“Through the Waters”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Summerville Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2008
Baptism of our Lord
Through baptism Christ shares in our sufferings and we in his divinity. This transformation is both complete and unfulfilled in the same moment. It is complete in that it is God’s action, and it is unfulfilled in that our actions are to be in response to the grace we have received.
I don’t know if any of you consider yourselves water people. You know… happier on a beach than in the woods, unless there happens to be a creek nearby. My mother is personally convinced she has sea salt in her veins. As for me, I am happier in a canoe than just about anywhere. I come by it honestly. I had a pool in the back yard as a child. My father’s parents had a house on Lake Burton. My mother’s parents lived on a creek in Western North Carolina. Oh… that cabin had a tin roof, and nothing was better than an afternoon nap with the waters of heaven singing you to sleep and the waters of the earth laughing you awake. It is this image of flowing water that I want you to keep in mind while we talk today. Consider a river you’ve been to or just imagine one you would like to see. Consider its invitation, its whimsy, its power, and its purpose… and let us float down it lazily together this morning. Hopefully there wont be a lot of babbling, and please do watch out for the rapids. I just get excited sometimes!
In some way we all are water people. Our bodies are between 45-75% water, depending on composition. In creation it all begins with the waters. In fact the Hebrew text simply says that the earth was formless and void, tovu vavohu, before the dome is created to separate the waters from the waters. The waters are then “gathered up” to reveal dry land. This gathering up, or “Mikvah”, of water for God’s purposes is where the concept of baptism originates in Hebrew traditions, and it follows in our own.
Our passage today, and this date in the lectionary calendar that we celebrate… This is a celebration, right? Are we a joyful people? Are you feeling festive? Good! Anyway, our reason for celebrating is the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. You know, the one who knew no sin who became sin on our behalf… the perfect one… God’s chosen… our Messiah… so perfect he was born of a virgin who, by church doctrine at least, remained a virgin perpetually because of his holiness. Yeah, that guy. John called the people to repent, and here comes Jesus. Does that strike you as strange? Why baptize Jesus?
Let’s look at this historically. The tradition of baptism was long standing at that point, but it had a variety of forms and functions. Primarily it was a ritual of cleanliness that was intended to clean a person physically and spiritually, for the two were connected. That may seem superstitious to our post reformation, post industrial, post modern ways of thinking, but for a people whose idea of sanitation was far more limited than ours it was not. Scholars suggest that baptism followed three main courses. There were personal rituals that did not require a priest or priestess but had certain actions including songs and prayers that made them more of an act of devotion than simply hygienic. There were Levitical rituals in preparation for holy festivals or to cleanse someone from a sinful action or a bodily function that may have been natural but could have encouraged disease in that day and age. And there were rites that were performed by priests when a person joined a religious sect.
John’s baptism is more than likely understood as one of the latter. John is not a priest, but his father was. So he is of the line of priests. His baptism is one that is calling for repentance, focusing on spiritual cleanliness, and he is also gaining a following. Though John is not a rabbi, he is functioning within the rabbinic tradition. A rabbi’s disciples do not just follow him, they emulate him. They want to be him. When Jesus comes before him, John knows these things and is humbled. John’s baptism of Jesus is therefore one of obedience, his to Jesus and Jesus’ to God. Jesus is baptized in repentance so that all will know that the baptism he offers requires repentance as well. Something else we have to remember about this Jesus. He does nothing for himself. He knows that he is here to physically take on the sin of this world, and this is his first real step toward the cross. The sins he repents for our ours alone.
Because of this, Jesus’ baptism is about righteousness. It is about setting things right that were wrong. It is about making a way for all of us to be in a relationship with the most holy God of the universe. In this way it is about the fulfillment of prophecy. Mathew 2 ends with Jesus and his family moving from Egypt to Jerusalem to fulfill the prophecy of the Nazorean Messiah. As we read in Isaiah 42:1-4, we realize God is saying, “This is my chosen one who is here to bring about justice! This is him!”
It is in Christ’s obedience, in his bearing of our burdens, in his submersion under the water that we experience death in the life giving action of our own baptism. That’s a big concept, and I don’t think I really understood that before a few months ago. My father has been battling lymphoma for several months, and it is not going well. Through it God has gifted us all with some holy and wonderful moments. A few months ago I was visiting with my father, and I asked if he was struggling with the “why me” question. He said, “No, not really. I know that God is with me. Maybe it is enough reason for you to hear me say that and to share it with others.” My father will die from this cancer, and as he goes under the water of disease and even death he is yet confident of God’s love and God’s presence in his life.
And if he can do that… who am I to say that it should be any different with me? I would love to stop right there. Wouldn’t you? Not so that we can get out before the Baptists, but because it just takes so much of me to surrender to God that I hardly ever get past that. But confidence in God’s love is only part of the gospel, friends. There is yet a response required by each of us to finish the story. You see, Jesus did not just go under but came out of the water. The heavens opened, and God’s Spirit descended upon him, and God said, “Hey! Listen up! This is the guy. This is my son, with him I am well pleased.” In a way this again follows the line of Isaiah 42:1-4, but it is also a reflection of 5-8, where God is saying, “No one else made stars. No one else deserves the credit for the fact that you are breathing!” God announces Jesus in a way that only God can. God says, “This is me you are dealing with.”
