Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
January 13, 2013—Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Isaiah 43:1–7 • But now, says the LORD— the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you. I am the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior. I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place. Because you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you. I give people in your place, and nations in exchange for your life. Don’t fear, I am with you. From the east I’ll bring your children; from the west I’ll gather you. I’ll say to the north, “Give them back!” and to the south, “Don’t detain them.” Bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name and whom I created for my glory, whom I have formed and made.
Luke 3:15–17, 21–22 • The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Today is the baptism of the Lord Sunday. It is the last of the festival Sundays in the Christmas season after Christmas Day, Watch Night, and the Epiphany. The last time we’ll bust out the white paraments and linens until Transfiguration Sunday. It is a time when we reflect on the Baptism of Jesus.
There are a lot of things that can be said.
We can talk about the prevalence of water in the Biblical narrative: the waters of Creation, the waters of the Flood, the waters of the Red Sea through which the Children of Israel passed, the waters of the Jordan through which Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, the waters of the sea into which Jonah was cast.
We can talk about the baptism of Jesus as the ‘New Creation’ drawing on Genesis imagery of wind, water, light, and word.
We can talk about how we are, as Isaiah notes in our reading tonight, “called by name” in baptism and how we are named in baptism, and how traditionally the baptised person is given a new name as a Christian.
We could talk about baptism is being born anew, and there is a symbolism of the waters of the womb and the waters of baptism representing our being born “from above” as Jesus says in John’s gospel.
We could talk about about diving right in and immersing yourself in the waters of faith, or immersing yourself in the spirit. Taking risks in a life of faith.
We could talk about the cleansing nature of baptism and how baptism represents an opportunity to start over and how reclaiming and remembering our baptism likewise gives us a chance for a new start in a new year and new semester.
We could talk about all those things. I know this because I have talked about all those things. If you’re really bored later, you can visit the sermon page of our website and find sermons on all of those things.
But I don’t want to talk about any of those things tonight. I just want to talk about water.
II. THE TEXT
This is a familiar story after all. It comes up at least once a year in the lectionary cycle. In Mark’s gospel, it’s the first thing we encounter Jesus doing: getting baptized. In Matthew and Luke there are stories of his birth and infancy, but in all four gospels Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism.
In the passage that we heard read tonight, we begin with John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness. John is reinterpreting a Jewish ritual known as the mikveh, the ritual immersion in water. John has reinterpreted this ritual as a sign of repentance for sins. Of purifying one’s life. So there John is by the Jordan river and Jesus comes along to be baptized. John had been saying that one more powerful than he would come along who would baptize with the Holy Spirit as John baptizes with water. John says that he is not worthy to until the sandals of the one who is coming. Jesus comes and is baptized by John in the Jordan. We are told, in the conclusion to the passage, that after Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends on him as a dove and he hears a voice saying “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
That is the story of Jesus being baptized in the river Jordan.
III. HOLY WATER
Now we in the protestant churches don’t really have a tradition of blessed water or holy water. If you were to attend Catholic services, say if you were to come back later tonight here in the chapel, you would see a font with water in the back containing blessed holy water that you could dip your fingers into as you enter the sanctuary. Blessed holy water is often given out at various occasions and used in various rituals. We Protestants don’t have much of a tradition of holy water in that way.
You will find that Protestants, often Evangelical Protestants, will make trips to the Holy Land to be baptized in the Jordan River. This is a big thing as it turns out. There are actually two competing spots along the river claiming to be the spot where Jesus was baptized. But you can choose the site you like and you can be baptized in the Jordan. You can also buy bottles of Jordan water to bring back with you for sacred purposes and rituals.
Now, I had a professor in seminary who scoffed at this practice. “Given the laws of hydrodynamics and the water cycle, the water that Jesus was baptized is as much in the Potomac today as it is in the Jordan.” The water in the Jordan is not the same water that Jesus came into contact with.
But there is something about that place, something about that river that captures our imagination. The Jordan has profound theological significance in Judaism and Christianity, where “crossing Jordan” is a reference to entering the Promised Land and thus a metaphor for entering into God’s kingdom or a state of blessing. That metaphor is found in a fair amount of Christian material and frequently in African American hymns and old revival hymns.
But all of this attention on the Jordan river is missing the point. The water in the Jordanisn’t special. If it’s remarkable at all, it’s remarkable because it’s really muddy. It’s not special in any other way. It’s ordinary.
IV. ORDINARY WATER
There is nothing remarkable about the water in the Jordan river. It does not come from a sacred spring located in an enchanted forest. It comes from melting snows, springs, and swamps. It does not have any remarkable nature to it. There is a story in the Old Testament where Naaman, a general for the King of Syria, is told by the prophet Elisha that to be healed from his skin disease he need only dip in the Jordan seven times. He responds, “Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abanak and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters?”
There’s nothing special about the waters of the Jordan.
In fact, there’s nothing special about water itself when you think about it. Water is made out of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. One proton, one electron. Simple. Ordinary. And when you burn it with oxygen, it turns to water. In fact, the word “hydrogen” means “maker of water”. That’s what water is: the burned refuse of the most common element in the universe.
It’s not special; it’s ordinary.
So what does this mean that Jesus is baptized in the Jordan? In an unremarkable river with an unremarkable substance?
He is baptized in ordinary, often muddy, waters.
I think that’s an important thing for us to know and to remember. What that means is that God can work in ordinary, muddy places.
Like our lives.
We so often imagine that we need to separate ourselves out to encounter God. We have to be special. And there is merit to creating space; to removing the clutter and the distractions of life. But this idea that we need to be extraordinary or to be purified or special in order to experience the living God goes against everything that the scriptures have to tell us. Time and time again God comes to us in the ordinary.
God comes to us in the ordinary things of life. Think about the sacraments: Ordinary water. Ordinary bread. Ordinary wine. The most common things in the world, especially in the ancient world. Here we see that it is in these very ordinary elements of life that we encounter God. And in the muddy places, too.
We sometimes become convinced that we need to rid ourselves of all of the mud in our lives, all of the things that clutter us, the dust and the dirt that we have before God will come anywhere near us.
But as Naaman the Syrian noted, there were cleaner rivers in Syria. Perhaps John the Baptist might have found a cleaner spot than the Jordan to do his work. But it was in that ordinary, muddy water that Naaman was cleansed and that John performed his baptisms.
God comes to us in our ordinary, muddy lives. If you’re worrying that you’ve got to get it all together before you can get this whole God thing, don’t worry: God is already at work in that ordinary, muddy water we’re carrying around. We think we have to go find God. But it is not about us finding God; the scriptures demonstrate time and time again that God comes to us where we are. In the ordinary things. In the clutter. Even in the disreputable.
Those Three Kings we sang about earlier weren’t kings, you know. They were astrologers. That’s what a magus is, that’s what the magi were. There weren’t Persian kings as we like to imagine them. They were charting the stars and looking for clues about the world. It was a profession that was no more reputable in the First Century than it is today. But God uses these eastern astrologers to herald the birth of the Christ child. God comes to us as we are.
Here we are in a time in a new year. A time of resolutions. A time where we seek to begin anew, to start over. And that’s a good thing. That can be helpful. But we mustn’t convince ourselves that it’s because we are not already in a proper state to encounter the Living God. The Living God is already present in our midst. Already present in the ordinary. The water that we will use in a few minutes to remember our baptism is just ordinary D.C. tap water; precisely the kind of water God likes to use. Precisely the kind of place God likes to come.
As we start a new year together, as we reflect on who we are as a community and as individuals, let us bear this in mind: our lives may be muddy and impure; but that doesn’t mean that God is not already at work through them.