Grace Presbyterian Church
January 12, 2020, Baptism of the Lord A
It is indispensible to our lives. Aside from air, it is the one most basic element that we cannot survive long without. Even food is not quite as utterly necessary; one could live without food for possibly as much as three admittedly horrible weeks, but without water one can only hope for about three days. Our bodies consist of about sixty percent water.
Water also covers about two-thirds of the planet and is life-giving not only for humans. Animals need it as well. Vegetation, for the most part, cannot live without it. Those fruits and vegetables we take in for nourishment will never come to fruition without the right amount of water at the right time; as the epistle of James reminds us in chapter 5, the farmer waits for the early and the late rains to come so that the crops may flourish. And yet too much water, or too much at the wrong time, can destroy those very fruits and vegetables, as well as the animal population of an area. On the other hand, too little water, or water too late, leaves a land prone to drought or fire, as the people of New South Wales in Australia can verify right now. Again, vegetation and animal populations are also threatened or ruined; some native species in Australia have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the wildfires raging there.
In short, it is virtually impossible to exaggerate how important water is to the health and well-being of this planet and all that lives in it.
Water, though, is not only subject to nature; human interactions can diminish its life-giving power. The city of Flint, Michigan, has not had a trustworthy source of drinkable water for approaching six years now due to gross human mismanagement; chemical spills have turned rivers in West Virginia hazardous several times in the past five years; and in our own state mismanagement and abuse of the Everglades system has brought natural decline to surrounding areas that have relied on those waters for their sustenance. For something so important to life on the most basic level, water can end up awfully mistreated and misused in human hands.
Of course, water has a pretty prominent role in scripture as well. Even at the very beginning, water shows up; the second verse of Genesis speaks of how “darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The second and third acts of creation, in the verses that follow, involve separating the waters above from the waters below (that is, creating the Sky) and separating the waters below from the land (1:6-10). But later in Genesis, those waters overwhelm the world in a massive and earth-destroying flood, an element of the story we somehow downplay when telling about Noah and the ark.
By Exodus water becomes both a barrier and a medium in which God performs great miracles. Most famously in Exodus, we read of God parting the watersof the sea to allow the Hebrew people to cross over, while the pursuing Egyptian army is washed away when they try to cross. A smaller-scale version of this deliverance through water occurs when the next generation of these Hebrew people, now led by Joshua, are able to cross over into the Promised Land as the Jordan River parts before them.
Water also shows up in much of the poetry and imagery of scripture. Think of the most famous of psalms, in which the Lord “my shepherd” leads the psalmist beside still waters. But the images don’t stop there; think of the shepherd-turned-prophet Amos and his thundering oracle “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” or Isaiah’s declaration that “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
Indeed, by the time this fellow John shows up along the Jordan, calling all to be baptized for the repentance of sins [Mt 3:11], water has acquired a pretty prolific stature in the history and story of Israel.
The meaning and significance of baptism changes between this time, when John baptizes Jesus, and the end of this gospel, when the risen Jesus charges his followers to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To be sure, repentance is still a part of baptism, as we will be reminded in the Reaffirmation of Faith to follow this sermon, in which we are called upon to “renounce” evil and sin. But baptism takes on more in Jesus’s commission; it carries not only repentance but also belonging; it marks being in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; it marks discipleship. It marks what comes to be known, over the course of the book of Acts, as the church.
In our reading from Acts 10, Peter has, with some agitation, obeyed a divine imperative to go to visit a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius, with his family. Cornelius was evidently what was known in the language of the time as a God-fearer, a Gentile who nonetheless feared and prayed to the God of the people among whom he had been dispatched to serve. Finding Cornelius and his family ready and waiting to hear, Peter begins what might be called his go-to sermon, somewhat adapted for the situation. The Holy Spirit, however, had other ideas, and before Peter even got warmed up the Spirit visited a visible and clear manifestation of God’s favor upon Cornelius and his family.
First of all Peter and the (Jewish by birth) entourage that had accompanied him to Cornelius’s house were floored. This was clearly a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, but…these people were…were…were [shudder] Gentiles! It was inconceivable to Peter and all of the rest, in Jerusalem or any other place, that Gentiles – outsiders – could possibly be so favored. And yet clearly God had visited Cornelius and his people. What could Peter do?
Ultimately Peter realized that, if he were to be true to his Savior, he had no choice. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asks.
Can anyone withhold the water?
There is nothing magic about the water of baptism itself. The Jordan River water in which John baptized was the same muddy stuff in which others fished or swam or washed clothes or any number of other very mundane life tasks. It’s the same stuff as the water that got parted before Moses’s staff, the same stuff that overwashed the earth in Noah’s day, the stuff that falls from the sky or comes out of your tap. And yet in this very basic element, by Jesus’s example and by Jesus’s instruction, is the sign and symbol of belonging to God. Because of Jesus’s submission to the sign of baptism in water, and because of Jesus’s commission to baptize with that same water, it does mean more than something to drink when thirsty.
Again, the water is not magic. The water does not save you. And yet in the water of baptism we are shown as God’s own. Whether we are baptized ourselves or bringing our youngest for baptism, we are pledging repentance and even renunciation of sin and evil; we are being claimed as disciples of Jesus, living in obedience to what Jesus has taught and commanded; we are showing the mark of the Holy Spirit, no matter where we come from.
That’s a lot of meaning for this most basic element of human existence.
And maybe the neatest part of all of this is that, while doing a whole reaffirmation of baptism in worship is kinda cool and fun (yes, I’m serious), we don’t need it to remember our baptism. I know, for those who were baptized as infants it isn’t really literally possible to remember your baptism. Even if somebody shows you a picture of the occasion it’s not going to trigger any real actual memories for you. (As I grew up in a different tradition I wasn’t baptized as an infant; I was baptized when I was nine, and even remembering that is pretty foggy at this point in my life.) So no, we are not literally talking about remembering the actual act and occasion.
We remember whose we are. We remember the God who claims us despite our best efforts and who calls us children no matter what kind of rebellion we try, and does the same for a whole bunch of children we would not claim as our siblings except that God does it for us. We remember the water that could not be denied to us, no matter how far outside the pale it might have seemed. We remember repentance and belonging and being marked by the Holy Spirit. And the neat part is, if we’re open and listening and ready to look at the world – the whole creation – through the eyes of the Creator, then all we need to help us remember all of this is…water.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #375, Shall We Gather At the River; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #688, Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart; #480; Take Me to the Water