger or drama.
A little time with this text (and the other Gospel accounts of the same incident) unsettles our comfortable assumptions and stirs our imaginations. For example, if we look closely, the sky doesn’t just open up; it’s “torn apart.” This is not insignificant in a Gospel that uses the same “violent” verb only once more, to describe the temple curtain being torn apart when Jesus died, Douglas R.A. Hare writes: “Mark may have selected this violent verb in order to point to God’s invasion of a sinful world” (Mark, Westminster Bible Companion). Elton Brown even adds a “dive-bombing Holy Spirit” to the scene (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). Jesus and John stood in a long line of prophets, including Isaiah, who had prayed long before them, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (64:1). We also hear echoes of the wonderful spiritual exhorting the people to “wade in the water,” because God is going to “trouble the water.” That’s one way God visited the earth, through skies ripped open, and waters troubled, and that helps us see Jesus as filled with the power of God’s Spirit to do what he was called to do. In fact, scholars point out the similarities of this story to the call narratives of Old Testament figures.
However, Israel knew that God reached out in gentler ways, too. Richard Swanson suggests that the voice Jesus heard was the bat qol, the “‘daughter of a voice,’ the echo by which God still speaks into a world that no longer hears God’s voice” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark). How poignant is that! In this scene, what does God sound like in our imagination? Is God’s voice loud, a booming announcer, or so soft and quiet (remember that “still small voice”?) that we’re required to be attuned to God, to quiet down and wait for God? When the United Church of Christ boldly claims that “God is still speaking,” are we open to hear the bat qol, or do we expect something more striking?
The water, the mud, the torn-open sky all go well with this rugged prophet John, whose dress and preaching style would hardly fit in most “respectable” pulpits today. In fact, this brief story is also earthy: “Here,” Elton W. Brown writes, “is a reminder that the gospel is down to earth, grounded in the real, tactile, sensual, fleshy world. In these few verses are references to river water, clothing from camels, diet from bugs, and tying shoes, a bird analogy, and an interesting weather phenomenon. Mark’s earthiness gives us a hedge against faith and worship that are too ethereal, otherworldly, abstract” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1).
What an interesting opportunity to reflect on our life in the church, where we seem to feel that we need to clean things up and “make” them sacred by taking them out of the “earthly” realm, connecting to it only by saying that our actions and objects symbolize and stand for that river water and the risky immersion in it that baptism represents. Again, Elton Brown asks, “Are our baptism rituals sometimes so nice that we neglect to mention the uncomfortable implications of inviting God’s Spirit to invade our lives?” As much as we have long separated the material from the spiritual, Brown is right when he observes, “The earthiness and the Spirit go together….Spirit is the real substance of God acting in creation and redemption and final reconciliation.” We haven’t lost it entirely, of course, for “Spirit is always tied to material – real water, real bread, inexpensive wine, beautiful baptismal dresses for our children, or soaking robes for our adults” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1).
Perhaps part of the drama of the scene is indeed that vivid character, John, who came preaching baptism and calling the people to repentance, to a return to God. People were hungry and thirsty for God, and they were anxious and eager to experience a new day, long promised to Israel, and here was this powerful preacher telling them to get ready for it at last. So they flocked out there to the river, closer to wilderness than to nice, clean temple, and sought forgiveness for their sins. This in itself was a radical act, because a fringe prophet had no standing and no business getting into the forgiveness of sins. The establishment had that covered; it was their work, their right and their responsibility. In his book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, Marcus Borg claims that John “had no institutional standing. Indeed, he was an anti-establishment figure.” When this troublemaker preached a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” it was more dangerous than it sounds. Borg says that such a message “countered the temple’s claim to be the mediator of forgiveness. John was an anti-temple prophet and, as we shall see, Jesus followed him in this.”
