NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, January 8, 2012. It is the Baptism of Christ Sunday.
“Poets don’t make arguments, they reveal mysteries.” (M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 131) And I would hope you might keep that distinction in mind today as we consider what the Baptism of Christ is saying to us in 2012. Because, you see, neither the Bible nor our tradition ever fully explains WHAT is taking place during baptism and WHY it matters.
• Did you know that? Scholars and theologians clearly don’t agree; and the five major religious traditions – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Baptist and Reformed – are equally at odds with one another about the meaning of Baptism, too.
• What’s more, even the Bible itself doesn’t explain what is going on when we experience Baptism – or why it is important to us –and yet ALL denominations and religious orders agree that being baptized is an essential ingredient for faithful discipleship.
This is fascinating to me: our Holy Scriptures bring up the importance of Christian baptism six different times – check it out in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and Romans – while the Bible only refers to the Lord’s birth and Christmas twice. Clearly the baptism of Jesus is more important that his birth but we still don’t really know why and what that means for us.
So, using the poetry of the Bible – and claiming the prerogative of a poet to play with the mysteries therein revealed – let’s see if we might discern a little more of God’s light for our generation when it comes to baptism, ok? Specifically, I want to call your careful attention to three insights:
• First, how baptism can be a reordering of our lives like the creation narrative suggest in Genesis 1.
• Second, how the baptism of Jesus offers each and all of us a chance to welcome and honor God’s grace as it is poured into our hearts.
• And third, how the blessing of being God’s Beloved empowers us to live by gratitude, faith, hope and love in a confusing and often broken world.
Are you with me? Let’s see what the poetry reveals, ok?
The Biblical story in Genesis 1 opens with the Spirit of the Lord hovering over the chaos of creation in order to give it shape and form. The words of tradition say: In the beginning – but listen to how Peterson reworks it:
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. God spoke: "Light!" And light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. God named the light Day, he named the dark Night. And it was evening and it was morning — Day One.
We know this isn’t science – although it doesn’t oppose or contradict science either as the Creationist would have us believe – rather this is poetry: a carefully constructed theological poem that uses symbols and images to teach us at least two truths:
First, knowing that this poem was written by the former priests of Jerusalem while Israel was being held in captivity in Babylon – between 587 and 538 BCE – scholars now understand that this creation story was intended to bring pastoral comfort to a people in bondage, shame and fear.
• It was, in fact, a way of reassuring them that even in the darkest and most chaotic times, God’s Spirit is still present bringing light into our darkness, hope into our despair and clarity into our ignorance.
• It is to Israel, if you will, what the story of Christ’s death and resurrection is for you and me: a way of revealing God’s truest nature in spite of our feelings and the objective evidence in the moment.
What I’m trying to say is that one meaning of this poem is comfort. The prophet Isaiah – in the same period of time – put it like this in what has become one of our Advent hymns: Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning 'neath their sorrows' load; speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them, tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over. Are you still with me?
The second meaning has to do with allegory and symbolism – tools the early church utilized to great advantage – but one that our current obsession with fundamentalism has sadly lost: I’m talking about the ability to be playful and creative with poetic words so that we grow closer to God. In what I regard to be the finest contemporary scholarly challenge to narrow-minded and mean-spirited Christian fundamentalism, Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words, he writes about St. Augustine of Hippo who lived between 354 and 430 of the Common Era.
Specifically, he notes that Augustine took the first two verses of the Genesis poem: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…”
… and finds a reference to the Holy Trinity in these verses, reading the ‘wind from God’ as a reference to the Holy Spirit and ‘in the beginning’ as a reference to Jesus who, according to St. John 1;1, ‘was with God (the Father) in the beginning.’ Augustine ends his exposition, in an affront to modern evangelical sensibilities, by pondering the wide number of other possible interpretations you might get from Genesis – condemning the tendency to advance only one reading to the exclusion of others.
‘Since, then, so rich a variety of highly plausible interpretations can be culled from these few words, consider how foolish it is rashly to assert that Moses intended just one particular meaning rather than any of the others. If we engage in hurtful strife as we attempt to expound his words, we offend against the very charity of God for the sake of which he said all those things.’ (p. 121)
Augustine is doing in his time what Jewish theologians have been doing for millennia and what we are invited to do now: playing with the text in a careful and loving way to make connections with our own lives and grow closer to God’s grace. It is called midrash – a Hebrew way of exploring a biblical text – that “goes beyond the simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings… and fills in many of the gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at… on the page.”
As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has said: (Midrash) involves seeing the Word of the Lord in both the black letters on the page as well as all the white space around them, too.” So when we use the Genesis story in relationship to our baptism…
Could it be that baptism is one of the ways we let God’s reordering of the chaos of our lives and world become ordered?
• Could it be that here is a separating and reunion taking place in baptism that offers us clarity within life’s confusion?
• Commitment to living deeper within God’s grace rather than merely treading water? What are you thinking…?
It is my hunch that Christian baptism is partially about reordering and bringing some clarity to our chaos according to God’s grace. Because I don’t think it is just coincidence that the four times in the church year we are asked to read the stories about Christ’s baptism – and listen to the Lord’s response as “You are my beloved” – are also the bookends to what we call the two seasons of Ordinary Time.
