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Sermon: The Water That Unites Us

Sermon preached Epiphany I: Baptism of Our Lord at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria on Jan. 11, 2015.

First Sunday after Epiphany; Year B (RCL): Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.

Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

         Water, darkness, and light. These are things so familiar to us that we could not imagine life without them. They are elements so universal to our experience that humanity has fashioned them into symbols of other things, thereby giving them meaning and power. For us, that power is mostly symbolic and not real.   In the case of water, we cannot physically exist without it. When we visit the ocean, we enjoy its beauty but few of us have experienced the terror of being on a boat in the midst of a raging storm. Similarly, darkness is easily dispatched with the flip of a light switch or the glow of a cell phone. The fear of unknown things creeping about in the dark is something children grow out of as they begin to age and start to reason--unless you are Stephen King, who claims to still look underneath the bed every night. Hear again the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

           What comes to mind as you hear those words? How do you imagine this? What does it look like? The most important thing to note is that God is not creating the universe out of nothing. Rather, there is already something there and it sounds very much like chaos. The Hebrew conveys that sense even more strongly. The words for ‘formless void’ are “tohu va vohu,” and for ‘deep,’ “tehom.” Both are related to Babylonian words, names of Babylonian deities that played a role in their creation myths.[1] Here they are gods no longer, but inanimate stuff from which God creates the universe.

           Water of the sort described in Genesis 1, the tempestuous waves of an ocean in the midst of a storm, seems a far cry from the waters of baptism, especially that which we use in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Basically it’s a few drops here and there. It is hard to imagine being afraid of baptism, unless you consider a newly ordained priest wrangling a child around a flower-festooned font at Easter. My friends, the Reeds, would tell you that their daughter Maggie’s baptism looked more like a water boarding incident than a baptism.

           Our baptismal water, the way we perform our sacrament with less than a gallon of water in total and at most a few sprinkles over the forehead, does not convey the rich and powerful imagery of baptism in the New Testament. Paul writes repeatedly that baptism is a means by which we share in Christ’s death: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)


The story of Jesus’ baptism, which is the focus of the our attention each year on the Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany, is an opportunity to re-examine the meaning of baptism. Mark’s version of this story is especially rich in detail and invites us the explore what he thinks the significance of Jesus’ baptism was and to connect that meaning to our own lives. Baptism is a rite of initiation, which brings us into the community of faith, the body of Christ, and as such, it has a liminal, or boundary quality about it. That, too, is downplayed in current practice, but in the early church, the dying and rising with Christ was symbolized by the baptized entering fully into the water naked, and coming out to be dressed in a new white robe. Stripped of all status, power, and identity, baptism washed away the former, not just one’s sins, but all of existence, and offered a new identity.

           Mark symbolizes that transition between old and new by setting the baptism in its context of the wilderness, on the edge of civilization. John is preaching out in the wilderness because his message demands repentance, change of life, that can only take place when one is uprooted from ordinary patterns and structures.

           Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ baptism is dramatic and puzzling. The drama, though, surrounds Jesus, who seems to be a passive player as the action swirls around him. He doesn’t speak or in any way assent to his baptism. Instead we see him receiving John’s baptism and coming out of the water, when Mark writes, “The heavens were torn open and a voice came saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

           Both of these are of great significance. The word translated as “torn” appears only one other time in the Gospel of Mark, at the moment of Jesus’ death, when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. There’s more symmetry in these two scenes as well, for it is the centurion who says, upon seeing Jesus die, that “Truly this man was God’s Son.” (Mark 15:39) This confession is foreshadowed by the voice from heaven here in chapter 1, who speaks not to the crowd, nor to John the baptizer, but to Jesus. Think about that framework for the Gospel—from beginning to end, we the reader know that Jesus is the Son of God, but within that framework as well is the sense that something new has broken in on the old order—the heavens have been torn apart and the curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom. The old world is being remade into something new by the coming of Jesus Christ.

           Jesus comes out of the water and immediately, a voice from heaven comes to tell him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever reflected on that little detail. It’s incredibly important and raises all kinds of questions, but let’s just stick with the most obvious one. We don’t know, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking before this event, what he knew about himself. All we know is what Mark tells us, that he hears while coming out of the water, that he is God’s son, the beloved. We might wonder what it would be like to hear such words, what an affirmation, a blessing. But what does Jesus do next? It’s not in our reading today, but the very next verse reports that “Immediately, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.”

           There are two elements in the drama of Jesus’ baptism in Mark. The first is the powerful affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” It is a statement that confirms God’s choice of Jesus, of their unique relationship, and of Jesus’ unique identity. It is an affirmation we receive in our baptism, in slightly different words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” [BCP 308] That promise should remind us, each time we hear it, that we are God’s beloved children. It should remind us the person next to us in the pew, or the person we don’t like, or people whose opinions on social media make us crazy, or the person who drives a car while impaired and distracted resulting in the inadvertent death of another, or those who deliberately kill in the raid of a satirical paper -- all these are also beloved children of God. At baptism, we are reminded of this part of the affirmation.

           But we can’t stop there. Jesus’ baptism was the first step in his public ministry. He went from there into the wilderness, driven by the Spirit. After his temptation, he would return to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. So, too, our baptism is also a commissioning. A beginning. Baptism commits us to our job description as Christians in the world, as disciples of Jesus Christ. Our creator has affirmed our inclusion in the beloved family -- now we work to hear the second part -- “in you I am well pleased.” God loves us unconditionally and calls us to share that love.

           At every baptism, we reaffirm our commitment to our Baptismal Covenant. It’s important enough that each of us should be familiar with it and recommit ourselves to it regularly. It consists of five questions. The questions differ, but our response is always the same: I will, with God’s help.

           We promise to share what Jesus taught us, to be part of the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.

           We promise to always counter evil and recognize our own misdoings with confession and return to the Lord.

           We promise -- REALLY -- to be evangelists who actively proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

           We promise to see Jesus in all of God’s people by loving them as ourselves.

           We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

           Our baptism sets us out on a journey. For Jesus, it led through the wilderness and to the cross. Our journeys may or may not be as demanding. We certainly don’t know where they will lead us. As we go on our way, let us carry with us the assurance that we are beloved of God, and that we are charged with living out the covenant we make at our baptisms: to share the good news, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to strive for justice and peace for all people.            Amen.

[1] A Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd Ed.; Andrew E. Hill & John H. Walton (Zondervan: Grand Rapids; 2000), 65.