And what about this repentance, this return to God? We most often associate repentance with Lenten observance, and with our guilt, especially our personal, private sins. Borg expands our understanding of the word and in the process, helps us understand this story better. The word that means “being sorry, remorseful, or penitent” had additional meanings in Jesus’ Judaism: “It was associated with return from exile; to repent is to return, to follow ‘the way of the Lord’ that leads from exile to the promised land. The Greek roots of the word suggest an additional meaning; to repent is to ‘go beyond the mind that you have’ – to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about” (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary). This definition of repentance goes well with a deeper understanding of conversion, and they are related. In another book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Borg turns to the classic work of William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, describing conversion as more than changing religions or joining a new church. It can also mean “a process, whether sudden or gradual, whereby religious impulses and energies become central to one’s life.”
This broader understanding of repentance, here at the beginning of a new year, gives deeper meaning to the theme, “New Beginnings.” For example, a member of our new congregation, Amistad Chapel UCC, recently told me that she sees church “as where you can get a fresh start.” She is an amazing music minister and gifted worship leader, and her vision inspires us as the ministry and mission of this brand-new church unfold. (We’re picturing the words “Fresh Starts Here.”) As we reach out in ministry to the city around us and the wider church and world as well – whether we’re witnessing for justice or sending food to our local UCC congregations’ food pantries or engaging in spirit-filled worship or offering extravagant hospitality to the many folks who visit Amistad Chapel, we’re expressing our deep longing and hope for a community, a city, a world that might yet make a fresh start, that might change course and step onto the path toward right relationships grounded in justice, compassion and love. You can imagine, then, how moving it is to read this text, thinking about water, conversion and new life, and listening to the sound of that fountain at Amistad Chapel door, and being surrounded by images of the ship, La Amistad, that ship of justice that inspires us even today on our own path to right relationship.
Remember when Jesus was “lost” as a young boy, and his parents searched frantically for him, finally finding him talking theology with the religious teachers in the Temple? The Gospels don’t tell us anything about Jesus’ life after he returned from that conversation to live quietly with Mary and Joseph. It would be interesting to know what increasing “in wisdom and in divine and human favor” (see Luke 2:52) looked like, but it’s safe to assume that wisdom brought Jesus out to the river, seeking that new day, ready to proclaim that God was “central” to his life. But we know that this was more than a personal spiritual experience, because Jesus specifically lets John baptize him. Borg says, “To go to this figure, as Jesus did, was to seek out a movement of protest and renewal. His time with John was decisive” (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary).
Borg reflects further on this story in his book, Jesus: A New Vision – Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship: “Renowned for his eloquent and passionate call for repentance, John proclaimed that it was not sufficient to be ‘children of Abraham,’ but called the Jewish people to a more intense relationship with God sealed by a ritual of initiation.” Not only does this story place Jesus “in the Spirit-filled heart of Judaism,” but it also puts him right in the midst of a renewal movement that was already underway, and the stories tell us that large crowds have been coming out to hear John and to join the movement themselves. Elton Brown observes, “In part this reminds us that in Jesus Christ [God] does a new thing, but not a brand-new thing. Israel, Torah, the prophets, John the baptizer all prepare the way” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1).
When you see a baby being baptized in church, do you think that he or she is being baptized into a renewal movement? What does baptism mean? Since we are a church with two sacraments, baptism and holy communion, this is an important question as we stand there, at the font. Again, Borg provides historical context: “Ritual immersion in water (both in Judaism and other cultures) can have two different meanings. When repeated frequently (as it was among the Essenes), it has the meaning of a washing or purification. When it is a once-only ritual (as it apparently was for John) it may also be a purification, but its primary meaning is as an initiation ritual which symbolizes and confers a new identity” (Jesus: A New Vision – Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship). Douglas Hare calls baptism “a sacrament of God’s grace,” writing that “John prepares the people for the Messiah by consecrating, or ‘sealing,’ them with baptismal water” (Mark, Westminster Bible Companion).