And while this may be arcane to some, I think the wisdom of the Spirit is at work here. After Advent and Christmas come to a close with Epiphany, there are two seasons we call Ordinary Time: One is before Lent – the days between the Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration Sunday – the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
And then the longer Ordinary Time that takes place after Pentecost – between Trinity Sunday and the marking of Christ the King – and each of those days includes a reference to the baptism of Jesus and God’s announcement that: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Baptism, it seems to me, points to the mystery of the Spirit’s reordering our lives so that we might live in more clarity and commitment: that’s my first hunch. The second is simple – and awesome – namely that what God offers to Jesus in his baptism is offered to us in ours: we are embraced by Gods grace.
• Think about this for a moment, what does Jesus do in this morning’s story according to Mark’s gospel to be called the beloved of the Lord?
• Anybody have a Bible: would you please read Mark 1: 9-11?
What does the story tell us? Did Jesus do anything besides show up at the River Jordan? Has he faced down Satan and his temptations in the desert? Has he gone to the Cross? Has he been betrayed by those who loved him? Or even begun his teaching ministry?
No, he hasn’t done anything yet – he just shows up – and upon being lifted from the water by John he hears the Lord announce: behold THIS is my beloved. And this, too, is what we are offered in our baptism: we don’t have to earn God’s love or prove our value to the Lord. We are God’s beloved just as Christ is.I’ve been touched and convinced by the way the pastor, Brian Stoffregen, puts it in his commentary noting that Biblical scholar:
James R. Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) tells us: "As the inaugural event of Jesus' public ministry, the baptism tells us not what Jesus does but what God does to him" [p. 34]. (That means) We can say with Martin Luther when tempted to doubt, "I am baptized." (I find it interesting that he didn't battle temptation with, "I am a Christian" or "I believe.") The strength of his faith was found in his baptism – when God put his claim on him. So, too, we have the assurance through baptism of being children of God and being filled with the Holy Spirit even when it seems as though everything and everyone else is giving contrary messages, e.g., "You're a nobody." Our baptisms are not what we have done, but what God has done to us
(CrossMarks @ http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark1x4.htm)
• John’s baptism appears to be conditional, yes? With John you have to DO something – do you recall what it was?
• You have to confess your sins – you have to think about them and name them – and then humble yourselves for repentance.
And while that is clearly one pathway of faith, Jesus seems to offering another and different charism of baptism that emphasizes an intimate, mystical relationship with God as Father and Beloved. Without doing anything, God says to us through Jesus: you are special to me. In this, I see Jesus reclaiming his own poetic tradition for baptism:
• Do you know Psalm 139?
Oh yes, O Lord, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother's womb. I thank you, High God—you're breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration—what a creation! You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
• What about Psalm 84?
What a beautiful home, O Lord of Hosts, you offer: I've always longed to live in a place like this, always dreamed of a room in your house, where I could sing for joy to God-alive! Birds find nooks and crannies in your house; sparrows and swallows make nests there. They lay their eggs and raise their young, singing their songs in the place where we worship. How blessed they are to live and sing there! And how blessed all those in whom you live, whose lives become roads you travel…One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches. I'd rather scrub floors in the house of my God than be honored as a guest in the palace of sin.
So first, baptism is gentle and poetic reordering of our lives that empowers us by grace to move from chaos to clarity.
Second, like Jesus, God offers us this intimacy by the Spirit in baptism not by what we do but because of God’s deep love for each and all of us.
And then third, as the Beloved of the Lord, we are asked to live into the spirit of gratitude by our baptism – sharing light and clarity, hope and integrity with others – for this is one way the miracle is multiplied.
What is at stake in our baptismal vows, you see, is a deep eagerness to share in the flesh with others what Christ has shared with us: it is a promise to live lives of counter-cultural generosity and gratitude within a broken and violent world as a healing alternative to the madness. And so our liturgy of baptism asks:
• Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?
• Do you promise, by God’s grace, to follow in the way of our Savior, resisting oppression and evil and showing love and justice to others as best you are able?
• And do you promise to be a faithful member of the church, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering his mission in the world?
We live in a world that is crazy busy: our bottom line values are greedy and self-centered, we are terrified and addicted and compulsive, we have elevated speed to the status of idolatry and are entertaining ourselves to death. In the baptism of Jesus – as in our own baptism, too – God has offered us an alternative that has always been better – the way of the Lord – salvation.
From the beginning, this alternative has offered us humanity and holiness, rest and work and play, light and darkness, balance and grace, peace and justice. In fact, the word for salvation in Hebrew – yashah – “basically means creating space, making room and living without compulsion.” (Jaco Hamman, A Play-Full Life, p. 46)
In baptism, we promise the Lord to let Christ make a space within and among us to grow and mature – to heal and nurture – to bless and forgive. It is not we who bring salvation – and healing and hope – it is God growing within us. And, THAT, beloved is what the sacred poetry reveals to us about the good news for today.