Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Baptism: Waters of Cleansing, Calling & Care

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on The Baptism of Christ | First Sunday after Epiphany | First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
January 13, 2008

Sermon Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

So … where are we? Time seems to go so fast, these days, that it seems like we overshot Christmas and landed somewhere in February. And if you think I’m exaggerating, we are just over three weeks out from Ash Wednesday. Keep your seat belts fastened, your tray tables stowed and your seatbacks in the upright position. There will be no beverage service on today’s flight.

Three weeks ago, we were anticipating the holy birth … two weeks ago and last Sunday, Jesus was already a toddler of an unspecified age being greeted by wise men from the east and fleeing Herod’s wrath with his family. And now this week, suddenly Jesus is “all growed up”. If the gospel writers paid scant attention to Jesus’ birth and its exact chronology, they cared even less about his growing up … from the terrible twos to the truly terrible teens. You know, they say when your child turns 13, put ‘em in a barrel and feed ‘em through the hole. And when they turn 16 … plug the hole. Might Jesus have been a precocious and difficult teenager? I don’t know what the ancient Palestinian equivalent to piercings and tattoos might have been, but it’s possible that Jesus had them.

Only Luke’s gospel takes any interest in that gap between infancy and adulthood, concerned as he is to “write an orderly account.” It is Luke who describes Jesus as a young teen, left behind by his parents, and found in the temple teaching the elders.

From the perspective of the gospel writers, what matters most of all is that Jesus made it to adulthood … and made, ultimately, it to the river where his cousin, John the Baptizer, was engaged in his own ministry.

Reading the descriptions of John reminds me of descriptions of itinerant ministers on the American frontier … stalwart and rugged souls who may have been out of social circulation a bit too long and had, perhaps, a bit too much exposure to the sun and the elements. Actually, I have a feeling that most prophets of any age come off that way. Martin Luther King, dapper and eloquent, may be one of the striking exceptions to this generalization.

Matthew tells us at the beginning of the chapter we read today, the third chapter, that in this time of Jesus’ adulthood, that John appears in the wilderness east of the Jordan River preaching a sharp-edged message of repentance. To Matthew it was clear that Jesus was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy that before the anointed one could come, there was some preparation and “remodeling” that had to be done.

It seems that John understood well who he was and how he figured in God’s plans. John was the precursor and the preparer. You’ve seen these massive earth-moving machines that carve up the landscape in preparation for laying down the asphalt that will become roads. That’s sort of how John was functioning. The human landscape was rough and crooked, it had drifted from its creator’s intentions and was in great need of smoothing and straightening.

It’s kind of like Highway 24 between Walnut Creek and the Caldecott tunnel. For years it has been the roughest and the loudest section of highway in the Bay Area. But the recent resurfacing has left the pavement so smooth, you almost forget that you’re driving.

John the Baptizer is preparing the human landscape, not for himself, but for the one whom God would send to follow John … the Lord … the Messiah … the anointed servant of God. John understood his relative place in the scheme of things. He was simply a laborer doing the work that had been laid upon him.

If you’ve seen some of these “extreme makeover” home shows on TV, or if you’ve done your own remodeling, you’ll know that before the new kitchen can go in, there’s some demolition work to be done. The metal edged vintage WWII Formica countertop has got to go, the matching avocado green stove, refrigerator and sink—they’ve all got to go, the curling linoleum that was new when the “new deal” was new—it’s got to go.

John is not being wasteful or just trying to keep up with modern spiritual times … he knows the drift the human spirit is capable of … he knows the dirt and debris that can accumulate. John knows that if the people of Israel have any chance at all of welcoming and embracing and, ultimately, following the one who is to follow him, that he’s got a lot of cleaning up to do before that one comes. Haven’t you ever heard yourself say to someone: “Let me know when you’re planning to come so I can get the house clean.”? John is cleaning house and he’s not a very gentle housecleaner.

Baptism is a part of the housecleaning and the remodeling and the landscape makeover that is John’s vocation. And while we may think in our more urbane moments that baptism is simply “the bath that cleanses,” any even more appropriate image of baptism is “the flood that drowns.” Baptism was, to be sure, a cleansing and purifying “bath”, but don’t we know that the things from which we human beings need to be cleansed can be so stubborn, so ingrained, so staining that it’s going to take more than “Mr. Bubbles” to make us right. And when we look out at the world around us and the cumulative effect of human sin … human brokenness … it’s not hard to understand why the ancient Biblical writers told of a time—Noah’s time—when it got so bad that God decided to drown the world. A world-wide deluge and flood that was, for all intents and purposes, a global baptism.