Now here’s a place I want us to rest in an eddy for a moment. That’s a spot where the river circles back on it’s self, creating a calm spot in the middle of rough waters. I want to touch back on the thought of Jesus’ baptism requiring repentance, experiencing death through the waters, and our practice of infant baptism. Just to be clear, we understand baptism as a means of grace through which we enter into the community of faith. If a young person or and adult comes into our fellowship who has not been baptized, repentance is required before the action of baptism. With an infant or young child, we make those claims on that persons behalf and promise to raise him or her in the faith so that one day a public profession of faith can be made. But baptism in and of itself is not an action. It is a state of being. It cannot be undone or redone. Just as our DNA defines our physique, baptism defines us as members of Christ’s body. It is a constant reminder that our salvation comes from Christ’s actions alone and not our own. Our life practices then are a response to the free gift of grace we have as baptized Christians.
Baptism is a recognition of God’s actions through Christ, and a public witness to our desire to respond. Knowing ourselves as baptized Christians means that we are a people who know that the only way to live fully is through turning from sin daily and turning toward God. That’s what it means to repent and to be dead to sin. Every baptism is a chance for those who witness it to reaffirm their own relationship with God. So it is our knowledge of being baptized that matters more than our memory of it. I say this because I have experienced several remembrance of baptism services in recent years and felt there was always an air of supremacy held by those who do remember their baptism. The rest are told, “It’s OK if you don’t remember. God loves you just the same.” Never once have I heard about the value of being immersed in a community of faith from infancy. And that’s what we are friends. We are a community of the faithful who want to be like Christ.
This Christ who immediately after baptism was driven into the wilderness... This Christ who was obedient unto death, even death on a cross… This Christ who beckons each of us to pick up a cross and follow him. So that we might have a life that is truly living… A life that even death cannot harm or hinder. You see, in this way the heavens have been open to you, and God’s Spirit has descended on you. God’s voice calls to you and says you are my son. You are my daughter. With you I am well pleased.
In his book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli talks about meeting with church sessions helping them understand youth ministry not as a program but as a platform for God to be in a transforming relationship with teens… a relationship that may force them to be unpopular, to recognize injustice, and even to challenge it. He is saddened by church leaders that say, “We don’t want them to be Jesus. We just want them to know the Ten Commandments and have Christian values.” And he is challenged when his own four-year-old son asks what it means to be a Christian. He tells his son it means “being a little Christ” and trying to do what Jesus did. After an exciting prayer in which they asked God to accept his son as a Christian he went to turn out the lights. Meanwhile his son says, “Dad, didn’t Jesus get killed?” “Well yes, son, but God raised him.” Mike replies confidently. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be a Christian.” Well that’s it, isn’t it? Transformation sounds great, but none of us really want to let go of the things that help us feel in control.
Mike also writes of a colleague who calls him, devastated because her 19-year-old son has decided to go to Iraq with a group of Christians who are going to stand in solidarity with Iraqis. The son answers her protests by saying, “Isn’t this what we have been talking about in church all of my life?” She confides later to her friend, “If I had known it would come to this I would have kept him away from the church and raised him to be Chip-n-dales dancer!”
This is where I get out of the boat, though if my words ring true of the Gospel they will continue on. Here in Summerville, y’all have a lot going for you. You have a great website and a wonderful vision: A town with a history, a city with a future! Your congregation has a new pastor and a new relationship with an old friend in the Beersheba congregation and the Cohutta Parish. And you have sense for what’s at stake, and that is the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind. Our Book of Order states that the church is to proclaim the Gospel even at the risk of its own life. So if your vision is one of property maintenance… it is too small. If your vision is one of holding on to, or simply passing on, your traditions… it is too small.
My hope for you is that the baptismal font in this sanctuary will get some action, whether by new membership or remembrance of old. Because today’s scripture reminds us all that God has a claim on our lives, and that God calls us beloved! Will you look at someone and say, “You are God’s beloved!”? Our scripture reminds us that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again! Say that with me, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again!” Now say this with me, “I have died, I have risen, I will start again!”
Come again to the waters of baptism. Remember that God’s grace has been foolishly, lavishly, but not wastefully placed upon you. Receive this gift of grace, just as God receives you… warts and all. Respond to God’s loving kindness by loving others in the same way… especially those whom you have the most cause not to love… especially those whom you have the most to loose by loving them. As a good friend of mine, Bruce Reys-Chow, says, “Its just that simple. And its just that hard.”
Friends, strong rivers need firm boundaries, and you have that here in spades. But without attention to the source the bed is dry, and the water will find another course to the sea. Any plumber will tell you that water follows the path of least resistance. The context of ministry in a small town is difficult, but only if you understand it as your task to do rather than God’s actions through you. Growth may or may not be an option for you, but being faithful is not. Water’s gunna run from the mountain to the sea, and we will, by God’s grace, jump in and swim along.
Last thing I want to leave you with is a memory of building damns out of creek stone in North Carolina. One day when I was there on vacation a few fishermen wandered downstream in search of brook trout. I was fascinated and began building damns to create a habitat and possibly catch one. Of course I was only there a week or two each summer, and the Spring rains would flood the creek and knock it down. But finally one year it happened! A trout took up residence near my little damn. And do you know what? I caught that sucker. In 37 years of building damns in that creek I’ve caught one fish, but I just can’t help but try. Looks to me like you have a pretty good spot here for fishin’. The question is, how are you going to get the fish to know about it. Are you willing to let God tear down the very walls for you to start again? Scripture says, “This Jesus is your Messiah. I know this because I am God. You are my beloved.” Be bathed in this knowledge as you seek to respond to the God of the universe in simple acts of devotion. And to God be the glory, both now and always, Amen!