Sunday, January 12, 2014


Matthew 3:13-17
January12, 2014/Baptism of the Lord

            H2O.  Two hydrogen atoms covalently bonded to a single oxygen atom.  That is the chemical explanation of water.  Water is the most abundant compound on earth.  It covers the majority of our planet.  But don’t let the abundance of water fool you.  The water we have is the water we’re going to have.  Unless a new water source is discovered on another planet, the water we have is the water we have.  That’s why we’re encouraged to not waste water, to not pollute water; there’s no new source of water on its way.
The human body is made up of roughly 55 to 78% percent water.  Our brains, our bones, every muscle, joint and ligament has water in it, and we need good, clean, safe water to drink everyday.  We can survive about three weeks without food.  But we can only survive about three days without water.  Water is essential to our well-being.  We, literally, cannot survive without it.    
            Because water is so fundamental to our very lives, safe drinking water must also be a priority.  One of the topics in the news this past week was that a major water source in West Virginia was contaminated by a large amount of hazardous waste dumped into it.  West Virginia’s governor had to declare a state of emergency because of it.  Thousands of people in several counties were affected.  The water was unsafe for drinking, washing, cooking, bathing.  We not only need water for our survival, we need safe water. 
The necessity and the scarcity of safe drinking water is a global issue.  The website estimates that a child dies every 21 seconds from a water-related illness.  Every 21 seconds.  Water related disease kills 3.4 million people each year.  That is almost as many people in the entire city of Los Angeles.   
            Water is life.  But anyone who’s witnessed a flood knows that water can also destroy life.  While the terrible danger and power of tornadoes now holds new meaning for me, floods terrify me.  In the Upper Midwest, the combination of a winter heavy in snow without a midwinter thaw, the expected spring thaw, and about 18 inches of rain in 24 hours means flooding.  When I lived there the phrase, “turn around, don’t drown,” beat a steady tattoo in my brain.    
            Water is life.  Water can bring destruction.  Water is powerful.  Even as it erodes and wears away at whatever it flows across, it also creates beauty.  No picture can do justice to the raw beauty and splendor of the Grand Canyon.  That’s the power of water. 
            Water is powerful, and as a dear friend said in relation to our passage today, “Water: baptize with care.” 
            Water: baptize with care.  Jesus comes to the water, to John the Baptizer to be baptized.  Only in Matthew do we read of John’s reluctance to do this.  Just before this passage, John has been calling the people to repentance, to be washed clean of their sins, their transgressions.  He has promised them that one will come who will baptize them not with water but with the Holy Spirit.  So they need to repent, and repent fast! 
            Then practically in the next breath, Jesus comes to John at the Jordan River.  He wades into that water, asking for baptism along with everybody else.  I can understand why John hesitates to do this.  It would be like Yo Yo Ma, the premier cellist, coming to me and saying, “Hey Amy, would you teach me how to play a scale?” 
            “Uh, Yo Yo, I think you need to teach me; not the other way around.”  
I suspect John was thinking along those same lines.  “You need to baptize me, Jesus.  There’s no way I can baptize you!”
            But Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” 
            “Let it be so now.”  In other words, Jesus was saying, “No, John.  This has to happen now.”  Jesus’s message to John was that his baptism was not something that could wait.  The time is now.  Righteousness in this context conveys a sense of discipleship, more than a moral judgment.  Jesus wants John to understand that the time for his baptism is now, this moment.  It is critical for discipleship that he be baptized.  So John does what he is asked to do.  John is obedient to God’s will, just as Jesus is.  He consents and baptizes Jesus there in the river. 
            When Jesus rises from the water, the heavens suddenly open.  The Spirit of God is seen descending to Jesus like a dove.  It lights on Jesus.  A voice is heard, and unlike the other gospels, we infer from Matthew’s text that everyone there could hear this voice.  It is the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
            Matthew’s gospel calls to mind the Genesis story.  The Spirit of God hovered over the waters, calling creation out of chaos.  The Spirit of God descends to Jesus as he stands there in the waters of his baptism.  Jesus is not newly created in this act, but he is confirmed.  His identity is made abundantly clear.  This is my Son. 
Jack Kingsbury, a preeminent Matthean scholar and one of the most frightening teachers I’ve ever experienced in seminary or otherwise, says that the whole first part of Matthew’s gospel is asking the question, “Who is Jesus?”  Now we have our answer.  Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. 