When we read of John’s baptizing, we naturally view it through our Christian and, for many of us, our Baptist lenses. The preacher standing in the water, the baptizee in a white robe picking his or her way down to where the preacher stands, a mournful choir singing in the background. Mom and dad standing by with the instamatic camera getting ready to capture the magical moment. In fact, John and Jesus were both observant Jews. There weren’t no Bab-tist church around. What John and Jesus were engaging in was a common Jewish ritual was used for sacred occasions or for cleansing from defilement. It could happen in a pond or a pool or a river … it could even happen in a courtyard with a basin of water.

That Jesus chooses to go to the river to be baptized is very significant. First of all, the Jordan River figures significantly in the history of Jesus’ people. It was the Jordan River that the people of Israel crossed to claim the land they believed God had promised them. It was a river that reminded them of other difficult “crossings over” such as the crossing of the Sea of Reeds in Egypt. Being baptized in the Jordan meant identifying yourself with that struggle and that long journey that has such ancient roots and so many modern counterparts. Some modern spiritual tourists often return to the Jordan for these reasons.

As a river, the Jordan River was also “living water”. You may remember from John’s gospel that “living water” was water that was significant because it moved … it was not a brackish pond or a puddle, but water that flowed. In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, there were six descending orders of ritual baths that were used to cleanse or purify a person. Living water was required for the highest order of ritual bathing and cleansing. It is in the living water of the Jordan River that Jesus seeks out John for his cleansing and purifying bath.

And as the Jordan River represented a kind of “crossing over”, so being baptized in the Jordan represented a “crossing over” for the individual … the leaving behind one bank of the river and the part of one’s life it represents and emerging washed and renewed on the other. In fact, in ancient practice, you may have entered and exited on the same bank of the river, but there were two sets of steps, one by which the defiled person entered the living water, and another by which they took their exit.

Matthew understands Jesus’ entry into and exit from the water, if you’ll forgive the mild pun, as the “watershed” moment of Jesus’ life. It represents a choice he is making to enter the water and to be cleansed by John who is God’s servant and prophet and the preparer of God’s way. But it also represents a time when God’s Spirit comes to dwell in all fullness on Jesus and it is a Spirit that will accompany him for all the rest of his life and his ministry. Jesus may ultimately give up his own spirit on the cross, but the Spirit of God broods even over Jesus’ body and over the dispirited souls who followed him.

It’s hard to think of Jesus’ baptism without also thinking of baptisms we have known:

· I remember being scandalized by reports out of California about people being baptized in hot tubs … talk about “only in Marin”. I struggled for the longest time to wrap my mind around this bizarre merging of an ancient sacred ritual with this symbol of modern hedonism. By the way, we’ll be holding this year’s baptism service at the Hogans’ hot tub with a wine and cheese reception to follow. The colors of our swimsuits will, of course, be appropriate to the liturgical season. Woe is me.

· I remember visiting a river site in central India, some years ago, where 3000 people were baptized in one day … it must have been like a modern day of Pentecost.

· In Vermont, we could only get a few people at a time to enter the waters of Baptism. It may have had something to do with the fact that the lake in which we performed the baptisms had only been free of ice for a few weeks. You may have been “on fire” for the Lord, but that Vermont lake water could practically put it out.

· My own baptism, in my memory, is a kind of murky affair. I was so young and so little did I know or understand at the time. It would be years and many more “crossings over” before the implications of what I had promised began to be clear.

For Matthew, the implications of Jesus’ crossing over, his cleansing bath, his ritualistic drowning were absolutely clear. Jesus was God’s servant who had come to bring justice and peace and healing hope to the people of Israel. Jesus’ baptism was a fulfillment of the prophecy

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Jesus’ baptism represented a fulfillment of Isaiah’ prophecy and God’s promises. We know how Jesus’ story turns out … how after a difficult sojourn in the wilderness, he began a ministry that was full of grace and wonder.

If Jesus’ baptism was a fulfillment of both his own human promise as well as the promises of God … how do our lives today fulfill the baptismal promises we made or, in some instances, that others made for us, but we later confirmed? If Jesus’ baptism was the advent of a servant ministry, for what have our baptisms prepared us? What new thing continues to spring forth out of our baptized selves?

