Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Baptism of the Lord
January 12, 2020
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
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.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, 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.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands.
The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labour,
I will gasp and pant.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind
by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.
They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame—
those who trust in carved images,
who say to cast images,
‘You are our gods.’
Listen, you that are deaf;
and you that are blind, look up and see!
Who is blind but my servant,
or deaf like my messenger whom I send?
Who is blind like my dedicated one,
or blind like the servant of the Lord?
He sees many things, but does not observe them;
his ears are open, but he does not hear.
The Lord was pleased, for the sake of his righteousness,
to magnify his teaching and make it glorious.
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
all of them are trapped in holes
and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
a spoil with no one to say, ‘Restore!’
Who among you will give heed to this,
who will attend and listen for the time to come?
Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler,
and Israel to the robbers?
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
in whose ways they would not walk,
and whose law they would not obey?
So he poured upon him the heat of his anger
and the fury of war;
it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand;
it burned him, but he did not take it to heart.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
As we saw in the conversation with the children, not everyone remembers their baptism. The United Church tradition, along with the Roman Catholic, and Orthodox and many other Christian denominations, is that you baptize a baby. Baptists, Pentecostals and some other groups offer baptism only to teenagers and adults, who are old enough to make their own profession of faith. Anyone who comes to Christian faith as an adult is, of course, baptised as an adult. For a teenager or an adult, baptism signifies a decision, a new commitment. It’s the sacrament by which you become a Christian. So that would be memorable. But for those baptized as babies, not really. For many of us, even though baptism is considered central to the Christian religion, we don’t have much of a sense of what it actually was, or a memory of how it felt.
No one really knows why Jesus was baptized. It isn’t clear in any of the gospel stories about his pilgrimage to see his cousin John why he is so set on it. We are told that the people came out from Jerusalem and all the villages of Judea to hear John the Baptist, and to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. But that doesn’t seem like the right motivation for Jesus – tradition says he was sinless. And he wasn’t joining an existing baptism movement or starting a new one – after this scene, Jesus makes only one brief reference to baptism in only one Gospel, in a passage whose authenticity is disputed. He never preached about baptism, never explained it – nothing in the sermon on the mount or the farewell discourses. We don’t see any of the disciples being baptized. We know from various other stories about Jesus that didn’t put much stock in other Jewish washing rituals. And John himself said that what Jesus would be doing would be baptizing with Spirit, not water. It wasn’t until after he had died that his followers began to consider baptism with water to be a key component of Christian practice.
Even so, as we heard in the passage from Acts that Jane read, something happened that day that become foundational, not just for Jesus himself, but for everyone drawn to his message. In that moment of truth at the Jordan River, his ministry was named and affirmed and consecrated, in a way that set the pattern for all Christians.
But what is the pattern? You can identify at least four elements of it. First, baptism with water says to us, as it said to Jesus, you live on earth. You are flesh and blood, hair and bone and water. Your spiritual life and your physical life are intimately bound together, and God’s love for you includes your body. God’s call to you is not a call out of the world, but into it; you are called to live a life in which you can be sprinkled or drenched by the spirit, a life in which your sins will need to be washed away, your soul will need to be refreshed, and it will not be a head game. You will gasp for breath, and your feet will be in the mud. Recognize that because God loves this muddy world, you too should love the world – that your call is to compassion for your fellow beings and for the earth itself. Baptism is a Christian way of saying, be here now. Embrace the concreteness of the day and give thanks.
Second, in all the versions of Jesus’ baptism we hear that God calls him beloved. In baptism we are invited into that love, affirmed as beloved children of God. And we are assured that that love has the power to reconcile. God’s love for us isn’t just a light buzz in the background. It is an active reality on which we can rely for help – for correction, for forgiveness, for consolation, for inspiration. Even more, God’s love is creative in our lives – and here perhaps we part company with some of the traditional interpretations of baptism. God’s love in baptism doesn’t serve as an eraser of sins, or somehow pre-approve us against some judgment day. It’s not just a tally sheet. And in our understanding, it absolutely does not put us in some saved category from which others are excluded. Instead, our baptism affirms that God’s love will provide the nutrients we need for growth and flourishing.
The third thing about baptism we learn from the story of Jesus at the Jordan is that baptism puts a claim on you. It’s not just a stamp of approval or an endorsement. Jesus baptism comes at the very beginning of his ministry – the dove’s arrival is the signal, but it is also the launch. Okay, now off you go, says the Holy Spirit. In baptism, even of a baby, we affirm that our future is to be defined by God’s love. We recognize the obligation, accept that a Christian is called to do something. Called to do something, but not alone. The bond established in baptism challenges the idea that our destiny is entirely in our own hands. It contradicts our North American notion that everything rests on our vision, or our commitment, or our goodness and self-sufficiency. It summons us forward, even not completely knowing where to go.
A fourth part of the pattern established by the baptism of Jesus is the reversal that became a signature of his ministry. When Jesus appeared at the Jordon, John knew who he was. Wanted Jesus to baptize him. Said he wasn’t worthy to help Jesus take off his sandals to enter the water. But Jesus insisted, made himself the supplicant. Showed that he was indeed the one described in Isaiah. Not a conquering hero but a humble, persevering servant, a bringer of love and justice, who would fight not with a sword but with compassion. A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench. Baptism invites us not to glory but to humility, encourages us not to grow weary.
Whether we remember our baptism or not; even whether we have been baptized or not, we can affirm with this story that we are of the earth, that we are loved by God, that we are called to care for the world, and called to serve with humility. After he came up form the Jordan, Jesus embarked on his adventures, and never looked back. The first thing he did was head into the wilderness. May it be so with us as we remember our baptism.
(Photo Credit: pixabay)