            Although ritual baptism had been practiced long before Jesus came to the Jordan that day, Jesus’ baptism signified a change in the understanding of baptism.  Baptism now created a new path for new life.  It wasn’t just the water alone.  It was the water and the Word.  This informs our own understanding of baptism.  The waters of baptism, whether we are sprinkled or dunked, cleanse us.  Spiritually speaking, they wash us clean.  In theological terms, we see baptism as our way of symbolically dying and rising with Christ.  We go into the water and into his death.  We rise from the water and we rise into new life.  Baptism is a sign of our adoption into Christ.  Whenever I baptize someone, I am acutely aware that baptism joins this person with a larger family.  Not only are we born into a family, mother, father, siblings, through our baptisms we become members of the family of God.  Our baptisms are the sign and seal of God’s grace, love and adoption. 
            Jesus was baptized, as many commentators and scholars say, so that we could truly be baptized.  It wasn’t just that he was modeling baptism as a good thing to do.  Jesus, that real human being who was also God incarnate, waded into those waters, and through the power of the Holy Spirit changed them and us. 
            But one big question always rises from this story.  Did Jesus himself need to be baptized?  We are baptized for all of the reasons I mentioned above.  But even as we claim Jesus to be truly human, a real flesh and blood person, we also believe that Jesus was without sin.  There were no transgressions on his part.  He had no need to repent.  John wasn’t making his call for repentance, for turning back to God, to Jesus.  He was leveling those words at the others who had gathered at the river that day.  As I said before, I completely understand John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus.  It should be Jesus baptizing John.  But remember Jesus responds to John by saying the time is now.  Now is the time for this baptism.  Now is the time that we fufill all righteousness. 
            For Jesus his baptism was the confirmation of his identity, but as one commentator puts it, it was also his launching.  His baptism was a key step in Jesus becoming ready to serve.  In southern terms, we’d say that Jesus being baptized meant that he was fixin to go out into the world, to launch his public ministry, to do God’s will.  Jesus waded into the waters of the River Jordan to be baptized because it was time.  It was time to publicly serve God and live out God’s will.
            In a few minutes we will reaffirm our own baptisms.  In this service of reaffirmation we are called to remember our baptisms.  Some of you, like me, were baptized in other traditions, so we are able to consciously remember our baptisms.  Some of you baptized as infants or as small children, cannot.  But the remembering we do today is not so much about conjuring up a memory as it is about remembering what baptism means.  Not just its theological meanings which I’ve listed earlier; but the gift of grace that baptism is and the claim it makes on us.  It is a gift of grace and love, whether we make the promises of baptism for ourselves or if someone makes them for us.  And in our baptisms, in this gift, we are called. 
            In our baptisms we are called.  All of the theological reasons for baptism culminate in that sentence.  In our baptisms we are called to discipleship.  Jesus was baptized as a confirmation of his identity and as witness to his public ministry, and in our baptisms we are called to be disciples, in the name of Jesus and in the way of Jesus.    
            Anyone who’s tried, even just a little, to live intentionally as a disciple knows that this is no easy calling.  It demands everything we have and everything we are.  The phrase my friend used, “Water: baptize with care,” may sound funny, but it rings true.  Baptism isn’t just a sweet rite of the church, nor is it merely something that we do because it is expected.  It is not magic, but it is life-changing.  It is to be taken seriously.  When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended and God’s voice identified him as the Beloved Son.  Maybe we don’t see a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit or hear God’s voice, but we are no less claimed as God’s children.  We are no less called to be disciples in God’s world.  That is serious business. 
            When you come forward to touch the water in our baptismal font, think about water’s power.  You were baptized with this powerful force.  Remember your baptisms.  When you touch the water, think of its necessity to all of life.  You were baptized into this life and the new life of discipleship.  Remember your baptisms. 
Remember your baptisms and give thanks for the life that baptism creates.  Remember your baptisms.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.  

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