1/13/19: When You Pass Through the Waters, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
When You Pass Through the Waters
First Lesson: Isaiah 43:1-7
Second Lesson: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Scott Dickison
When we last saw Jesus it was Epiphany Sunday and he was just a little toddler being paid a visit by a group of Wise Men from the East. Now we’ve skipped ahead about 28 years and find him as a young man of about 30—still just a baby—who has followed a call down to the river to be baptized by John.
John, we’re told, has been out there for some time, stirring up trouble and proclaiming a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And crowds of people were coming out to hear his message, like a scene out of O Brother Where Art Thou?, with all these people coming down, maybe dressed in white and singing. And Luke tells us all the people “were filled with expectation” as they made their way down to the river. Can you see their faces, as they made their way down to the water to meet John, so many coming down there to the river, each with their own reasons, their own story—their own pain and worry and regret. Their own hope that something would be different in those waters. What led those people out to meet the wild-haired prophet in the wilderness? Was it the same thing that led you or I into the waters? And then there among them, making his way to the river like everyone else is Jesus, son of Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth.
He’s left his carpentry apron at the shop but there’s still some wood chips and saw dust on his tunic and plastered into the hair on his arms and legs with sweat—remember, he’s a working man, but now he’s decided — he’s been called, rather — to leave all that, and to he’s come to tell God and the world the decision he’s made, and so he’s doing so in what must have seemed the only way available to him, making his way down to the river to be baptized by his cousin, John.
And I’ve gone back and forth imagining the look on his face. There must have been some determination — a look of resolve, I’d imagine, of poise. But I have a hunch there was also just the tiniest once of fear. Maybe not so tiny. I mean, this was it. He knew this day would come eventually, and God only knows how he decided it would be today. This is the day his life would really begin, but also the day it would begin to end. And it’s telling I think, that there’s no mention of his mother, Mary, being out there with him, to share and celebrate in this occasion—accepting the call she knew, perhaps even more than him, had been placed upon him. Perhaps because she, even more than him, knew something about what this day meant. Did she dread the coming of that day, even as she pondered it in her heart?
Now those at the river that day would have thought nothing unusual of the fact that Jesus was out there in the waters with them, if they even thought about it at all. As far as they knew or cared he was just one of them—another restless soul trying to find his way through a world that barely seemed to notice. But for us today, looking back on this story with “Easter eyes,” knowing who Jesus is and what would come of his life, it’s a fair question to ask why Jesus should be out there receiving this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in the first place? And even more, with the rest of them; the unwashed, so to speak.
What sins could Jesus possibly need to wash away? What does “repentance” look like for the Son of God? What was Jesus looking to leave behind in those waters? These are all good questions that the church and her critics have been asking for centuries. Some have argued he came down to be baptized to set an example for us—a kind of “Go and do likewise” sort of thing. Some in the early church, taking a more mystical approach, argued that it was through his baptism that Jesus redeemed water and all the rest of creation, sanctifying the waters of all future baptisms. There are other interpretations, but nearly all of them assume that Jesus—Christ Jesus—must have needed to be baptized for reasons separate and different from us. But I’m not so sure that’s true.
First of all, I believe we misinterpret Christian baptism when we make it into some kind of divine transaction, where we repent of our sins, agree to enter the waters of baptism, and have these sins washed away. Baptism is not an entry fee or HR paperwork or hoop to jump through into eternal salvation. Baptism isn’t what saves us, God does that. Of course it is a kind of rite of passage, where we’re crossing over into something new—newness of life, as we say in those waters—but it’s not that we become new or different in baptism. It’s more that in baptism we accept who we have been all along. Jesus didn’t become God’s Beloved in his baptism, it was in baptism that Jesus accepted who he was as God’s Beloved, and the same it true of us. In baptism we accept the blessing which has already been offered to us, that we, too, are God’s beloved. Baptism is an event, it is a moment, but it doesn’t end when you dry off, just like a mother’s kiss doesn’t disappear from her son’s face even after he’s wiped it clean with the back of his sleeve. It lingers. More than anything, baptism is a promise, and promises don’t end as soon as they are made.
In fact, baptism holds many promises. Of course, it’s a promise we make to God, saying we’ve chosen God’s wayover Caesar’s way or our own. That we’ve seen something of God’s presence in the world—some light, some hope, some truth and goodness, and even more, we’ve seen a glimmer of these things in us, and we say, “I choose that in me. This is who I really am, this is who I want always to be.”
