“Wind Upon the Waters”
A Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 (with Acts 19:1-7) for the Baptism of Christ (1st Sunday in Ordinary Time), Year B; preached January 11, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
His big brown eyes looked out upon a world he did not want to enter. He was not going to risk putting his skinny, four-year-old body into this strange, scary, unknown chaos in front of him. Nuh-uh; no-sir; thanks, but no thanks.
The friendly red-headed swim instructor—she was as inviting as she could be. ‘Just try it for a few minutes, and then you can get out.’
The boy’s mother was there, encouraging him on. ‘It’ll be okay, nothing will happen to you.’
But not easily convinced, this kid was simply not going to venture into that pool for his first swimming lesson.
A scene like this is probably not hard for most of us to picture. How often have we seen a child who’s afraid of the water? I, myself, though, picture this scene from a bit of a different angle, though—that was my four-year-old self looking out from behind those big brown eyes, nervously examining the chlorinated waters of the Alma High School swimming pool.
Now, I did, in time venture into the waters. In fact, by fifth grade, I was swimming with the middle school swim team (although speed was definitely not my gift—a reality I was reminded of as a couple of weeks ago my partner and I flipped through a scrapbook filled with swim meet award ribbons back at my parent’s house while we were there for the holidays). Obviously, I now realize that I had no reason to worry about beginner’s swim lessons.
On the other hand, though, there’s a part of me that wants to affirm that four year old me, because—at least in some sense—he was absolutely right: water is dangerous stuff.
The forces of nature regularly remind us of the danger of water. Tsunamis in southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina and others on our own shores… and it extends even to water-in-crystal-form, otherwise known as snow, which makes travel hazardous and can cause all sorts of other danger when there is too much of it applied from the sky too quickly.
The aura and mystique of water as something mysterious, ominous, chaotic, or dangerous, it’s echoed through the ages from people ancient and not-so-ancient. ‘The water is where the monsters live,’ the tale-tellers would say. ‘Don’t go too far off into the waters: you might just fall off the edge of the world,’ the antique maps might warn.
Our earliest faith ancestors, the ancient Hebrew people, they were no different as they crafted a story to give meaning to the world’s creation. As they imagined the beginning of God’s creating of all that is, it starts amidst a watery chaos. In the well-worn creation story from the 1st chapter of the Bible’s first book, Genesis, there is nothing else there, no other beginning, besides the ‘face of the deep’, dangerous waters.
The waters could not overcome the Spirit-wind that hovered over them, though, the voice of God that spoke then and speaks still. That Spirit-wind sweeps over them, and the voice speaks, and then… there is light. The Spirit-wind broods and the voice speaks, and then… the waters are pushed aside. God opens up a space of order amidst the chaos, putting in place a dome called sky, separating the waters from the waters—chaos above, chaos below, but here, order. The Spirit-wind continues to sweep over and the voice of God continues to speak… over light and waters and land and plants and creatures… and us.
Dangerous waters would continue to mark new beginnings for the Israelite people. Enslaved in Egypt, they would need to cross the waters of the Red Sea in order to escape to freedom. Just as the creation story tells of the voice that separated waters from waters, so too their story tells of waters parted as they crossed through the Red See. And at the end of their journey, another set of waters, those of the Jordan, boundary between “wilderness” and “promise”.
So here comes Jesus, trotting out to the River Jordan. He comes, a Jewish man leaving behind the trappings of the land of promise, going out to the boundary of the wilderness, and not only going to the boundary but crossing through it. And somehow these dangerous waters have become something different, something more—for in the waters, the voice whispers to Jesus, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Flood waters have become much-needed drinking waters. The torrential storm has brought long-sought irrigation. By the work of God, the symbol of chaos has become the bearer of blessing.
Is it really much different with us? We humans, we the church even (or perhaps especially so), we stand as quite the symbol of chaos when we are willing to be honest with ourselves about the brokenness in our lives. And yet—just as God’s voice swept across the face of the deep and brought forth creation from it, just as God transformed the ancient symbol of chaos and destruction into the sign of blessing and calling forth—so too it is us, humanity, in our brokenness, that God claims and calls to be the bearer of blessing. Baptized in Christ’s name, we join him at the banks of the River Jordan. Washed in the flood of Christ’s baptism, we emerge in the grace of God that claims us as God’s beloved too. “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
In a few moments, we will share together in a Renewal of our Baptismal Covenant and a ritual of Baptismal Remembrance. Particularly for those of us who were baptized as babies, but perhaps for all of us, it is easy for us to take our baptism for granted. It is important, though, for us to take hold of our baptism ever and ever again, as the tangible sign and seal of God’s grace poured out on us. Whenever he doubted his own salvation, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther reminded himself “But I am baptized!” thus placing all trust on God’s seal, rather than in himself, that self which he knew was broken and imperfect.
Even in their transformed state as the bearer of blessing, these waters are dangerous still. Being the beloved with whom God is pleased is good… but it is not easy. The very next verse after the end of today’s reading tells us that this same Spirit that claims Jesus in the water “immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is the beginning of the story. This is his initiation rite, his driver’s license on the road of ministry, a road that leads him ultimately to the cross.
Just as Jesus’ baptism was his entrance to ministry, so too our sharing in that baptism is our entrance into the church and our own journey of ministry. These are risky waters, for they call us to ministry—ministry down paths of mercy, love, justice, and peace in a world of hatred, bigotry, and violence. These are scandalous waters, for they have irreversibly washed over and thus bind together people that the world says just do not belong together: young and old, white and black and latino, farmer and financial planner, gay and straight, rich and poor, well-educated and educated-by-the-school-of-hard-knocks, first world and third world, Republican and Democrat, Catholic and Baptist and, yes, even Congregationalist. These are revealing waters, for in pouring out grace they also remind us about our brokenness, our need for that grace. These are treacherous waters, because once they have washed over us, we cannot relinquish their grace or their call to ministry, no matter what.
Moreover, as we come to these waters remember Jesus’ baptism and renewing our own, we become aware once again that it’s not only the waters that are dangerous. It’s our entire world, our whole realm of existence… but not dangerous in the way you might think.
There is a story told of a time when a biblical scholar was explaining this scene of Jesus’ baptism to a group of teenagers. The scholar told the youth that when Jesus was baptized, the skies did not just open up, as some older translations said, but with the original Greek word used in verse 10, we are told the skies were ripped, torn open in perhaps even a violent way. This was very dramatic and forceful. ‘Get the point?’ the scholar asked the group. ‘When Jesus was baptized the heavens that separate us from God were ripped open so that now we can get to God. Because of Jesus we have access to God—we can get close to him.’ But there was one young man sitting in the front row, arms crossed, making a fairly obvious display of disinterest. Suddenly, though, he perked up and said, ‘That ain’t what it means.’ ‘What?’ the Bible scholar said, startled. ‘I said that ain’t what that means,’ the kid repeated. ‘It means that the heavens were ripped open so that now God can get at us anytime he wants. Now nobody’s safe!’
Indeed, my friends, in the grace carried by the waters of baptism, in the Spirit-wind of God hovering over all creation, in the presence of God come into our world in Jesus Christ, in all of it we see once again the truth that God can get at us… get at us to call us, to embrace us, to use us… and to bless us.
Is that dangerous? Perhaps… but it sounds pretty delightful, too!
Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever. Amen.