The meaning of baptism, then, is deeper than what we see on the surface. Have you ever been in a river, or in a baptismal tank, when someone is baptized? Getting soaked is a good reminder of one’s own baptism, bringing home the power of what was once done to us long ago. If we feel the waters around us, swirling and churning, we feel the risk and danger, but we also experience the waters of a new birth. Repentance for sin? Yes, and for more than our private, personal sins. Deborah Krause challenges us: “Are we on ‘the inside’ of the structures of political power and economic privilege? If so, John and Jesus call us to ‘repent’ (to turn around) and to look for God’s presence and purpose on the margins of our communities,” and to experience faith, with Jesus and John, out there in the wilderness. The church is challenged, not just each of us as individuals, “to examine critically our investiture in buildings, traditions, and cultural practices that may not cohere with God’s purposes for peace and justice in the world” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). Couldn’t we say, then, that every baptism reminds us that we in the church are part of an ancient renewal movement rather than an institution?
It’s not easy being part of a renewal movement, as Jesus discovered out there in that same wilderness, right after his baptism, when he experienced multiple temptations to his sense of who he was. Jesus knows what we experience, and that must be why he waded down into the water and wandered in the wilderness. What will help us remain faithful to our own call? F. Dean Lueking tells the story of an anxious Martin Luther, the Reformation leader, “as he struggled through the lonely months of his safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle. ‘I am baptized,’ he would scribble on his desktop, and remember his baptism as he battled back despair” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). We’re exhorted, too, to “Remember our baptism,” not as a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm, but to seek equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, to get our bearings, to remember who (and whose) we are.
Of the many things written about this text, Frank Yamada’s words may pull all this together the best, this remembering and renewal, this power and risk, recalling “the voice that proclaims to a world of conflict that we are all ‘very good’ and claims us all as ‘beloved.’ The Spirit moves in and out of our busy lives, and there are times when I recognize the Spirit’s hovering presence beckoning all to a different order, to a new creation. As I reach for the water, whether in a font or on the ocean’s edge, I find myself trying to connect to the chaotic, life-giving and mysterious power that resides in its depths.” Fittingly, Yamada turns to a poet to express his deep longing: “One day I hope that I can say along with Langston Hughes: ‘I’ve known rivers: ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers'” (The Christian Century 12-30-2008).
Even with a torn-open sky, the words that resound are “beloved,” and “listen,” hardly words of judgment or words that should inspire fear. How do you experience God’s loving faithfulness and care in your own life and in the life of your congregation, today? How often do you think about your baptism? When you do, can you imagine yourself as beloved? Can you imagine each person, child or adult, in your congregation, as a beloved child of God? Would pausing to remember that affect how the person is treated? In a world full of violence and hatred, where is our circle of mercy, safety and love? How does this sense of who and whose we are come alive in baptism? Have you ever felt that baptisms have become for many – perhaps even for you – more an occasion for gifts and parties than a bold statement of faith?
There is perhaps no more meaningful experience in the life of a pastor than the act of baptism, when we pour living waters over the one to be baptized, placing a hand on their head and pronouncing the words, “The Holy Spirit be upon you, child of God, disciple of Christ, member of the church.” The congregation in turn joins in this affirmation, seeing the newly baptized through the eyes of God, in a way, affirming them as beloved, acknowledging them as called by name and precious in God’s sight. This bond shapes us as a community: one United Church of Christ pastor introduces a newly baptized person to his congregation by saying, “In this family, water is thicker than blood.” God has formed us in love and found us good, and yet we see ourselves and one another as flawed and deficient. What would happen if we saw ourselves as created for God’s glory (Isaiah 43:7)?
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Ascribe to God, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to God glory and strength.
Ascribe to God the glory of God’s name;
worship God in holy splendor.
The voice of God is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
God, over mighty waters.
The voice of God is powerful;
the voice of God is full of majesty.
The voice of God breaks the cedars;
God breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of God flashes forth
in flames of fire.
The voice of God shakes the wilderness;
God shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of God causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
God sits enthroned over the flood;
God sits enthroned as ruler forever.
May God give strength to the people!
May God bless the people with peace!
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — altogether there were about twelve of them.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)