Baptism of Jesus, Year A
Readings: (Isaiah 42:1–9); Psalm 29; Acts 10:34–43; Matthew 3:13–17
We all have treasured memories from our early days. I remember crouching at the curb on our street in Oakville on days in the spring when everything was melting. Water was streaming along, headed for Lake Ontario, I guess. Like many children, I was an amateur engineer, forming dams, channels, a lock system, tiny bridges over the torrent. I vaguely remember having wet mittens frequently.
Water never seems to lose its appeal. Water has another side, of course. Ice forming on overhead branches, water pouring into a basement, a giant wave forcing its way up onto the land—these things are not so much fun, not so benign as water play by the roadside. In many parts of the world, water is a very precious resource, the source of conflict when it is scarce, its absence, or sudden presence the cause for great suffering now that we have changed global weather patterns.
In the bible, water goes from the very first page to the very last, from the waters of creation to the rivers that flow out of the heavenly city to water everything, to give life. Water can be an obstacle in the bible—people fleeing slavery get to the shore of the Red Sea, wilderness wanderers get to the shore of the Jordan River. But according to scripture, it is not an obstacle for long. There is a way through.
Baptism calls up all these aspects of water. Baptism reminds us that we are mostly water, that all life on earth depends on it. It is just a couple of common gases, hydrogen and oxygen, that form this hardy molecule. In it, amino acids can be switched on, so to speak, become self-replicating, and suddenly, life is. Water tempers our planet, absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, burgeons with species.
We float for many months before our birth in a water world, so have a ritual of spiritual birth in water. We imagine sin being like a stain, and so we have a ritual of becoming symbolically clean in water. We need to let an older self die away, and so we have a ritual of death and rebirth in water. We need to become part of the faith community, so we have a symbol that goes back countless centuries, that unites us, in water.
We use the image of baptism to mean an introduction. “He was just a raw beginner until he went through his first set of cutbacks in the office.” “She was just a talented amateur until she went through her first playoffs.” Baptism by fire, we sometimes say, meaning an experience that tempers us, opens our eyes to what’s what.
In Judaism, baptism was one of the things a newcomer had to do, in order to become Jewish. John is doing something daring out at the river, telling everybody they had to repent. He must have offended a great many people even as others heard his call to live differently. Matthew’s gospel works hard to give us the picture of a person who felt reluctant to baptize Jesus. “You should be baptizing me!” So Jesus gets baptized.
Into what? This is the beginning of his public ministry. Sort of. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. A time out, a clarifying of the mission. John just skips that story and goes straight to the calling of the first disciples. And what kind of ministry will this be? A person could read the gospels for herself, or go straight to Acts, chapter 10, where Peter is giving the thumbnail version of Jesus’ life and teaching: he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; put to death, raised from death, appeared (to some of us); commanded us to preach while he is the judge of the living and the dead. “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43)
And there’s the nub. By the time of Luke and Acts, around the year 90 or 95, the Jesus movement has evolved into a religion. The man has been replaced by the legend. In another generation or so, there will be no one left alive who actually saw Elvis Presley perform. But there will be records and tapes, and people dressing up like him and singing like him. In a hundred, five hundred years, who knows what the church of Elvis will be like?
In the case of Jesus, his politics seem to have fallen away after just three generations or so. It all seems to be personal, spiritual stuff in this version of Jesus’ ministry in Acts. And that reminds me of the old joke about baptism, the kind of baptism where both the minister and the person being baptized are standing in the water. It seems that in this town, the preacher had his eye on one sinner in particular, but this man didn’t come to church, and didn’t seem to care about faith. Then one day, as he’s doing baptisms in the river, he sees this guy on the shore.
The minister says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?"
The man says, "Yess, Preacher. I sure am." Slurring his words a bit.
The minister then dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. "Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asked.
"Nooo, I haven't!"
The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, "Now, brother, have you found Jesus?"
"Noooo, I have not Reverend."
The preacher in disgust holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him out of the water and says in a harsh tone, "My God, man, have you found Jesus yet?"
The man splutters and wipes his eyes. He says to the preacher... "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"
What is baptism supposed to do? Finding Jesus, so to speak, is important, but what happened to the rest of Jesus’ teaching? Did all the prophets really testify that the Messiah would offer forgiveness of sins, period? The Isaiah reading for this morning is one of the four servant songs. It looks ahead at the coming of someone special. The servant is the one “…whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” So far, so innocuous. And then in the very next verses, this:
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)
Then we hear God talking about him- or herself:
I am God, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6-7)
Justice, a light to the nations, freedom for prisoners, the opening of eyes. Not a mention of sins or the forgiveness of them. Is the book of Acts quoting Peter accurately here? Is this really the sermon he gave to eager listeners in Caesarea? In Caesarea of all places, where King Herod had pulled out all the stops, spared no expense to create a memorial to himself, a kind of a Sochi on the shore. Roman engineers had just figured out how to pour concrete underwater, so Herod ordered a breakwater on the Mediterranean that could enclose three hundreds ships. It’s still there. He ordered an amphitheatre that seated three thousand. With a skin roof to shade against the sun. He had a palace built, right on the waterfront, the “Promontory Palace,” the “most magnificent” of all his palaces, according to an historian of the time. It had a freshwater pool in it, bigger than an Olympic pool. Take that, Mr. Putin. Freshwater? That needed an aqueduct from Mount Carmel, fifteen kilometres away. The picture is emerging? A fortune in costs, for one man’s ego, at whose expense? Might there be resentment of Roman rulers in Caesarea Maritima?
Would Peter have dared to be political in the home of a Roman centurion who wanted to be faithful? Cornelius had a dream about Peter. Meanwhile Peter was having a dream about what God did and did not permit. He was having his consciousness raised, his presuppositions about who could be a follower of Jesus challenged. Cornelius’ family, cousins and friends are all at his house in Caesarea when Peter gets back, and this is the sermon Peter delivers to them. Maybe. Maybe Peter went further. Love Caesar or love Christ. You can’t have it both ways.
That is all so last millennia, though. The question is always, what does your baptism mean to you? It could be about forgiveness of sins. It could be about daring ministry. It could be about belonging in community, or all of those things and more, all wrapped up together. We can’t channel this water, make it go where we want, deliver it neatly by aqueduct from A to B. The waters of our baptism are not so neat, not so predictable. And as powerful as a tsunami. The blind see, prisoners, the imprisoned part of us, goes free.
Who is acceptable to God? Peter apparently poses this thought in Cornelius’ house. These days we might be inclined to say, everybody. Who would God turn away? Peter tells the centurion and his companions, “…in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable…” (Acts 10:34) Whoever fears God instead of Caesar, that would be. Whoever does what is right. What is right? The key is that, thanks to his dream, Peter now realizes, “…God shows no partiality.” This is huge. No one has a head start on acceptance. No one has an in. Herod? No. The wealthy? No. The connected? Whoever fears God and does what is right. This is revolutionary stuff.
And is the goal just forgiveness of sins? That’s the watered down version. We want the watered up gospel, the one that stretches us, takes us out of our comfort zone so that the world is more fair. We don’t know exactly what is right, at least I don’t. We’re going with the Christ current, trying to be a channel for the Spirit, wherever that might lead. No, that still makes it sounds too tame, like melt water at the side of the road. If we have stepped into the torrent pouring from the font, we may be just happy to keep our head above water as the Christ current takes us…who knows where?