This week several of us from Shell Ridge were privileged to sit at the feet of two modern prophets who live out their baptismal promises with extraordinary vigor. Elaine Enns and Ched Myers are two foot-soldiers in the “restorative justice” movement which is a movement based on Jesus’ own clear preference for the gospel of reconciliation and forgiveness instead of the far more common practice of violent retribution. Those of you who were at Peace Camp last summer will remember that Elaine taught a week long elective course on restorative justice. As nearly as I can tell, their every waking moment and every life resource goes into trying to bring the social ethic of Jesus’ own life and practice into the practice of our culture which is so horribly addicted to the things that make for … war and the “descending spiral of violence” of Martin Luther King warned us and which ultimately claimed his own life. Being baptized into Christ for Ched and Elaine means to place their whole lives into the service of the same God who called Jesus into his servant ministry.

Sometimes our servant ministry has widespread, public implications such as the ministry of Ched and Elaine. At yesterday’s Coordinating Council and Ministry Team planning retreat, we played the “forced choice” game as a way of getting to know one another a bit better. You know …

One of the forced choices was: would you rather feed the homeless or would you rather work to end that which causes homelessness. That isn’t exactly how I put it, but that was the intent. Some of us are called and gifted in our baptized lives to work at the roots of the ills that surround us … sort of like John who said “the axe is at the roots”. Others of us are called to give the cup of water, to soothe the wounds, to calm the anxious. Jesus lived out both of these callings in his own life and ministry.

I am thinking of two other baptizees who have, like Jesus and like Ched and Elaine, taken their vows with great seriousness, with great gravity, no matter where it might lead, no matter what it might cost.

Mark and Connie Williams are two people of whom you’ve probably never heard. They’re just regular folk … like us. As Christians, also like us, they have chosen a variety of ways to live out their calling, the servant ministry that is implied by their baptisms. Connie is an educator, but more recently she has become concerned for the least of these in our world, for those who suffer the effects of poverty and oppression. Twice now, she has traveled to Africa as a volunteer missionary so that she can minister face to face with those who were baptized by their own births into lives of hunger and disease. Connie’s husband Mark is a musician and a composer and music educator. He has emerged as a nationally know composer and arranger and chances are that if you played in a middle school band any time in the last fifteen years you would have played several of Mark’s compositions and arrangements. Our choir has even sung one of Mark’s arrangements of “Amazing Grace”.

While Mark and Connie have devoted a part of their energies of loving ministry to far off places, they always knew that their was a closer need that claimed even higher loyalties. Mark and Connie have three wonderful children, but the middle child, a 24 year old son, was diagnosed in the last year with paranoid schizophrenia in addition to being bi-polar. People who suffer these conditions of the mind can be dangerous and unpredictable. Common sense and common wisdom often dictates that these sufferers be institutionalized. But the love of a parent and servant love in the way of Jesus is often guided by instincts that are not easily calculated.

Mark and Connie chose to keep their afflicted son in their lives and in their home no matter the risks he posed. It was a conscious part of the living out of their faith and the vows they had made when the old was drowned and the new was birthed. Which of us could say they were wrong in their ways of compassion? Who would say that Jesus was wrong in his ministry of love?

On Thursday, January 3rd, 10 days ago, Mark and Connie’s son’s illness exploded into a blind, murderous rage that left Mark dead and Connie seriously wounded. Connie is my cousin. I grew up with Connie. Mark and Connie played at Jan’s and my wedding.

Later today I will fly to Spokane to join my grieving family as we gather to ponder the power of compassionate love that holds more regard for the other than itself. Connie told on the phone this week that as Mark’s lungs filled with the blood in which he would ultimately drown, he said to his son, Brian: “Brian, don’t forget that we love you … and we forgive you.”

Forgive us, as we forgive

Forgive us, as we forgive

Forgive us as we forgive each other.*

What is this power of compassionate love that forgives and embraces and holds out hope that love is stronger than death, and that the forgiving and merciful love of God is stronger than hatred, stronger than the vengeful spirit.

If the waters of our baptisms can speak of our servant callings, let us also say that those same waters can be for us in our time of need, waters of healing and hope.

If our baptisms and our faithful witness lead us into times of struggle and conflict, let us live in the assurance that it ends in hope and in healing and in peace.

Sometimes what’s holy is so true
It’s standing right in front of you
There’s nothing you can really do
There’s nothing you can say
Except to humbly take your place
And in every trial that we face
May we somehow find the grace
To live the words we pray:

Forgive us, as we forgive

Forgive us, as we forgive

Forgive us as we for-give each other.*


*From “Forgive Us” by John McCutcheon. Greg sang this song during the morning offertory.

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