Ripped-open skies and troubled waters
Sunday, January 7
First Sunday after Epiphany Year B
First Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Baptism of Christ
Holy God, creator of light and herald of goodness, at the waters of baptism you proclaimed Jesus your beloved Son. With the baptized of every time and generation, may we say yes to your call of repentance and be led to the life of abundance we experience in your kinship and your love. Amen.
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.”
All readings for this Sunday:
1. How does a sense of who and whose we are come alive in baptism?
2. How often do you think about your baptism? When you do, do you imagine yourself as beloved?
3. How would you see baptism differently if it meant being baptized into a renewal movement?
4. Have baptisms become for many people an occasion for gifts and parties rather than a bold statement of faith?
5. What does baptism mean to you?
by Kate Matthews
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 would stand at that font with a group of visitors, I’d ask them what associations water had for them in the life of faith. Youth groups often mentioned Noah first (not the happiest story about water), but invariably the list included 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 mentioned 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.
Power, risk and drama
Our stories about water, even at its best, have a kind of 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.” Our beautiful images of baptism, or of God “leading us beside still waters” (Psalm 23) are balanced by the nightmares that must haunt survivors of natural disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes and floods.
For example, think of the book and movie, “The Perfect Storm,” and the image of a little boat, struggling against a mighty wave. It’s no wonder we use the word “engulfed” when we’re talking about being overwhelmed by something. It’s no surprise, either, that water is part of those dramatic, memorable stories in the Bible about “all humankind” (except for Noah’s family) wiped from the earth, or the chariots of Pharaoh washed away.
Sensing troubled waters
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.” Can you imagine what a “torn apart” sky would look and feel like, and how we would respond? 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.”
God, visiting the earth
Elton Brown even adds a “dive-bombing Holy Spirit” to the scene! 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 ripped open skies and troubled waters, 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.” 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?
A rugged prophet, John
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. This is an “earthy” story: “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.”
What do you think would happen if someone dressed (and smelling) like John came into one of our churches on Sunday morning, and took a seat up front? And then, what if he walked up to the pulpit and started preaching repentance?
Do we “clean things up” in the church?
What an interesting opportunity to reflect on our life in the church, where we tend 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,” Brown says, “is always tied to material–real water, real bread, inexpensive wine, beautiful baptismal dresses for our children, or soaking robes for our adults.”
This man John
Part of the drama of the scene is 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 (wasn’t the temple all about being clean?), 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. Marcus Borg claims that John’s “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 antitemple prophet and, as we shall see, Jesus followed him in this.”
Repentance and return to God
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.”
This definition of repentance goes well with a deeper understanding of conversion, and they are related. Elsewhere, 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.”
Yearning for a fresh start
This broader understanding of repentance gives deeper meaning to our yearning for a fresh start at the beginning of another new year. I remember when a member of our new congregation, Amistad Chapel UCC, 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 is inspiring as the ministry and mission of that brand-new church continues to unfold. (Someone suggested the words “Fresh Starts Here” on our sign out front.) She makes everyone feel that they, too, are beloved in God’s eyes.
As this small congregation–a mustard seed-church like so many today–reaches out in ministry to the city around it and the wider church and world as well–whether witnessing for justice or sending food to local UCC congregations’ food pantries or engaging in spirit-filled worship or offering extravagant hospitality to the many folks who visit the Church House and its Chapel, they’re expressing a 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.
Water, new life and belovedness
You can imagine, then, how moving it was, as the pastor, to read this text, thinking about water, conversion and new life, and listening to the sound of that fountain at Amistad Chapel’s door, and being surrounded by images of the ship, La Amistad, that ship of justice that even today continues to inspire everyone who walks through the glass doors of that place of worship and community, each on their own path to right relationship and yet joining with others to share the journey and the struggle. But first, they hear that they, too, are beloved. On my last Sunday as pastor of Amistad Chapel UCC, I was honored to baptize three children in the graceful baptismal font at its door, assisted by the first person who was ever baptized there, a young man who was a founding member of the congregation.
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 with “the teachers” in the Temple 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; perhaps it was wisdom that 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. 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.”
The meaning of baptism
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.”
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.
Joining an ancient renewal movement
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. ‘Come out to the wilderness,’ John and Jesus proclaim. ‘See what faith looks like from out here!'” Couldn’t we say, then, that every baptism reminds us that we in the church are part of an ancient renewal movement, out on the margins, rather than an institution, at the centers of power?
It’s not easy being part of a renewal movement, as Jesus discovered out there in the wilderness, right after his baptism, when he experienced multiple temptations to his faithfulness to his call and 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.” 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.
Knowing rivers, ancient and deep
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 and belovedness, reminding us that “[t]he 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).
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)?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Julian of Norwich, 14th century
“And thus I understood that any man or woman who deliberately chooses God in this life, out of love, may be sure that he or she is loved without end….Some of us believe that God is almighty and may do everything, and that [God] is all-wise and can do everything, but that [God] is all love and shall do all, that we fail to see.”
Lao Tzu, 6th century B.C.E.
“Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.”
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 20th century
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
Billy Graham, 20th century
“One of the things we desperately need is a spiritual renewal in this country. We need a spiritual revival in America.”
Liturgy Training Publications
“When the convert emerges from the water, the world seems changed. The world has not changed, it is always wonderful and horrible, iniquitous and filled with beauty. But now, after baptism, the eyes that see the world have changed.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“Sometimes grace works like waterwings when you feel you are sinking.”
Jan Richardson, 21st century
“That the small-g graces flow out from Big Grace and come to meet us in the midst of our daily life, helping us know we are beloved and inspiring us to respond in love to an often graceless world.”
Marilynne Robinson, 21st century
“Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.”
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Faith Formation Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, � 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is � 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.