Wednesday, January 13, 2016

God's Interruption -- Baptism of the Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 10, 2016

That water was so cold it almost hurt. It rained down, drenching me. It was as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water over my head. Which is, in fact, what happened. Two summers ago people around the world were having buckets of ice water dumped on them -- voluntarily. It was a fundraiser for ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. Because this is the age of social media, videos of this unique phenomena were posted online. Celebrities and regular folks alike recorded their challenge to friends and family to do the same as them; take the ice bucket challenge, donate to ALS, and then actually get soaked with ice water.

One of my friends challenged me, and while it was hilarious to watch her get freezing water dumped over her head, I wasn't so sure I wanted to do the same. But never let it be said that I don't rise to a challenge. The day I decided to do this was a brutally hot day in August. I had just come home from helping serve the meal at the Salvation Army -- where it was also brutally hot. I was sweaty and sticky, and the idea of having cold water poured over me sounded appealing. I went home and told the kids what we were about to do. They EAGERLY filled up a large pot with cold water and ice. We went to the little patio area in our backyard. Zach recorded. Phoebe held the bucket, I gave my little spiel about taking the challenge and challenged others. Then Phoebe dumped that freezing cold water.
Knowing it was coming did not mitigate the shock of that frigid water raining down on me.

It. Was. Cold. I screamed. We all laughed. I immediately grabbed towels to dry off, then changed out of my wet clothes seeking warmth once again. But in that moment when that ice water hit me, I was completely and fully alive to that moment. All of my senses were on red alert. Any sluggishness from the heat or physical exhaustion was gone. I was fully alive, awake and aware. Even though it was brief, that bucket of ice water interrupted and disrupted my usual, ordinary routine.

I know that some of you may be wondering -- and fearing -- where this story is leading. No, I am not about to suggest the ice bucket challenge as an alternative way to reaffirm our baptismal vows. But I do want us to consider how baptism -- with all of its other meanings and symbolism -- might also be a divine interruption in the midst of our usual and ordinary routines.

Matthew and Mark also share a version of Jesus' baptism, and while at first glance the three tellings seem similar, there are some notable differences. In our passage from Luke and in Mark's gospel, the voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus.

"You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

This implies that while other people may have been on the scene, this was a private and personal moment between God and Son. In Matthew the voice from heaven declares this news to all.

"This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased."

In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus sees the heavens opened and the Spirit descending like a dove to light on him. The heavens open in Luke too, but Luke adds an interesting detail. After Jesus was baptized, "the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove."

This detail may not change our ultimate understanding of this text, but it seems to me that Luke wanted to emphasize that the Spirit was embodied. It was not some ephemeral, bodiless ghost that came down from heaven. The Holy Spirit took on flesh and form, sinew and shape. It was as real, physical, and present as you or I.

Whatever the version, this moment in Jesus' life is significant. Matthew, Mark, and Luke include the story; and in each gospel it marks the transition in Jesus' life from private to public. From this moment forward Jesus will fully and completely be the person he was born into the world to be: the Savior, the Christ, the Son of God. Even though many will misunderstand him -- many will fail to see his identity, and even more will fail to recognize what the coming of the Messiah actually meant -- at this moment there is clarity. At the moment of his baptism, we truly see that Jesus is the Word made flesh.

One scholar pointed out that there is a reason why the baptism of Jesus is placed within the season of epiphany. That reason is because it offers this moment of clarity. That's what an epiphany is. It is seeing clearly. It is understanding more fully. It is the lightbulb going off above your head. It is the aha moment. It is being hit with a bucket of ice water.

Maybe this moment served as an epiphany for Jesus as well. Perhaps he saw more clearly. But whether it was an epiphany for Jesus or not, it is an epiphany for us. Jesus was baptized. The heavens opened. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove and we say, "Aha! Jesus is God's son! Aha! Jesus is the one we've been waiting for!"

The good news about epiphanies is that they are not limited to single moments. They are not contained only within scripture. The epiphany of Jesus' baptism is not restricted to his baptism only. Perhaps epiphanies are part of the meaning and importance of baptism.

As I suggested earlier, baptism has a multitude of meanings and symbolism. Baptism is the symbolic rising and dying with Christ. A former seminary professor once commented that most Presbyterian churches do not have baptismal pools, we miss out on seeing the symbolism of dying and rising with Christ enacted. Baptism is a physical expression of our being adopted into the family of Christ and grafted onto the body of Christ. Baptism, especially of infants, represents our belief that God's grace works in our lives whether we recognize it or not. It is an act of obedience to Jesus' command that we go into the world and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We don't baptize because we think it's magic. Or at least, I hope we don't. We also don't baptize because we believe if a person is not baptized, they won't be saved. That may sound a bit ridiculous, but I've spoken with plenty of parents who fear that if something happens to their child before baptism, that blessed little one will not be with God. Baptism is not magic, but we do believe that it is one way in which we open ourselves to the coming of the Holy Spirit. It reminds us that we make promises to God and to one another -- on our own behalf, or on the behalf of a child -- that we will strive to live what we believe, and that we trust that God's grace and love is fully present in our midst.

Along with these understandings of baptism, let's add one more. Our baptisms -- even when we can't consciously remember them -- are moments filled with epiphanies. Whether we are sprinkled or immersed, baptism opens our eyes, our minds, our hearts to seeing God more clearly. When we are able to see God more clearly, perhaps we can also see God's call more clearly.

Lately, I've been reconsidering what it means to seek out God's purpose for my life. It's not that I no longer believe that there is a purpose. I do. It's just that it is far too easy to get so caught up in the pondering of my potential purpose, that I forget that purpose is something you don't just think about. It seems to me that the epiphany of our baptisms is understanding that God is most clearly visible in our living of the good news.

Are we serving others with compassion? Are we seeking justice for the oppressed? Are we challenging unjust systems? Are we welcoming to the least of these? Are we willing to step out in faith, trusting that God will provide? Are we working for the kingdom?

Isn't kingdom work the ultimate purpose for our lives and for our congregation? I realize that kingdom work takes on many different shapes and forms. But as we remember our baptisms this morning, as we reaffirm the promises of our baptisms, let us also welcome the epiphany of baptism. May the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descend, and may we see God clearly so that we can more fully do the work of God's kingdom.
Let all God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.

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