But baptism is also a promise made by the community. We Baptists like to point out that baptism is first of all an act of the individual, and that may be true. But it’s also true that you can’t baptize yourself. Not that Baptists haven’t tried, mind you. In a story I relish in telling every year on this Sunday because I think it speaks to the dangers of our baptist impulse toward individualism, John Smyth, one of the founders of our tradition, upon leaving the Church of England is said to have baptized himself before then baptizing his followers. He couldn’t find a church he liked enough to receive their baptism and so he just baptized himself. And it wasn’t until later on that he began to wonder if this made any sense.
Baptism is of course an act of the individual, and a powerful one at that, but it’s also an act of the community, the church. The truth is, you never enter the water alone. This is something else I love to remind us on this Sunday each year. Of course there’s the minister, but there’s also the congregation down there in the water with you in one way or another. If you’ve been in one church long enough you get to experience the depth of how this is true. How many can remember watching a child or a youth be baptized they you once saw held by the minister at the front of the church? Or watched an adult be lowered into the waters and knew the road they’d traveled to get to that place? And how many of us, in remembering our own baptism, can remember all the people who had a hand in getting us there? The teachers and ministers, the friends and choir directors. You may get baptized alone, but you’re never truly alone in baptism. Each of us has plenty of people that we take into the water with us.
But if you look deep enough into those waters—again as we remind ourselves this Sunday each year— you’ll also see that all the generations of believers throughout history who have entered into pools or rivers or lakes, or who have been sprinkled or dowsed or blessed in holy waters, claimed as God’s beloved even before the understood what it meant. They’re all in the waters with you. And when the preacher guides you under the water, it’s not the weight of your own body, but the whole body of the church that pushes you back up.
But baptism is also, maybe first of all, a promise from God. This is the part we forget. God’s blessing is right there at the center of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice comes down from heaven and tells Jesus—we don’t know whomever heard it, all we know is that it was a blessing intended for him—it tells him, You are my beloved. I’m so proud of you.
In fact, you could say baptism is the completion of the blessing, of the promise, God first put on the lips of the prophet Isaiah for the people of Israel:
When you pass through the waters, he tells them, I will be with you.
And through the rivers, they won’t overwhelm you.
When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flams shall not consume you.
Do not fear, for I a with you; I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.
In baptism, we hear these promises of God again. When you pass through these waters, here today, and others you’ll encounter along the way, I will be with you. When you walk through fire, like the small candle flame you hold in your hand, you won’t be burned, and the flame won’t consume you. Whatever may come, do not fear, I have redeemed you; I’ve called you by name, I have called you my beloved. You are mine, you are my beloved, and I’m so proud of you.
This is the blessing and the promise we accept in baptism. And the blessing remains—that promise of God doesn’t end. It’s there for us to remember as often as we need to and be washed all over again. I mentioned on Christmas Eve that the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that what we call faith is really “faithfulness to a time when we had faith.”We remember these moments of clarity and insight, when we felt God’s presence around us and within us so fully, and we hold onto these moments. We remember these moments and do our best to live in light of them. Faith is a work of memory and hope, as it’s so often been said. For many of us, baptism is one of these moments—a moment in time, a kind of marker, when we knew we were God’s beloved. We felt it, we were soaked in it.
It’s why Martin Luther said that we should remember our baptism as often as we can. Every morning when we wash our face, or whenever we encounter water during the day. As we feel it touch our hands or our face or our skin we should remember the waters of baptism and the assurance that comes with them, that we are God’s beloved. That despite what has happened since then, where life has taken us, what we have done or left undone, or what waters surround us, that truth, that seal of God’s love washing over us, still remains. And there will be times when you don’t remember, or when you won’t. But then there will be times when you will. And there will be even be times when you must. And we’re mistaken if we think it was any different with Jesus.
I believe Jesus needed to be baptized for the same reason we do: he knew he would need to hear the blessing of that promise, and he knew he would need that memory. He knew there would be other rivers to go through, rivers of rejection, betrayal, doubt, and he needed to hear that whatever should come, it would not overwhelm him. He would soon pass through many waters, he would walk through fires, but before he did he needed to hear God say, “I will be with you. I have called you by name, you are mine.”
That’s why he made his way down to the water with all those other tired and needy and hopeful, expectant people. And that’s why, even after this Christmas season has passed, we still call him Immanuel. God with us. Amen.
As summarized by Christian Wiman in He Held Radical Light, 34.