10 January 2016

The Water is Calling

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptism of the Lord

10th January 2016

Did you notice something odd about Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism?  Perhaps we know the story so well that we miss it.  There is, though, something missing.  There’s something unique about Luke’s telling.  Here it is. Ready?  We don’t actually “see” Jesus baptized.  It’s not there!  It happened, but we don’t “see” it.

In Luke’s Gospel, we have the story of John the Baptist preaching and baptizing in the River Jordan.  Twenty verses in chapter three describe John’s ministry.  The people approach the riverbank wondering if John might be the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ.  He says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

We’re missing, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ arrival at the river asking to be baptized, we’re missing John’s initial refusal to baptize Jesus.  We’re missing Jesus going down into the water.  We’re missing Jesus coming up out of the water as a dove descends upon him and the heavens declare his identity.  We never “see” Jesus’ baptism.

Instead, Luke writes, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22).

What do we make of all of this?  How does it shape our understanding of Jesus’ baptism? Does it impact the way we view our own baptism?  All of this seems relevant on this Sunday as we remember Jesus’s baptism and consider our own, as we receive new members into the ministry of this church, and witness the sacrament of baptism, not for an infant, but for an adult.

Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) is correct when he says, “The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God.”[1]  Both Protestants and Catholics alike need to remember this. 

We lessen the meaning of the sacrament when we think of it only in terms of membership into the church, whether it’s the baptism of an infant or an adult.  We also lesson the meaning of baptism when we think it’s only about being engrafted into Christ’s family tree, welcomed as a member of God’s household, the Church.  Yes, all of this is true.  These views form part of what baptism has come to mean in the Church, all for good reasons.  However, baptism meant something very different both for Jesus and for the first Christians. 

Baptism was originally an act of initiation, initiation into the life and work of God.  It was a ritual of consecration, in which one was identified and affirmed as a child of God and then set apart for God.  It was an act of preparation, which paves the way for something else to happen, for what comes next, which was, in many respects, the whole point. Baptism prepares you to claim your identity as God’s beloved, and then to discover why you were born in the first place, to discover the reasons for your existence, to fathom the depths and desires of your soul, and then to serve God with all your soul—and heart, and mind, and strength (Luke 10:27).
Poet Mary Oliver once asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[2]  Why is it so important to recognize the “divine gift of [your] birth”? Why were you born? Why are you here? What is being asked of you in the time you have? Baptism is, in many ways, an ancient-yet-modern rite that helps us answer these questions.  And it’s this aspect of baptism that has even greater meaning for us as adults.
What’s so striking about Luke’s account is that, yes, we have water (and that’s important) and the act of baptism itself (which is also important), but he seems to be placing greater emphasis upon what happens after baptism. Because it’s only after he’s baptized—note, as Jesus was praying—that the heaven was opened to him.  It’s only after his baptism that the Holy Spirit then descends on him “in bodily form.”  And it’s only after his baptism, not during it, that he hears the voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

All of which leaves us with the impression that baptism is an act of preparation, a ritual and practice that helps us to claim who we are in order to discover then what is expected of us.  The water calls us, invites, summons us to enter into its depths, to go down deep and enter into the flow of the water, bathe in it.  Allow the water to wash over you, cover you, bury you, allow the water to cleanse you. Its soluble waters have the power to symbolically loosen all the dirt and grime of your life, all the things from your past, all of your burdens and regrets and sins that need to be washed away.  

Baptism is a kind of death, where we put to death or remove the things in our lives that devitalize us, that no longer serve us well, that are no longer in service to life, are no longer life giving. They’re washed away.
But we don’t stop there, in the washing.  The washing clean, the dying to former ways is done in service to what comes next, to the rising up to new life, to resurrection-life, ready for what comes next.  Having been bathed, cleansed, and refreshed in the water, we’re now ready to pray and in our prayer be attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Attentive in prayer we become open—isn’t that what prayer is, being open?  When we’re open we’re ready, finally, to hear what our baptism has prepared us for all along, open and ready to hear and fully fathom what we couldn’t hear or understand or know before we were baptized.  And what we discover is what Jesus discovered, that we, too, are the Beloved of God. 

You are a child of God.  That’s who you really are, at the heart of your being.  This is what we discover here after moving through the waters.  In many respects, it’s easier for us to say these things to infants and to children when they’re baptized, to assure them that they are, right from the start, beautiful children of God, which they are.  What about us?  As we grow up and gather the dust and dirt of our lives sometimes it’s tough for us to know or remember that we, too, are God’s children.  Sometimes the poor choices we’ve made along the way as adults, the mistakes and hurts and wrongs and regrets cause us to question our identity and place in God’s family. These waters remind us who we are.  This is why it’s important for us to claim the meaning of our baptism—as adults.

But we can’t stop there.  Yes, the waters help us to hear the voice: You are God’s Beloved.  However, this is merely the starting point for the journey.  Now, as a child of God: live like one and love like one and give like one and serve like one.  Isn’t this what Jesus discovered at the Jordan? Wasn’t this the pattern of his life?  Didn’t this then shape his ministry? Of course.  Are we not baptized into Christ?  The same goes for all of us.  He is the pattern.  He is the way.  He is our way.

For Luke, there’s greater emphasis on what happens after baptism; baptism prepares Jesus to hear the summons and then the experience sends him into ministry.  In Luke’s telling we learn Jesus is God’s Son, so we have his divine lineage.  And then, in verse 23, Luke provides us with his genealogy that goes back to Adam.  And so we’re given his human lineage.  Knowing his divine-human identity, Jesus is then sent into the wilderness we’re told, “full of the Holy Spirit.”  After enduring his ordeal in the desert, Luke tells us, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” to begin his ministry in Nazareth.  Then we find Jesus reading in the synagogue there, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, reading these words: 
                “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
               because he has anointed me
               to bring good news to the poor.
               He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
               and recovery of sight to the blind,
               to let the oppressed go free,
               to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

To be baptized is to be claimed by God.
If claimed then anointed. 
If anointed then called. 
If called then sent. 
His work is our work.
His work is your work.
This is why you were born.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child (Ignatius Press, 1991).
[2] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”

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